It took me a long time to realise that there didn’t have to be suffering in the world. I dont mean like in some hippy utopian vision where everything is the ‘way it should be”, I’m talking right here and right now among all the war and cruelty and death in the world. I’m not speaking in metaphor or mysterious zen-magic talk either, I mean exactly this: despite all the pain that exists in the world that suffering is optional.
When I began looking at things in my life that statement seemed like a pile of shit, and when I began looking at things in others lives (who had it worse than me) that statement seemed like a pile of shit and a cruel joke on top of that. After all, anyone who has lost a loved one or been a victim of violence or suffered accidents and the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” will tell you that suffering happens to you and there is no choice about it! Suffering is something inflicted upon us, we believe, and beyond our ability to stop. So when the Buddha said that we suffer because of our attachments (or desires, or cravings, or thirst or however you want to describe it) it certainly sounds as though he was telling us that it is somehow our fault that we suffer! What a jerk!
Once I began to really look at life though it became clear that the universe itself wasn’t causing me suffering, it was my relationship to the universe that was. I spent most of my life feeling like I never had enough. I always wanted things, things like toys or friends or cool clothes when I was young and then things like girls or coolness or money when I was older and after 30 some years of torturing myself with those cravings I just began to want peace and happiness and love. I wanted, I thirsted, i craved and so. . . like the Buddha dude said I would. . . ,I suffered. So do we stop wanting anything? Is such a thing even possible?
Buddhism and the Second noble truth are not about cutting off your natural desires as some have claimed, Buddhism and the second noble truth are about understanding that these natural desires are not facts. Its about changing your relationship to the world so that you can feel the very natural emotion of “I want to eat all that cake” without being mad at yourself for the desire and without actually eating all the chocolate cake and without being upset that you cant have all the cake. Its about understanding the paradox of craving.
When you want something, and it doesn’t matter what that something is, you begin suffering. It can literally be something as silly as a new pair of socks or as serious as the desire to not have cancer anymore. The majority of the time though, it isn’t as serious as cancer, the majority of the time its fame, money, power, sex or some version of them that we crave. For this example lets say what we crave is money.
We might cover that desire under the guise of wanting to be safe from homelessness or the desire to give money to a charity, but the root is that we want money. As soon as we feel like we don’t have enough money the suffering begins. How can we get it? Why does he have it and I don’t? Can I take his and get away with it? Can I get it easily? Suffering suffering suffering. The paradox is that even if we do get the object of our desire, we still suffer! Is the money we got enough? Can we keep it? Can we get more? How do we keep him from taking our money? What if the money runs out!? Suffering suffering suffering. As if that wasn’t a big enough kick in the balls; it turns out that the things we really think we want turn out not to satisfy anyway! Haven you ever wanted a really cool jo The whole time you just knew that if you had it everything would be awesome! Then you get it and it turns out that the boss is a jerk, the coworkers shiftless boobs, and the money not nearly enough for all the work you put in. What happened!?? What happened is that the fantasy, the dream image of what you wanted could not live up to the reality that exists. it never can! Good or bad your mind can make any situation seem impossibly wonderful or horrible to a degree that reality just can not live up to! I cant tell you how many of my customers get up from their first tattoo and say “wow, that wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined!” Because reality can never ever be ‘what you imagined’, that’s the very definition of imagination!
Just looking at the number of crazy eccentric billionaires who are miserable and kooky should tell you that. In a way it must be worse than being poor, after all you got everything that people are supposed to want and here you are still suffering! Why did Micheal Jackson buy the elephant mans bones? Probably because they were so unique and expensive that it was one of the few things left to want that he couldn’t just have with the wave of a check-book. Id be willing to bet that as soon as he got those bones home he looked at them for a minute, closed the lid and never thought about them again. He still suffered, and so would you are me, even with a billion million dollars.
Even with everything we have ever wanted.
The problem isn’t the “everything”, its the “wanted”. The second truth is there to point out that the suffering in your life is not a requirement. Pain may be something no one can escape if they are alive, but suffering is always and completely something you opt into. From the day we are born we are creatures of want, all our lives that natural desire is fed and stoked by our families, communities, and social world. A person who isn’t motivated by desire is seen as strange, perhaps even sinister. We design our entire world around want and desire and to the day we die we that next thing, then the next thing, then the next thing. And believe me Zen folk are not immune, they may want things like sex or money less than the average frat boy (or maybe not. . .) but we crave enlightenment (even if we don’t believe in it. . .ahem), or we sit in zazen and wish our nose didn’t itch or that we could ‘do it right’ or we wish we could find that awesome cool teacher who could with a wave of his robe make everything clear and easy about Buddhism. Craving is both powerful and insidious.
So when the Buddha understood the truth of suffering he realised what a big job it was to end suffering. One story holds that he was so stunned by what he understood that he didn’t move or speak for 7 days. Id be willing to bet that most of that time he was thinking something along the lines of “those fuckers are never gonna be willing to give up desiring so much.” But he also saw that it was the one and only way out of suffering. He also saw that with a lot of hard work and compassion that it was possible.
But that’s the next truth.