LIAM CHAI

The Buddha’s Hypothesis

In my continual investigation of the teachings of Gautama (a.k.a the Buddha) I have been finding greater resonance – and also clearer direct experiences of some of the teachings he gave. These teachings can be (and ought to be) seen as hypotheses. Not something to be taken as gospel, but something to be thoroughly investigated with one’s own experience. In this post I want to share the first four hypotheses offered by Gautama, and a further unspoken hypothesis that underlies the first four.

Traditionally this teaching is called the Four Noble Truths, but through our limited language this can give the wrong impression especially under the guise of ‘religion’. Instead of ‘noble truth’ I use the word ‘hypothesis’ to encourage more of an investigation approach and to rest in neither blind belief or blind disbelief. Before I do that however, I want to explain why what I’ll share below is important.

Four Inconvenient Truths

1) Anything that is born, dies

2) Wherever there is meeting, there will be parting

3) Whatever is acquired, will be lost

4) Whatever goes up, goes down

These were shared to me by Alan Wallace, a play on Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. They sound pretty miserable, but just because they are doesn’t mean they aren’t true. And as Eugene Gendlin says:

“What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open to it doesn’t make it go away. And because it is true, it is there to be connected with. Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived. People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it.”

Given these four inconvenient truths, how can we find a sense of relief? Can we ever experience an enduring sense of happiness? Or is that a myth? How can we experience some respite in this roller coaster ride that we call life?  And as my investigations in whether there is a continuity of life after death continues, it seems these truths may persist from lifetime to lifetime. If even death cannot give relief, what can?

With the exponential technological advancements we’ve seen in the past 100 years, we have experienced a buffer of sorts from reality. Life expectancy has increased mainly because of the huge drop in infant mortality rates thanks to modern medicine, meaning our exposure to death is much lower than in the past. For those of us lucky enough to be living in the first world – food, clean water, shelter, clothing, healthcare and education are fairly easy to come by, and can sometimes be taken for granted.

These advancements have given me and many others a very high quality of life. But all they can do is mask an underlying reality. These four inconvenient truths are reminders of that underlying reality. If you’re still reading, I probably sound like a huge pessimist or nihilist. I assure you I’m not, and by the end of this post I hope you will see why.

The First Hypothesis

1) There is suffering in life

For now that nihilist narrative might have to continue with this first hypothesis. Gautama makes a long list of the different examples of suffering: in birth there is suffering, in ageing, in death, in the sorrow of hearing about the suffering of others, in bodily pains from injury or sickness, in mental illness, in encountering unpleasant sights, sounds, tastes, smells or tactile sensations. In meeting people who might wish you harm or ill-will. In the lack of pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, smells or tactile sensations. In the lack of good friendships, relationships or familial relations… In short, many examples.

This is one of the first messages Gautama shares in his career as a teacher, and like the inconvenient truths above, it seems like a pretty miserable one – but we’ll cover that later in this post about whether it actually is miserable or not.

It’s not very difficult to directly experience this first hypothesis and see the truth in it for yourself, at least on a coarse level. All you’d need to do is open up any newspaper and you can witness tons of suffering happening every day.

On a more subtle level, the definition of “suffering” in this context is broken down into three specific types:

This covers most of the forms of suffering mentioned above – death, ageing, sickness. Basically the kinds of suffering you’ll see in newspapers.

This is the suffering one experiences because of impermanence. When we have something good – say a loving spouse or lots of money, it feels pleasant. And as long as this person or this wealth remains, it feels pleasant. But because none of these things are permanent, at some point or another one is bound to lose it, and that loss is the suffering of change.

Understanding this third type of suffering requires an understanding in a continuity of life after death TK. Through the incessant turning of the wheel of life, there comes suffering in each of those lives.

I know that’s probably quite a lot to take in. Reflecting and investigating on the nature of suffering is something I continue to do in my practice. And this third type of suffering in particular is one that I want to investigate thoroughly. It’s a very bold statement: there is a continuity of life, from lifetime to lifetime, and suffering doesn’t end at death, it continues, potentially indefinitely.

The Second Hypothesis

2) The origination of this suffering is caused by craving

Sometimes this second truth is loosely translated as “desire is the cause of suffering” which is open to misinterpretation because it’s obvious that not all desires cause suffering – the desire for water for example to quench one’s thirst, the desire for the well-being of your own children. There are clearly wholesome and unwholesome desires, ones that contribute towards greater suffering and one’s that don’t. The word craving here seems a better fit.

I also find the word “identification” might be an even better fit, although craving does have that connotation. For example, I can desire food. And you wouldn’t call that suffering, after all one does need to eat to nourish and keep the body alive. However if I begin to crave food, and I identify food as a source of my happiness, then that might lead to binge eating. That might lead to obesity. That might lead to eating as a way to cover up underlying emotions. Food might turn into an addiction.

So underlying craving, there is identification. Someone can take a laptop and drop it in a pond and I won’t feel much. But that person can then take my laptop and I might scream. The laptop might be the exact same model, but in the first example I did not suffer, yet in the latter I did.

What underlies this possessiveness? I feel it’s the delusion that my laptop is a source of pleasure or happiness. I associate the ownership and use of my laptop with pleasure – it helps me get things done, I get to connect with friends via social media, I can watch videos, surf the web, learn new things etc etc.

So this can be investigated with many other things – my girlfriend, my brother, my money, my clothes, my body. It gets interesting and insightful very quickly.

The Third Hypothesis

3) It is possible to eradicate the causes of suffering

Now we start to move into a less nihilistic narrative – the eradication of suffering. Again this is framed as a hypothesis. This possibility only becomes true when one actually experiences the possibility of eradicating suffering in their direct experience.

I remember on my first retreat there would be three sessions every day of one hour “strong determination” sits. You were not meant to move at all in the entire hour. In the first few days I had issues with pain in my knee, but the advice was to continue sitting and as long as the pain stopped within 5 minutes of getting up, it was nothing serious. Yet I would still feel the pain, it felt very real, very uncomfortable and I didn’t want to stay still.

After several attempts however, continually turning towards the pain rather than ruminating, I discovered that the pain would sometimes stop when I really zoomed right into the center of where I felt it. This felt like magic. Like I could just stop feeling pain when I wanted to. After that initial mini breakthrough I’ve been able to sit for an hour (and sometimes longer) without much problems.

The Fourth Hypothesis

4) The way to eradicate the causes of suffering is by these eight domains of practices

The eight domains of practice are:

  1. Skillful View
  2. Skillful Intention
  3. Skillful Speech
  4. Skillful Action
  5. Skillful Livelihood
  6. Skillful Effort
  7. Skillful Mindfulness
  8. Skillful Absorption

Entire books can be written on each domain, and also on each hypothesis, so I’m definitely not doing any of these themes justice. The hypothesis here is that by taking on these eight domains of practice, you will lead eradicate the causes of suffering. Bold statement!

Traditionally these eight domains are called the Noble Eightfold path. And each one is called Right View, Right Intention etc. I prefer the term ‘skillful’ rather than ‘right’ as I believe it describes each domain better. There is no moral superiority here that dictates “This is right and this is wrong”. As far as I understand, that isn’t what is intended with the word ‘right’ anyway, but it can still fall into that misunderstanding if you’re reading it for the first time.

Instead I use ‘skillful’ – as in one practices skillful speech that leads to seeing the nature of reality clearly or one practices skillful absorption that is conducive for piercing deeper into the nature of reality. The practices are skillful in the sense of leading to the eradication of suffering.

The eight practices are sometimes simplified into three – ethics, absorption and wisdom. Ethics involves skillful speech, action and livelihood. Absorption involves skillful effort, mindfulness and absorption. Wisdom involves skillful view and intention.

The Unspoken Hypothesis

To come back to the issue of sounding like a pessimist or nihilist, I want to address the unspoken hypothesis that underlies each of the four I wrote about above. What happens when you identify suffering, recognise the causes of suffering and you even begin to eradicate suffering by applying the remedy? That’s the unspoken hypothesis – what’s leftover is immutable bliss, nirvana, radical freedom.

All the above initially seem to be about suffering, suffering, suffering. But when you begin to subtract the suffering by applying the remedy, you uncover greater and greater genuine well-being. By starting with the first set of practices, ethics, you uncover a sense of innate genuine well-being, or inner joy. Then you practice the absorption practices and uncover bliss, luminosity and non-conceptuality. Finally with the wisdom practices you reach the depths of it and this ‘truth given joy’ is now irreversible.

This is far from pessimistic or nihilistic. In fact it’s quite the opposite, it’s a radical assumption that says your inherent nature is one of happiness, one of joy, one of bliss. The suffering you experience is like an obscuration – it covers up what you inherently have and are seeking.

Of course, these are all hypotheses. There’s no point in taking any of this as dogma or gospel, because it’s useless otherwise. Experiment and see if this hypothesis is true. If it is true, then wow, what an incredible discovery this could be. It’s like the story of a beggar sitting on a chest. Every day he begs until one day a man comes by and asks him, “What’s inside that chest?” And the beggar replies that he’s never bothered to investigate. The man encourages him to check, and when the beggar opens it he finds he’s been sitting on a chest of gold all these years.

But maybe it’s not true. Maybe it’s just some hoax to try and recruit more “Buddhists” so that some guru can feel important and get more donations to build fancier temples and monasteries. And there’s definitely the possibility of using these hypotheses in that way. But if there’s careful investigation and discerning intelligence when choosing who to learn the practices from, I believe a hypothesis like this is not something to so easily dismiss. At least that’s how I’m approaching it right now, and so far, so good :-).



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