Understanding the secret behind a clear, rewarding life is not a matter of intelligence, it’s a leap into a paradox. Enlightenment is the action behind a rewarding life. It is a motion through experience. Even repeated actions are each given moment by moment attention. It is to simply be aware of experience without the creation of nor attachment to an experiencer.
A student once asked me why she saw several different versions of The Four Noble Truths. Since this blog is all about clarifying popular quotes it seemed a fitting basis for a blog and so I’m answering her question here.
The phrase, Suffering is universal, and the phrase, Life means suffering essentially say the same thing. If you want life you must also take suffering. They’re a package deal. But the noble truths should not be seen independently. They are almost more a riddle than a checklist of rules.
Clearly we don’t have to reconcile the two when they both say, The origin of suffering is attachment, but we do have to define attachment. This doesn’t just mean attachments to things, people, or places, it also includes ideas. Like for instance, you will suffer if you’re attached to the idea of becoming detached. (Now there’s a tricky one.)
Again the two versions agree in their third stanza: The cessation of suffering is attainable. Now it gets interesting. Note that the first truth said that there was no way around suffering and yet here it says you can cease it. Logically, that means that you have to take it during your lifetime but you can learn to stop it for periods of time. You can exert limits on suffering, you just can’t make it vanish or you also wouldn’t know happiness. By accepting some suffering you avoid most suffering, but without the contrast joy will disappear.
Now to speak to the biggest difference–or apparent biggest difference–because I would argue these two statements are different phrasings of the same thing; Path to cessation of suffering is detachment means detached from an outcome. You can only be enlightened if you don’t want to be enlightened. You cannot have any attachment to an external outcome and achieve an enlightened state. That only happens when you have no personal feelings or desires, just pure experience.
The alternate version is, Gradual self-improvement is the path to the cessation of suffering. This too is saying there is no identity nor any state of enlightenment there is only the act of becoming enlightened. You can’t have the goal of enlightenment and then know that as an individual you achieved it, you can only enact enlightenment through focusing on learning how to cease suffering. Again, it’s not a state, it’s an action. You just move around the spokes of the four truths. The road home is home.
Learning to manage your suffering will make you more ephemeral, flexible and free. Conversely, not wanting to suffer is to bring suffering directly to the smallest, weakest version of you there is. Learn how to suffer wisely. Much of this entire site is dedicated to helping you do that. Make it a priority in your life. There’s nothing else you could do that would make as much difference in how much you enjoy your life.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.