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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Buddha Don't Lie: The Suffering Buddhist Christian

I have come to the inescapable conclusion that the Buddha did NOT say, "Life is Suffering," and not just because he didn't speak English - yet in another way, precisely because he didn't speak English. I have also arrived at the conclusion that it is absolutely impossible to completely eliminate physical suffering and THAT truth does not contradict the First Noble Truth, that Life is Dukkha.

Americans are too literal, and too impatient, for precise translation. We seem to naively believe that word for word translation is possible for every word in every language to an equivalent word in every other language. That misunderstanding may be the best argument I can think of for mandatory foreign language study in public schools. According to Monier-Williams in his Sanskrit-English Dictionary, dukkha means "uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult." How one jumps from there to "suffering"
is a bit beyond me. Yet much of contemporary Buddhist teaching in the west asserts just that, leaving us with picture of someone with a just-severed arm sitting by equanamously like the Black Knight of Monty Python fame exclaiming "it's just a flesh wound!"

In fact, it is quite often suffering that draws us to spiritual practice in the first place! Maybe it would be more accurate to say that what draws us to spiritual practice is suffering and the desire to find a way out. That's just fine, I have no argument with that, but throughout history people have been engaging in spiritual practice and still suffering remains. To me that indicates that suffering serves an important spiritual purpose - opening the door to transformation. Are we to reduce spiritual practice to a selfish, individualistic pursuit of eliminating MY suffering and to hell with the rest of you, or might there be something more to the question? Boddhisattva* vows notwithstanding, cancer still exists, birth defects still exist, illness and injury of all sorts still exist, accidents still happen, and I believe we fail to honor the very real suffering of those who encounter tragedy of all sorts when we attribute their suffering to a certain degree of spiritual naivete through simplistic mistranslation. Somewhere, perhaps as part of the Judeo-Christian culture in which most of us were raised, there is an expectation that everything will be just fine - which we distort to mean I will be just fine and everything will work out the way I expect it to (nice to meet you, Mr. or Ms. God, who has such sway in the universe!) - despite the fact that nowhere in the tradition does it guarantee we won't encounter adversity! That would be absurd, because it is adversity itself that transforms us! As Julian of Norwich famously wrote "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing will be well." To that I would add, "...but there's gonna be some shit first!"

On the other hand, if we look at the proposed definition above, we have quite another picture, don't we? If the First Noble Truth is that Life is uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, and difficult, who could argue? If the Noble Eightfold Path is about a path of transformation out of life's uneasiness, discomfort, unpleasantness, and difficulty - situations and circumstances that are most often a matter of our own misperceptions and false expectations, after all - then there is a completely different picture! Gone is the expectation that my failure to sit by with equanimity as my body is racked with cancer or my spine collapses onto itself, and it is replaced with a path that helps me to learn to cope. I can have my pain and my physical suffering without denial - it is after all just the body working as designed - and still come to understand that all of us are of the nature to get sick, age, and die. That experience isn't some sort of punishment, but the price of life! I can even stop waiting for any spiritual, religious, Divine, or super hero figures to swoop down and save me because I can realize life simply doesn't work that way. What a relief!

The First Noble Truth? If you must have a one word slogan, how about Life is Unsatisfactory?

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