“He showed me the brightness of the world.”
That’s how my teacher, Ajaan Fuang, once characterized his debt to his teacher, Ajaan Lee. His words took me by surprise. I had only recently come to study with him, still fresh from a school where I had learned that serious Buddhists took a negative, pessimistic view of the world. Yet here was a man who had given his life to the practice of the Buddha’s teachings, speaking of the world’s brightness. Of course, by “brightness” he wasn’t referring to the joys of the arts, food, travel, sports, family life, or any of the other sections of the Sunday newspaper. He was talking about a deeper happiness that comes from within. As I came to know him, I gained a sense of how deeply happy he was. He may have been skeptical about a lot of human pretenses, but I would never describe him as negative or pessimistic. “Realistic” would be closer to the truth. Yet for a long time I couldn’t shake the sense of paradox I felt over how the pessimism of the Buddhist texts could find embodiment in such a solidly happy person.
Only when I began to look directly at the early texts did I realize that what I thought was a paradox was actually an irony – the irony of how Buddhism, which gives such a positive view of a human being’s potential for finding true happiness, could be branded in the West as negative and pessimistic.
You’ve probably heard the rumor that “Life is suffering” is Buddhism’s first principle, the Buddha’s first noble truth. It’s a rumor with good credentials, spread by well-respected academics and Dharma teachers alike, but a rumor nonetheless. The truth about the noble truths is far more interesting. The Buddha taught four truths – not one – about life: There is suffering, there is a cause for suffering, there is an end of suffering, and there is a path of practice that puts an end to suffering. These truths, taken as a whole, are far from pessimistic. They’re a practical, problem-solving approach – the way a doctor approaches an illness, or a mechanic a faulty engine. You identify a problem and look for its cause. You then put an end to the problem by eliminating the cause.
What’s special about the Buddha’s approach is that the problem he attacks is the whole of human suffering, and the solution he offers is something human beings can do for themselves. Just as a doctor with a surefire cure for measles isn’t afraid of measles, the Buddha isn’t afraid of any aspect of human suffering. And, having experienced a happiness totally unconditional, he’s not afraid to point out the suffering and stress inherent in places where most of us would rather not see it – in the conditioned pleasures we cling to. He teaches us not to deny that suffering and stress or to run away from it, but to stand still and face up to it, to examine it carefully. That way – by understanding it – we can ferret out its cause and put an end to it. Totally. How confident can you get?
Excerpted from the article “Life Isn’t Just Suffering”