A not uncommon view of Buddhists is that we are exceedingly pessimistic and macabre. It’s difficult to argue with this because we read, everywhere, that the Buddha taught that “life is suffering.” Period. And of course, it’s difficult for people to accept this view because many of us are happy, at least part of the time, in between our sufferings. Thankfully, though, the Buddha said, “I teach one thing, and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering” (which, admittedly sounds like two things). His point was not that life is solely about suffering, but rather that suffering is our main problem, and the one that we all share — whether we admit it, or not. Additionally, as our critics well know, the Buddha actually suggested corpse meditation as a fine way of ‘getting real,’ though modern technology has allowed us to somewhat modify this practice and use photographs, instead… And even today, many monastics attend autopsies as a type of meditation on the impermanence of the body, and all things… Not surprisingly, it is not recommended that one undertake such types of meditation except under the supervision of a skilled, experienced practitioner. Nevertheless, there are instructions, from the Buddha, in the Satipatthana Sutta (I wouldn’t click that link if I were you…).
Have I ever meditated beside a corpse? No. Would I ever meditate beside a corpse? Probably not. I’m still trying to recover from exposure to the dead cat, in full rigor, placed on our table in biology class back in 1978. I had to be helped out of the room by two classmates. And at the end of the semester, my kind, but disgusted instructor offered to give me a passing grade if I promised to never, again, take another biological sciences course. Yes, really.
But this was a type of meditation (and medication) that the Buddha prescribed to his followers so they could learn to get real about suffering, decay, and termination from everything to our hopes and dreams, our children, our social status, the means of our talents, and of course, our very own bodies. And this provides the perfect segue into The Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s prescription for the disease of “suffering,” also interpreted as ‘dissatisfaction.’ The Buddha’s given name was Siddhartha, not Buddha. Buddha is an honorific title meaning “Enlightened One.” Notably, the Buddha was also known as the “Peerless Physician,” precisely because he was a brilliant healer. Thus, when, in his first sermon, he revealed his Four Noble Truths, the foundation of Buddhism, he presented them in the same model as physicians of his time, in India, presented their own medical cases:
The Four Noble Truths
- There is suffering;
- Suffering has a specific cause;
- The ’cause’ of suffering can be ended while one is still alive (as opposed to in the Great By-and-By);
- The way to end suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Medical Model
- Identify the illness;
- Explain the cause of the illness;
- Reveal the cure for that illness;
- Demonstrate the treatment.
The Four Noble Truthes Contextualized Within a Medical Model
1. Identify illness and symptoms (The Buddha’s ‘patients,’ the human race, have ‘presented’ with with a number of symptoms indicative of a grave, terminal disease that he has identified as ‘suffering’).
2. Present diagnosis (The Buddha as determined the causes of the disease as clinging/craving/desire, i.e., we literally make ourselves “sick with (or by) ‘want'”).
3. Reveal cure (The Buddha explains how this disease can be cured, i.e., how we can stop victimizing ourselves with our own unhealthy, unreasonable clinging to unrealistic expectations and desires).
4. Demonstrate treatment (The Buddha prescribes following the Noble Eightfold Path as the cure).
I have highlighted the second noble truth, the cause or diagnosis of suffering, because it is precisely here that we learn the cause of the common, all-pervasive disease of suffering. Here, ‘clinging’ or ‘craving’ or desire, means our tendencies to want everything and everyone to be or act certain ways – ways that make sense to us, or seem right… to us. For example, there’s someone at our workplace who is driving us insane. We hate them with a passion. If only they’d transfer, or just die… But it appears that neither of those things will occur anytime soon. So, we seethe and suffer, inside, or sometimes engage in non-productive displays of temper, fueled by our suffering or dissatisfaction with their behavior. If enough time passes and nothing changes, we can either leave, or wait until they, or we, get fired. Or, we can change our perception of the situation through a specific process of “letting go,” and finding that we are not, as we feared, then un-moored or humiliated or weak…
Another example of how clinging/craving trips us up, and much more helpful to me, though much more general, is this: We consistently suffer because people and situations are not as we expect or want them to be. Then, when we finally get what we want, we suffer because we’re afraid that those situations and people won’t stay that way. And guess what? They won’t! Damned if we have, damned if we don’t! And the reason for this is the Law of Nature that the Buddha discovered and revealed (not created and implemented like some god). Impermanence. Everything is constantly changing.
Birth, joyous occasion it may be, is but the start of the journey towards death. Your beautiful child’s first tooth means that they are “gwoing” up; but it also means that they are getting older, and are, as every day, one day closer to dying. And as many parents know, children don’t always outlive their parents… Don’t like that? Whatcha’ gonna do about it? Flowers wilt; houses burn down; companies downsize; dancers get arthritis, and boobs (and other sets of things) sag. You might call that morose or pessimistic, I call it practical. It is only by acknowledging reality that one can expect to master it – or just deal with it…
Change can be one of the worst and scariest things in the world; yet, it’s also one of the best. Without change, those of us in impoverished states would never have the opportunity to improve our lots. Those of us suffering from terminal diseases would simply linger forever, instead of dying. And those of us doing well, could have no hope of doing better. Change is not only a terminator; it’s an equalizer, and sometimes even our champion. But it moves at its own pace, and plays out to its own satisfaction, first, and ours only secondly. So, if we don’t saddle up and ride hard, we’ll just get trampled underfoot. This is the underlying toughness in the so often inappropriately passive depiction of true grace.
Admittedly, change is a bitch. Nonetheless, no amount of crying, railing, hoping, praying, bribing, cursing or pretending can stop change from occurring. Buddhism asks us to stop expecting the impermanent to act as if it is permanent, and to recognize the un-reality of our synthetic “realities.” Buddhism asks us to stop trying to control the uncontrollable, and to stop expecting some “just” God to step in and act unjustly by not punishing us even when we know we deserve to have our asses whooped (though, of course, everybody else should get theirs whooped, particularly if they’ve wronged us…).
Buddhists don’t believe that one can spend one’s life screwing everyone over; then, at some beneficially and luckily timed deathbed conversion, be forgiven for everything and go to heaven. And Buddhists don’t believe that should one not convert in time, say, due to an untimely decapitation or stray bullet, that one will be raised from the dead, sentenced to a second death, and then spend eternity in a state of execution-but-not-dying, by frying like a gasoline-soaked flat of bacon on a rotisserie fueled by The Eternal Flame. Buddhists believe that if one’s negative consequences don’t find one in this life, they’ll find one in another, or another, or another… And this is why we are thankful that change is the only constant because what this means is that there will never be a “final judgment,” just seemingly endless suffering until we decide to follow a more fruitful… path.
Doesn’t sound so pessimistic to me…
Years of ‘Corpse Meditation’ Now Serving Monks Well from The Washington Times
Life Isn’t Just Suffering by Thanissaro Bhikkhu from Access to Insight.org
Four Nobel Truths (Part I) from Buddhanet.net
All of Us, Beset by Birth, Decay, and Death by Sister Ayya Khema