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…
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.
What do you mean by “there is neither good nor bad”?
First of all, there is no “good” without “bad” and no “bad” without “good”. “Good” and “bad” are co-dependent concepts of reality. The “good” creates the “bad” and vice versa because only through their opposite can “good” or “bad” be defined and conceptualized.
Second, what we label “good” or “bad” is subjective, that is, not considered so by everyone. “Good” or “bad” are quite arbitrary concepts.
Third, “good” or “bad” depends on perspective. The universe is a completely interdependent organism that is always in balance (otherwise it would not be stable). Pushing here is like pulling there and pushing there is like pulling here. Hence, every “good” action has “bad” outcomes for something or somebody somewhere (and vice versa). There are no purely “good” or “bad” actions, ever. “No bad actions” does not mean that genocide or things like that are ok. Morals and ethics are “good” from a human perspective. But from the perspective of the rest of nature, it is “bad” news. The more people need to live on the planets resources, the more these finite resources will need to be exploited.
Where does “good” and “bad” come from?
Whenever we turn something unpleasant into a problem, we create the “bad”. So, fundamentally, the “bad” is the expression of our inability to deal with fear. It is something we humans create out of ignore-ance, not something that is inherently present in the universe.
How to get rid of desire?
First of all, realize that the desire to get rid of desire is still a desire. So, in that sense, you are trapped. You can’t do much about it, really.
Nevertheless, I suggest the following: think your desires through to the very end. I mean what if your desires became true? What if you became enlightened, immortal, famous, rich, the world’s savior, etc.? What would you do with it? What would you do when the whole world was saved? What would you do with enlightenment or celebrity status? Would you be happy ever after, “done”? Would you think “mission accomplished” and retire? Ask yourself honestly: how many times have you satisfied a desire and immediately replaced it with another one?
What I am suggesting is this: you are not actually interested in fulfilling or getting rid of your desires, you are interested in keep on looking for something that does not exist: the everlasting “goodie”. You see, even your spiritual seeking is just another facet of this game. The fascination with it arises because you dislike what is. You can’t stand it. You mistrust it. It reminds you of your unresolved issues, wounds and fears. It’s like a shadow hanging over you that you want to run away from. But because your shadow follows you everywhere you must keep going. You must be on the move always. That’s why you are doomed to be restless with no capacity to find rest in the ordinariness of the present moment. Basically, what I am saying is that you are stuck with desires because you are a coward. To try to get rid of desires is the cowards way of hiding from his own fears.
So then, to make the long story short: to get rid of desire, that is, to undermine it, all you need is to find the trust to allow yourself to be a vulnerable human being. It’s that simple. Let your heart be touched and it will provide you with unconditional gratitude for life.
How to get rid of fear?
By thinking you fears through to the very end you’ll notice they are irrational and based on separation. For example, the fear of death is the fear of going unconscious without ever regaining consciousness, like going to sleep without ever waking up. Would that be so horrible? As long as we are unconscious there is nobody to worry and nothing to worry about. And the first experience after being unconscious must be becoming conscious again. So, where’s the problem with death?
You see, (psychological) problems are mind-constructs. To get rid of them, opposition will not do. It will only reinforce the problematic nature of the problem. To get rid of a problem, you need to convince yourself that your problem has never been a problem in the first place, because it was illusory.
How to transcend thoughts? Controlling or observing them?
First of all, maybe you can ask yourself the question: what’s wrong with thoughts? As you will see if you try, doing something (e.g. managing/ controlling) or not doing something about thoughts (e.g. observing) gives them a separate and unique identity. It creates an illusory duality between “you” and the thoughts. So, whatever you do or not do to transcend thoughts, prevents thought-transcendence!
There is a solution, though. The solution is exactly the realization that there is no solution. If you want to not be bothered by thoughts, that is, if you want to transcend them, don’t mind them! You’ll see that your mind will become very quiet because most mental noise is a feedback-loop of judgmental thoughts about thoughts about thoughts, etc.
Trust the perfection of the universe which certainly has not created thoughts to torture or challenge us. Look around: has the universe ever made a mistake?
What’s the “meaning” of life?
The universe is inherently playful. It perpetually creates “the ten thousand things” as it joyfully vibrates (goes “on” and “off” continuously). It has no specific purpose other than to dance this dance.
We are the universe in ecstatic motion. So, our lives inherently serve no specific purpose either. And neither does the life of any other living organism. That doesn’t mean that life is meaningless per se. Flowers are meaningful to bees, for example. Everything plays its part in the great song.
Ask yourself: what would you do if you did not have any external or internal expectations to fulfill? You would get together with your friends and sing and dance and play. So, the meaning of life is to live, to vibrate and dance according to the beat of our heart, the universe. What could be more simple to understand?
To seek “meaning” is non other than an expression of (an imaginary) disconnection from one’s own being. It’s the old, old search for the elusive one “thing” that will makes us forever happy so that we will never be sad again. Can you see how this immature fantasy is nothing but an escape from the “down” parts of one’s existence? Can you see that this is the stuff Samsara is made of? Nirvana is not getting this “one” thing; it’s losing the itch to escape from oneself.
Why do you say life should be approached as play?
Life makes most sense when we play, that is, when we do something that does not need to serve a particular purpose. Playing is always a goal-unoriented activity.
However, because of our unconscious fear and mistrust in all things natural (especially our inner), our main motivation, our goal, in life is to (im-)prove, better or enhance ourselves (or any other variation of one-upmanship). This is obviously serious business and has nothing to do with play anymore. In that state of consciousness, the state of lack, we miss life completely because we are so focused on our goals that we won’t allow ourselves to “play” anymore. Goal-orientation suffocates creativity. This is what Jesus meant when he said “unless you become like little children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven”. And this unplayful seriousness will bug us our entire life since we can never ever reach our goal of happiness and peace as long as we are not deeply convinced that everything is fundamentally ok the way it is, which, obviously, includes first and foremost ourselves.
What is love?
Love is that which comes from a place beyond “right” and “wrong”. Hence, it is unconditional/ non-judgmental acceptance.
How to open the heart of compassion?
One thing about humans is that whenever we are afraid or even slightly suspicious of another person we are retreating far into our persona, our mask and fail to see a connection. This place inside our shells is a desperate and lonely place.
We usually need to see vulnerability in others to lose our fears, trust, come “out”, connect and start to care (that’s why looking at a baby or at cute animals is a big ego-slayer!). Compassion flows as we know that deep down, behind our masks everybody is as vulnerable a human being as we are. Thus, the key to our heart is acknowledging our own vulnerability.
End of part 4 (of 5)