The Buddha’s One Noble Truth?

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…

Conditio Humana

If we take a moment to think about it, the problem most schools of thought are ultimately concerned with is a) how to avoid suffering, and/ or b) how to find happiness (or “meaning”) in life.

The way non-dual philosophies deal with these issues is to point to a state of receptive, purposeless “being” (present) as the source of happiness and “meaning” and to the realization that our concepts of “good” and “bad” are responsible for our hang-ups. So, according to non-dual teachings, a) the illusory nature of the duality of opposites and, b) the (conditioned) continuous attempt to be in charge of internal processes are at the core of our existential problems. In conjunction they create the illusion of a separate entity, a tension called “ego”, in space and time.

While “being” is relatively easily found in love, the arts, any “flow” activity or meditative practice, the avoidance of suffering is much harder to come by. That’s probably the reason why the Buddha put the emphasis of his teachings on suffering and not on happiness. The potential problem with happiness-philosophies is that they inherently create reasons for suffering in that they propagate a striving for happiness and a consequential rejection of states of unhappiness. A philosophy of suffering, on the other hand, will go right at the core of the problem of existential dis-ease: the tendency to judge and reject. It aims at providing peace of mind in whatever state, happy or sad.

From early childhood we learn to navigate through life by means of fear and attraction. It is what drives our actions (or karma), and eventually, our whole lives. The judging attitude inherent in grasping and rejecting agitate our minds and make life seem somewhat murky. Consequently, we lose touch with reality as it actually “is”. And instead of gratitude, wonder and awe for life, we are wandering within the narrow boundaries of desire and fear through a world of commonplaces. So, the striving for happiness must create dissatisfaction. This is the ultimate paradox of existence. That by trying to attain something, we create an idea of its opposite and, thus, we forever remain in the cycle of judging and suffering. The world of ideas is the portal to Samsara.

Although our maps of navigation cause our suffering by liking and disliking certain aspects of what is really “One”, we cling to them, fearing to get lost without any opinion to hold on to. That’s why enlightenment is such an illusive thing, accessible only for those trusting and loving life to the point of complete unknowing. To transcend “good” and “bad” we have to find a way to accept and embrace everything as sacred, as making sense in the grander scheme of things beyond our ego. This is exactly what is happening when we have a mystical experience (or Satori) and get a glimpse at the world through the eyes of the impersonal, the Absolute.

Unfortunately, though, almost all seekers will misunderstand the mystical message at first. They will take the viewpoint of the Absolute (or cosmic consciousness), as the “real” view, dismissing ordinary consciousness. This, again, just keeps the cycle of dissatisfactory existence turning. After all, even if Brahman is the only reality, the world is Brahman, or in Buddhist terminology, form is emptiness. Same thing, no difference. So, cosmic consciousness implies the sacredness of ordinary consciousness.

So then, the ultimate liberation (moksha) according to the non-dual traditions of the East, is to be free of even the concept of freedom. That is, liberation is to have no fundamental objection to what is happening. It is a cleansing of the mind of ideas of right and wrong. That way, we relax and the tension of the “ego” gives way to peace and serenity in times of joy as well as in times of sorrow. All states are seen as equally valid manifestations of this “One” sacred universe. Nothing is never not (part of) IT. Not even our feelings of separateness. No-thing whatsoever.

Now is the time to know
That all that you do is sacred.

Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God.

Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child’s training wheels
To be laid aside
When you finally live
With veracity
And love.

Hafiz is a divine envoy
Whom the Beloved
Has written a holy message upon.

My dear, please tell me,
Why do you still
Throw sticks at your heart
And God?

What is it in that sweet voice inside
That incites you to fear?

Now is the time for the world to know
That every thought and action is sacred.

This is the time
For you to compute the impossibility
That there is anything
But Grace.

Now is the season to know
That everything you do
Is sacred.



The Fire of Awakening

An awakening is typically characterized by a glimpse of the non-dual nature of things. That which is experiencing (Atma) is realized to be the same as that which is experienced (Isvara) because all is an expression of this ‘One’ infinite and everlasting field of pure potentiality (Brahman) that can manifest as any form or phenomena.

Awakening ultimately is the realization that the stories of the mind are devoid of any reality, or Truth, since they are the stories of an illusory, separate and, thus, fearful entity (ego) which is constantly compelled to improve, control or manage its seemingly separate environment to feel secure.

The glimpse into non-dual reality usually marks the start of a process towards full establishment in Truth which can take anywhere from milli-seconds to years to run its course. The ‘processing-time’ is typically defined by two variables: the depth and resilience of the psychological ‘stuff’ (karma) that needs to be seen through and the ‘force’ and vividness of the awakening(s). With ‘stuff’ I refer to deep-seated thoughts and behavioral patterns that manifest in our lives as uninvited ‘hang-ups’ and as psychological suffering.

What the awakening shows us is that our ‘stuff’ is fundamentally unreal, illusory. This doesn’t mean ‘stuff’ will not show up anymore or that we will never again get suckered in by its illusory power (maya). But as we now ‘know’ the Truth, we have an anchor insight which remind us that the fundamental beliefs causing our ‘hang-up’s’ are simply not true.

So, the awakening, in a sense, is what ignites the fire that (in a mostly painful but ultimately healing way) burns all our delusions and leads us into a state of acceptance, surrender and inner harmony and peace.
Unfortunately, there are only a few things we can do to accelerate this ‘burning’-process. One thing is to fed the fire. Obviously, the more we hide from painful situations or dis-own the suffering that they bring about, the less ‘stuff’ we expose to the fire. A lot of spirituality is, thus, developing an inquisitive warrior-spirit which supports us in facing the suffering and to look carefully at the stories that come attached to it. The other thing we can do is to constantly remind us of the Truth that we have discovered. The greatest Yogi’s have always said that most of what we can do is abide in the Truth and let the rest take care of itself. Everyone has got the ‘stuff’ that he’s got. Hence, everyone is on its own schedule in this. Patience is paramount.

As the process of de-delusioning deepens, the mind-driven individual that we once used to be naturally transforms into a more and more sense-receptive being. As this unfolds, just being and rejoicing in the Truth, that is, one’s Self, becomes enough. We start to live for life’s sake, with all its ups and downs, not to reach a certain goal.

Most people get a sense of it as this process is coming to an end. It is not going to be a ‘big bang’ kind of event, no diplomas are handed-out, there won’t be any standing ovations and we don’t suddenly get a shining halo around our heads. It is more likely going to be a silently approaching notion that sneaks up which tells us that the ‘stuff’ has probably run out. We’ll never know, though, if and how much more pockets of ‘stuff’ are hidden in the unconscious somewhere which could be triggered by some internal or external occurrence. But in our everyday lives we feel pretty much free of delusional ‘hang-ups’ and live in the non-dual Truth that all there is and all that we need, is always and forever right here and now.

So, whenever this post-awakening process weighs you down because a big chunk of heavily defended delusion is washed up into your consciousness, relax. Just remember what is true and it will eventually dissolve on its own. Rest assured that the day will come when you realize that you must have crossed the “finishing line” without even noticing it, because at some point you had become so care-free that you stopped caring about arriving anywhere anymore. One day between washing dishes and bringing out the garbage you must have unconsciously made complete peace with the ‘Now’, uneventfully claiming your birthright of freedom from unnecessary suffering.

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who couldn’t hear the music.”
~Friedrich Nietzsche