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The Second Great Truth: You Do It Yourself

Of course, the First Great Truth wasn’t the source of Gautama’s realization; it was just the hint that got him started, the pebble in his shoe. He left home determined to find a way to solve the problem of suffering, for himself and for everyone around him.

In the -5 century[1], in India, there were plenty of people promising to teach liberation from ordinary cares, elevation to a higher plane of existence, and so forth. It was about this time that yoga in its various aspects was becoming codified; the traditions that became the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali were already old when the sutra was written in the -2 century. So he took up the spiritual practices that were the fad at the time: he became a shramana, “one who strives” (Pali: samana, which is the way you’ll see it in, for example, Hesse’s Siddhartha.) By deep mediation and spiritual practice, he learned to renounce most everything of normal life: bathing, sleeping while lying down, even eating normal food. The traditions I’ve grown up with say that he learned how to live on “a half a grain of rice a day”, which I’m sure was an exaggeration. Still, they say that it came to the point where you could see his backbone from in front.

Whenever I think about this story, it really strikes me how much Gautama was playing out the -5th century version of being a 60’s hippie: rejected his home and his values, out to change the world, he falls in with some radical spiritual leader and goes off to find all the answers. He gave up the most comfortable life his father, the King, could make for him, and he moved on to living on the barest bit of food, and that he got by begging for it.

From this he learned something too: if living as a pampered, spoiled rich kid sucked, then living on a half grain of rice a day really sucked.

He realized there was something wrong with the whole approach: he bathed, he ate, he got back his strength, and he started to think about the problem: when we was with his family, getting everything he wanted, he feared its loss — age, sickness, or even just finding out that there weren’t any more ripe mangos. When he renounced all that, he ended up smelly and itchy, starving and (undoubtedly) half out of his head from hunger. And this led to the second step in the great syllogism that woke him up: it wasn’t the good food or the bad food that made him unhappy, made itself unsatisfactory. It was his desire that was really unsatisfactory. He tried to cling to happiness, he tried to learn to push away unhappiness, and neither worked. But it wasn’t his family that made him unhappy, and it wasn’t not eating that made him unhappy: it was fear, hunger, cravings, desire.

This was the Second Great Truth: suffering, dukkha, doesn’t come from the events in themselves. Mangoes don’t make you unhappy. Dukkha comes from our cravings, our desires. We do it to ourselves.

  1. I’m going to follow the lead of Alan Watts in some of his books, and adopt the trope of identifying past times in terms of the Common Era, but instead of using “C.E.” and “B.C.E.”, or “A.D.” and “B.C.”, using negative numbers for BCE. It seems more parsimonious to me, and I adapted immediately when I first read Watts using this convention, but I’ll listen to counterarguments if anyone finds it too distracting. []

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