A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Since the Anchoress Asks, I'll Answer

My tussles with the Anchoress give me great pleasure. Like my other favorite bloggers, La Shawn Barber and Reverend Donald Sensing, the Anchoress and I share a belief that asking religious questions of oneself and others is overwhelmingly important to a life well lived. We have very different answers to those questions, but that keeps us from being merely a mutual admiration society, and makes our blogs much more interesting to write. Here is one of the questions she asked me recently, so, since she asks, I'll answer.

You are a man of prayer. It's a different sort of prayer than mine, but prayer can't live and grow and flow if the pray-er is not open to where it can go...and that requires a little bit of optimism, I think. A little bit of faith that good outweighs bad...but how can you prayerfully believe that, when EVERYTHING is bad?


Good question. And one that cuts to the chase about the Buddhist view of life. Forty-nine days after his complete and final enlightenment, the very first thing Shakyamuni Buddha taught to his very first students was: Life Is Suffering.

This is called the first of the Four Noble Truths, the others being: Suffering Has A Cause, Suffering Can Be Ended, and there is a Path to that Conclusion.

But let's stay with the First Noble Truth, for now. Life Is Suffering is about an absolute crystalline realism regarding our human situation. To begin with, there is the Misery of Conditioned Existence: everything, absolutely everything in our world, changes, and nothing endures. Then there is the actual pain of embodiment. We start out dark and warm in our fine amniotic swimming pool, but it gets smaller and smaller with each passing day until we are finally so claustrophobicly tight, we can hardly move.

Then we are squeezed through a tube far too small for us, dragged out into a world which is blazingly and unendurably bright as well as freezing cold, hit hard enough to learn to breathe, and, from that moment forward no contentment or pleasure lasts. That's why babies cry so much.

Our body develops and every change is really what used to be called a "growing pain". Watch any children you're familiar with for a while if you doubt this. And as the growth speeds up towards physical maturity, the mental pain of the rush to adulthood increases exponentially. Once development stops, the deterioration begins almost immediately. We get flabby, we get sick, we get old, and we die. These are facts. These are real.

And it doesn't just stop with this life, but goes on from life to life to life, some better, some worse, but all, on some level, unsatisfactory, alternating from the misery of actual discomfort and pain to the misery of the evaporation of happiness and pleasure in the very act of enjoying it. All this with no way out from it, life after life after life after life, all the way, as we Buddhists say, from "beginningless time".

Why do we make so much of this? Because, in fact, the real cause of our torment is intimately bound up in our desire to avoid confronting it, with our fear of it, and with our anxiety to control that torment and conceal it from ourselves. The restlessness and busyness with which we constantly try to cheer ourselves up--reassuring ourselves that everything is going to be all right, everything is copacetic, everything is under control, all we have to do is x,y,and z and we will finally be truly and lastingly happy--that restlessness is actually feeding and sustaining our misery itself.

When we finally sit down and acknowledge that there is nothing we can do to cheer ourselves up, no band-aid we can cover up with, and no obvious way out, a very peculiar thing happens. The process whereby we actually make ourselves more miserable lets up a little. It shows us a little gap--hinting that there just might be a better way. We get a glimpse that what we are doing with ourselves is part of the cause of our misery, and that points to the Second Noble Truth: Suffering Has A Cause. And the cause is somehow bound up in what we are doing.

Anything we know the cause of, we can stop, sooner or later. Stop the cause and you stop the effect. This is the third Noble Truth: Suffering Can Be Ended.

And since we know we can do things that make our misery worse, we can surmise that there might be other things we could do to stop the cause of suffering. Somebody, somewhere, might have already done it, might know how to do it, and might be able to teach us how.

This is where the search for the Dharma begins. And this is the fourth Noble Truth: there is a Path of Action that Concludes Suffering.

That path can consist of many different "skillful means", one of which is prayer. I have written a little bit about some of them, here, here, here, and here. But the basis of it all is that First Noble Truth: Life Is Suffering. The basis of it all is ceasing to constantly tell ourselves, over and over, "It's not really as bad as you think." Because it really IS as bad as we think.

I teach Basic Buddhism in my Dharma Center. And one thing I always tell students is that if our lives were like the perfect vacation on Maui, nobody would even think about being religious.

3 Comments:

Blogger The Anchoress said...

Very interesting post, Joe. I agree with some of it - some of it is (as you might guess) the common experience of Contemplation. I'm under the weather tonight, so perhaps tomorrow I will comment more fully.

3:00 AM  
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