Huston Smith On The Buddha’s First Noble Truth

I find myself returning often to the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. I do so because it is a noble attempt to articulate the human predicament in so few words.

Huston Smith on Dukkha

The simplest, though not terribly helpful, formulation is: “Life is dukkha.” According to Huston Smith in The World’s Religions,

Dukkha… names the pain that to some degree colors all finite existence. The word’s constructive implications come to light when we discover that it is used in Pali to refer to wheels whose axles were off-center, or bones that had slipped from their sockets…. The exact meaning of the First Noble Truth is this: Life (in the condition it has got itself into) is dislocated. Something has gone wrong. It is out of joint.

p. 101

I trust you can see that “the exact meaning” isn’t altogether exact. The parenthetical qualifier–“in the condition it has got itself into”–points up the ambiguity and attempts, in a vague way, to account for this fuzziness. For, we might ask, how much of life is dislocated? And what “torque” in human life is hinted at herein?

Two Conditions

I’d like to propose that the correct interpretation will need to satisfy two conditions. One is being accurate, or accurate enough. An open, self-reflective person should be able to see himself or herself as well as others in the formulation. The second is that it have enough oomph to thrust us onto a genuine spiritual path.

With the above two conditions in mind, I aim to tweak Smith’s statement about dislocation.

A Reformulation

Thanks to two young men with whom I read spiritual texts, I think we can say the following:

  • Life keeps getting itself dislocated.
  • Or, what is the same thing: Life has a built-in tendency to get itself dislocated.

After all, we need to account for the torque, the uncanniness, the tipping of the scales in the wrong direction, and my sense is that these statements do just that.

Now, is either statement accurate enough? I think so. Each alludes to the preponderance of cases–the skewing of sorts–toward feeling, or being, dislocated.

Does each provide enough oomph for practice? I’d say so. There’s something mysterious, and perhaps also terrifying, at the heart of each statement.

Mysterious because: why does life has such a built-in tendency? Such will bring us to the Second Noble Truth, the cause or source of dukkha. And terrifying because: is there anything we can do about this? And so, we arrive at the Third Noble Truth, the cessation of dukkha.

Is it possible for my life not be tilted toward out-of-jointedness? Yes, here is where faith in the teacher, in the teaching, and in the path all come in.