“The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.”
Generally speaking, I know of two kinds of Buddhists: those who feel the deepest resonance with the First Noble Truth and those who are drawn to the promise of the Third Noble Truth. The “firsters” are focused on the bottom line dukkha of this incarnation, while the “thirdsters” believe in the possibility of complete liberation and the end of suffering. Crossover happens, of course, but many, myself included, feel that when it comes to truths, the first is number one.
I may be attracted to the First Noble Truth partly because it feels so familiar. It states a worldview that smoothly converges with my Jewish heritage, allowing me to continue kvetching, but with Pali words instead of Yiddish ones. Now, rather than complaining about health, wealth or the behavior of my relatives, I can combine all my tsuris together and simply moan about being incarnated.
The Pali word dukkha means “suffering” in ordinary usage, but a widely accepted interpretation of what the Buddha meant by the word includes the notions of “imperfection” and “impermanence.” The Buddha tells us that different forms of happiness are available—“the happiness of family life and the life of a recluse, the happiness of sense pleasures and of renunciation”—but even that happiness is included in the realm of dukkha because it is all “impermanent and subject to change.” Yad aniccam tam dukkham. “Whatever is impermanent is dukkha.” That pretty much covers all of existence.
It may sound strange, but instead of feeling depressed when I reflect on the First Noble Truth, I often feel relief. I am reminded that life is inherently difficult and filled with suffering, which means that I haven’t been singled out for special punishment. We are all in this together, and reflecting on the noble first not only helps depersonalize my own suffering, it also arouses compassion in me for all living beings. In the end, we are all firsters. And, as the old saying goes, “Misery loves company.”
Many of my favorite artists are firsters. Jack Kerouac writes about having a vision of God, who appears out of a cloud, points a finger at him, and says, “Go moan for man! Go moan!” Kerouac laments that “nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.”
In a recent interview in New York magazine, Woody Allen explains his characteristic kvetching about life: “I don’t feel that I’m pessimistic. I just have a realistic attitude, and the hard facts are so brutal and terrifying that each person has his own way of rationalizing that it’s not so bad. But it is so bad. And the trick is to acknowledge that and still get through.”
When the Dalai Lama visited Berkeley last year, he gave a sobering speech, telling the assembled thousands, “Prepare your mind to know that life is not easy.” He cited our Western desire for perfection and our high expectations for life as the root causes of our discontent. (Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls it “high-class suffering.”)
With so much freedom and abundance, a problem for many middle-class Americans is one of choice. Which sense pleasure would you like to have dominate your yearning? Which status symbols would you like to spend your life pursuing? Which self-improvement techniques do you want to employ in striving for physical and mental perfection?
Not only do we have a lot to desire, but we can actually fulfill many of our desires, at least temporarily. Maybe that’s why so few of us in the West are getting enlightened. A number of years ago in a moment of weakness, I finally took the great American vow. I said it out loud, several times: “Desires are endless, I vow to satisfy them all.” I call it the Bad-i-sattva Vow.
The First Noble Truth can be seen as an antidote to the idealism of the American dream, a balm to those of us who grew up with great expectations. The noble first tells us that our failure to live happily ever after is not our fault but due to the very conditions of life. In our case, the noble first becomes an agent of mercy.
Of course, maybe I’m a firster because after thirty-five-plus years of meditation practice I do not feel liberated. (Unfortunately, there is no “control group,” a replica of myself and how I would feel today without having done any Buddhist practice at all.) Don’t get me wrong. The Dharma has been an incomparable gift in my life and one that I cherish dearly. It has effected a shift in how I view myself and brought me a relative sense of ease, occasional ecstasy and a philosophical context in which to view this existence. However, I’m still quite a long way from complete liberation.
The truth is that I no longer have much belief in liberation—and that turns out to be very liberating. Okay, maybe I’m just a slacker looking for a good philosophical backup for my laziness, but my meditations are now much more relaxed and enjoyable, more about fruition than path, existing for the sake of each moment rather than for some future condition.
At the same time I see a lot of meditators, the typical thirdsters, striving for some idealized state promised in the sutras but which doesn’t seem to occur outside of India in the Axial Age. I personally haven’t seen a seismic shift in the people I know who have been practicing for decades. I would say that most of them are open-hearted, loving people, many with deep wisdom and some who even exude a feeling of freedom, but I don’t know of any arahants among us, no one who feels “done.” I honor the thirdsters for their efforts, but I wish we could see more success stories.
Maybe we don’t see any examples of complete liberation simply because it is so difficult. (A typical belief of a firster.) There are degrees of freedom, of course, but the place where there is no longer any craving, where there is no longer any clinging to this “self,” this body and this drama—the place promised in the most optimistic of teachings—all that seems very far away.
My loyalty to the noble first and my doubts about liberation arise not only from personal observations but also from evolutionary science. Summing up the research, biologist Melvin Konner claims that we inherit a brain and nervous system whose normal setting is “a vague mixture of anxiety and desire.” Millions of years of evolution have conditioned us to believe in our separateness and that we can fulfill all our cravings, and apparently those beliefs are good for survival. But is it any wonder, then, that we have such a hard time shifting into a place of detached, selfless, present-moment mindfulness? When I interviewed the noted biologist Francisco Varela for this journal, he told me, “The brain was designed not to believe in the Dharma.” Within our biology lie not only the seeds of our liberation but the obstacles to its accomplishment. Underlying the First Noble Truth is biology.
With its unflinching view of life, the First Noble Truth offers a corrective to our species’ view of itself. Haven’t we overromanticized the human realm? Are we really specially created? The Buddha talks about this “precious human birth,” but its value lies mainly in our ability to be liberated and not have to be reborn again. In the Buddhist worldview, incarnation in any form is not a desirable condition. Being human is a precious avenue of escape.
Perhaps it is time to “unhumanize” our views, as Robinson Jeffers put it, to desentimentalize this existence. Isn’t that what the Buddha tried to do in the First Noble Truth? Or when he instructed us to reflect on the thirty-two parts of the body as repulsive? Or when he asked us to investigate all of our experiences, so that we will come to the realization that “this is not I, this is not mine, this is not my self”? The Buddha was trying to break our romantic attachment to this form and this personal story. He saw that a radical “self-ectomy” was the only way out from under the shadow of the noble first.
I believe that a primary source of suffering here in the West is our denial of the noble first. So I come back to it again and again, even more as I grow older: “Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, separation from what is pleasant is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering: in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.” This is the fine print to our lease on life, the part that few of us have read through well enough. The beginning of our liberation is full acceptance of the stated conditions. That first step on the path is a giant step.