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".