Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Third Noble Truth: The Cessation of Suffering

The Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very thirst, giving it up, renouncing it, emancipating oneself from it, detaching oneself from it.

In this discourse the Buddha refers only to "thirst", or "grasping": our incessant desires for this or that along with the concurrent belief that having this or that will bring us happiness, either lasting or temporary. In relation to the previous Noble Truth, we also include aversion and ignorance. This, of course, is easier said than done.

One of the better definitions of karma that I've read is "habitual pattern": we find ourselves drawn, pulled, pushed, or gravitating towards this or that response to whatever occurs in our lives. On a surface level we see this in personality: our lives take on particular forms of acting and reacting, a particular style that seems to be naturally drawn out when the right conditions arise, when we find ourselves in particular contexts. So when we are in a sacred space we are naturally drawn to certain behaviors and relations, like that of reverence; when we are in a social space we are naturally drawn to other behaviors and relations, like rambunctiousness and overt sociability.

On a more subtle level, we also have habitual ways of understanding, largely based on our culture and upbringing. These are like filters through which the world becomes understandable: the world can appear very differently for an engineer than it would an artist, or a physicist than it would a custodian. Within these different realms of understanding even a single thing can appear differently: a soccer ball appears very different both in the world of soccer as well as during game play than it would if it were taken as readymade art. In the world of art, the ball's texture, the play of light off its surface, and an aura of appreciation pervade the context and bring to light certain aspects of the soccer ball. In the world of playing soccer, the soccer ball does not appear in this way: rather than its artistic qualities it is understood in terms of its utility with an essential reference to the human body and its motility, the rules of the game, the structure of the field, and the current configuration of the field.

These patterns pervade our lives and, usually, they occur without our knowing it: they are simply the way things are, how things "usually" occur, the way we are naturally drawn to relate to particular contexts. They are the ground from which things can appear as meaningful, but they can also be confining when they are grasped, when they are taken as the only meaningful way of relating to things. It is not the patterns per se that are wrong, but when they become calcitrant, stubborn, "solid", whether intentionally/willfully or unconsciously. The goal is to lessen and eventually cut through the negative karmic momentum, which is the cause of our suffering, and increasing the positive karmic momentum. Ultimately, however, we want to cultivate skillful means: the ability to spontaneously and skillfully do what is needed in any given situation, rather than being habitually drawn to relate to it in this way or that, positively or negatively. Within Vajrayana Buddhism, the goal is to discover the basic goodness or Buddhanature in all phenomena, allowing us to transmute negative/destructive energy (anger, hatred, envy) into positive/constructive energy (peace, love, and compassion). We are still working with the patterns of the situation, but our responses are fluid, malleable, impermanent, subject to the specific needs of the situation, not the dictates of the organism or some generalized understanding that cannot grasp the subtleties of this unique event, this unique context.

With this understanding, we can see the way to cut through the causes of suffering, the Path of Liberation.