Sunday, May 01, 2011

Four noble truths?

Today was the first session of a four-part series a couple of us are organizing at our church around Paul Knitter's Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian. I instigated it, but the other three conveners seem to me to bring more relevant qualifications, since they each have long-standing Buddhist practices. Knitter's journey, and his explorations of what he calls religious double belonging, are existentially real to them. One, for instance, who could not join us today, sent this message:

Some years ago I learned about Buddhism and was very drawn to it. I started a meditation practice which I continue to this day. All the while, I've been half-consciously trying to make the connection between Buddhist and Christian practice. I found it gratifying to read Paul Knitter's struggle to reconcile the two, and I found the connections he makes very apt. I was very moved after reading the first couple of chapters, where he eloquently explains things I had been feeling and trying to understand. I think he clearly paves a path to an integrated Buddhist/Christian spiritual life.

We've bought copies of the book for participants, and selected topics for our four discussions (Gospel and Dharma; meditation and prayer; making peace and making justice; and religious double belonging), but we expect this discussion to range all over the place. Not least, I should add, because there is no single Buddhism, and the four of us have different points of Buddhist reference!

This became clear today as we looked at the "four noble truths" routinely trotted out as the starting-point for understanding Buddhism. I'm persuaded by Donald Lopez that they are rarely even mentioned in Asian Buddhist traditions, and more an artifact of the construction of Buddhism as a world religion, but this seemed the wrong occasion for mentioning this. Besides, Knitter starts with them.

1 Suffering (dukkha) comes up in everyone's life.
2 This suffering is caused by craving (tanha).
3 We can stop suffering by stopping craving.
4 To stop craving, follow Buddha's Eightfold Path (which consists essentially of taking Buddha's message seriously, living a moral life by avoiding harm to others, and following a spiritual practice based on meditation). (9-10)

Knitter goes on to discuss anicca (impermanence), pratityasamutpada (interdependent origination) and sunyata (emptiness). This makes perfect sense for someone persuaded by Mahayana Buddhism, but is, of course, not the way these truths have been understood in the Theravada traditions.

We had an interesting discussion about his version of the four truths anyway. One of my co-conveners mentioned that her teacher defined dukkha as "not quite right." I proffered "unsatisfactoriness," and pointed out that Knitter's view could be misunderstood: Buddhism isn't concerned only with the "suffering" in life; it starts with the discovery that everything is dukkha. Even joy causes suffering. Another co-convener raised questions about the identification of tanha as the cause of dukkha; not just thirst is at issue but attachment more generally and, most basically, our preference for some things over others. This led to a broad and interesting discussion, which was not happily corralled into the third and fourth "noble truths." One of my co-conveners' teachers was brought in to ease the transition: too often we stop at the third, but that's just silly. If this is worth doing, it's worth doing. What it comes down to is practice.

Knitter's gloss on the noble eightfold path can be questioned, too, but this seemed too much information. I was struck, however, that our discussion was only about meditation, and about the way mindfulness can accompany all of our daily actions. Not thematized was "right livelihood" - the idea that you might need to change profession. But this, of course, goes right to the heart of the American lay Buddhist question I've been fascinated by forever. Here and now, Buddhism isn't about changing your whole life by leaving the household to become a monastic, but about letting Buddhism be part of your life (and, presumably, affect the rest of it). This would, obviously, be even more the case for "Buddhist Christians."

Much more on this in the coming weeks, no doubt. But let me take this discussion as an excuse to introduce another discussion of the four noble truths which I encountered this week. In Exploring Religious Ethics we read Sulak Sivaraksa's The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century (Kihei, Hawaii: Koa Books, 2010). An "engaged Buddhist" from Thailand (which he calls Siam), Sivaraksa elaborates Buddhist tradition as a social and political movement. He does this brilliantly with those four noble truths, too! They come up in a discussion of conflict resolution.

1. Suffering exists.
2. Suffering has causes.
3. We can stop producing the causes of suffering.
4. A path of mindful living can show us the way.
... We begin by aclnowledging both sides' suffering. Each adversary states his experience clearly, with witnesses present to acknowledge their statements. this is the first noble truth, the acknowledgment of suffering. (23)

Wow: the first truth is not about my suffering or dissatisfaction (dukkha), nor just about dukkha in general, but about the dukkha of a specific other, one with whom I find myself in conflict. It's an amazing discussion, mind-blowing in the best ways:

Second, we try to understand the external and psychological roots of the conflict. When we project our emotions onto an object (animate or inanimate), we experience the "other" as having traits which, in fact, dwell first in our own unconscious mind. We fail to see the line between the object and our own feelings. ...
The third noble truth is the cessation of the causes of suffering. This does not presuppose that we can reach a state that is conflict-free, but encourages us to grapple with the details - internal and external - every time....
The fourth noble truth - peace as a way of life - shows us how to live in ways that reduce suffering and conflict. The Buddha called this the eightfold path:

1. Right Understanding: understanding the four noble truths.
2. Right Thought: freedom from that which cannot bring satisfaction.
3. Right Speech: speaking truthfully and skillfully.
4. Right Action: not killing, stealing, or indulging in irresponsible sexual behavior.
5. Right Livelihood: not engaging in professions that bring harm to others.
6. Right Effort: encouraging wholesome states of mind.
7. Right Mindfulness: awareness of the physical and mental dimensions of our experience.
8. Right Concentration: staying focused.

This eightfold path encourages peacebuilding as a way of life. It points to ways that awareness can be deepened and the parts of our lives brought into harmony. We begin by living mindfully. Then we can use these tools to dismantle oppressive systems and create a culture of peace. (23-24)

I'll be interested to see how our discussions proceed. With four conveners, we'll certainly get at least four truths, noble or otherwise!

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