I'm struck by how, time and again, the West's most lucid thinkers seem to climb two important rungs towards dharma -- and fall down. Take, for example, a couple of articles prominent in today's online Wall Street Journal (a major organ of capitalism, no less).
In the first, "Man vs. God", Karen Armstrong reviews how Darwin's theory of evolution shook Christian faith (or at least fundamentalist Christian faith):
The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making.
She then argues for a concept of God not as a divine, external ego, a creator who may or may not have been a white male with a beard, but as a "God beyond God," a symbol pointing towards "an indescribable transcendence." Armstrong concludes:
What of the pain and waste that Darwin unveiled? ... The almost unbearable spectacle of the myriad species passing painfully into oblivion is not unlike some classic Buddhist meditations on the First Noble Truth ("Existence is suffering"), the indispensable prerequisite for the transcendent enlightenment that some call Nirvana—and others call God.
The second WSJ article, "On the Quest for Happiness" is a meditation on Samuel Johnson's novel, Rasselas. In this novel -- and in a striking parallel to the Buddha's own life story -- a young Abissinian prince, Rasselas, finds himself bored with his life in the Happy Valley where his every desire is fulfilled, and longs to escape what he regards as a prison. He arrives in Cairo and as he surveys the young and the old, the married and celibate, the rich and the poor, the philosopher and the astronomer, he finds that "life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed."
Rasselas returns home:
The travelers have at last realized that there is no single choice of life that will satisfy them. The nature of desire makes the acquisition of happiness impossible. As [Johnson] observed in one of his essays: "we desire, we pursue, we obtain, we are satiated; we desire something else and begin a new pursuit."
Rasselas' action seems to me emblematic of so much of the West's relationship to Buddhism. Rasselas has come face to face with the Buddha's First and Second Noble Truths -- and, unaware of the possibilities of the Third and Fourth Noble Truths, he turns back, with a vague, absurd notion to "recognize that no single choice of life will ever make them happy, but that they must continue the journey of life."
Buddhism is sometimes derided in the West (and by extension, in modernity) as pessimistic. To say this is to be stuck, like Johnson, on the first two Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is a longer statement that is often reduced, in English, to: "Life is suffering (dukkha)." This reduction, used by Armstrong above, is misleading. A better summary: "Ordinary life (which is to say the life of an individual who has not undergone contemplative training, has not let go of mundane concerns, and has not lived a life of compassion and wisdom) is fundamentally unsatisfactory." The Second Noble Truth, like Johnson above, ascribes this fundamental unsatisfactoriness to the mind's endless cycle of craving.
The Four Noble Truths are written out in the form of a doctor's prescription: You suffer from an affliction (the First Noble Truth), here is its identifiable cause (The Second Noble Truth), the good news is that there is a cure (The Third Noble Truth), and here is the cure (The Fourth Noble Truth). If a doctor gives us a diagnosis and all we hear are the first two parts -- you're ill! -- without ever getting to the good news of the cure, then of course we'll call this doctor pessimistic.
As a culture, we have, in our more lucid moments, become vividly aware of what the Buddhists refer to as the First and Second Noble Truths. Beckett made a career of shining a light on these truths. The second WSJ article notes, of "the tragic cycle to which we are all subjected":
This is the view of life that inspired Samuel Beckett to write a play, never completed, about Johnson. But Johnson also meant to affirm that we must not abandon our quest for happiness. On the contrary, for us to remain healthy, productive and sane, we must continue our quest. In Imlac's words, we must be willing "to commit ourselves to the current of the world." And this is the absurdist predicament in which the travelers find themselves at the end of this philosophic tale. They recognize that no single choice of life will ever make them happy, but that they must continue the journey of life.
Johnson is hailed here as "the greatest British writer of the second half of the 18th century." Beckett is often hailed as the greatest English-language writer since Shakespeare. Both of them illuminated The First and Second Noble Truths vividly, but neither were ever able to find their way to The Third or Fourth.
The glory, and ultimate optimism, of dharma lies in the Third and Fourth Noble truths -- a clearly defined, albeit not facile, path towards profound, lasting happiness. By moving towards kindness, contemplative training, and letting go of our mundane, animal cravings, we can, like a heroine addict in rehab, find our way to a profound well-being, marked by joy, kindness and wisdom beyond ordinary imagining.
In the first WSJ article, Armstrong, describes this unknowable "God beyond God", as "an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited."But what if this indescribable transcendence lay deep within our most fundamental nature -- and were in fact knowable by direct, non-conceptual experience? What if this direct, non-conceptual experience were profoundly transformative, and healing? What if there were a path -- arduous and exhiliarating and clearly mapped by countless contemplatives, past and present -- out of Johnson's and Beckett's "absurd predicament"?