Can we get a better conceptual grip on Buddha’s Second Noble Truth?
Huston Smith, in The World’s Religions, provides us with an elegant articulation of the First Noble Truth. Loosely, it is that “life is suffering.” But this is too loose by far. Instead, we might say, thanks to Smith, that “Life (in the condition it has got itself into) is dislocated” (p. 101). Indeed, “Something has gone wrong” (p. 101).
If you’re sensitive enough, then you should be able to notice, in your own experience that is, this sense of ‘not quite,’ of ‘offness,’ of dislocation. It’s not only that the bone comes out of the joint–and hurts; it’s also that life feels sprained, limp, or tight. All of these.
All of this semantic richness should be regarded as dwelling within the Pali concept of dukkha.
But what are we to make of the Second Noble of Truth–namely, that the cause of dukkha is tanha? The latter is translated variously as clinging, craving, thirst, attachment, and so on. For his part, Smith writes of “a specific kind of desire, a desire for private fulfillment” (p. 102), of “selfish craving” (p. 103), of any sort of desire that (citing Humpfrey’s book on Buddhism) “tend[s] to continue or increase separateness” (p. 102). In brief, for Smith, tanha signifies an “egoistic drive for separate existence.”
III. Making Sense of Tanha
I confess that, for some years, the First Noble Truth has made good intuitive sense while I’ve tended to speak, in Vedantic terms, of avidya (or ignorance) as the cause of suffering. After all, if I do not know what I truly am but instead live my life out of deep forgetfulness, I shall be living in suffering. Or as Francis Lucille said on retreat: “If you’re suffering, it’s due to ignorance.” There you have it (in Vedantic terms).
What sense, then, can we make of the Buddha’s articulation of the source of our suffering?
I would deign to reduce tanha to non-acceptance: I want what is not the case, or I do not want what is the case. Ergo, non-acceptance of what is. On this construal, there is ignorance involved (e.g., ignorance of impermanence), yet that ignorance could be said to be most evident in desire, i.e., in selfish desire.
- (1) What is the case I cannot bear, so I desire another.
- (2) What is not the case I cannot bear, so I desire another.
Concerning (1), I cannot (e.g.) bear to even think of the loss of my beloved, so I desire–while pretending–that she will always exist.
Concerning (2), I cannot (e.g.) bear not being successful, so I desire–hungrily, maddeningly–to be successful.
IV. Does It Start with Understanding?
With good reason did the Buddha place Right View as the first step on the Eightfold Path of Waking Up. Similarly, Advaita Vedanta suggests that the teaching, once heard, needs to be pondered until it is well understood at a conceptual level.
At this point in my investigation of tanha, though, I admit that I can’t help but continue to think that non-acceptance is still slightly downstream from ignorance. I do not accept because I do not know. If only I truly knew, then I would accept.
In fact, I find that, however hard I try, I cannot shake the preeminent need for self-knowledge. In my book, it must come first.
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