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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The First Noble Truth


“I raise my glass to the awful truth
That must be kept from the ears of youth
Except to say it isn't worth a damn.” - Leonard Cohen, “Closing Time”

The gesture shows this is an image of the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni) delivering the Deer Park Sermon, enumerating the Four Noble Truths on the fingers of one hand.



The First Noble Truth, the essence of Buddhism, is that all existence is suffering, “dukkha,” “ill-being.”

This truth has not been entirely lost, either, on the rest of the world. The Greeks used to say, “count no man fortunate until he is dead.” Thoreau observed, “the majority of men live lives of quiet desperation.”

In the Christian world, the Gospel says that the “God of this world,” or “Lord of this world” is Satan. The “Hail, Holy Queen,” a classic Catholic prayer, refers to life as “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”

Obviously, not everyone agrees with this. In fact, it is officially heresy. Just say this out loud consistently, and you are liable to be labelled “clinically depressed,” i.e., not entirely in your right mind. You will be ostracized and set upon.

One can see that this is not helpful, to those with this appreciation of things, and a “cure” seems unlikely. After all, if the deepest thinkers of most times are right, the “depressed” are simply seeing things as they are, and the psychiatrists are out of touch with reality. You cannot easily unlearn what you know.

Society, people in groups, do not want to hear these things; all the more so because they are true. Most men, as Julius Caesar observed, will believe to be true whatever they want to believe.

Hence this construct called “mental illness.” Why is it so scary to most of us? It would not be frightening if it were just a matter of the “ill” getting things wrong. The danger is that they are right. Calling it an “illness” gives us, if we are sufficiently self-delusory, a license not to listen or deal with it intellectually. Lock 'em up—they are “unclean.” (That's the literal meaning of “insane.”)

If you think this view of life is too grim, I urge you to study history, or travel to the Third World. I think you are forced to conclude that the great majority of men have lived difficult lives, and at the majority of times and in the majority of places, injustice was (and is) the usual experience.

There is, it is true, a tendency for truth and justice to win out over time in this world. The world is not wholly depraved. But the amount of time is the problem. Consider the case of the Soviet Union—a regime guilty of mass murder and general repression, as well as preventing its citizens from living in the material prosperity experienced in the West at the same time. It lasted roughly seventy years—the threescore and ten allotted to the average man, though the Russian life expectancy at the time was really much shorter. So, even though justice in some sense was ultimately done--the regime collapsed-- it took longer than a human lifetime for it to happen, so that those who suffered most were not those who were compensated, and those who offended most were not those who were punished.

Some people, it is true, live fortunate lives. As a former girlfriend once said of Leonard Cohen, "What does he have to complain about? He's rich and famous." But that doesn't matter, does it, so long as you have much human empathy? One cannot really be happy while aware of the suffering of so many others, can one?

That is a big reason why that particular girlfriend is former. It is also a big reason why depression turns out to run in families pretty consistently--by marriage.

Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes


Now, those who are going to be most depressed are going to be those who are smarter than average, who can therefore see things the way they really are; those who think more, and think for themselves more; those who are most honest with the world and themselves; and those who spontaneously care for other people. So Jesus said in the Beatitudes: “blessed are they that mourn.” Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

And that's the good news: the kingdom of heaven.

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