Getting Past the First Noble Truth

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading the Bodhicharyavatara and various commentaries on it for the last few weeks. Though the root text, in verse, is quite pithy and aphoristic (and deceptively ironic–I wish I could read Sanskrit or Tibetan so I could appreciate it more fully as a poem), in conjunction with the commentaries, it provides comprehensive guidance for practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism. There are so many themes that wind in and out of the text, passed first from one perspective and then later from another. One such theme is our relationship with our bodies:

VI.44
This body–running sore in human form–
Merely touched, it cannot stand the pain!
I’m the one who grasped it in blind attachment,
Whom should I resent when pain occurs?

VI.52
Because the mind is bodiless
It cannot be destroyed by anyone.
Because of mind’s attachment to the body,
This body is oppressed by pain.

VIII.178
Dust and ashes are the body’s final state–
This body which, inert, is moved by other forces.
This form so frightening and foul–
Why do I so regard it as my “self”?

VIII.180
Through lavishing attention on this body,
Such sorrow have I brought myself so senselessly.
What use is all my wanting, all my hating,
For what indeed is like a log of wood?

VIII.184
Therefore, free from all attachment,
I will give this body for the benefit of beings.
And though it is afflicted by so many faults,
I shall adopt it as my necessary tool.

Pulling these stanzas out of their context probably heightens the appearance of mortification with the body, but I’m too lazy to quote enough context to rectify that appearance. Please trust me when I claim that this appearance is simply a reflection of our own ambivalence toward our bodies. On the one hand, we are attached to our bodies as our selves (or at least as the temples housing our selves), and on the other hand, we tend to find most of what the body contains and is composed of disgusting. Simultaneously holding these two extreme and incompatible views can only lead to suffering, and neither view is accurate. In truth, our body is neither our self nor its home, and notions like disgust and repulsion are merely concepts with no genuine reality.

These contemplations have seemed relevant as my supposedly healing ear has continued to leak more and more persistently. It had stopped for a little over a week, but then started again on Sunday night, a little at first, but accompanied by an itch. The last couple of mornings, I’ve had to get out of bed and run to the bathroom with my head tilted so that whatever my ear’s full of didn’t run down my face. It’s not an uplifting way to start the day. Because of the itching, I tried to contact my ear doctor on Monday morning, but he’s unavailable until Friday (when I already have an appointment with him). And the other ear doctor I saw when he broke his hip is also unavailable until Friday. I did find that I could control the itching with Benadryl, though it left me dehydrated.

But yesterday it was still bothering me, so I tried the ENT who had originally referred me to my current ear doctor, and she was available, so I zipped through the park to see her. She confirmed that my ear isn’t infected and that I’m having an eczema flare up in both ears. She said that the ear actually looked better than she expected given my description of the symptoms, and wondered if my doctor had considered using an oral steroid like prednisone to suppress the eczema until the graft in my ear healed. Then she coated my ear (and most of that side of my head) with boric acid and said I’d be okay until my Friday visit with my regular ear doctor.

It could simply be that my ear is actually healing, and that the liquid (thin and clear) is an attempt to flush my ear of the foreign substances in it, much like a lingering runny nose after a cold. But I’m very hesitant to leave my ear so moist and susceptible to infection without that magic powder. I’m on the verge of losing all sense of perspective. The ENT’s surprise at the actual state of my ear given my description of the symptoms suggests that I may be overreacting, but I have very little ability to convince myself of that anymore. Yes, I’m not in any pain; yes, I can actually hear fairly well from that ear; yes, the ear isn’t infected or about to become so; and yet I have this overwhelming desire to give up. All that seems to be preventing me from doing so is the fact that I can’t figure out what giving up would actually entail. And so I eventually get distracted, and maybe even do something useful. Monday, I created a prototype of a Web site for the Buddhist study program I’m in. Yesterday, I fixed the configuration of our wireless network so that I can now move large files around at up to 4 MB/s and control all non-cable audio and video from my phone. And today, so far, I’ve reflected on the Bodhicharyavatara and written this.

I am clearly suffering, and no one seems surprised by that (in fact, someone compared me to Job today), but I can’t really put my finger on why I’m suffering so much. The physical basis of that suffering is slight, and I have nearly all of the freedom and leisure that a human could reasonably expect. Yet it is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism that we suffer, and I offer this testament to that truth’s veracity. But, Shantideva reminds us, there are three more Noble Truths:

VI.21
Suffering also has its worth.
Through sorrow, pride is driven out
And pity felt for those who wander in samsara;
Evil is avoided; goodness seems delightful.

VIII.173
And so it is that if I want contentment,
I should never seek to please myself.
And likewise, if I wish to guard myself,
Of others I should always be the guard.

I’d be lying if I said I led my life that way, or that my aspiration to do so is any more than theoretical at this point, but the past eighteen months’ intensive seminar on impermanence has made the truth of those two stanzas seem more plausible.

2 Replies to “Getting Past the First Noble Truth”

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