Available Truth - Selections
Waking early today to a cool summer morning in the country, we find that for a little while the world does not descend on us with its usual frenzy. There is a pause, a sweet quietude in the air. As we bumble about the house, trying to figure out why this might be so and trying to get started on what we had meant to do today, small things around us begin to seem significant. Birds outside sing with a pleasant simplicity, breaking off after each phrase as if to allow us time to ruminate on the message. In the kitchen a spoon rings faintly against a dish like a notice of some imminent music, and even the familiar smells of breakfast float up to us as if they carry a meaning worth contemplating. Cool air surrounds us as we sit beside a sunlit window and eat, and when we move our hands the air moves, too, in rolling, silent currents. We feel strangely expectant and alive— not restless but simply poised to apprehend whatever wonders may appear.
It is the weekend once again, and various plans begin to come to mind, but dimly and unappetizingly. These are not what we are waiting for. We know there is much that we could do today that would be useful or amusing but in no way original or inspiring. Would it not be good, then, to escape habit for once and get out somewhere in the countryside before the old preoccupations start to agitate us again? Outside, a breeze is just starting to flow through the trees, and enough strength is coming back to this body to set out on a small adventure, if we are ready to be adventurous.
On countless mornings we have thought, idly, of how good it would be to overthrow routine, not just by taking a new route to work or school but by sailing out into the world with wholly new intentions, by pursuing some fine inspiration rather than the same tiresome desires. Yet such reflections have mostly slipped by ineffectually. We have resolved and postponed, wondered and forgotten. Will it be the same today? Let us get going right now, out into that distant terrain we have so seldom explored. Maybe a breeze of thought will come along to pick up and sustain our effort.
How slowly we wake, even outside in the cool air ringing with bird song. Heavy dreams, which have possessed us so long, will surely pull us down again if we do not exert ourselves; but wakefulness, it seems, is not just a matter of stretching muscles. Some stimulating idea that we have left behind must be recovered. What was it? We muse on this as we leave the house and head for empty spaces.
Out on foot on a rural road, we go hiking along as cheerfully as we can, watching the world around us growing brighter. When will an original truth at last appear as indubitable as this yellow sun? On one side there are pastures wet with dew; on the other, green forest on hill and valley and farther hill; ahead, rolling farmland indistinct in the sun’s glare. All this country we have seen before, passed through often; but this morning a sensation of expansiveness and expectancy runs through us as we gaze around, trying to look or to sense farther and more truly than we have before. Will our fair mood be just another feeling that washes over us, anomalous and without effect, or will an answering swell of understanding arise?
Perhaps we are once again, despite our exercise, despite the deliberate thudding of our shoes on the road, just waiting for the world to start edifying us. Should we not find a way to act on our own behalf, to start learning from the signs of nature already strewn about? What was that thought, that shadowy inspiration we almost recall? It was not anything small and transient but some grand structure of ideas we had just begun to explore. Ah! Now it comes back, at least in part. Last night we were reading, bent over a book and absorbing ideas that flashed with surprising beauty. Things were beginning to make sense—in a quiet, intellectual way, at any rate—and that was rare enough amid our usual hurry and agitation. We could see profound matters to pursue, profound matters to test. And then, of course, we got tired, and the evening at last dissolved into fatigue, confusion, and sleep. But something of our delight has not vanished; something has urged us out this far into the fragrant summer air. Let us therefore take up last night’s contemplations and find out whether they can stand the daylight.
We stride this morning without any special destination down an unremarkable road among farms and woods—we who have a thousand urgent concerns about family, work, money, and health—and we are thinking, with more earnestness than usual, about Buddhism. That was what kept us up late and what lies behind our present feeling of expectancy. While we worked through the pages, doctrines, beautiful ideas, and ancient tales mixed together gracefully until we began to think, in the quiet and calm of late evening, that here indeed was a path of surpassing reasonableness and promise. It seemed worth testing—and it would need testing, for we knew that what pleased us in our secluded reflections might turn out wan and negligible amid the humdrum we mostly live in. We fear such a disappointment, so unpoetical is life in general, but the glaring morning demands investigation. If Buddhism as an abstract collection of ideas seems persuasive, that is fine, but how well does it fit with rough reality and how well does it prescribe how we ought to live for our true welfare and happiness?
Maybe we should first try to see whether what Buddhism says about the nature of reality is true—whether it describes well how things actually behave. Our senses are probably operating this morning as well as we can expect, so we should be able to start observing with some seriousness. Here is this body with all its complaints wobbling down a road. Here is a locust tree with a heavy green drapery of vines. Here are farmhouses, fields, horizons—the infinities and particulars of existence. What one true thing can be said about them all? This we remember well enough. One of the fundamental facts about the universe that Buddhism emphasizes is the fact of impermanence, the changeable and changing nature of everything we can perceive.
All phenomena, all formations, are impermanent (anicca); they are mutable, transitory, subject to destruction; they do not last and cannot last. Changes, subtle or gross, are always going on; and although we might nod at this obvious truth, we might not have reflected much on its troubling corollary, pointed out by the Buddha, that what is liable to change is necessarily unstable and unsatisfactory. Small changes in the details of our household lives and colossal upheavals in nature both warn us, if we are attentive, of the certain dissolution, and thus the inadequacy, of our present comforts. If all things can change and do change, then we must look on the world with caution, for all of it is inherently unstable, unsubstantial, and ultimately unreliable.
But is the world really so impermanent? Now that we are out of our philosophical armchairs (where, if it pleases us, we might imagine almost anything), let us look around. Does anything around here stay the same forever? This human body that puffs along the road? That tree draped with vines? Look where you will. These orange lilies spilling over the roadside ditch—where were they a month ago? Where will they be come autumn? A breeze is blowing over the pastures and over us, but half an hour ago the air was still and sweetly stagnant. Now that we notice it, the dew is ceasing to sparkle on the grass. We like to feel, after the turmoil of the city, that the countryside remains placidly timeless; but over there a ruined barn silently manifests time, with its roof rusting through and the boards on its sides pulling away from the frame. Once it stood solid and new, now it decays by small but irrevocable degrees, and eventually it will be entirely gone, vanishing even from the memories of wanderers like us. In the meantime, we are passing a tidy new house on a freshly scraped square of earth. Here, not long ago, there was pasture or tilled field; and here, to be sure, some years hence, there will be bricks and rotten boards to clear away.
Suppose we were visiting this land in our old age, looking for signs of our childhood here—would we find anything unchanged? Great landmark trees have fallen; new houses have been built; the generations have scattered; no unaltered face, or no known face at all, would greet us. Against the light of morning we see myriads of small insects hovering over the fields; but their lives are appallingly short, and if next year we see them again in a golden light it will be only a pattern repeated. For human beings it is much like this. Change will be slow or fast, but change is certain.
We sense a grand timelessness in nature—which is one reason we like to wander out here, briefly free from our schedules—but it is a timelessness only of pattern, not of unique things. Processes run on in winds and suns and seasons, but we can detect no single thing, no fragment of reality, that preserves itself unchanged—certainly not this body of ours. As for this chattering, fretting mind—gnats against the sunlight show more substance. Material or mental, all compounded, formed, conditioned things flow on without pause. So Buddhism teaches; and the perceptible universe, in all its limbs and aspects, displays this truth when we observe mindfully.
A second fundamental fact emphasized in Buddhism follows from the first. This is the fact of suffering, or dukkha. What is impermanent, changeable, and changing is also unstable, unreliable, and prone to suffering. Worldly joys and comforts depend on at least a semblance of stability; to satisfy us, events must run continuously and peacefully in one desired direction. But they never do that for very long; they jolt, they alter, they disappear. So joys and comforts built on worldly things are necessarily brief, untrustworthy, and thus in a deep sense unsatisfactory. Even those most prized of lovely conditions—youth and health—turn out to be just impermanent states that naturally and grievously give way to old age, sickness, debility, and death.
This truth of dukkha is one that causes us to sigh, even on such a splendid morning with the temperature ideal and a radiant landscape all around and a nice breakfast inside us. We do not enter eagerly into a reflection on the extent of suffering in these circumstances; but as we step briskly along the empty road and notice the features of the land, we edge unwillingly toward troubling facts. Impermanence implies suffering. Health and safety cannot last; undesired conditions inevitably erupt into any life, even though we might avert our eyes and narrowly fix our thoughts on signs of beauty. These shrubs and flowers on the roadside, for example—when we pause with a more considering look we notice that their foliage has been half eaten away by bugs and caterpillars. At the same time, the birds that have been popping in and out of the weeds so cheerily are devouring those same hungry creatures. Parasites and diseases meanwhile afflict the birds, which sooner or later expire and drop unnoticed into the grass. Life wrecks life and succumbs itself in time. What shall we fairly call this situation?
How the mind shies away from disagreeable reality! Just a minute ago, did we not we pass a snake crushed on the road? We glanced, shuddered, and hurried on, adroitly forgetting, to admire vistas of clover far ahead. Such is our habit—natural, human, and understandable. The beauties of the world abound, undeniably, and they arouse a kind of wistfulness and spiritual longing, but when clung to they disguise the landscape of reality.
The third characteristic of existence is nonself—anattā. Whatever is impermanent, transient, changing—namely, all of this sensed universe— is consequently unsatisfactory and conjoined with suffering; and whatever is unsatisfactory, temporary, liable to dissolution, and conjoined with suffering is not a self; it cannot justifiably be deemed a self, ego, identity, or nucleus of our being. When we think of a self, we are thinking of a discrete, lasting essence, something within or behind us that does not change. In actual experience, rummaging through the aspects of our existence, we cannot discover any lasting essence. This doctrine of nonself is a startling teaching, one that may puzzle us when we first come across it, but one with rich and exhilarating depths. Could it be that we have all along mistaken the foundations of our existence and the fundamental assumptions out of which we reason? Could human life, and all life, be constructed in quite another way than we have imagined? So the ever-crumbling, transmogrifying nature of reality powerfully implies.
We must look again to our immediate experience. Farms and forests around us are changing, without doubt. This human body changes by the moment, grows hot or tired in an hour, and eventually gets sick and old and dies; and meanwhile this mind wavers dizzily, thought by thought. Because all these things change they necessarily manifest unsatisfactoriness—there is no real rest or stability within them. Where among them could we locate an ego or a self? Hand and foot, eye and ear, breath and thought cooperate for a while in the process of our living; but no element that we have yet discovered sustains itself unchanged and independent.
This universal characteristic of nonself, though counter to ordinary assumptions about sentient existence, is not problematical in any practical way. Life still functions; and it functions best, perhaps, when we are least disturbed by egoistic desires. Sometimes, indeed, when we wish to perceive some object accurately and completely, or to accomplish a piece of work with the utmost skill we have, the usual considerations of self or “me” recede from consciousness, and there remain only the intent watching, assessing, and striving of a concentrated mind. Time recedes, too, along with the trivial hubbub of the day. Forgetting or just disregarding our name and standing in the world, we remain for a little while lucidly attentive to what lies before us and thus better able to understand and deal with it than in more worldly moments. We have, it is true, seldom kept up such a calm, disinterested view very long, but the experience hints at possibilities. If all egoistic considerations could be abolished, not just suppressed, with what lightness and freedom might we then explore the world?
It is reasonable, surely, to pay attention to what is actually here. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch sensations, and mental objects arise and pass away continually, and out of this ocean of sense experience we make up an image of the world. But if we misperceive and misunderstand these basic sensory events—if we insist on regarding them as permanent, substantial, and connected with ego—we will surely make up a faulty, misleading picture of reality. Through a skillful effort, might we observe without wrong presuppositions and so distinguish true shapes and meanings? Buddhism teaches us that this is possible. Here, perhaps, is where hope rightly begins.
Alone on the empty road in the now-breezy morning, we are free to drift along and gaze off at the mingled colors of distant fields or at the crowded patterns in grass nearby. Near or far, the land is a stir of perceptions as fluid as any sea. Have its currents bewitched us? By means of Buddhist teaching could we resist enchantment? These are possibilities that deserve, more than thought, energetic inspection.
Here the road runs on a stretch of high ground, from which we can stare off with pleasure into beautiful distances—the near forest with individual trees distinct, and then the next ridge, rich with textures and shades of green, and then vaguer hills and lowlands beyond that, where farms and subdivisions spread out and where we might indulge our dreams most pleasantly. Adventure, peace, and charm may be supposed to flourish there, far away, just beyond the last reach of our vision. If our vantage point were a little higher, we might get a better view still and take into our contemplation a greater swath of landscape with perhaps more beautiful and more inspiring elements; or if we were to set out walking or traveling by car we might pursue those unclear features out on the horizon and identify them without doubt. These notions appeal to us, especially now in the freshness and vigor of the summer morning; but realistically we have to remind ourselves that no greater understanding is likely to come from perceiving still more shapes vaguely in the far distance, and that even if we were to transport ourselves to the next hill or valley the magical would become again the prosaic, and the horizon would still swim out of reach.
There are limits to the range of our perception by eye and ear and other senses, and the universe beyond is nothing to us but a blurry suggestion of wider mysteries. Nearby, the landscape falls away in smallness, too. We contemplate the streaks of color on the lilies by the roadside, trying to find their source or basis, and if we stop and squint and shade our eyes just right, we can make out within a single blossom a thousand tiny lines and specks and networks of minutiae; but here, just as on that outer horizon, we quickly come to a limit we cannot pass beyond. Color and form microscopically shrink away from us into presumable infinity, until we have to blink and shake ourselves and sigh. Here we are again, human and limited, living within the small mortal circle of our powers.
Happily, a correct and useful understanding of the world does not depend on the gross range of our perception but on the accurate observation of what is available to us. The world we are aware of is just eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind, together with their corresponding objects of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch sensations, and mental objects. The calm, unbiased apprehension of just these will give us the knowledge we need.
Reflecting on these principles of impermanence, suffering, and nonself, at the same time as we glance at tiny pebbles in the road or scan the huge horizon, gives us this morning a sense of confidence and inner momentum, as if the words in old books are at last uncurling into prodigious life. Of Buddhism as a religion, as a system of philosophy, we have perhaps known something; but Buddhism does not just explain but leads, urges, and opens the way for our own exploration. Not all adventures need be geographical.
But why, apart from curiosity and eagerness for exercise, should we be seeking and traveling at all? The Buddhist explanations of the three characteristics of existence themselves supply the reason: since all things that we know of are impermanent and sure to leave us, since old age, sickness, and death will certainly befall us, and since we have found no literal ego to delight in and take refuge in, then our human intelligence and strength, while they last, should surely be used to seek relief, safety, and a permanent freedom from all flawed conditions.
This is a grand and thrilling prospect. Such freedom was what the Buddha himself sought. All this doctrine, this ancient teaching that has now reached us, began with that one mortal man, Siddhattha Gotama, who through his own efforts became the Enlightened One, the Buddha. Doubt, pain, and the mysterious temporariness of life drove him out of a coddled, spurious security and into an ascetic struggle in the forests of India, where he finally triumphed over ignorance. What he came to understand at last through direct knowledge was that all things in this saṃsāra, this cycle of birth and death, rise and fall according to conditions in a beginningless, dynamic process of cause and effect. There is no permanence, no stability in this saṃsāra, only the driving on of impersonal conditions giving rise to all phenomena, good and bad, pleasant and painful.
For living beings the most significant fact of existence in this ocean of change is the presence of suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). Certainly there is much delight, pleasure, love, and joy in life, but all of that, no matter how wonderful, is shadowed by suffering because of its impermanence. This suffering is not an eternal certainty, however; it is not unavoidable; rather, it is a conditioned state brought about by causes. The fundamental, primary cause or origin of suffering is, according to the Buddha, craving (taṅhā). When there is craving, there follows clinging; and because things incessantly change, there always comes separation from what we desire and cling to, and that separation is unsatisfactory; it is suffering. But if we entirely eliminate our craving, the necessary condition for suffering is removed, and suffering ceases. This cessation is called Nibbāna—liberation, deliverance, supreme happiness—and it is what the Buddha himself understood and achieved. He also mastered a further profound truth: there is a way of behaving, of wisely and honorably living this mortal life, that leads to Nibbāna. This is the Noble Eightfold Path, whose factors are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
When the Buddha began to teach it was from the foundation of these Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering. It is not knowledge alone, not indiscriminate knowledge, that we lonely, doubting seekers after happiness need, but direct understanding of these Four Noble Truths. We must see our mortal situation without evasion, acknowledging the implications of universal impermanence; and we must learn that this situation with all its liabilities and sorrows ultimately depends upon and is brought about by our own habitual error—most specifically, by craving.
Following the teaching of the Buddha further, we should come to understand that the great flow of causality can operate for our good as well as for our harm. If craving, instead of being indulged, is abandoned, renounced, set aside, and abolished, then the miserable state that depends on it—suffering—will certainly come to an end. It is purely a question of cause and effect. Removing bad causes and substituting good causes is then the practical work that awaits us along the Noble Eightfold Path. Enlightenment is a matter of intelligent and virtuous striving.
To be out this morning freely roaming through beautiful country is a fine thing, but how much finer it is now that we reflect, right amid the walking and seeing and smelling, on ideas of great intellectual beauty. Serious thought and the actual breathing and tasting of life should not stay separate. The Buddhist religion is only partly communicated to us through books; we have to carry its teachings out to expand in the sunshine and prove themselves under our testing eyes. This, it seems, is what we have already begun today, just by noticing the ravaged foliage beneath the flowers and suspecting the common mortality behind the liveliness of bees and robins. Remembering our revulsion at the dead snake, we frown and grow somber; but taking in the vision of those lovely, promising distances out there beyond the hills, we are lifted again. Suffering and the cessation of suffering—the vital subjects of the Buddha’s teaching—are symbolized and evidenced throughout this amazing realm of our perceptions. Both the horrible and the sublime can contribute to our advancement when we see them in the light of well-taught principles.
These principles, doctrines, and explanations of wise conduct are together called in Pāli the Dhamma (Dharma in Sanskrit). Often the word is used simply to refer to the collected teachings of the historical Buddha, but Dhamma also and more generally means liberating truth, the nature of reality, and the way to enlightenment. It is contact with the Dhamma that allows us, who have been figuring and philosophizing all our lives, to make sense at last of what we perceive around us. Not only that, but the Dhamma is a reliable guide to wise action for our own good and others’ good. Supported by a coherent description of the forces that operate in the world, our longing, our will, and our strength may at last move confidently in one direction—toward Nibbāna, the liberation from all suffering.
This morning in an hour of solitude we meet no cars on the road and we see no people nearby—only a few small figures working on a far hillside and others, still more remote, going and coming soundlessly between farm buildings in another quarter of the visible country. The growl of a tractor is audible for a few minutes then sinks away, while birds go on singing. Thinking about the Dhamma, we feel no need to hurry toward any figure, any object in the landscape; we just keep on hiking down the road at any easy pace.
Distance has advantages besides scenic pleasure. Looking from one farm to another, and on beyond to splotches of subdivisions and the minuscule roofs of a far-away town, we can contemplate the changing nature of things with something of a historical calmness, for we realize that we exist in the same vastness of possibility as any earlier generation. We can imagine life out there toward the horizon as dignified by time and striving, as long-abiding, free from squalor and pettiness. It is just an ideal, we know, but our capacity to sense such grandeur reminds us of the promise of our own existence. There is still, we see, scope for our aspirations; and with the Dhamma at last to guide us there is no reason to despair or sink to resignation. We might yet do fine deeds.
Distance, besides, fires us with hope for the unseen and the unexplored in the spiritual sense. A ripple of bird song barely heard from the green woodlands foretells the rising of nobler music out there somewhere in a possible and reachable world. On the horizon the last gray line of earth, losing all solidity, blends with the lowest clouds. That literal boundary we cannot reach, but it remains as metaphor and advertisement for a finer transition, still accessible to the dedicated seeker, from the coarse to the sublime, from bondage to release.
The road now begins to drop down a long ridge toward a valley, and we lose those tremendous vistas for a while, but with our thoughts now running eagerly over what we know of the Dhamma, skipping ahead of our feet, we feel no disappointment. Surely there are great realms of being to discover at every step. Here, for instance, is another old barn right beside the road—huge, doorless, paintless, pathetic, its sides covered with poison ivy. This ruin, like all ruins, serves very well as an emblem of impermanence; its decay bespeaks unsatisfactoriness; and its hollowness, its cavernous vacancy, calls to mind the egolessness of things. Our situation as mortal beings remains what it was, while this new life of Dhamma, as yet barely formed, surges within us. Under the sun’s clear blaze we remember our sorrows. We remember our failings, our fears, our bleak desires. Having walked farther than we would have expected in this summer morning, having gladly crossed this small stretch of landscape, is it time to cross the wider wasteland of ignorance?
Now we have reached, perhaps, a reasonable point in our morning walk at which to turn and head back to the house. But even as we return to the worldly duties of the day, shall we not venture on into those profounder, spiritual distances we have glimpsed? From where we stand now, we look up a slope of deep grass as far as we can. It is just a hundred yards of wavy, uncut, green field, ending in blank blue sky. We cannot see over the crest. Does the earth finally end there? Would we behold from that height stupendous vistas of paradise or only more woods and ponds and cornfields? From the Dhamma we learn that all phenomena everywhere share the same fluttery, vanishing nature, so we cannot expect a passion for novelty to lead us anywhere except to exhaustion at last. But this field that runs up to a seeming heaven is still an emblem or an indicator of the untrammeled and wisely directed life that we might realize. Somewhere, if not in this specific landscape, the earthly touches the infinite, and toward that frontier, with a little more resolve, we might be traveling.
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© Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano, Available Truth (Wisdom Publications, 2007)
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