Sunday, September 15, 2013

HfM:Ch2 The True Nature of Things

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 2: The True Nature of Things here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

NOTE on Chapter 2:  This chapter is essentially a brief introduction to several Buddhist fundamental teachings, made even more brief in this summary.  Most of these teachings are further discussed in later chapters.  I encourage you to suspend judgement on these principles until they are more completely explained.

Summary - Chapter 2: The True Nature of Things

Morality can make us good people, but it can't eliminate dukkha.

Dukkha, translated usually as "suffering", and less often as "unsatisfactoriness", is pain, sickness, greed, hate, anxiety, frustration, anger, loss, discontent, sorrow, loneliness, dissatisfaction, delusion, etc.  It is anything you do not want to experience, but it also extends to positive feelings as well, given that they fail to yield lasting satisfaction.  So it is far more broad than just "suffering".  Instead, it is a status which results from the imperfection in everything.

Buddhism aims to eliminate dukkha through revealing what is, or the true nature of things, via a practical and systematic approach.

Do you really know the true nature of things?  If you did, you would never act inappropriately, and inherently would not experience dukkha.

We all start life without understanding reality; that everything is impermanent, not fully satisfying, and not true entities in and of themselves.  This misunderstanding causes us to grasp for and to cling to things, but Buddhism, through revealing what is, liberates us from the controlling influence of things.

The true nature of things is understood through the Four Noble Truths:
  1. Dukkha is inherent in everything.
  2. Desire causes dukkha.
  3. Complete liberation from dukkha (Nirvana) comes through the extinction of desire.
  4. The Noble Eightfold Path is a method for eliminating desire.
Not knowing what is, we foster our desires and suffer the consequences.  Furthermore, we act inappropriately in self-serving, Machiavellian manners to get what we want.

We need to understand that phenomenon arise from causes, and we can eliminate phenomenon by eliminating the causes.

Nothing is permanently itself, indeed nothing is really a "self" at all, because all things are the effects of causes and are subject to change, based on the perpetual influence of causes upon them.  So we should not be fooled by appearances into liking or disliking anything, as that becomes a cause which affects us.

Before enlightenment, the Buddha chose to give up everything in search for the cause of dukkha and how to be liberated from it.  Buddhism was the result of that search.

Fundamental to understanding dukkha is understanding the Three Universal Characteristics briefly mentioned above:
  1. All things are impermanent - they change or decay with time
  2. All things are unsatisfactory - they cause dukkha
  3. All things are without self - they are not true entities in and of themselves
If all things are without self, that includes us, and so we can't rightfully call anything mine.  Possessiveness is invariably painful.

The chief of all Buddhist teachings is this:
Avoid evil, do good, and purify the mind.
Avoid evil by complying with the accepted moral standards and by considering things in light of the Three Universal Characteristics so that excessive desire and attachment is curtailed.

Do good according to how the wise understand "good".

Purify the mind by continuing to develop understanding of what is.

If you can't remain unmoved by things, then you are a slave to your likes and dislikes, and you have no real freedom.  A purified mind is independent of all things.

At the lowest level, we avoid evil.  At the intermediate level, we do our utmost to do good.  However, those at the highest level operate above good and evil.  Evil-doers experience dukkha appropriately, but good-doers also experience dukkha according to their good deeds.  Yet those at the highest level transcend even the dukkha linked to goodness.

Buddhism is the teaching of the enlightened Buddha regarding the true nature of things; what is.  When this knowledge is fully understood, desire ceases, and so dukkha ceases.

The practice of Buddhism is designed to bring about this knowledge so that anyone can attain this full understanding.  The first step in achieving this enlightenment is to consider all things in terms of dukkha.  We must take the time to study the things in our lives to understand how they cause dukkha.  This is infinitely better than trying to become enlightened by studying the scriptures.

Studying the scriptures can be of value if done so in a way that provokes introspection to help people discover the truth for themselves.  However, someone can become enlightened without having studied the scriptures by investigating the relation of dukkha to all things for themselves.

We live our lives and make decisions for ourselves without ever really knowing ourselves, and this guarantees that we will experience dukkha.  We endlessly repeat the cycle of acting on desires and reaping the consequences.  However, if we instead take the time to study ourselves, thereby studying the Buddhist principles, we will have the ability to learn the profound truth of the nature of things; the truth of what is.  Then the cycle will end, and we will be free of dukkha, thereby achieving Nirvana.

My Take

After reading this chapter, I could begin to see why my Thai friend, Wasam, thought that I have an Eastern flair to my life philosophy, in that I am fairly "thing" neutral.  I don't chase after the latest gadgets or the best cars.  I don't cling onto people in relationships, but rather let them leave if they want to leave, or stay if they want to stay.  But I still have desires... yes, indeed!  ;-)

Ironically, my Eastern-ish life philosophy was founded both by my Christian background and a later quasi-scientific understanding.

The type of Christianity I was raised with spoke of how this life was just a temporary,  unsatisfying, inconvenience; that the real life, the perfect life, the eternal life awaited us, to be delivered upon God's gracious timing.  If anyone really takes that message to heart, you realize that the things of this life are truly trivial.

Later, as my scientific understanding grew, as I better understood our place in this universe, I realized that nothing truly has any inherent significance beyond what we make for it.  So I have a degree of detachment with things, realizing that all of the value I place on them is born from a willing self-deception.  (This is spoken from the broad perspective of existence in general, not completely the view of my humanity or my life.)

Even with my perspective, I wasn't sure about this teaching.  Is dukkha really inherent in everything?  As I thought about it, I could kind of understand the "truth" of that statement of major life experiences: 
  • Like driving?  You have to put up with traffic, maintenance, and the DMV.
  • Love someone?  You have to put up with differences of opinion, even arguments, as well as having to deal with the loss of that person should they move or perish.
  • Love kids?  Don't make me turn this car around!  ;-)
and even of the more mundane things of life:
  • Have a favorite shirt?  It will wear out through washes, and you have to worry about it being ripped, stretched, or stained when wearing it.
  • Don't like the cold?  You worry about what to wear, trouble yourself with whether or not to bring a jacket or sweater to restaurants or theaters, and cringe at the aspect of going outside on a chilly winter's day. 
  • Have a sweet tooth?  You have to worry about/deal with cavities and potential weight gain, or suffer the longing of restricting your intake of those fresh, chocolaty, warm, chewy brownies with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a little hot fudge sauce, and maybe some whip cream... what was I talking about?  ;-)
So is dukkha really inherent in everything?  Yes.  To some extent.  I think that the question of the "extent" of which dukkha inherent in everything is an important one; one we'll discuss in the later chapters.


  1. Cool layout. Nice to hear your personal take.
    just Christian theologists tie completely different complex knots around the word "sin", so do Buddhists with "dukkha". They are key words that MUST be dealt with in these religions for that theologian to be taken seriously, that answers vary hugely. Tis fun to watch tied -- well, fun for a while until you have seen enough knots.

  2. Ha! Indeed, Sabio. I'd hardly claim to be a Buddhist scholar, but I can already sense a definite parallel between sin and dukkha. They are different "knots" for sure, but they are tied very similarly.

  3. Yeah, I mean that Christians can make "Sin" be whatever they want, depending on how they tie the knot, and Buddhist do the same. Buddhist sects have huge differences in opinion on dukkha. I love your objections and questions so far toward this spin.

    See this Tantra spin on it:

  4. Thanks for the link, Sabio. It is quite interesting to see the Tantra spin on it. It's such a flip of (what I understand to be) Buddhist principles that, to me, it resembles the rift between Judaism and Christianity.

    The comments that followed were classic religion-ese. It does all start to look the same, huh? :-)

  5. Right, but it is "Buddhist" -- lots of different Buddhisms -- eh?

  6. That probably depends on who you ask! ;-)

  7. Hi TWF,

    I think that his suggestion that Dukkha can be ended "via a practical and systematic approach" is the very core of the self deception.

    What he is suggesting is gradual ending of Dukkha, which implies time, and everything that needs time means only prolongation of it's existence.

    In other words, if I want to end a bad habit, I can't do it gradually, because in this case I will only vary it's iteration or amount of repetition, but will not end it.

    To end a bad habit, I have to stop doing it in any amount or frequency. That is what "ending" implies!

    If I go on and look for "the true nature of things" to "eliminate Dukkha", in effect I have an excuse to go on with my own particular brand of Dukkha.

    "Cold turkey" would be the most appropriate method of handling Dukkha, but that would end the need for Buddhism it self, and that would cause a problem for some people.

    Kind regards

  8. Hello agema-makedonin. I may not have done a good job explaining it, or maybe (my interpretation of) his point of view doesn't come across well in this chapter, but I don't think that he meant "via a practical and systematic approach" to gradually stop dukkha like smokers try to give up cigarettes by smoking fewer each week.

    As I understand it, the systematic approach is to develop both the knowledge of the truth of everything and pushing that knowledge from an intellectual understanding level to the intuitive level; where you no longer have to think about the truth of anything at any time, it just comes naturally and intuitively too you. Then, when you reach that level, dukkha will be eliminated. Although, he does claim that, while this understanding builds and progresses, the dukkha one experiences will decrease proportionately.

    While I certainly understand what you are saying about going "cold turkey", I can see some validity in his position about needing to develop this understanding to the intuitive level. I've understood many things intellectually that I haven't at an intuitive level, forcing me to have to think about the actions or situations if I want to do it "right".

    Kind regards

  9. Hi TWF,

    I think that his approach is valid only if we are to examine outer phenomenon, just like in science.

    When it comes to self inquiry, I don't see his method work for two different reasons:

    - First he assumes that you can push something to intuitive level, which is contrary to what is usually going on. Intuitions are the basic function of the brain, and we have many intuitions,about many things. Some are true, some are not. Man has tried to push reason to intuition level for centuries, and all that has happened is he got more refined in self deception and making excuses.
    Intuitions work in form of sudden realization of certain things, we intuitively connect to each other. According to the Hollywood story of Buddha, he had two major realizations: when he first saw death, and when he left the ascetic life because of saying of a guitar teacher.
    Only afterwards, it appears that all this intuitions were wrought in a intellectual arguments.

    - Second he assumes that if you understand something, it will eliminate the plight. I don't see how that can follow. Chain smokes know fully well that they are addicted and have real problem, yet they do it anyway. What chain smokers for example lack, is the realization that their activity is acute, with immediate consequences, therefore they can always say, in few years I will quit.

    Humans essentially reorganize their mental behavior only when the system is shocked, and this does not happen gradually, but suddenly, like bolt of lightning. And not every shock goes in the desired positive direction. It can't be controlled. Each human has different response when the system is shocked.

    That is why I think that Buddhism does not work.

    Kind regards.

  10. @ Aggy,

    You said,
    "Humans essentially reorganize their mental behavior only when the system is shocked, and this does not happen gradually, but suddenly, like bolt of lightning."

    Parents raising children, dog trainers and Behavioral/Cognitive Therapists beg to differ.
    Gradual, incremental training can drastically change a person over time.

    I have no idea how you can think otherwise. Perhaps you meant something completely different.

  11. Hello again, agema-makedonin.

    I think I understand what you are saying, and there is definitely some truth there, but I think there may be a misunderstanding on your part regarding the term "intuitive", and that's probably my fault for not defining the usage of it! :-)

    In this case and as I understand it, "intuitive" is not intuition, but rather operating on a level which does not require labored thought. For example, think about learning to type on a keyboard. There is a lot of learning about where the letters are, recognizing the "home" position, moving the fingers in certain directions to hit particular keys, etc. Yet when you become practiced at it enough, you no longer even think about where the letters are on the keyboard. You intuitively know how to move your fingers to get the desired results. It is effortless.

    This is, of course, a physical example, but I have seen many ways that the mind gets trained like this such that mental perspectives are intuitively established. One of the most common and ubiquitous examples is when a person becomes a parent, and they start intuitively looking at influences and hazards in regards to their children. Some of that can, of course, be attributed to natural intuition, but our world is very far removed from our evolutionary background, with many more types of influences and hazards which are well beyond the sphere of what we should have any natural intuition about.

    Yes, humans often do need some sort of shock to the system to change their lives, but what qualifies as a "shock" is different for everyone. Sometimes, just a little knowledge is all that is needed, as many Christians would claim happened for themselves upon realizing God's offer of Salvation. (Whether or not that effective changes their behavior is another story!) And, in Buddhadasa's case, understanding the true nature of things can be that type of shock. That perspective becomes more obvious when he discussed the formalized method in chapter 8.

    Now, whether or not Buddhism "works"... I have my doubts, especially for the population at large, but I strongly suspect that it does work for some people; at least if we can judge "working" by their outward behavior. Naturally, we'd have no clue as to whether or not they ended the cycle of rebirth (for those Buddhists who believe in that). ;-) I have that suspicion because, every now and then, you will also find a Christian whose "peace surpasses all understanding". We are capable of getting our minds into a state of imperturbability through our practice. Well, at least some of us are! ;-)

  12. @Saby

    I wonder weather accepting imposition of foreign rules is not shocking the system. When I see children crying their lungs out because they can't accept the parental decision, I wonder if they are not in shock. Yet, in most of the cases this imposed rules through training last only as long as the controlling system is around. Once removed, most of the time everything falls apart. I also have my doubts that Therapists do really good job other than filling their pockets, specially when I hear that Therapist released offender does the very thing that the Therapist claimed he was cured. I won't even venture comparing humans with dogs.

    Hi TWF,

    I think that part of intelligence is not to do something mechanically, as you explained the intuition in here (it might be that I misunderstand you again).

    I think attentiveness is the word I would use, when it comes to what transforms our lives drastically. This attentiveness however comes at most uncertain times, when we are not absorbed in our own comfort; when our own world is crumbling, that none of our previously held values, beliefs and habits remain unquestioned. This is than the driving force behind the change that strips individual naked, and is not part of any system or religion; it does not come because Buddha said it, nor because someone has got trained this individual, or because the individual trained it self in order to come to certain goal; but in an instant the realisation comes that the old ways do not lead anywhere, and gradual progress is not bringing anything, because this "gradual progress" follows the old ways.

    What is individual to do when such thing happens? What is the best thing to do when one realises that he is lost?

    Run around?

    Or is it more natural to come to complete stop, and closely look where he is?

    What I see around me is that many claim they know where they are and want to lead others, but they bring only more confusion to the confused. Fishing is best in muddy waters!

    But maybe I am many chapters away from this discussion, and better wait until chapter 8, or maybe I am completely off the road. It is possible that I don't understand a thing and am confused.

    So I better come to complete stop here ;)

    Kind regards

  13. I give in, shock must be all that matters.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. @ Sabio

    I think I didn't really convey my thoughts, since you think that shock is all that matters for me. All I say is that shock has the effect that I think brings/induces people to do what Buddha thought it is step to enlightenment. It is sudden, and it ends reiteration of the old things.

    The step to elightment is to end Dukkha, and Dukkha means: "It is anything you do not want to experience, but it also extends to positive feelings as well, given that they fail to yield lasting satisfaction."

    In other words, it is thorough dissatisfaction with the state of things as they are given in this universe!

    It is thorough reorganization of the mental structure, nothing is as it was before!

    Since you think that gradual approach brings results to reach this thorough dissatisfaction, I wanted to know how do you think that this gradual process brings that about in your mind!

    How would that gradual approach to get to the thorough dissatisfaction state look like, while I enjoy my comfort and all the small pleasures that I buy to prolong that pleasure?

    I have my pleasures, why should I become dissatisfied with their failure to yield lasting satisfaction! I can buy them again. Or I can work in the direction to have them again.

    It is all we do all the time!

    I hope I made my self clearer, no?

  16. There is lots of data showing that doing meditation practices in small amounts, over long period of time change mental habits. You are not debating that, are you?

    The rest about Dukkha, Nirvana and such are abstractions I don't care to get tangled in.

  17. I thought Buddhism is at discussion here, and it contains all the abstractions you don't want to discuss, therefore we have nothing to discuss.

  18. So, agema-makedonin, I am in a rather odd position here; playing the role of apologist for a religion that I do not believe! Much of what we are discussing here will be clarified in later chapters, so I hesitate to go into much detail here. But let me try to do my best to concisely describe what I think is representative of Buddhadasa's Buddhism here, which will also require me to extrapolate a little bit from the book. Keep in mind that it may be different than other versions you've seen.

    I;m sorry that I led you astray with the intuitive discussion, because I am not referring to actions without thought, but rather just a natural form of perception. Another way of looking at it as a establishing a worldview, where a Christian analog would be "intuitively" seeing every "evil" and and every thing which lures you away from God as a device of Satan.

    We are not truly talking about a gradual process in the sense of every day becoming closer to enlightenment. In fact, I think a better illustration of the process may be the analog of innovation/invention. In one view, you could say that we have gradually evolved technology from the telegraph to cellular phones. But, in truth, there was nothing gradual about it. There were distinct moments of inspiration, each springing from the existing foundation, in a manner of speaking. And this pushed technology ahead in leaps and bounds, followed by periods of little to no change other than refinement. Spurring on these advancements was an accumulation of knowledge. As it has been said, "chance favors the trained mind."

    Keeping that example in mind, this introspection, meditation, and consideration of the Buddhist "truths" build the knowledge necessary to train your mind. As you've pointed out, life changing realizations often come at discrete moments, and often due to life events. So the concept here is that you prepare your mind so that when these discrete moments of epiphany come, they help to establish the Buddhist worldview. Each time an epiphany comes, that is when you see the proportional reduction of dukkha. It is gradual only in the sense that it can take time, but there will be distinct jumps in "intuitive", worldview understanding.

    {Continued in the next comment...}

  19. {...continued from above}

    agema-makedonin, in one of your last comments to Sabio, you said:

    "I have my pleasures, why should I become dissatisfied with their failure to yield lasting satisfaction! I can buy them again. Or I can work in the direction to have them again.

    It is all we do all the time!

    As I understand it, this is exactly what Buddhism is about! You have pleasures, so you buy them again (requiring that you had struggled to work to earn the wages to do that) or work towards getting them again. Indeed, I think the point of Buddhism is that "It is all we do all the time!", and that means that we are slaves, of sorts, to our feelings. We are in a perpetual cycle of trying to get rid of what we don't want, and trying to get what we do want.

    If you think of all of the time an energy you pour into pleasing yourself, and you think about the accumulation of that over your entire lifetime, it is a considerable mass of selfish behavior and squandered opportunity. So the idea is that, in Buddhadasa's Buddhism, we break free of the bondage of self-satisfaction, and instead direct our resources in a consistently productive manner. And, while you may experience either pleasure or displeasure in whatever type of productivity you choose, it is not the pleasure or displeasure that motivates you to continue, or not to continue. Rather, it is based on a rational evaluation of your potential, based on honest evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses, as well as an unbiased assessment of the situation.

    It's not about ending the sensations of pain and pleasure. It's about being no longer being "unskillfully" motivated by them.


    Now, that may indeed be a case of the confused leading the confused. And it may be the case that I am confused about Buddhadasa's teaching! :-) But hopefully this will help you see where this teaching is headed. The "dissatisfaction with all things" is meant in the particular case of being motivated by our desires instead of our heads, at least as I understand it.

  20. Hi TWF,

    I am sorry to make you "playing the role of apologist for a religion" that you do not believe"!

    What I have learned here, is that I am not able to clearly present what I think, although I think in the moment that I have done the best to explain.

    Sorry about the mass. The best thing to do is to stop here...

  21. No need to apologize, agema-makedonin. I don't mind playing the false apologist, and I don't think you've made a mess. The funny thing is that I think I've understood you, but maybe in my zeal to try to make sure you understood this particular version of Buddhism I did a poor job showing that I understood you.

    These types of conversations are much easier to have over a beer, face to face. Dealing with text when definitions and intents are so critical to understand is difficult, unless we want to write a whole book to thoroughly explain each time we make comments. :-) I think if we were talking about it face to face, we'd probably end up agreeing with each other. Heck, I think we could even add Sabio into that mix too, and we'd all largely agree. :-) But text is tricky.

    I can understand wanting to stop now, but I look forward to your comments in the future.


  22. @ TWF,
    I'm not sure, and don't have the patience to re-read the thread, etc... But, part of the problem may also be mixing 4-or-more Buddhism:
    (1) Buddhadasa's Buddhism
    (2) What agema-makedonin thinks essential Buddhism is?
    (3) Your understanding of Buddhadasa
    (4) Other Buddhisms running in the back of both your heads

    This happens to me when I talk about Christianity with folks -- heck, even when I write about Buddhism. Thus my original warning on this issue -- persistent bastard, aren't I?
    But I may be wrong, and this is not the problem at all.

    I lost internet connection yesterday (deep down inside buildings), but here was my reply to Agema yesterday before he deleted two comments (which I received in my e-mail anyway, of course) and before he decided to bow out:


    @ agema,
    Well, there is the author's Buddhism and then there are many other types of Buddhism. In some forms of Buddhism, meditation is felt to be one of the gradual methods for relief from habitual dissatisfaction (dukkha). Meditation, as I said, has been shown, even with slow, gradual (non-shock) input, to cause significant changes in mind.

    Now, does this cause the end of all suffering, or all dissatisfaction? -- not that I have seen in others, but my experience is limited. But you made a categorical statement about
    shock being needed for real change and I responded to that. Perhaps you meant it more focused and I missed that.

    As I've written, no matter how people tie knots with their philosophies, sometimes it is important to see what they are really doing? In sanitized Western Buddhism, unlike Buddhism-on-the-ground in Asia, there is an emphasis of meditation. Criticizing meditation and criticizing whatever philosophy behind it should be carefully separated.

    Just like criticizing a Chiropractors account of their trade and a Homeopaths account of their trade from the results that they do indeed get. Criticizing Agape love as an abstract concept (or even "Forgiveness") and a Christian's account of WHY it works must be thought of differently than how those concepts function in the Christian's life -- even though the Christian may think the two are perfectly connected.


    This is more of a "Triangulations" conversation perhaps and maybe I should stay out of conversations here where my Meta dialogues can perhaps be too distracting -- let me know. [oh yeah, or maybe I am just a muddled fool]
    But I agree with TWF -- a conversation over beer would probably prove a huge amount of commonality and jovial natures! Someday.

  23. Hi Sabio,

    I'm not sure of the need for persistent reminders of multiple forms of Buddhism, but your meta-analysis is always welcome. I've actually tried to go out of my way to include qualifiers (guarding terms ;-) in this discussion so that you wouldn't be distracted by the need to remind me and others of multiple Buddhisms. Therefore, I am a little confused in finding the purpose to your persistence. Unless, of course, you're just agreeing with me, and in that case keep it up! ;-)

    What agema-makedonin has expressed regarding Buddhist tenets so far I have understood fairly well because they are closely aligned with the "core" teachings discussed in this book. His objections are what I am struggling to more finely discern; are they based off of simply a rejection of the teachings in general, or are they from a rejection of a slight different type of Buddhism, so I have attempted to explain this version to see how well it aligns with what he considers Buddhism, and provide an alternate perspective if it is different. Hopefully, in the process, I am making the best possible case for this particular version, so that it can rightfully be handled based on its own particular merits, or lack thereof. ;-)

  24. How can I do anything but agree with you. I won't comment again if I feel a distinction between Buddhisms is needed. I shall hold my tongue. I am a bad boy.