Siddhārtha Gautama’s ‘Four Noble Truths’ are only half-truths. This does not mean that there are now two noble truths, but rather, the whole of Buddhist teaching is only half-true and we should take it with a heavy grain of salt. The main problem with the teaching is it labels all desires as troublesome, denying that pursuing certain desires may be beneficial in order to decrease suffering. The first of ‘The Four Noble Truths’ is that life contains suffering, the second, that desire is the cause of our suffering. In this paper I will argue that suffering does indeed persist throughout our lives, but that we can combat it by educating ourselves to only act on rational desires that maximize our long-term pleasure.
According to Buddha, desire is the root of our suffering and one cannot escape suffering without giving up all desires and submitting oneself to the ‘Eightfold Path’, also known as the ‘Middle Way’. The contradiction begins to unfold: how can we give up all desires through the Middle Way by desiring to follow it? By creating a system to follow, Buddha contradicts the entire concept of eliminating desire. Must not one have the desire to follow the Middle Way in order to have any chance at reaching Nirvana? Right off the bat the religion seems insufficiently thought out.
Is a desire to live a healthy life going to make us suffer? No. Is a desire to have a fulfilling career going to make us suffer? Not necessarily. Is a desire to have a happy, long-lasting marriage going to make us suffer? Doesn’t seem like it. A desire to puff a cigarette for some nicotine will make our dopamine levels spike temporarily, but in the long-haul those puffs add up to drastically increase our chances of suffering from various diseases. It seems that the desire to smoke cigarettes would be an irrational one. At the same time, a solider on a U-Boat about to land on Normandy Beach during D-day may very well be acting rationally by lighting up a square. As thinking creatures, men must separate irrational desires from rational ones. To do this, the individual will have to judge for themselves what desires are rational to have: what desires will make them better off in the long-run. Here I have revamped Buddha’s ‘Four Noble Truths’ into ‘The Five Sagacious Facts of Life’:
- Life contains suffering and pleasure.
- There are two forms of pleasure we desire: short-term pleasure and long-term pleasure.
- Pursuing short-term pleasure at the expense of the long-term causes suffering.
- Minimizing irrational desires for short-term pleasure will minimize our suffering.
- We must educate ourselves with a multidisciplinary mindset in order to properly distinguish between irrational desires and rational ones; so as to act on desires that will benefit us in the long-run.
I think Orthodox Buddhists miss out on is the realization that, as cliché as it sounds, life is a rollercoaster- not only does it contain a lot of suffering, but also tons of joy. Desires oftentimes lead us astray from joy because there are characteristics of certain desires that make them actually end up somewhere we didn’t desire. For instance, a cocaine addict may have a burning desire to snort a line of coke in order to feel a pleasurable buzz- but clearly this desire causes more suffering in the long-run than it does happiness. Eventually the addiction will disrupt multiple areas of the addict’s life: relationships, work-life, and a sense of purpose are lost. I think that this is what Buddha was trying to get at with his philosophy (even if he doesn’t want to call the Middle Way a philosophy). A desire that is rational, based in accordance with logic, would be a desire that makes us better off in the long-run. My guess is that the abundance of ignorance in people’s minds during Buddha’s day shaped his beliefs to doubt that there were very many people that could actually hold rational desires.
Whether or not the the Eightfold Path is rational will be explored later in this paper. Here I will lay out what I want to replace The Middle Way with: The High Way. It is mentioned fifth and most important sagacious fact: we must educate ourselves with a multidisciplinary mindset in order to differentiate rational desires from irrational desires. The High Way is the commitment to life-long learning and development of a sagacious mind built of Multiple Mental Models that Charlie Munger discusses in his book, Poor Charlie’s Almanack: “Just as multiple factors shape almost every system, multiple models from a variety of disciplines, applied with fluency, are needed to understand the system. As John Muir observed about the interconnectedness of nature, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’” (P. 55) Siddhārtha seems to have picked out desire as the one thing that causes suffering. In reality, desire is just one of the many variables in the universe that can lead us towards suffering.
Like reaching Nirvana, developing a sagacious mind built of multiple mental models is no easy task. We must “stitch together the analytical tools, methods, and formulas from disciplines like history, psychology, physiology, mathematics, engineering, biology, physics, chemistry, statistics, economics and so on.” (P. 55) Once we have constructed the models, problems get easier to solve and our suffering can begin diminish. The High Way enables man to live his life to the fullest- with maximum happiness and minimum suffering. The main problem with Buddha’s Middle Way is that he oversimplifies what is right. For instance, the fourth division makes generalizes violence; Right conduct: Adhering to the idea of nonviolence (ahimsa), as well as refraining from any form of stealing or sexual impropriety. As I dig into my mental models and examine history, I realize that nonviolence is not always right. In World War II the United States acted morally by infiltrating Hitler and ending the suffering of the Jews in the holocaust. The sickening violence that took place in the concentration camps made it right for outside nations to use violence to infiltrate and kill Nazis in order to liberate the victims of the holocaust. Again, since the liberation of concentration camps in Nazi Germany during World War II was long after Buddha’s time, I would predict that the lack of awareness of future events in history played a role in the Middle Way being overly simplified.
Another one of the divisions I find particularly flawed in Buddhism is the sixth; Right mental attitude or effort: Avoiding negative thoughts and emotions, such as anger and jealousy. Dwelling on psychology, we know that a ‘right mental attitude’ would not only include the avoidance of negative emotions, but also the confrontation of positive ones. Blaise Pascal once said, “The mind of man at one and the same time is both the glory and the shame of the universe.” Buddha placed too much focus on man’s mind being the shame of the universe. After all, how would you be reading this if it weren’t for the mind of Bill Gates deciding to have the ‘right mental attitude’ which helped tremendously in the innovation of Microsoft. Gates did not just avoid negative emotions- he met with the positive ones- the ones that helped him believe that he could build something that reduced suffering in people’s lives. Now Bill doesn’t just program for computers, but he has a non-profit foundation that is helping to minimize suffering for millions of people all over the world. Bill Gates is an archetypical example of someone who had rational desires that he acted on, and by pursuing these desires he helped fellow humans live with less suffering.
Notice that in the five facts I do indeed state that life contains suffering. There is certainly no question that suffering is a part of everybody’s life. Everybody has friends and family that pass away, sometimes through old age, other times through disease, and unfortunately sometimes through unfortunate tragedies like the Orlando shooting. I believe that the meditation practices taught in Buddhism can effectively help us overcome our suffering and get us out of a rut when we are going through a tough time in our life. Meditating can also help man figure out what desires to pursue, it is indeed a valuable part of building and maintaining a sagacious mindset. It helps us let go and focus on what we can control. If there is one thing that I think Siddhartha had right, it is that meditating helps us let go of the things we cannot control in our life that oftentimes lead us a stray. Trying to control things that we can’t is irrational, and this is something Buddha recognized and preached as he should have. There is no doubt that practicing Buddhism with a grain of salt can add tremendous value to man’s life.
The key theme that differentiates my ‘Five Sagacious Facts of Life’ from Buddha’s ‘Four Noble Truths’ is that my philosophy accepts desires so long as they are rational. The concept of eliminating all desire is actually self-defeating. Making choices is a part of everyday life, and we must make choices based on what we desire outcomes to be. One could even argue that if we were to take Buddhism to the extreme and wish to completely eliminate desire, that we would have to eliminate the desire to live and take our own life. After all, our desires are 100% eliminated once we die. If one desires to live, then one will not get rid of desire completely until he or she dies. Therefore, it only makes sense that we should aim our desires, using the High Way, to positively affect the world around us.