"Anyone who has had even the briefest introduction to Buddhist teaching," says Jack Kornfield, "is familiar with its starting point: the inescapable truth that existence entails suffering. This is called the First Noble Truth."
This is also a truth that no-one wants to hear -- at least no-one I know. Or maybe I should just say this is a truth that I don't want to hear. At any rate, it seems to me that many of the odd behaviors we humans exhibit -- you know, the ones that drive you crazy in your friends, your mate, your neighbors, your co-workers, your children (your SELF) -- seem to have come into existence largely as an attempt to armor ourselves against the possibility of suffering.
I was thinking about this last night because we went to see the new Bill Maher movie, "Religulous," and afterwards ran into friends of ours who pointed out that Maher's expose' of religion did not include any discussion of or attacks on Buddhism. "That's because Buddhism is the only religion that makes any sense!" said one.
Of course, I thought to myself. She's had so much suffering in her life, hearing the First Noble Truth must have felt like coming home. And she knows, because of that suffering, that the fact is that there really is no way to arm yourself against it. The only way is to walk through it.
It's pretty clear, watching this movie, that Maher considers religious practices -- at least those found in Christianity and Islam -- to be very odd behaviors indeed. And watching his relentless exposure of the fallacies and contradictions of many religious beliefs and practices I was reminded of the man on our tour of Italy who took every new excursion into a church or Cathedral as another opportunity to rail at the leadership of the Catholic Church for pouring all its money into cathedrals and religious artifacts while allowing so many to continue lives of poverty and degradation.
Which is not so different from listening to the Democrats who rail against the extreme wealth and avariciousness of Dick Cheney and his ilk while so many of our fellow countrymen are driven deeper and deeper into debt, fighting to survive the costs of living, of education, healthcare, transportation etc.
But I digress. Because where I wanted to go with this is to something Kornfield says after he lists the First Noble Truth. Pain, he says, is an inevitable part of living, "physical, biological, and social, woven into our existence as night is with day." But suffering -- both personal and collective -- comes out of our reaction to that pain. And that's the Second Noble Truth: that suffering is caused entirely by clinging or resisting -- those behaviors we use to armor ourselves against pain. Which leads, in Buddhism at least, to the Third and Fourth Noble Truths: that there is an end to suffering, and a path to that end.
The fact is that this armor we carry -- however it manifests itself -- is a heavy burden. The thoughts, fears, and evasive practices with which we surround ourselves when we try to run away from or arm ourselves against pain are in many ways far more difficult to carry than the pain itself. But for many of us that armor has been present a VERY long time, and the thought of setting it aside makes us feel as vulnerable as a child. Nonetheless, says Kornfield,
"Pain comes and goes. Suffering grows out of our reaction to the original pain... Suffering is like rope burn. We need to let go.... The more we grasp, the more we experience suffering. If we try to possess and control the people around us, we will suffer. If we struggle to control our body and feelings, it is the same. If a nation acts from grasping and greed, the world around it will suffer."
As I watched Bill Maher's movie, it seemed clear that his objections to religion seemed to center around the artificiality of religious beliefs and practices, many of which appear to owe less to actual New Testament theology and more to humanity's desperate attempts to interpret the Bible in ways that might shield them against the vicissitudes of life. "But it doesn't say that in the Bible," was something he seemed to be saying repeatedly throughout the interviews.
And my feeling, walking out of the theater, was one of overwhelming sadness: that here was a man who, although he arms himself with humor, an abrasive attitude, and relentlessly funny film clips, seemed to be looking for the genuine heart of faith and not finding it. "Convince me!" he seemed to say, and yet all he got in response were empty platitudes and blank stares.
How many of us mistake the trappings of faith for faith? No wonder the seeking unbelievers around us are not convinced. And do those trappings really ever relieve the existential loneliness of existence? I don't believe so. I think the only relief lies in making the conscious choice to shed the armor, to arrest the relentless stream of thoughts and activities that we use to protect ourselves from present reality.
Our hope, our way out of suffering, lies in opening ourselves to what is, however painful that may be. If we can make that choice; if we can step out of this clumsy and painfully ineffective armor, we may then be given the ultimate gift: the discovery, in the process of that opening, of our limitless connection to the rest of humanity and the Divine.