Someone asked me the other day whether there was a contradiction between the Buddha saying that “life is suffering” and the teaching that this human life is a precious thing. It was a new take on an old misunderstanding, but it led to an interesting discussion.
First of all I had to point out that “life is suffering” is not something the Buddha ever taught. All he did was remind us that there are various kinds of suffering in life.
So here’s the first noble truth — the truth of suffering — as it’s recorded in the early scriptures, supposedly in the Buddha’s own words:
Birth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.
So this doesn’t say that life is suffering. It doesn’t say an
ything about “life” as such at all. What it does is point out that there are various instances of suffering in our lives. Life contains suffering.
The Buddha constantly pointed out that there are also instances of peace, joy, and happiness in life as well. And he also pointed out that we can reduce the amount of suffering in our lives and, potentially, even eliminate it altogether. That’s what the third noble truth is about:
Now this is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not adhering to it.
So it’s because we have this choice — remain unaware and continue to suffer, or cultivate awareness and free yourself from suffering — that human life is precious. That choice is not available to all living things. I’ll say more about that shortly.
But first my questioner had a follow-up: is human life “precious” because it is “better to exist than the alternative (to have never been born, or to no longer exist).”
This reminded me of the more cosmological side of Buddhism that I tend not to pay much attention to. It’s not very scientific, it makes claims that can’t be tested here and now, and it’s not directly related to the task of ending suffering. But I was glad that my questioner pointed me in that direction.
In traditional Buddhist teachings the alternative to human existence is not non-existence but existence in other, less advantageous, forms. The belief was that there are so many non-human beings that the chances of being reborn as a human were — in a wonderful image — as unlikely as a one-eyed turtle in the ocean coming up once every hundred years and happening to put his head through a yoke floating on the surface.
And human existence was seen as the most likely one in which freedom from suffering through spiritual awakening (or “bodhi”) could be found. The early scriptures talk about five realms into which we can be reborn: animals, hell, and ghostly forms (collectively the three lower realms), our own human realm, and the realm of the gods. Sometimes the realm of the gods was seen as twofold: gods that were more peaceful and “chill” and those, called “asuras,” that were more war-like and competitive. The realm of the asuras was added to the list of lower rebirths, bringing them up to four in number.
The human realm offers advantages in terms of spiritual development.
- Animals don’t have enough self-awareness.
- Beings in hell are too caught up in their own suffering.
- Ghosts are too caught up in painful longings.
- Asuras are too obsessed by power.
- And gods have so much pleasure that they have no sense of urgency and rarely practice (although some are depicted as doing so in the scriptures).
Incidentally, Gods in Buddhist cosmology are mortal. They do die; they just live for a long time. But because they aren’t bothered by impermanence they aren’t motivated to develop insight. And because they’re not used to dealing with painful feelings they tend, when they die, to plunge straight into the lower realms. (Think of a junkie experiencing a high for millennia, and then crashing badly.)
Human existence allows for self-awareness. It contains (on average) enough suffering that we’re motivated to work to improve our condition, but not so much pleasure that we become complacent. Therefore human life provides good conditions for spiritual growth. But it’s also very rare, and therefore it’s a precious opportunity.
Most contemporary practitioners see all these “realms” as symbolic of psychological realities, because it’s hard for many of us to take them literally. An animal existence becomes one in which we’re fixated on gratifying our appetites for food, sex, and sensory stimulation. We don’t think much, we don’t reflect on life, and maybe our constant self-gratification is a way of avoiding doing so. Hell is the reality of depression, anxiety, and other debilitating mental conditions. Ghosts are people caught up in addictions or helplessly longing for things they can’t have. The gods are hedonists, with pleasures that are more refined than the animal state. Asuras are obsessed by competing for power, like certain business people. We’re only truly in a human state when we’re self-aware, living a relatively ethical and emotionally healthy life, and open to learning more about how to live well. We might, as individuals, actually cycle through all of these realms during our lifetime, and might possibly visit several of them in the course of one day!
So the Buddha taught all this not as something we should believe literally, but as an encouragement to practice. The law of supply and demand says that the price of something goes up when it’s scarce, and when it’s abundant its value goes down. And so if we perceive human life as being unlimited, then it has less value. If we perceive human life as scarce, then we value it more.
Another way to achieve this sense of urgency is to reflect on the inevitability of death and the brevity of human life. Doing this can help jolt us into wondering what we’re doing with the precious time that’s available to us. We can also reflect on the uncertainty of our lives. Right now my dad is 87 years old and in good health. My maternal grandfather lived to be 95. And I find myself assuming that I’m going to live for a similar amount of time. On the other hand I’m now 17 years older than my paternal grandfather was when he died and nine years older than one of my great grandfathers was when he passed away, so I could also see myself as living on borrowed time.
And sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it’s possible for us to slip into different realms. We sometimes sink into a numbing and unthinking animal state. This might be comfortable in a way, but it’s not very satisfying. So we have to remind ourselves that there’s more to life, and that we’ll be happier if we’re curiously exploring our potential.
We can get sucked down into the hell of depression, or into the ghost-like realm of unsatisfiable longings. And in the throes of those kinds of suffering we have to remind ourselves that practice helps. It’s not an instant fix, but it does help us to find more balance in our lives.
We can find ourselves obsessed with competition and status, and this is a major distraction, because it’s satisfying in its own way. We really think we’re achieving something. But it’s fraught, because there’s always an underlying fear of loss, and we’re always aware on some level that what we’re doing is meaningful. We have to bring those contradictions into awareness.
The most unhelpful state, paradoxically, can be the realm of the gods, or devas, because the besetting sin of that condition is complacency. When we’re happy, we often think we’ve “made it.” We think we don’t need to practice, because we have the happiness that we think practice is all about. But the gods are not immortal. They all die, and when they do it often isn’t pretty. So it’s especially important that when we’re happily cruising though life we remind ourselves of the reality of old age, sickness, and death. As the Buddha said:
Whatever beings there are, or will be,
They will all go hence, leaving the body behind.
A skillful person, understanding the loss of all,
Should live the spiritual life ardently.
So really we have two tasks: to recognize that we have the capacity for self-awareness, or mindfulness, and to make use of that opportunity in order to find ways to live a meaningful life. If these become strong habits then we’ll find that when we end up in states of suffering (or of extreme joy) we’ll remain mindful of our practice. We’ll remember to be kind to ourselves and each other. We’ll remember that things change. We’ll remember that this life offers us a precious opportunity.
Life is short. Let’s make the most of this opportunity that we’ve been given.