In his 1958 classic “The Philosophy of the Buddha” Prof. Archie J. Bahm analyses the most ancient Buddhist scriptures (“Sutta” and “Vinaya Pitakas”) and suggests that during his 40 year career as a teacher the Buddha only taught one single universal Truth: unfullfilled desire causes frustration and the rejection of frustration is the source of suffering. According to Bahm, all other teachings including the “Four Noble Truths” and the “Eightfold Path” must have been later added to the philosophy by “other minds” due to misunderstandings of what the Buddha was trying to convey.
Now, you may ask, what is so hard to understand about the fact that unfulfilled desire causes suffering? By digging into the problem of desire more closely one easily understands why.
If the cause of suffering is unfulfilled desire, the solution to the problem must be to stop desiring. Simple as that. Simple? Not quite. Basically there are two ways of stopping desire: one either gets out of sight of the objects of desire (seclusion) or one tries to beat desire (asceticism). However, neither of these two approaches really work as the Buddha found out for himself during his pre-enlightment spiritual seeking. On the one hand, some basic desires such as food and sex are not extinguishable as long as one is still human. On the other hand, the desire to stop desiring is still a desire, just a more subtle form of it. So, it is impossible to willingly not desire, because that would be a desire! Furthermore one could argue that stop desiring is not even really desirable as desires provide motivation and fulfilled desires provide satisfaction. By creating emotions, desires are life-affirming.
So desire, when not fulfilled, provides frustration. Stopping desire, though, is life-negating and actually impossible. Not so simple, is it? This is were the genius of the Buddha comes in. He discovered the “Middle Way” between desiring and desiring not to desire. Here is how it goes: if we always desired exactly what we are getting, we would always get satisfaction and the sensation of being alive. Or in other words, if we always accepted everything AS IT IS (within and without), which includes the suffering, we would be free from suffering and live in joy.
Hold on, you may say, how can one accept everything without desiring to accept everything? Of course you are right, accepting without desiring to accept is impossible. Whenever you want something, you desire it, and since trying to not want is also a desire, the attempt will cause endless frustration and suffering. It’s like trying to relax a muscle by forcing it to relax. It just won’t work.
Nevertheless, there is a way the get into the “Middle Way”. It’s a paradoxical way, though. Once the desire to get into the “Middle Way” (or any other desired state) is completely broken, one automatically falls into it. Again, because this “break” cannot directly be achieved by will-power, the way “there” is to either completely exhaust the will to get “there” by trying as sincerely and forcefully as possible (remember the Buddha had his sudden enlightenment at the moment of renouncing 7 years of hard-core asceticism!) or by thoroughly realising by other means that the YOU has no power or control over the process of accepting or desiring. The former way is nowadays practised in Zen (e.g. with “koans”), the latter in Advaita (“SELF-realization” aka “there is no YOU”). Both, the exhaustion of the will or “Self-realization”, leads to a surrender to WHAT IS, which paradoxically, yields exactly what one was desiring to get but what one actually prevented from getting by the very desiring (or desiring to not desire) to get it!
Now, to make the long story short, the surrendering to Samsara (the world AS IS) is the way to Nirvana (desiring WHAT IS). Samadhi is the complete willingness to accept the actual as the ideal. The crux, though, is that surrendering cannot be achieved by the individual (“ego”), one has to be pushed into it, as it were, by some sort of grace in the form of will-undermining insight(s).
Finally, why does Prof. Bahm conclude that this is the only Truth that the Buddha taught? First of all, the Buddha was concerned with one thing only: the cessation of suffering. According to the records he stated this very clearly. Then he discovered that the only solution to the problem of suffering lies in surrendering to the present moment (WHAT IS). So, everything that was not concerned with the present moment like concepts of the past (e.g. “karma”) or the future (e.g. “reincarnation”) or any other metaphysical speculation (e.g. the question of the “soul”) he did not deem helpful for solving the problem of suffering. Therefore in the ancient texts the Buddha never answered any questions of that sort. He neither denied nor affirmed these concepts. For the Buddha in the oldest scriptures, the existence or non-existence of metaphysical entities and ideas simply did not change the fact that to end suffering one had to come to surrender to whatever IS in this very moment no matter what the cause or effect of this present moment was. By implication, this also means that as long as one’s ideas lead one to align one’s desires with WHAT IS, any “Truth” would be as good as another.
For the very same reason the Buddha also refrained from stating anything idealistic or from proclaiming any sort of higher virtues (e.g. he never idealised a monastic lifestyle or compassion). Whatever IS is to be surrendered to to end suffering. That is the full story of the teaching in the old texts. All else, including all methods and “Paths”, must have been added later by disciples not fully understanding the full depth of “whatever IS” (on the other hand, though, one could easily conclude, that all Buddhist methods and concepts must have been created to completely frustrate the seeker and/or make him experience his lack of power to get to Nirvana in order to bring him to the very brink of it).
Additional personal note: the old-school philosophy of Buddha portrayed here can be criticised for the lack of moral outrage at the obvious evils like cruelty in the world. If one, for some reason or other, though, cannot surrender to the present-moment because of its monstrosity, and suffers as a result of it, one could still surrender to the non-surrender and the suffering, and therefore transcend the suffering. Hence, accepting “whatever IS” is not fatalistic. One can have an (unfulfillable) desire for a world without cruelty and not suffer, if (s)he can surrender to the frustration of this unfulfilled desire.
This little conundrum also explains the difference between before and after getting into “surrendering-mode”. “Before” one suffers over one’s frustration and because of that one starts suffering over the suffering, and suffering of the suffering over the suffering, etc. Suffering creates a downward spiral, a grip, if not surrendered to. “After” one may be frustrated (because of one’s unfulfilled desire) but one does not suffer over the frustration because the frustration is accepted. The spiral of suffering stops right there.
Furthermore, allthough I think that many of our desires actually stem from our fears and insecurities I see the Buddha’s point in not being concerned with the causes of desire, as the causes could be indefinite. Instead he went right to the immediate solution: accepting whatever IS includes one’s suffering caused by one’s fears. Quite smart the guy…
When man awakes to the most obvious fact, that his innermost being is identical with the outer world, he adds a paradox to his existence. If he is verily all THAT, who or what is this “self” that seems so real and different from “other”? In trying to cope with this paradox the first reflex of almost all “awakened” one’s is to opt to replace their identification with “self” with an identification with THAT (thereby categorically discrediting the usual sense of self as unreal). In this phase, when one has tasted “heaven” earth seems as far away than ever and not a desireable place to return to. On the other hand, however, as the usual sense of self does not vanish and one does not miraculously dissolve into THAT, this bias creates confusion and therefore a sense of division and lack. This is the time, thus, when one needs to be introduced to the two level game.
For the sake of illustration let’s call level one the identification with “self” and level two the identification with THAT. Playing only at level one results in a life spiced with anxiety and fear about one’s existence (and obviously with their derivatives like sadness, restlessness, ambition, passion, etc). The more you get into level one, the more existence feels like a roller-coaster. Given its main motivator is fear (and its little brother desire), level one is active by nature. It’s quite a ride. It can be overwhelming, it’s messy but its juicy.
Playing only at level two leads to a somewhat watered down life of indifference with its derivatives sobriety and calmness. The more you get into level two the more passive and geological (as opposed to biological) existence will feel like. For those with (too) intense level one experiences, level two sounds like the perfect refuge (and I strongly suspect that the trying to cop-out from level one is the main reason for level two seeking in spiritual circles).
Give that each level lacks aspects of what the other level offers, the trick of the human game is to play at both levels at the same time. But how to?
As hinted at already, the answer lies in what one identifies himself with. This is where paradoxical thinking is needed. If we can think of ourselves as both humans and THAT we are there already. The spiritual traditions of the East did (and still do) a good job in creating images that can hold this paradox together. I like to think that we are all THAT (or “God”) deliberatly disguised as human beings for the sake of going through the motions of life. Level one means we forgot the THAT (“God”) part. Level two means we reject the human part. To be a whole (“holy”) human being who wants to live as much as it does not care to die, we need to play at both levels. When the levels meet (or in Hindu terminology when the lower three chakras and the upper three chakras are open simultaneously) then, in a sort of alchemistic symbiosis, another level opens (the middle or heart chakra) and with it clarity, equinamity, gratitude, serenity and compassion. These are the secret ingredients to an interesting ride (which per definition never is, and never ought to be, a smooth ride!) whereby life is lived for life’s sake, simply to maximize the joy of being alive.
To play at both levels is forever a balancing act: with the head in the clouds and the feet on the ground. Sometimes it is necessary to stick our heads a bit more often into the clouds, then again comes the time to ground ourselves a bit more. For balancing is like dancing, it knows no final resting place.
How hard is it to understand that spirituality is about completely accepting where you are at?
If you want to get rid of desire, you fail to see that the very striving is still a desire.
Trying to abandon all seeking for power, is a power game.
Only the fearful wish to transcend their fears.
As long as you are on the path of spiritual development, you deny your very self.
Any attempt to trying to get ahead of yourself is based on insecurity.
Attainment is a self-protection mechanism.
The way out of striving and suffering is self-acceptance.
What is accepted does not need defending. Only doubts do.
Make conscious your deep-rooted objections about yourself.
And realize that variation is the spice of life.
The cowards try to please their reference group and become rigid.
The liberated celebrate their uniqueness and dance.
We were not created to hide parts of our selves.
We were created to contribute our unique tone in the great song.
We do not need improvement.
Not even our thinking that we need improvement does.
All is well with the way we are and think.
Such is total self-acceptance.
All other thinking leads to mental slavery.
And to unnecessary struggling and striving to become somebody we are not.
I wish you the courage to stand there stripped and naked.
Representing nothing but yourself.
Vulnerable but beautifully human.
Accepting even the fact that you can’t accept.
Always, always acknowledging exactly where you are at.
I will wait for you.
“Everything is impermanent”, says the fool,
while looking for permanent enlightenment.
“Everything is interdependent”, says the fool,
wishing there would be good without bad.
“All is One”, says the fool,
while trying to go beyond duality.
“The Truth is here now”, says the fool,
while doing everything possible to get there.
“There is no self”, says the fool,
while struggling to get rid of it.
“We are all enlightened”, says the fool,
while setting out to heal himself and others.
“The finger is not the moon”, says the fool,
while sanctifying words and mantras.
“We should not be aggressive”, says the fool,
while engaging in asceticism.
“We should be more natural and spontaneous”, says the fool,
while the very trying to be prevents it.
The fools are many. They cry loudest for change and achieve nothing.
When will they wake up from the illusion that there is something wrong with what is?
If we call the experience of the only thing there is, “oneness”
We create a distinction between one and many.
“Oneness” is a subtle trap.
It does not liberate.
It keeps one tightly bound to duality.
One and many are non-dual.
They are fundamentally the same.
So if you were to say “one” and “many” are one,
you haven’t understood a single thing.
The many and the one are not different,
but they are not one.
Duality and unity are dualistic concepts.
To transcend the duality, think:
Neither one, nor many, but both.
Such realization is called “non-duality”.
The only reality is the raw experience of life prior to the mind’s involvement.
We are constantly seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and touching nothing but the Truth.
The mind discriminates, interprets, evaluates and judges our sensory input. Thereby it creates a parallel world that does not exist independent of our minds, a mirage of ideas, beliefs and opinions about reality.
This dream world is the source of us living out imaginary stories of right and wrong, better and worse, me and other. And both, the most exalted as well as the most painful moments of our lives are simply caused by whether reality fits our mind-made stories.
The whole of humanity is a big act. As long as we are convinced that our fictitious stories about reality hold true, we are hopelessly caught up in our roles and ideologies and forever struggle and strive on the spot.
The only way out of the story is to fully see through and acknowledge it. Transcendence is neither being lost in the story nor denying or rejecting it.
The mind is not a mistake and, so, to be human means to put on an act. But at the same time, when we are ignorant about reality and take our role too seriously, our life becomes a drag.
For playing is fun when everybody tries to win without being invested in the outcome. Thus the sages consciously play out their fake acts in a genuine manner and with compassion.
Nothing – not even ourselves – exists the way we think it does.
What is ultimately real is … this, and there is no other Truth, ever.
Shed your illusions,
wake up to reality,
and be one.
This is a song I recorded recently with a friend
The path to happiness is the grand illusion.
Leave it and you gain eternal peace.
Any path, wherever it leads must take you astray,
For peace is not looking further than what is going on where you already are.
The illusory path is built on the dragon of fear and its child desire.
And as they dull your senses you set out and wander hurried and lost.
Shedding all ideas about what constitutes the “good life” is discomforting,
but only as long as you have not yet discovered the beauty of the present.
The rich texture of any given moment is the answer to all your existential questions.
As those vanish into oblivion, the true nature of things becomes apparent.
Fixing and attuning your sensory receptors is the most important task of your life.
And so the true path is the uncovering and coming to terms with your fears.
However, we are cowards and distraction is cheap.
Unfortunately, it has been like this always.
All fears are completely ungrounded and based on misunderstandings.
But to see this, the perspective of the universe has to be assumed.
The brave will venture in, realize and have their fears burnt.
The rest will forever keep wondering what existence is really about.