Saturday, April 24, 2010

Stephen Batchelor's Response On the Four Noble Truths

I just got an email back from Stephen Batchelor regarding my recent post on 'Reconstructing the Four Noble Truths', inspired by his recent talk at IMC. Here is his response:
'I’ve just read your blog and can confirm that, yes, you got it. I’ve been trying to get this idea across for a long time now; it is basically all I’ve been teaching – though I admit that my own understanding keeps developing (I hope) so my way of expressing it also changes. What surprises me is how few people are able to retain the idea after they’ve heard me talk about the four truths in this way, and quickly revert to the default orthodox view again. It can’t be because my interpretation is difficult to grasp – if anything, it is far simpler and more economical than the traditional one, so it must be because of some attachment formed out of habit over time to the usual view. I plan to write a book-length study of the first sermon at some point. Maybe that will help shift the pack-ice of fixed thinking.'
Since writing that earlier post, I have been giving a lot more thought to Stephen Batchelor's interpretation of the Four Noble Truths, and I must admit, part of me keeps getting confused, between his view, and what he calls 'the default orthodox view' that is part of contemporary mainstream Buddhist teachings. My hunch is a lot of the debate has to do with semantics, around the interpretation of the various levels of dukha. The way I see it, there is 'primary dukha' (my own words), or unsatisactoriness with life's inherent unpredictability, and impermanence. This primary dukkha causes us to seek some escape routes, in the form of cravings for anticipated, more pleasurable states. This, I feel, is Stephen Batchelor's primary contribution, as recognized by him in his response above. Paradoxically, this strategy results in added dukkha, what I call 'secondary dukkha'. This is akin to popular distinction made in Buddhist circles, between inevitable pain, and optional, added suffering from lack of acceptance of the pain. Where that view gets a bit twisted in my opinion, is in the logic commonly used to interpret the connection between the first and second noble truths. That logic says, cravings are the cause of suffering/dukkha, not the result of it. Based on my own personal experience, this is a wrong view. Cravings are the natural inclination in response to primary dukkha. They are also the cause of secondary dukkha. The wise approach as expressed in Four Noble Truths consists in knowing and fully embracing life's primary dukkha, and adopting Eightfold Path as alternative strategy to pursuit of cravings. Cultivating detachment from all earthly experiences that are inherently flawed with built in dukha, and pursuing instead unconditioned happiness. I am reminded of Thanissaro Bkikkhu's recent remark, something to the effect of, "It is worth foresaking small short-term happinesses, for the sake of long-term happiness".


  1. I like your 'primary/secondary' ideas. Due to the many English translations of 'dukkha' I didn't realize until this post (even more than the one this post responds to) that the manifestation of suffering does seem more logical this way:

    primary dukkha ==> craving ==> secondary dukkha

    or maybe even

    unsatisfactoriness ==> craving ==> suffering

  2. Thank you Bob. I am glad this is helpful to you.

    Letting one's experience guide our understanding of the Dharma . . .

    Deep bow to you.

  3. Sorry to just jump in here. I'm not sure what the other interpretation of the Four Noble Truths is, but I am interested in some aspects of this question of Dukkha. I understand it as a verb. We "do" suffering. The translation of the word that resonates with me is, "accepting what is difficult to bear". Forbearance is the mechanism for beginning to see suffering as a friend and a teacher.
    As regards cultivating detachment, I prefer to think in terms of cultivating an open heart, then I don't have to "let go"; I can just "leave alone".
    Also, for myself, I need to be very wary of pursuing happiness. For me, it is a by-product of training that arises unexpectedly.

  4. Very well put, Helmut. I appreciate you bringing more nuances to this discussion. And I am with you on all points.

  5. "Cravings are the natural inclination in response to primary dukkha."

    Wonderful! Thank you Marguerite! Deep bow. :)

  6. Thank you Ian. Much metta to you! I am heading over to your blog right now :)

  7. Thank you for this post. I'm an admirer of Batchelor, having found his talks on imagination on Vimeo:

    His take on the 4 noble truths, and your reflections here make complete sense to me. First arrow of suffering leads to the second arrow, with the latter being self-inflicted, yes?

    Good wishes to everyone.

  8. Helmut and others-
    Excellent points! as a therapist myself, i'm always weary of patients telling me they've 'let go' of something. i always ask them ho they did it because i have no idea. however, letting alone or letting be i can get on board with. i can't focus on the breath all the time, but i can take a meditative posture and work on not stirring the pot...let it be.

    i am also weary of the term happy, but i get M's meaning here. thanks to her!