A casual look at the first noble truth–that life is suffering–rather than a real understanding of it, can make Buddhism seem pessimistic. In fact, the opposite is true. The teachings of the Buddha are unmitigatingly optimistic. Buddhist teachings view life as a moment-by-moment opportunity to become more and more peaceful and happy until all our suffering is gone. And the teachings view all sentient beings as being on the spiritual path to more peaceful and happy lives. What could be more optimistic?
To understand what makes this view so optimistic we need to understand what the Buddha meant when he described life as suffering. Then we need to understand the meaning of “the Buddha” and of “faith,” and the implications of “emptiness.” Hopefully we will grow to understand these intuitively rather than discursively, since all discursive understanding is speculative, and, while perhaps useful in our early practice, all speculative views are “wrong view.”*
For a discussion of what is meant by the First Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of Suffering, which says that life is suffering, please read the link to the previous blog entry, Parsing This Is Suffering.
Now let’s look at the meaning of the words “the Buddha.” To do that, let’s first consider where our current idea of “the Buddha,” as purely a man, came from.
In seventeenth century Europe, for Westerners, only four religions were identified in the world: Christianity, Judaism, Mohammedism, and Paganism. The history of religion is, in a sense, as Donald Lopez explains in The Story of Buddhism, a Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings, a process of replacing Paganism with a larger list of isms: Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, and, of course, Buddhism.
To do this, to create an ism such as Buddhism, scholars have to establish such obligatory constituents as a founder, sacred scriptures, and fixed doctrines. So Siddhartha Gotama became the Buddha. This personification, however, distorts the real meaning of the term, at least as I see it from my practice now.
What I see from my cushion is that “the Buddha” isn’t a man or a woman*, isn’t “a Self, an ego entity, a living being,” in Diamond Sutra terms. “The Buddha” is a mind-state, a mind-state universal to all sentient beings. “All sentient beings” is everything that is and isn’t, and is neither and is both. “The Buddha”, therefore, is the ultimate nature of reality–emptiness, shunyata.
If it were any other way, then the Buddha would be just another dukkha-ed being, another one of us in samsara. But that is not the case. Were that to be the case, there could be no Buddhanature, no enlightenment, and the ending of our dukkha would not be possible. There would, in fact, be no “Buddhism.”
As I understand it, The Buddha is our default setting, our original nature, which, unfortunately, is hidden in the fog of samsara by my current choice to live in dukkhaland. This simple understanding–that it is a choice–made me see what I need to do to clear away the fog so I could live in peace instead: I simply need to make the choices that move me in the direction of the Buddha.
Once I understood this, I saw the raft** that have been readied for me by the Four Noble Truths, the eightfold path, etc., and I realized I could use my hands and feet to paddle to the other shore, leaving all my defilements behind me.
So Buddhism isn’t about suffering; it is about me as an enlightened being, about what I can do everyday to be happier. All of the teachings are aimed at helping me to remove the hindrances and obstacles, the taints and fetters, the attachments that obscure my true nature. 2500 years of teachings, all aimed at helping me find my enlightened nature. That’s optimism.
Now let’s take a moment and look a little more deeply at “the Buddha” as emptiness, shunyata.
We have to be careful when we talk about emptiness not to objectify it. Not to inadvertently make emptiness into a thing with a self, or even a doctrine, for that matter. We must be careful not to confuse emptiness with fullness or unity, which are misunderstandings of the term. It is definitely not that everything is one, it is definitely not about merging with some ultimate or divine.
Emptiness isn’t simply a philosophical insight into the nature of reality. Emptiness is a spiritual practice. In other words, the realization of emptiness is the way we liberate ourselves from delusions; it is the way we liberate ourselves from the defilements that attach us to samsara and bind us to our self-made suffering. Attachment to the mind-state of emptiness is not possible.
My sense of optimism comes from precisely this point. The more deeply I understand and realize emptiness, the less there is to attach to, the less self there is, so to speak, and the more optimistic I feel about the human condition. When I realize that suffering is empty, then I realize how peaceful this very moment is, how bright my future is.
It is, for me, the understanding that everything is empty that is the springboard to my optimism. If everything is empty, then I can change anything in my life. I can, on the most important and fundamental level, change the conditions that bind me to samsara. One moment at a time, one decision at a time, I can move myself away from a lifetime of anxiety, delusion and depression, away from a lifetime of anger and ill-will, towards a life which is ever increasingly peaceful, compassionate, and content.
So, it is shunyata, emptiness, that leads me to see Buddhism as profoundly optimistic, and it is shunyata, emptiness, that gives me faith.
As I say that, of course, I recognize my greediness, my wanting to be optimistic, my liking optimism better than my old pessimism. On a deeper level, I confess, I understand that Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, it is utterly realistic. And the transition from seeing things as pessimistic to seeing them as optimistic, to finally seeing them as they really are, by being realistic, is about moving from dukkha to peacefulness, about letting go of the greed. Faith, of course, is what holds me steady in this movement. This movement being from defilement to antidote to equanimity to shunyata. But let’s go back to faith.
“Faith” in Buddhism has a different meaning than it has in Abrahamic religions. Faith in Buddhism is the confidence that arises from knowing that dukkha is end-able. Faith is knowing with absolute certainty from within that, with diligence and consistency, I will become free.
As I became more aware of the Buddha within me, as I practiced more faithfully from a position of emptiness, my awareness of the suffering of other sentient beings, of all other sentient beings and of their need to be saved, of their “deep desire for emancipation,” arose powerfully with me. It led me to understand how in each moment I make a choice, and that that choice is a socially engaged choice.
By following the path and by abandoning the unwholesome and developing the wholesome (right effort in action), I see that in each moment my practice is one of being of benefit to all beings. And that too makes me optimistic, about my future about the future of all sentient beings, and about the future of the environment.
Far from becoming distant and detached, the bodhisattva is right there, out front, engaged in the world, working for the benefit of all sentient beings.
May we all have the “blazing energy" of Vimalakirti as we paddle with joyful and optimistic hearts to the other shore.
*The gender ambiguity of many Buddha statues is a symbolic way of expressing shunyata, emptiness; not, as is often explained, an attempt at gender non-differentiation.
**A blog on rafts and raft-making will be the next posting.
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