How Gotama & Buddhism offer a solution to suffering

Buddhist teachings can be applied in a secular society. Illustration: April Kinney • The Sentry

Buddhist teachings can be applied in a secular society.
Illustration: April Kinney • The Sentry

Gotama’s remedy: a sugar rush subsides

Atypical Monday, a typical United-Statesian college student:  

Student thinks, Damn, I can’t even hear what Professor Monotone is saying, I just want to be in bed re-watching The Office. Student enters a beet-stained daze. Alas, student reaches bed and puts on The Office. With the stress of homework in mind, Student struggles to focus on the episode. Student opens assignment and shudders at the remaining iceberg of anxiety realizing nothing was retained during Monotone’s lecture.  

Whether it be that Office episode, a test score, or a sizable tub of sorrow-soothing ice cream, humans make most decisions bound by one overarching theme: desire, keeping them trapped in a cycle of dissatisfaction. Now, not to say that the ice cream can’t be satisfying, but the reward is often preceded by a glorified expectation of exactly what it will bring and proceeded by disappointment and the slow(ish) rebirth of more cravings. 

There is “an unspoken sense that once we’ve achieved this long-sought goal, once we’ve reached the summit, we’ll be able to relax, or at least things will be enduringly better” (Wright, 2017, p. 7). As Dwight Schrute would say: false. The mind enjoys envisioning what this blip of sweetness will bring a lot more than the subsequent headaches it will cause. But as grim as it may seem, realizing this cycle is the first step to a solution. The next step? Arguably, the original Buddhist practitioner, Gotama, answered this question a long time ago. 

Before approaching what Gotama and his “tasks” offer, it’s worth understanding how Buddhism’s roots were first changed centuries ago. After Gotama’s death (roughly 400 BCE), Buddhism went through its first of many rebirths. Gotama’s original “Fourfold Tasks” became “The Four Noble Truths.” And upon being deified, it was institutionalized. While institutionalizing is a very human response to keep concepts alive and vibrant, to spread ideas like a gene, it ultimately counteracts Gotama’s original preachings: “…the institution regards its own survival as paramount and hence favors its gatekeepers and administrators over its founding values. Institutions are always in danger of killing what they are charged with keeping alive” (Wirth, 2018, p. 2). 

What is fascinating to see is that, despite all of the rebirths and reworkings the doctrine has undergone, its very origin was not really a “religion” in the typical western sense of the word. Gotama was a pragmatist, and he offered pragmatic solutions to human conflicts that have been so densely experienced that they have chimed the singular term: condition. As Stephen Batchelor wrote, Gotama “wants people to start paying attention to features of their experience that they habitually overlook or ignore” (Batchelor, 2015, p. 71). 

When people never really stop to ask why they are doing what they are doing, seeking what they are seeking, they become compliant to and lost in more surface-level thoughts, rather than being simply aware of them. By extracting from Gotama’s original preachings, and rethinking them for the context of modern society, the Dharma can offer a practical diagnosis of what keeps people dissatisfied with life, and a practicable solution to turn it around.  

This article will be continued in next week’s issue.  

References:

Batchelor, S. (2015). After buddhism: Rethinking the dharma for a secular age. Yale College, CT: Yale University Press/New Haven & London. 

 Wirth, J. M. (2018, October 24). The balancing act of buddhism 2.0. Los Angeles Review of Books. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-balancing-act-of-buddhism-2-0/# 

Wright, R. (2017). Why buddhism is true. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 

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