Monday, February 15, 2010

Buddhist stuff I don't know

Among the myriad things I don't know and/or am badly-informed about is this:

In Buddhism, as I have incompletely told myself the story, there are arhats and there are bodhisattvas ... both enlightened beings, whatever that may mean. Both have climbed the wall, metaphorically speaking, and peeked into the enlightenment garden beyond. But what that peeking inspires in each is ostensibly different:

Arhats drop down on the other side and are never seen again.

Bodhisattvas come back down the side they were climbing in the first place in order to tell others of the garden available to them. They do this because suffering is, in the Buddhist list of suggestions, painful and worth finding a solution for. Sentient beings are uncertain and sorrowful and deserve a helping hand because, in the end, sentient beings are bodhisattvas and bodhisattvas are sentient beings.

I don't really care much about the theological distinctions the theology of arhats and bodhisattvas suggests. I am sure there are vast discussions and descriptions available ... discussions and descriptions I am too lazy to care about.

What does interest me and what I am ignorant about is ... what's the matter with suffering? Yes, as a practical matter, it is as painful as fire -- the day to day bumps and bruises and tears and uncertainties. Who wouldn't want a functioning method for clearing up such difficulties? Fershur I would. And fershur I would be grateful for all the help I could get ... from Buddhism or arhats or bodhisattvas or the checkout lady at Wal-Mart.

But isn't it true ... if you light a candle, that candle naturally runs its course and burns out. You don't need to rush around wondering or hoping or praying or sweating over the fact that it will burn out. It is the natural course of things. To suggest that it wouldn't burn out would run against empirical observation. And why should suffering be any different? Suffering is endless, the devotees of suffering may crow ... and it certainly is not pleasant and it certainly is wily and it certainly can burn like the fires of hell. And I wouldn't for a moment make a philosophical bauble out of it.

But once the conversational efforts run out of steam and things are more relaxed, seriously ... make whatever efforts you like, climb whatever walls, espouse whatever philosophy or religion, speak of metaphysical or literal realms, express profound gratitude to saints and sinners ... candles just burn out all by themselves, don't they? It's not as if seeking a particular outcome made a great deal of difference and it's not as if a slovenly determinism could ease the scene ... candles just burn out all by themselves ... period.

Light a candle and the darkness appears. In the darkness a candle sheds light. Climb all the benevolent walls you like ... candles simply burn out by themselves, don't they?

Gardeners work hard, but when the sun goes down, it's time to sit on the porch and let their efforts bear fruit without any help whatsoever.

And the line comes back to me ... just because you are indispensable to the universe doesn't mean the universe needs your help.

All this is just stuff I don't know much about. But when has knowing ever solved much? :)


  1. I have given some thought to this since I really hate suffering. So far, it seems to me that pain is bruising your shin on the coffee table. Suffering is caused not by the coffee table or the bruise, but what you tell yourself about the bruise and the coffee table. Suffering ceases (and trust me, I'm not there yet) not when the bruise stops hurting but when you accept the fact that there is no cure for the facts of reality.

  2. Kegetsu

    Heavens. I think Buddhist doctrine states that suffering does not end because life does not end, that existence itself is suffering. A candle does burn out. All conditioned things burn out. But the Unconditioned burns on for eternity, or longer, actually. I'm a little sleepy this morning, and not quite up for a clearer discursion, but I think that's it, doctrinally speaking.

  3. Kegetsu

    Maybe "livingness does not end" is a better phrase than "life does not end." Little more awake now.