Four Noble Truths (2019) by Rev. Anthony Makar
Reading Before the Message
Our story today comes from a real-life incident related to us by Rachel Naomi Remen, a medical doctor whose special focus is counseling those with chronic and terminal illness.
The story is about a teenager named David. David was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes two weeks after his seventeenth birthday. He responded to it with all the rage of a trapped animal. He flung himself against the limitations of his disease, refusing to hold to a diet, forgetting to take his insulin, and using his diabetes to hurt himself over and over. Fearing for his life, his parents insisted he come into therapy. He was reluctant, but he obeyed.
After six months of therapy, he had not made much progress. But then he had a dream that was so intense, he didn’t realize until later—–after he had woken up——that he had even been asleep. In his dream, David found himself sitting in an empty room without a ceiling, facing a small stone statue of the Buddha. He was not a religious person, so he didn’t know much about Buddhism. All he knew was that he had a feeling of kinship with the statue, perhaps because this Buddha was a young man—-not much older than himself.
The statue’s face was very still and peaceful, and it seemed to be listening to something deep within David. It had an odd effect on him. Alone in the room with it, David felt more and more at peace himself.
David experienced this unfamiliar sense of peace for a while when, without warning, a steel gray dagger was thrown from somewhere behind him. It buried itself deep within the Buddha’s heart. David was profoundly shocked. He felt betrayed by life, overwhelmed with feelings of despair and anguish. From his very depths, a single question emerged: “Why is life like this?”
And then the statue began to grow, and grow, and grow, so slowly at first that David was not sure it was really happening. But it was. This was the Buddha’s way of responding to the knife.
But its face remained unchanged, peaceful as ever. And though the Buddha grew, the steel gray knife did not change in size. As the Buddha grew larger, the knife eventually became a tiny gray speck on the breast of the enormous, smiling Buddha. Seeing this, David felt something release inside him. He could breathe again. He awoke with tears in his eyes.
Here ends the story.
Four Noble Truths (2019)
Many years ago, my 23 year-old-self was in graduate school taking a seminar on Philosophy of Mind. Socrates was my philosophical hero, and his dictum of “the unexamined life is not worth living” was my guide. So, I entered the seminar excited, because here, I thought, I would get to the heart of the matter about what it meant to be a spiritual being having a human experience. Consciousness is central to it all.
Class began. In walked the professor, and conversation began. Something like: “Available teleosemantic theories are truth-referential and are usually regarded as competing with use-theories that are motivated by deflationary views of truth and reference. I argue that we need the basic-acceptance account independently of the fate of deflationism and that it can be articulated in truth-referentialist terms. Additionally, I argue that we need to combine it with teleosemantics.”
Very soon I felt a fire in my belly: Life wasn’t being examined in this seminar! What am I doing here? I actually asked this out loud, right there in the seminar.
Back then I believed that philosophy has value only to the degree that it helps people become more alive and creative and resilient in the messy situations of our living.
I believe that even more today.
You also need to know that all those years ago, I was coming to the seminar with more than Socrates on my mind. Part of this had to do with having read books about Hinduism and Taoism and Buddhism, and stories like the following were par for the course:
The guru sat in meditation on the riverbank when a disciple bent down to place two enormous pearls at his feet, a token of reverence and devotion. The guru opened his eyes, lifted one of the pearls, and held it so carelessly that it slipped out of his hand and rolled down the bank into the river. The horrified disciple plunged in after it, but though he dived in again and again till late evening, he had no luck. Finally, all wet and exhausted, he roused the guru from his meditation: “You saw where it fell. Show me the spot so I can get it back for you.” The guru lifted the other pearl, threw it into the river, and said, “Right there!”
I read stories like this, and I felt again the old thirst to know why life was the way it was.
I wanted to know more about the suffering that would send a person in search of a guru, to seek release.
I wanted to know more about why humans suffer and the games we play that guarantee that (like the disciple’s attachment to his pearls).
I wanted to know if suffering is our fate, or if something truly better can happen for us.
And if something better was possible, I wanted to know what was in my power to do, to help manifest it. To be less the disciple and more the guru.
I thirsted to know! And this thirst was already old in me, because I had grown up (like every one of us) under conditions of struggle, and the yearning to be released from it.
The experience of trauma is a human universal.
Its sources are many.
One is evolution itself. The bloody and messy story of the struggle of our biological species to survive is written into our brain and body structures. As psychiatrist Russ Harris puts it, “Our minds evolved to help us survive in a world fraught with danger. […] The number one priority of the primitive human mind was to look out for anything that might harm you—and avoid it. The primitive human mind was basically a ‘don’t get killed’ device.”
In other words, evolution has tuned our minds towards the negative. Saber-tooth tiger threats are long gone, but these days we can be constantly worried about the other shoe dropping in the form of an IRS audit, or the kid bullied at school, or being diagnosed with some disease.
Evolution has also taught us to be wary of exclusion from the group, because group membership means safety. So today we can be constantly worried about doing something that might get us rejected, or of not fitting in, or of making a fool of ourselves. Our minds are busy comparing ourselves with others. Am I too thin? Too fat? Too tall? Not tall enough?
“Evolution,” says psychiatrist Russ Harris, “has shaped our brains so that we are hardwired to suffer psychologically: to compare, to evaluate, and criticize ourselves, to focus on what we’re lacking, to rapidly become dissatisfied with what we have, and to imagine all sorts of frightening scenarios, most of which will never happen.”
And then he says: “No wonder humans find it hard to be happy!”
No wonder any of us might search for some kind of guru, to seek release!
And this is only one flavor of trauma that is inflicted upon us.
Another is being born into an identity that society marginalizes and oppresses. So is being born into an identity that society privileges. It’s never about you personally. You, personally, deserve none of the prejudice and none of the privilege. But you get it anyway, for reasons that are completely arbitrary. Color of your skin. Structure of your plumbing. Shape of your nose! The impersonal social system injects bias in us, injects -isms and so distorts character and diminishes humanity, and the result is a world of haves and have nots, and that is a world full of pain, I guarantee you.
Call this sort of trauma “systemic.”
But then there’s the sort of trauma that is personal. Being born with juvenile diabetes, as is the case with David from the story from earlier. The death of a parent when you are young (or any age, actually). Family poverty. Abuse from someone you trusted. Which is often because they suffered from mental illness or addiction–which also becomes a source of trauma.
“Happy families are all alike,” said the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy; “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
But to complete this compressed taxonomy of human pain, I must mention collective event traumas. The environmental disasters, the wars, the famines, the 9/11s, the depressions that come upon communities and nations and scar them. They are collective scars. One of these in particular is the anti-democratic, unrestrained capitalism of 21stcentury America that is making the super-rich richer at the expense of 99% of the rest of us, and it is a deep scar in the American psyche we must find a way to heal.
All this trauma! Systemic, personal, and collective: the thirst to know what to do with it was already old in me, by the time I was 23! Not that I could articulate all these dimensions—no, that’s part of what 12 years in this pulpit has helped me to do.
And to do more than that. To know more about why humans suffer and the games we play that guarantee that.
Now, what I have just said might, on the surface, strike some folks as absurd. Why humans suffer? What? You’ve just articulated why, in the form of three flavors of traumatization!
But here is a great gift that comes from Buddhism and other world wisdom traditions: the insight that physical distress and physical pain are one thing; but how people receive that, what stories people tell themselves about the significance of what’s happening, where people sink the anchor of their fundamental sense of safety and vitality—ah, that is another thing entirely.
I did a lot of extracurricular reading as a young man in graduate school, and one of my favorite finds was a book entitled Zen Flesh, Zen Bones—a book that, story after story, helped me to see the big difference between the mere fact of pain and the variety of spiritual responses to that, one of which could be suffering, but there could be other responses too. For example:
Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut, only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.”
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
Just wow. Clearly, Ryokan anchored his safety in something far beyond his possessions—or the security of his house. And the purpose of his life was something far beyond “what’s in it for me.”
He experienced something we would all agree was physically jarring—but the result to him was not spiritual suffering. Not at all.
Which is in stark contrast to the thief, who is in a place of spiritual suffering, deeply so, to do what he was doing.
Poverty has traumatized the thief, has stolen so much from him, and he is stealing what he feels he’s owed, back. It’s all unfair, from beginning to end. So why should he care about the unfair pain he inflicts on others?
Stealing, for him, is like a survival strategy. Besides being the means of his survival, it is a way of protesting the unfairness of a society that allows for and enables poverty, and it is a way of shoring up a sense of personal dignity and value.
Do you get that language of “survival strategy”? It’s what we spiritual beings having a human experience do to cope with trauma. Trauma jars us, and because we don’t yet know that our true safety can be anchored in something that the hard knocks of life can’t touch, we interpret what is happening to mean that we are in deep danger, we must do something to take care of ourselves. In my case, I learned to take care of myself in the face of my deeply mentally ill and abusive mother by adopting a tripartite survival strategy: (1) I would put on a mask to the world that proclaimed I was an achiever, I was excellent, I was successful, I was a “nice guy,” no scary skeletons in my closet, nuh uh, no way, nothing to look at here, move along, move along! (2) at home I would make my personal needs disappear, everything revolved around the borderline personality disorder chaos of my mother and trying to manage her crazy, but as for what I needed–I became like the wallpaper; and (3) I learned how to abandon myself and its needs, and whenever my needs tried to assert themselves in all vulnerability and authenticity, I disciplined myself with a dose of shame. Shame was the cattle prod I learned to use to keep myself in line.
It worked! I survived. But the thing about survival strategies is that there gets to be a time when you discover that it’s bringing you way more unhappiness than happiness. That’s it’s really not working anymore.
Or maybe a Ryokan comes into your life, and you just do your survival strategy thing, whatever it happens to be, and his response to you in no way plays by the rules of your game—you’re playing a finite game and he’s playing an infinite game—and you are bewildered, you slink away, and maybe it gets you to wondering if, perhaps, your life could be different than you’d ever imagined?
The title of this sermon is “Four Noble Truths” and by now we have covered the first and second.
The first is, “Life is suffering.”
The second is, “Suffering is caused by stuck behavior patterns that seek to bring about happiness but don’t really.”
Which leads to the third: “Life doesn’t have to be this way.”
Growing up, I knew with inexplicable yet irrepressible certainty, in a part of myself untouched by the rest of my life, that suffering wasn’t the last word and the core of human existence. I felt this in the midst of nature, its beauty and peace turning me on to a spark deep within myself. People talk about the sacred—and from the first I have believed it to be an ordinary, every-day kind of sacred, inherently present in nature and in human life. When we tap into it, when we mindfully connect with it, we find that we are changed: our relationships are strengthened, our creativity is unleashed, our possibilities are expanded. The way is opened up to larger realities in life, of reverence, gratitude, forgiveness, compassion, and justice.
When we tap into it—or when it taps into us. David, suffering because he equates his true wellness with the health of his body, suffering because he rages against his juvenile diabetes, one night has a dream. He dreams of a statue of the Buddha. David wasn’t a religious person in a formal sense; he didn’t know much about Buddhism at all. It’s just that something wise deep within him felt a kinship with the Buddha image and used it to say, “Here I am!” Wellness, deep within, which didn’t have to be installed but was there already, from the very beginning, hardwired in.
Moses has his burning bush, but David had his dream….
And the dream told him his story. His physical sickness was like a steel grey dagger, thrown into the heart of something innocent—the Buddha statue. David’s response to this in the dream was like his response in real life: anguish, rage. But then the Buddha statue changed, and in a way that echoed the countercultural wisdom of a Ryokan. It just grew. The statue grew bigger and bigger.
Meaning that while our egos play out their survival strategies and rage and curse at adversity, the inner Buddha in every one of us responds in a very different way. TO GROW. It’s not that the physical pain of life is ever taken away. The physical daggers never go away. But in the face of death, illness, natural disasters, tragedies of every sort, our souls can grow, our vision of ourselves and what the world means can grow, and so finally every dagger assumes its proper place and proportion in the scheme of things. The spiritual suffering decreases. Compassion and peace increase. All the tension within us, the way we hold our bodies as if we’re just waiting for life to ambush us at any moment—we can let that go. We can live in this world and say Yes to it. Accept all that it brings, all the ups and downs. And our eyes will fill with tears. Our hearts will soften, our eyes will fill with tears. Love will grow here, in our hearts.
The Four Noble Truths was the Buddha’s very first sermon. It was one of my first to you. And it concludes with a very long description of the Fourth Truth, which articulates the various disciplines and practices that, essentially, can turn a thief into a Zen Master. The Buddha called it “The Noble Eightfold Path.”
But here, all I will say, as this my last sermon to you ends, is that grace is real. By that I mean, we can be working so hard to find meaning and purpose that we are not paying attention to the meaning and purpose that is already all around us, just waiting for us to stop trying so hard.
Even when we are not seeking, or don’t know how to seek, we are sought after. Sometimes we are just like the thief, just mechanically living out our survival strategy du jour, but it leads to a Ryokan unexpectedly coming into our life, and the result is everything changing.
I give thanks for how you have so often been Ryokan to me, in my life.
And then sometimes, we are so deep in our suffering, that suffering is all we are, and it seems no one can help; but there is deep wisdom and wellness in each of us—which is the anchor of our true safety that nothing external can diminish. Perhaps it has already made itself known to you, as it did to David.
If not, practice wise silence, let the clutter in your mind fall away, allow your deep wisdom to find you. Allow yourself to be found.
Knives are always being thrown. Change happens and pain happens.
But know this best of all philosophies: You are fundamentally Buddhas.
Even as you seek, you are sought after.
Don’t despair. Just grow.