Q2. Outline and discuss the four noble truths: is the Buddhist view of existence optimistic or pessimistic?
The question of the Buddhist view of existence being optimistic or pessimistic is one which is many have an opinion on. It could be said that the four noble truths provide the views of the Buddha in the way that life is led and more importantly, should be led. Certainly, the end goal is clearly optimistic, the attainment of spiritual enlightenment, or nirvana. However, the Buddhist view of life as we lead it is often deemed pessimistic as it is so concerned with suffering. As there is more than one school of thought to, is the Buddhist view of existence of optimistic or pessimistic? our understanding of these truths is crucial to the answer.
The first noble truth is the full understanding of suffering. In an obvious way, people are aware of suffering and know when they have unpleasant sensations such as hunger, cold, or sickness. However, the first noble truth includes awareness of all the ramifications of suffering because it encompasses the very nature and essence of suffering (Gethin, 1998). This includes knowledge of the subtle as well as the obvious aspects of suffering.
The obvious aspect of suffering is immediate pain or difficulty in the moment. Subtle suffering is more difficult to understand because it begins with happiness. In that respect it might be considered a pessimistic view that happiness leads to suffering. However, it is a fundamental Buddhist belief that the very nature of happiness must change because it is impermanent. (Gethin, 1998). To non- Buddhists situations that might give one greatest happiness may be those which are the most actively desired and pursued e.g. love marriage and children. However, the need to maintain this happiness makes the happiness itself a suffering in Buddhist terms.
If a sufferer is not aware of his suffering, s/he will never have the motivation to eliminate it and will continue to suffer. On the other hand if one becomes aware of suffering, one may be able to overcome it. In the same sense with the more subtle forms of suffering, if a person is happy and becomes aware and accepts that the happiness automatically includes the seed of suffering, then s/he will be much less inclined to become involved in the attachment to this happiness. One will then think. And so the first truth is that one should be aware of suffering. Once one has a very clear picture of the nature of suffering, one can really begin to avoid such suffering (Sumedha, 2001). Of course, it would be reasonable to assume that everyone wants to avoid suffering and to emerge from suffering, but to accomplish this one needs to be absolutely clear about its nature.
When one becomes aware that the nature of day-to-day existence is suffering (Gethin, 1998), one doesn’t have to be miserable with the thought suffering will always be present because the Buddha entered the world, his teachings describe the means by which suffering can be ended. The message is in fact optimistic. No one needs to endure suffering and we can, in fact, be happy. It is believed that even though one can not immediately emerge from suffering by practising the Buddha’s teachings, one can gradually eliminate suffering in this way, and move towards the state beyond which is liberation. This fact in itself has the power to make one happy, even before one has actually completely emerged from suffering. And also, through applying the Buddha’s teachings, one can both be happy in the relative phase of ones progress and then at the end one will gain wisdom and liberation and be happy in the ultimate sense, as well.
The first noble truth makes it clear that there is suffering. Once one knows what suffering is, one must eliminate that suffering. It is not a question of eliminating the suffering itself, but of eliminating the causes of suffering (Cush, 1994). Once one removes the causes of suffering, then automatically the effect, which is suffering, is no longer present. This is why, in order to eliminate this suffering, one becomes aware of the second noble truth, the truth of universal origination.
The second noble truth is the truth of universal origination. This is an English translation of the name Buddha himself gave to this noble truth and means “that which is the cause or origin of absolutely everything.” (Francesconni, 2001). The truth of universal origination indicates that the root cause of suffering is karma (Gethin, 2001). Karma is a Sanskrit word which means “activity.
The Buddha thought of suffering as simply a fact of existence (Cush, 1994) and in its general approach to the problem, Buddhist thought suggests, that it is beings themselves who must take ultimate responsibility for their suffering (Cush, 1994). This may seem pessimistic, but on the other hand, as we have discussed lifes illusions as something over which we humans have some control, we can work for a happy existence.
It is a belief that part of the human nature is to actively identifying with the wrong things – our desires. Our Karma is created by, for example, wishes to be successful in our jobs and our relationships. It is in our choice of our interests, in how we use our wealth, and our bodies, and in turn these definitions can lead to our lives being ruined. Loss a partner, a child, our health, our wealth or work, our wishes and desires, and their expansion into grasping, clinging and obsession, which are the cause of our discontent. They lead us to seek our heart’s deepest desires – happiness and peace – in objects which by their very nature are transient and cannot possibly last. (Gethin, 1998). Pleasure, prosperity, success and fame are short-term gains. This is what the Buddha taught as the Second Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering – Desire (Tanha). Again these could be considered a very pessimistic view of the human condition. Nothing has any permanent meaning, life’s hard and then we die.
Ignorance of the Buddha’s teachings, might attribute all happiness and suffering to some external cause, believing that happiness and suffering come from the environment, or from the gods, and that everything that happens originates in some source outside of ones control. If one believes this, then it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to envisage eliminating suffering and its causes which is in itself an extremely pessimistic point of view. On the other hand, when a person accepts responsibility that experience of suffering is a product of what the self has done, that is, a result of personal karma, eliminating suffering becomes a real possibility. Buddhism believes that once awareness of suffering takes place, one can begin to remove the causes of suffering. This is the understanding of karma. Accepting responsibility for our own behaviour is an essential part of being able to change it, and a real source of optimism.
The third noble truth is the cessation of suffering. Our cessation of suffering is something that we cannot depend on anyone else to help us with, because it is such a personal thing. The truth of universal origination means that if our actions are not virtuous, we are creating suffering (Cush, 1994). The three physical actions believed to lack virtue, and these are: the harming of life, sexual misconduct, and stealing, namely, the causes of karma and the defilement. The results of these three actions can be observed immediately. For example, to take the situation where there is a virtuous relationship between a man and woman who care about each other, they will protect each other, and have a great deal of love and affection for each other. In the ordinary sense, happiness develops out of this deep commitment and bond they have promised to keep. Whereas, when there is an absence of commitment, there is also little care or love and sexual misconduct arises. This is not the ground out of which love arises. One can readily see that, to Buddhists, the lack of commitment to sexual fidelity means that many kinds of difficulties will arise. (Francesconni, 2001).
Recognising the negative speech may not be so obvious. But on closer examination, one can appreciate how unhappiness may develop from types of speech which are regardless of virtue. At first lying may seem to be useful because one might think that they could deceive others through lies and gain some advantage. Once we have considered the example of the consequences of lying, we can think of similar consequences relating to other kinds of damaging speech: slander, and coarse, aggressive, and useless speech. Except for the immediate and the short-termed consequences virtuous speech produces happiness and the opposite produces suffering. (Sumedha, 2001).
To summarise, once we are able to recognise what suffering really is, then we can start to remove its causes. To stop these activities that have no merits, we have to dig out the root of defilement (Cush, 1994). To eradicate personal defilement, one needs to remove their heart, which is this belief in a self. If one does that, then one will eventually come to realise the wisdom of non-self. Through understanding the absence of a self, we should no longer create bad actions and bring an end to the whole process of ruining ourselves, (Francesconni, 2001) and this is the cessation or end to suffering. We begin to see a prevailing optimism in Buddhism that the human spirit, with the right understanding of the self, can begin to make themselves pure of thought.
The fourth noble truth is the path leading to the end of suffering. To achieve this, one must progressively go step by step, stage by stage in order to complete their journey. The Noble Eightfold Path is the set of actions and attitudes that can lead to the cessation of suffering. The eightfold path can be thought of as simply the Buddhas handbook for attaining nirvana, that mysterious state of pure consciousness in which suffering ceases because there is no Self to experience it. (Sumedha, 2001). This state can be difficult for the western mind to describe and grasp, however, the idea behind it is pure and therefore should be seen as optimistic.
The first two precepts of the Eightfold Path are a key element in the path. In a way it starts with the most difficult item of all, the right view, for this encompasses so much. To put it in its simplest terms it means dispensing with the egocentric view of the universe to which we in the west are so habituated (Francesconni, 2001). It is a Buddhist belief that because our minds are so clouded by attitudes, opinions and emotional reaction we are incapable of seeing the world for what it is, the true nature of reality. This view of the world shows seems pessimistic in the context that we live in a world which is orientated around possession. However, as possessions are impermanent, the Right View is an optimistic doctrine.
The second of the wisdom precepts of the path is Right Intention (or Right Attitude) and it flows directly from the insight provided by Right View. Once we can recognise that the way we see the world is not the world itself, our reactions to the world can begin to change. Buddhism ultimately seeks to eliminate all lenses entirely so we can see the true nature of reality (Gethin, 1998). This may seem impossible and that we may never achieve it in this lifetime, however the optimism behind the idea can only be seen as positive.
The morality precepts of the eightfold path provide us with guidelines for mental actions consistent with Right View and Right Intention. Right Speech is the recognition that we can cause harm to ourselves or others by what we say. Right Action recognises that we can also do harm by what we do murder, stealing, assault, sexual misconduct, etc. Right Livelihood, the last of the morality precepts of the Eightfold Path, asks what we do for a living. In our hectic western world, Right Livelihood is possibly the most difficult question we have to face. We need to make a living, but a living that either does good for our fellow sentient beings or at least does not harm them.
The final three precepts of The Eightfold Noble Path involve Concentration. This means living in the here and now and being fully aware of what we do and think. Buddhism asks great personal responsibility of us. Right Effort recommends that we try hard to attain Right View and live within the boundaries of the three morality precepts. Training the mind toward peace will bring our behaviours toward peace. Right Mindfulness refers to our cultivation of awareness of the moment. Mindfulness asks us to examine what our mind is full of at any given moment. So many people in the west are used to multi-tasking that it is extremely difficult for most to be mindful. Right Concentration is an extension of this mindfulness of the moment into our daily lives so that it becomes second nature to us (Francesonni, 2001). It is perfected through the practice of meditation. Whatever you are doing at any moment is the reality, undistracted by random thoughts that pull us back into the undisciplined mental maelstrom in which most of us live.
The very essence and nature of cessation is peace. Sometimes people think of Buddhism as being pessimistic and negative. In fact, the peace one obtains from the cessation of everything unhealthy is the deepest happiness, bliss, and well being. Its very nature is lasting in contrast to worldly happiness which is exciting for a time, but then changes. In contrast, this ultimate liberation and omniscience is a definitive release from the defilement which is the cause of suffering. Their cessation is the most deeply moving peace. Within that peace all the powers of liberation and wisdom are developed. It is a very definitive release from both suffering and its result and four main qualities of this truth of cessation. First, it is the cessation of suffering. Second, it is peace. Third, it is the deepest liberation and wisdom. Fourth, it is a very definitive release. Cessation is a product of practising the path shown to us by the Most Perfect One, the Lord Buddha. The actual nature of that path is the topic of the fourth noble truth, which is called the truth of the path because it describes the path that leads to liberation.
7211, essay two Bibliography.
Cush, D, (1994), Buddhism, Hodder and Staughton,
Gethin, R, (1998), The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, (pp. 74 96)
Sumedha, Ajahn, (2001), The Four Noble Truths, www.buddhanet.net
Francesconni, (2001), The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, www.dharmawest.com
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