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Thinking Out Loud

Noble Truths

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 21, 2015

Noble Truths 3Most faiths have their core touchstone tenets.

For Judaism, it is: "Hear, O Israel, The Lord is God, The Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." (Deuteronomy 6:5)

For Christianity, it is found in the gospels. We remember the teaching as The Greatest Commandment, which combines two core teachings from the Torah: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:27)

For Buddhism, the touchstone teachings are contained in The Four Noble Truths, the first of which is often translated as "all life is suffering." This translation, however, has led (or misled) many people to believe that Buddhism's teachings are more pessimistic than John Calvin on a rainy day. According to Mark Epstein, a psychotherapist who has written extensively on the subject, the First Noble Truth should be rendered rather differently.

Epstein explains: "When I first discovered Buddhism, I was taken with its no-nonsense appraisal of the human condition. ‘All life is suffering,’ the Buddha taught in the first of his Four Noble Truths." However sensible Epstein discerned this teaching to be, he couldn't help but think that the statement tended to be a bit melodramatic, "even if a careful reading of history seemed to support it." Then he found out something illuminating. The word dukkha, which is usually translated as "suffering," in fact "has a more subtle meaning of pervasive unsatisfactoriness." This made even more sense to him, especially in light of his experience as a psychiatrist. He continues: "Even the most pleasurable experiences are tinged with this sense of discontent because of how transient and insubstantial they are. They do not offset the insecurity, instability and unrest that we feel."1

If Epstein is right, "All life is pervasively unsatisfactory" would be a much more accurate rendering, then, of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. Obviously there are examples of profound suffering. Disease, natural disasters and wars come to mind as causative forces of human suffering. But, as Epstein observes, a thread of unsatisfactoriness also runs right through all of life. Even the most wonderful, exhilarating, jubilant moments in life often are framed with something else.

A baby is born, but even as the family gathers at the window of the nursery in the hospital, their faces reflecting their joy and wonder at new life, their happiness is tinged with sorrow because a beloved grandmother died before she could see the child born.

A couple marries, but even while on their honeymoon, they find themselves quarreling over the cost of a dinner and which road to take in a strange town. Tears replace laughter as they come to terms with the negotiations that inevitably make up so much of our most intimate relationships.

A congregation consisting largely of people who have known one another since grade school, people who have lived close to one another and supported one another through many of life's ups and downs, finds itself divided by positions its denomination has taken.

Life is pervasively unsatisfactory, even when it is far more than merely satisfactory, even when it is wonderful. This reframing of Buddhism's touchstone tenet may have something to teach non-Buddhists, especially those of us whose faith takes into account the empirical reality often referred to in classical Christian theology as "original sin," the brokenness of creation that goes beyond individual acts of sin and is woven into the warp and woof of existence.

When we speak of the theological symbol of "The Fall," we gesture toward the mysterious and puzzling fact that this glorious creation is not only good - indeed, very, very good, as we are told in Genesis - but flawed. Even the best of actions are tainted with something not so good; (perhaps even more irritatingly) bad actions by people we take to be pretty disreputable often may be "tainted" by goodness. Not everything fallen about the world can be characterized in moral terms. There's something about the is-ness of the world that isn't quite right. When the Bible says that all creation groans for redemption, it really does mean all of creation and not just the human beings. But we humans have our own distinctive place among all creation as we long for shalom, peace, wholeness.

Christian theology speaks of the longing for wholeness that invites us to hope, to hope for justice, for peace, for the reign of God. Many have observed that the doctrine of eschatology is rooted in this longing. Others have noted that the concepts undergirding the philosophical quest we often describe under the category of ontology are rooted in this longing.

Epstein, himself rooted and grounded in his psychiatric practice and his practice of Buddhism, warns us of a less than desirable aspect of our longing, even our longing for wholeness. He writes:

"In the Buddhist world, this longing for an imagined wholeness is portrayed in what is called the Six Realms of Existence, an age-old method of conceptualizing psychic reality that is a very compelling Eastern model of the mind. … One of the Six Realms is that of the Hungry Ghosts, beings who are in a state of chronic deprivation and longing, always searching for a nourishment that they are not equipped to digest. Hungry Ghosts haunt the offices of psychotherapists."

They haunt churches and seminaries and family rooms and offices too. And, as Epstein himself observes, "The most disturbing aspect of the Hungry Ghost psychology is that no satisfaction is possible."2

This is where I especially want to see us bring the wisdom of our various spiritual, religious and theological traditions into conversation. A deep awareness of the "pervasive unsatisfactoriness" of life is a good starting point, and a helpful re-framing of reality. A grateful reception and blessing of "the world that is" (as a gift of God) builds on this foundation. However, I think another step is required to put to rest the Hungry Ghosts, particularly those that haunt our own hearts. Without letting go of those healthy aspects of longing (whether for a more just world or for the reign of God) which motivate us to act for justice, kindness and peace, we can entrust this un-whole existence to God in the confidence that God is doing for us and for those we love better things than we can ask or imagine.

The God who placed in us our longings also offers rest from these longings. In this paradox, we can find the wholeness that often eludes us.


1I am indebted to Stephen Prothero for encouraging me a few years ago to read Mark Epstein's Open to Desire: The Truth about What the Buddha Taught, (New York: Gotham Books, 2005). The passages quoted appear on page 4.
2Epstein, p. 98-99.

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