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Accepting the First Noble Truth

October 6, 2010

Buddha taught 4 Noble Truths. The first one is “Life is suffering.”

Sometimes this phrase is interpreted in a very negative way – some people think it means all of life is suffering – that is all life is.

Others interpret this phrase differently – “In life there is suffering.” Suffering is a PART of life.

I go with the second interpretation.

The fact is, after all this study – reading articles and books, and all these countless hours going over and over Buddhist teachings and concepts in my mind, and worrying and worrying about whether I should call myself Buddhist or not, and writing SO many entries on the subject, I am still having terrible trouble accepting the reality of suffering, and that in life, there is suffering.

I become indignant, offended, horrified by suffering. Even small things bother me. I want the suffering to go away. Suffering seems to me like it should NOT exist.

This perspective is in large part due to me having been a Christian for so long, and not internalizing the Christian teachings about suffering that do help some Christians get through the day. One teaching in the Bible is from the Apostle Paul, who calls suffering on earth as being “light and momentary trouble.” That phrase, by itself, is both obscene and absurd. However, one realize that this sentence must be taken in context. St. Paul goes on to make the point that life on earth is incredibly brief – he called it a vapor – like a fog in early morning that soon passes. Life on earth as compared to eternity. Life here being so brief, and eternity being unfathomably long. If we take take this view, and believe in heaven, and really really internalize this view of suffering and life on earth, then suffering CAN seem like light and momentary trouble.

But I was never able to internalize this. My mind went in a different direction.

I wondered so much about God. If God is all knowing and all powerful, how could he possibly have created human life (and animal life for that matter – there is massive suffering in the animal kingdom as well – animals feeding on each other and we humans feeding on them) knowing the practically infinite suffering that would occur.

If he knew all this, why did he create life?

Why did he not, and does he not directly intervene on Earth in huge and dramatic ways if he has the power? Christians believe that God can eliminate any and all suffering in the universe in one moment, but in his ineffable and infinite wisdom, he chooses not to. We are told in the Bible that “My ways are not your ways,’ sayeth the Lord.” We cannot possibly understand God’s plan, we cannot possibly see the whole picture, see anything clearly, but instead, as St. Paul says, “we see through a glass darkly.” He goes on to say that all that is to see will not be seen clearly until people pass from this life and enter heaven.

This was never good enough for me. Even though I have tried so very hard to be agnostic or atheist, I still view suffering, and am offended by it, greatly offended that God has not intervened and removed suffering. This still upsets me.

I ask myself, “How can I possibly be mad at a God I do not believe in?” And yet, I am mad!!

Buddha takes a different view. He first of all simply says that there is suffering. Buddha is pointing out the obvious – the reality that there is suffering. I am still not able to accept the obvious. Suffering tears me up. Even very small things.

At the wildlife center where I work, we get many injured or orphaned animals. Many many suffering animals. Some have to be put down, some recover and are released.

Many of the animals that are brought in needing medical treatment live for at least a month, often for many months in little tiny cages indoors. They barely have enough room to move. In some cases, this is for the animal’s own good, such as a bird with a broken wing. It needs a confined space. Understandable. After the bird’s wing heals, it is moved into a larger cage – usually one in which it can fly at least a little. Then, it is eventually released.

However, some animals are not injured but still closely confined. According to Dept. of Fish and Game law, they need to be kept out of the general population of raccoons or foxes, etc. at the center because of a rabies quarantine. Or, they are not old enough to be in larger cages in which they can move around with other animals of their species.

What has gotten me on this topic, something that has just really bothered me, is a poor little raccoon that isn’t old enough yet to be put in the raccoon area where it will be free to move around quite a bit, climb ramps and a tree, etc. It is a juvenile raccoon, kept in a small cage not only because of its age, but because of the rabies quarantine law.

There are larger hospital cages in that room that it could be put in, but these cages are near the ground, and often the person stuck cleaning the hospital cages indoors is one of my supervisors – a large woman who has much difficulty cleaning out the cages that are so low to the ground. So, the little raccoon is in a small hospital cage without much room to move at all. I can tell the raccoon does not like this, and it makes me sad.

I know the temporary plight of one little raccoon is hardly worth mentioning compared to the incredible amount of suffering in this world – in this country, in Africa, all across the world. Not only people suffering, but animals, and the environment, the planet. We are all suffering.

And this still makes me mad.

I would like to be able to just accept the First Noble Truth, that in life, there is suffering. If I can accept this, I can find some peace. I will still suffer, there will still be suffering, but I won’t be so horribly offended by it all, I will just accept it and not be so troubled.

In order to correct a problem, it helps to gain some distance from it. Doctors in emergency rooms cannot focus too much on the horrible pain and anguish of their patients. Doctors and nurses have to react very very fast, and not think about suffering – how or why it occurred. They cannot be emotionally involved while providing emergency treatment. They have to be as dispassionate as possible to focus and do their jobs. The suffering of their patients might take a psychological toll on the doctors and nurses eventually – on break or after work, but while they are doing their jobs, they simply accept that there is suffering, and they deal with it. That is how I would like to be. I think that is one example of how people can accept the First Noble Truth.

I hope I can manage somehow to be compassionate and dispassionate at the same time. I need to get past the horror and outrage, and do what I can, even if it is a small thing, be satisfied with what I can do, and not demoralized by what I cannot do.

I hope I get there someday.

But right now, I am thinking about genocide, I am thinking about homelessness, I am thinking about poverty, people dying of aids and so many other diseases, I am thinking about the suffering caused by terrible decisions made by the US government to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I am thinking of the poisoning of the planet and all these other global issues.

And I am also thinking about a very unhappy little raccoon.

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