I want to talk about the world we live in at this moment—the world we see when we open our newspaper or our news reader, when we turn on our TV, when we walk down to the Square or drive to town or to Chicago or fly to Tokyo or Rio. Originally, I used the term “modernity” as a name for what I wanted to talk about, but that won’t do. If you Google “modernity”, you’ll find a lot of academic blather by historians and cultural theorists looking to make the word their own by fixing its meaning, each in his or her proprietary cultural theory or historical dialectic. Nowhere in any of their words will you find anything to indicate that “modernity” has anything to do with “googling”. But the act of “googling” something has everything to do with what I want to talk about.
So instead of talking about modernity, I’m going to talk about the Now.
The Now and the Then
At any given moment, wherever we happen to be, a complex interplay of politics, technologies, ideas, power, commerce, culture, biology, and personal history determines our experience of that moment. Let’s call what determines experience at this moment “the Now”. Let’s not worry, for the time being, about trying to fix its meaning. Just let us note that the Now is defined by its difference from the Then, which we may take, for the time being, to refer to what used to determine experience.
Considering the Then
Considering the Then, we have recourse to memories—memories of our youth, of what we learned from our elders, of what we’ve read in books of history, of stories we’ve heard about life in those times. Considering all that, we are likely, at least in this society and at this time, to construct a Then characterized by certain distinctive marks:
- Then, there were stable hierarchies, in families, in society, in such institutions as schools, scout troops, and churches. People knew their place.
- Then, there were trusted authorities making laws, passing judgment, setting standards, preaching sermons, drafting wills, publishing editorials, issuing prescriptions.
- Then, there was One God, although He might be called by many Names, and there was One Nation, under God.
- Then, there were Principles, by which one must live, and for which one must be prepared to die.
- Then, there were rules, indistinguishable from the aphorisms in which they were encoded—rules about hard work, and honesty, and good manners, and patience, and thrift; one might snicker at the aphorism, but one must admit that the rules held things together.
- Then, there were things that could be known: electrons, protons, and neutrons; valence numbers; scientific laws; the fossil record; the names of the planets; grammar; history; lives of famous persons; how automobile engines worked; how to use common tools to solve common problems; what was possible and what not.
- Things were getting better then. We were making progress. We had enough, or more than enough, of what we needed.
Not always, of course, and never really. But if we surrender to nostalgic review it seems to have been that way, mostly. Then, much of the time, we could simply accept that things were that way; then, we could experience the world conditioned by that acceptance. There were, then, few who would publicly challenge our common experience of the world, and those few could be ignored, dismissed, or punished. That is how it is in our memory and our myth. How it should be. Then.
The Now in Light of the Then
Now, having considered the Then, things seem to be falling apart. Hierarchies are muddled, subject to public challenge, gone completely. Authority is nowhere to be trusted. God is either missing from public life or all too present, wielded as a weapon by those with power, in the service of political purpose. All principles bend and most shatter beneath the imperatives of wealth and power. There are no rules that are not broken daily, impudently. Nothing can be known for sure; everything is subject to chance, and it’s hard to know the odds. We’re tied to tools and machines that we don’t understand, fail to use productively, and can’t fix when they stop working; we can’t even know if they’re really broken, or if it’s something we did. There's not enough. We’re falling behind.
Our experience of the Now frightens us, confuses us, hurts us, angers us. The Now drives us into a corner; we see no escape. Cornered, we behave irrationally—lashing out at those who have nothing to do with what we are experiencing; taking refuge in denial, drugs, or delusional beliefs; or simply saying the hell with it and surrendering to habit or to nihilistic hedonism. Judging from a review of the headlines from one week of Google News (there it is again!), I’d estimate that between half and 90% of those headlines originate in a reaction by some group or another, or by an individual who’s reached a snapping point, to the sheer momentum of the Now, to the complexity, ambiguity, violence, revolutionary turmoil, confusion, scarcity, sorrow and frustration that makes up so much of our experience of the Now.
Some people, idealistic by temperament or gifted with imagination, may respond to their experience of the Now by redefining that experience with reference to a different Then—not the Then that was, but the Then that will be once we have taken the steps that we must take to solve the problems exposed by the Now. Just make the right policy decisions—ban these chemicals, launch these programs, invest in alternative energy, recycle, etc. Then, we might avert our headlong rush toward climatological disaster. Considering the better world we’ll have Then, we can deal with the tumultuous Now with less stress. “Every Problem,” we assure ourselves, “is just an Opportunity in disguise.”
Or we may see no hope at all, imagining what will be, Then, only as the inevitable progression of what we experience Now; we are hell-bent toward disaster and things will only get worse, until, finally Then, everything will end in agony.
Our dilemma, trapped between the Then that was and the Then that will be, is that all Thens are illusory. Things never were the way we remember them, back then. And things never will be the way we imagine them, even then, when we have regained control or lost everything.
The Now as Dukkha
There is only the Now, and there has always been only the Now, and there will always be only the Now. The Now is, ipso facto, the reality that we have to deal with. And, as the Buddha asserted in his First Discourse, Setting the Wheel of the Dhamma in Motion, we experience the Now as dukkha, that is “complexity, ambiguity, violence, revolutionary turmoil, confusion, scarcity, and frustration”. Etc.
Not in exactly those words, of course. Here is what the Buddha said about dukkha in that first discourse:
The literal meaning of dukkha, as I suspect you know, is “pain”, and it’s frequently translated as “pain” or “suffering”. But those words are too specific, missing the broad connotations of the term; dukkha is everything we experience as painful, unsettling, uncertain, threatening, frustrating; dukkha is what we experience when we feel trapped in the Now. Dukkha is the Now. Here. Now. dukkha.
And so it was Then. And so it will be Then. The Now is always experienced as dukkha. As in the Buddha’s time, so also in our time.
In fact, the most important thing that we share with the Buddha, what allows us to connect with him across 2500 years, what allows us to learn from his teachings, what offers us the opportunity to experience Awakening (Pali/Sanskrit bodhi) and become buddhas in our own right, is just the Now that we share with the historical Buddha and with all sentient beings across time and space.
A Few Facts
Now, is it possible to experience the Now (as we must, if we are to make our way through it) without experiencing dukkha? Here, Now, can we live fulfilled, joyful, flourishing lives?
Well, that is what the entire body of the Buddha’s teachings deals with. Dukkha, of course is a fact of life. In fact, according to the Buddha’s teachings, dukkha is a dominating fact of life, the first of four that the Buddha announced in that first teaching and whose ramifications he continued to explore throughout the next 45 years.
The second of those dominating facts of life is that dukkha arises. It’s not an essential property of anything, as solidity is a property of a rock, but it emerges (just as the Now emerges) from preceding conditions. And the sufficient condition for the emergence of dukkha is something the Buddha called tanha. Like “dukkha”, the word “tanha” has a common, everyday meaning — “thirst”. And again, as the Buddha used it, the term takes on a deeper, subtler, more profound meaning. The difference between tanha as it was used in ordinary conversation and tanha as the Buddha used the term is equivalent to the difference between the thirst a person experiences who’s been working in the garden all afternoon, and the thirst that an alcoholic experiences when the last drink was too long ago. Here’s how the Buddha put it, in that first teaching:
“Dukkha arises from tanha—endless thirsting after what is not. First here, again there, you thirst for wishes to come true. You thirst after sensual delight. You thirst that pleasure might go on forever. You thirst for discomfort to end immediately.”
In terms of our examination of the Now, tanha is thirsting after the Then. When we can only experience the Now in relation to the Then, we can only thirst after all the good that was then and now is no more, or for the happier future that will be then, when the imperfect now is no more. In either case, Then negates Now, through the medium of tanha, and we are left with the profound sense of something lacking . Thirsting after what was or what will be, we are unable to accept what is with equanimity; we can only experience all that is Now as dukkha.
Are we truly trapped, then? Since what was Then is gone and what will be Then is not yet here, are we truly trapped in an constantly renewing Now, marked at every moment with dukkha?
The key word in that last sentence is “trapped”. The Now is constantly renewing; the Now is dukkha, in all its aspects. But we have a way to free ourselves from getting trapped in the constantly renewing Now and the constantly shifting aspects of dukkha.
Here is dukkha, the Buddha taught; that is the first dominating fact of life. The Second dominating fact of life is that dukkha is not essential but arises from the sufficient condition of obsessive thirst. The Third dominating fact of life presented by the Buddha in that First Discourse is that dukkha can cease. The arising of dukkha comes about from our thirsting after what is illusory, impossible to attain, or bad for us. It follows that the cessation of dukkha comes about through the abandoning of such deluded and obsessive thirsting.
Easily said, you might object, but any alcoholic will tell you it’s not that easily done, especially when, here and Now, you are constantly bombarded with promises to satisfy your thirst: “This little pill,” you are told, “will let your sexual pleasure continue for hours.” “This diet will make you thin in 3 months, with no effort.” “I made 10 million dollars with this simple secret; you can too!” “Painless outpatient procedure gets rid of wrinkles forever, drops 20 years off your age.” “Your donation will let us find a cure for cancer.” “Keep your family safe; buy a gun.” “Take this country back; vote for me.” “March against Global Warming.” The barrage never ends.
In the midst of this persistent Now, the Buddha taught, there is a superior eightfold path, combining elements of skillful behavior, mindful awareness, and penetrating wisdom, that can stop the obsessive thirsting and bring about the cessation of dukkha.
Before I get into exactly how this path of the Buddha’s can ameliorate or even end the dukkha that informs our experience of the Now, let me, as the Buddha, in fact, did at this very point in that first discourse, run back over those four dominating facts of life. And this time I will, again following the Buddha, call attention to one more thing: each of those facts, if it is to affect our experience of the Now, requires a response from us.
- Fact #1: Here is dukkha. Now, if we are going to accept that as a fact of life, even tentatively, just to see how acceptance of the fact will condition our experience of events and circumstances, we have a responsibility. That responsibility, according to the Buddha, is to “fully know dukkha”. It’s not enough to dismiss the term with a casual acceptance of the common one-word translations and think you know dukkha because you’ve known pain or suffering or anxiety. We have a responsibility to look deeply into every component of experience, all of our encounters with the world, and all of the feelings and perceptions and impulses and ideas and flashes of awareness that emerge to shape those encounters into experience, to see where each of those offers something to thirst after, and so presents the occasion for dukkha to arise. “Fully knowing dukkha” is not a responsibility to be accepted thoughtlessly, and the effort it requires is not for the faint of heart.
- Fact #2: Here is the arising of dukkha; it is tanha, obsessive thirsting after things of the world. That fact of life, if we accept even the possibility of its truth, clearly demands a response: we must let go of such obsessive thirsting. Somehow. Those who have made a start on accepting that responsibility tell us, in books and magazine articles and YouTube videos, that fulfilling the responsibility is made easier by having made a start at fully knowing dukkha. Tanha, we are told by the Buddha himself and by others who have faithfully followed his way, can be let go of; those people know because they have done it, and their accomplishment gives us the courage to make the effort for ourselves.
- Fact #3: Here is the cessation of dukkha; it is just that letting go of obsessive thirsting. And the responsibility entailed by this fact of life is that the cessation of dukkha must be experienced. It’s not enough to understand it intellectually or to see the logic behind the Buddha’s thinking. To really affect our lives in such a way that we are motivated to work diligently toward complete liberation from dukkha, the cessation of dukkha that attends upon the letting go of craving must be experienced, because only then do we experience the cleansing peace that fills whatever space had been polluted by dukkha.
We’ve all had that experience in small episodes (sometimes, not so small). We’ve wanted something badly, thirsted after it—a skillfully advertised toy, when we were children, a winning lottery ticket, a prospective lover—and every thought of that toy, every dream of what we would do with the lottery winnings, every sighting of the one we lusted after, was suffused with dukkha. And then we let go—found new ways to play with the toys we had, realized the foolishness of taking chances against millions-to-one odds, conceived best wishes for the one we’d wanted so badly and would never get. And for at least a brief moment, we experienced that sense of release that attends upon the letting go of obsessive thirsting. But we never really made the connection between our fully knowing the dukkha that informed our experience of what we thirsted for, the letting go of our thirsting, and the subsequent sense of liberation. And so the experience, as pleasant as it was for a few moments, was not able to motivate us to pursue the next fact of life, that there is a way to make that awareness of liberation, the cessation of dukkha, the dominant fact conditioning all of our experience of the world.
- Fact #4: Here is the way to the cessation of dukkha; it is just this superior eightfold path: correct understanding, correct intention, correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood, correct diligence, correct mindfulness, and correct focus. Our responsibility? To cultivate the path in our lives. Now. It’s possible; others have done it, and each of us can as well.
Cultivating the Path
Let’s review. Here we are, in the Now, which is lacking. It is not like it was Then, nor like it could be if only…. This Now is, in fact, nothing but dukkha, and we want out.
If the way out, the way to the ending of dukkha, is this superior eightfold path, and if we have to cultivate that in our lives to realize its harvest, where do we start? The first step on the path is correct seeing, but what does that mean?
Actually, we’ve already begun. We started when we recognized, not yet experientially but importantly nonetheless, that the Now is all we have, and that every Then we imagine, past or to come, is illusory. We moved further when we began to look closely at the many various forms that dukkha can assume in our experience of the Now—confusion, fear, anger, nostalgia, deluded hope. Further still when we acknowledged the need to let go of the obsessive thirsting which informs the arising of dukkha; and we got some sense of what it means to experience the cessation of dukkha when we’re able to attain to such letting go. And we accepted the need to cultivate this very eightfold path, comprised of correct seeing….
Wait a minute! Isn’t this where we started?
Of course. Correct seeing means seeing dukkha and the need to know dukkha fully, without flinching; seeing dukkha clearly, we can’t avoid seeing also the arising of dukkha from obsessive thirsting, and the need to let go of that thirsting; and from there, it’s clear that dukkha will cease when we let go of our thirsting completely, with no residue left; and from there, we can catch a glimpse of what might happen if we just begin to cultivate this superior eightfold path, which starts with correct seeing….
Wait another minute!
This superior eightfold path is beginning to look a lot like that Now we’re trying to escape, constantly turning back on itself; just going around and around and never getting anywhere.
That’s actually a pretty profound insight, and it leads us to another way of understanding correct seeing. When we see the world clearly and correctly, in accordance with the way events actually unfold, we can begin to see that the four facts of life, and the superior eightfold path itself, exemplify the dynamic principle that underlies all of our experience, including our experience of dukkha and of the eightfold path. The first and still most succinct expression of that principle came from one of the five ascetics to whom the Buddha delivered the first discourse we’ve been looking at throughout this essay. The ascetic Kondanna, having heard the Buddha’s exposition of the four facts, the response that each demands, and the eightfold path that is both the culminating fact and the beginning of understanding, got the message and spontaneously spoke the words, “Everything that comes to be will also cease to be!” The Buddha, delighted, cried out “He gets it! Kondañña gets it! Forever now, Kondañña will be known as Añña Kondañña, ‘Kondanna who gets it’” Kondañña’s realization, in fact, was the event that actually started the wheel of the Buddha’s way rolling in this world.
So the Buddha’s way is analogous to a wheel. One thing leads to another—seeing clearly how it is, here and now, leads to deciding what to do about it, which leads to announcing, honestly and without malice, what you’ve decided, which leads to acting purposely on your decision, which leads to integrating your actions into your way of living, which leads to persistent application of energy, which leads to maintaining awareness of where you are and whether you’re still heading toward the goal, which leads to focusing on what your priorities are in this effort, which leads to clearly seeing how the effort is conditioning your experience, here and now—and so around again.
No matter how we look at something, if what we are looking at corresponds to what really is, we will find that what we are looking at emerges, remains long enough for us to look at it, and ceases, only to emerge again, and again, and again. It’s new at each emergence, conditioned by what went before.
That is the Now, constantly emerging to catch our notice, subsiding again, and emerging again next time we look. It’s easy to experience that process as a rat race, especially when we retain an image of a never-changing Then. It’s easy to feel that the whole thing is spinning out of control, carrying us head-over-heels into a dystopian future Then. In either case, the Now emerges as dukkha.
The superior eightfold path is different. It is like a wheel, yes, but not a hamster wheel or a mill wheel, turning aimlessly or with fixed determination. The analogy is to a cart wheel, which is always moving toward a goal, and whose progress toward that goal can be measured, one turn of the wheel to the next; each time a point on the rim touches ground, it does so at a different point. So each time we start on the path by working to see clearly where we are, here and now, and move through resolute intention, considerate speech, purposeful action, worthwhile livelihood, determined effort, constant mindfulness, and focused concentration to see even more clearly, we have moved forward on the way; our seeing, each time around, is more comprehensive, more detailed, more nuanced than it was before, and that clarifies our intention, illuminates our speech, intensifies our actions, protects our livelihood, renews our energy, expands our mindfulness, and sharpens the focus of our concentration.
We can’t predict what the next turning of the Now will bring—that’s one of the sources of the dukkha we experience in our confrontation with the Now. But we can have faith that each turning of the wheel of the Dhamma, each loop around the superior eightfold path, will make our lives more open to friendship and love, more filled with compassion, more joyful, and more completely marked by equanimity.
The Pali term (Pali is the language in which the Buddha’s teachings were first written down and is probably close to but not identical with the language in which those teachings were first delivered) that I’ve translated as “dominating fact of life” is ariyasacca, more commonly translated as “noble truth”. But sacca more often is used to refer to what we would call a fact than what we would generalize into a truth (let alone a Truth). And while ariya, when used by the dominant Brahmin caste to refer to the superiority that was theirs by birthright, definitely meant something like “noble”, the Buddha worked tirelessly throughout his teaching career to expand the range of the word’s meaning and remove from it the sense of caste and privilege it carried in the culture. I think “dominating” catches the sense of what the Buddha was talking about in this discourse, and it still echos and exposes the meaning the term ariya had in the Brahminic tradition.
Here, the word “superior” also translates the Pali ariya. One of the Buddha’s common techniques, with terms that he wanted to liberate from their culturally accepted meaning, was to use those terms again and again in a single short teaching, altering their context slightly each time, so that the listener was virtually forced to re-examine his habitual understanding of the term’s meaning and recognize that it did not mean just that but also this, and this, and this…. So with ariya in this discourse. In reference to the facts of life, the word clearly indicates that those facts are inescapable, undeniable, universally instrumental: dominating. With regard to the eightfold path, on the other hand, the term comes closer to the meaning that the Brahmins gave it; this path is foremost among paths; it is, as the Buddha said in another discourse, “the one direct path to the goal”. Of all the paths that claim to be able to save us from dukkha, this one is superior to all the others.