From Mud, the Lotus

Out of the Mud Comes the Lotus

bhudaLady “May all that have life be delivered from suffering”
Gautama Buddha

“Is it possible to conquer all suffering? Is that conquest even a rational idea?”
Marvin Chester

The foundational structure of Buddhism is enunciated in THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS:

  1. The world is full of suffering (dukkha).
  2. Suffering is caused by desire (tanha: craving, attachment)
  3. If one can eliminate desire, one can eliminate suffering.
  4. The Noble Eight-fold Path can eliminate desire.

Buddha’s idea:

  • Suffering is no good.
  • It’s caused by desire.
  • Eliminate them both.

Is this a sound philosophy? Does it even make sense?

It contradicts the second of the Buddha’s own THREE GREAT TRUTHs: that everything changes. If everything changes, even freedom from suffering – nirvana – must end.

(Happily the entire world system of Buddhism is nicely encapsulated for us in the THREE GREAT TRUTHs, the FOUR NOBLE TRUTHs and the NOBLE EIGHT-FOLD PATH.)

One cannot rationally insist that ALL suffering is caused by desire. Or even insist that it is caused by any aspect of volition – like craving or love. Only SOME suffering is self-inflicted by one’s own philosophy. The facts of nature are these: that there are times of suffering and times of pleasure. There are places of more suffering than others. And there are people on whom special suffering is visited while others are spared and, instead, are visited with special happiness. Suffering need not be caused by desire. It can be caused by natural disaster, by war, by climate, by oppression, by accident, by physical disability, by psychological defects …

An oppressed man who does not resent being oppressed escapes suffering. But should we praise him for conquering his resentment and not cry out at his oppressed condition?

To desire release from pain is to suffer. Those who do not crave to be released from physical pain escape suffering. What would it take to become a Buddhist virtuoso of that magnitude? Under torture, not to suffer? Only a dedication of every waking moment to inuring oneself to pain could do it. Is such a life worth living? And whence come such people? They do not exist. It is not the human condition.

Suffering is not something to be eliminated. It is a component of life as is laughter and joy and well being. They are interwoven. Some pleasures would not exist without an attached suffering. A mountain climb. Writing a book. The pleasure of any great achievement is mixed with suffering.

Consider the implications of the idea: that you may, by self discipline, eliminate your suffering.

Here’s one implication: Your suffering is your own fault! The logic is this: If you are suffering it’s because you haven’t taken the trouble to eliminate it. So, with Buddha’s idea we end up blaming the victim for her misery. “You are in pain? Take yourself out of your misery,” is the verbal dagger delivered with innocent good will by Buddha’s idea. Compassion for those who succumb to their cravings does not fit into this philosophy. Buddha’s idea can be quite cruel.

Here’s another implication: To eliminate ones personal suffering is a very selfish undertaking. Compare it with the power and nobility of this undertaking: to dedicate oneself to the welfare of others. Buddhists strive to achieve nirvana. This is a self serving goal.

– Buddhists call the state in which all suffering is ended Nirvana. Nirvana is an everlasting state of great joy and peace. The Buddha said, “The extinction of desire is Nirvana.” –


By his own actions the Buddha revealed the selfish and cruel behavior his own philosophy produces. He abandonned his wife and child to their suffering in order to go on a quest concerning his own suffering. One can’t get much more selfish than that.

The Buddha emphasized that pleasure is fleeting. That fact disturbed him.

“There is happiness in life,
happiness in friendship,
happiness of a family,
happiness in a healthy body and mind,
…but when one loses them, there is suffering.”

So what? That pleasures are fleeting is not a valid argument against having them. Is inuring oneself against suffering a permanent condition? It’s no more permanent than the enjoyment of pleasure. Evidently life has pleasure and it has suffering. They alternate interminably. Both are fleeting.

Now here is a remarkable thing. On this foundation of unsensible ideas arise practices that produce remarkably happy people. My sister, Simma, who has explored the world, reports that in Buddhist countries people smile a lot. They seem to be happier than elsewhere in the world. They are peaceful. They smile because they see value in achieving a happy disposition. To find elements of happiness even in the midst of suffering is certainly a precious attribute. The Buddha’s Eight-fold Way is a prescription for achieving a state of amused contentment. In this state you are not easily made angry. It is far pleasanter to be with such people than with angry ones.

In the holy books of western religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – there is great violence, righteous indignation and vengeance. There are also words of compassion and charity. Most followers choose to select the latter messages for emphasis. Albeit some choose religious violence. But in Buddhist writings no selection need be made. There is no vengeance and righteous indignation in the texts. That produces gentler people.

The purpose in Buddhism is not to serve God but rather to mold oneself. It’s a goal as overtly selfish as is the goal of serving God selfless. Uncritical devotion to either goal is not advised. They contain cruelty and virtue, both.

Regarding Buddhism the rationale for it is senseless but the practice has much to recommend it. Out of the mud comes the lotus.





5 responses to “From Mud, the Lotus”

  1. David Floren

    Suffering? Hmm. I always like to begin my intellectual walks like the great paripatetic Socrates did: by defining my terms (or at least tightening them up as far as permissible by the context). The verb “to suffer,” according to the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary, has multiple meanings:
    “transitive verb: 1.a: to submit to or be forced to endure 1.b: to feel keenly : labor under ; 2: undergo, experience; 3: to put up with especially as inevitable or unavoidable; 4: to allow especially by reason of indifference ;
    intransitive verb: 1: to endure death, pain, or distress; 2: to sustain loss or damage; 3: to be subject to disability or handicap.”
    Note how the intransitive form of the verb characterizes suffering as pleasure’s opposite, as the antithesis of happiness that simply happens to one’s sensory inputs, that simply afflicts our sympathetic nervous system. Not the fly that buzzed when Emily Dickenson died in her own poem, but rather the peripatetic gadfly that talked and talked until Greek upon Greek simply had enough and sentenced him to exile in hemlock’s curse. They suffered Socrates in the limited sense of seemingly being driven batty by the great questioner. They suffered the intransitive verb.
    But when David Hume “suffered” to host a visiting Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher hopping mad with professional jealousy, it can be said that Mr. Hume’s “suffering” was the merely sum of his experiences of willfully taking actions to make the French egomaniac comfortable in staid England and witnessing first-hand his own reactions and emotions arising from the duties of hosting. It was not until Rousseau allowed his vast paranoia to mischaracterize one of Hume’s innocent and varied facial expressions as a direct attack on Rousseau’s character and manhood that Mr. Hume began to feel the kind of discomfort described as “suffering” in the sense that the intransitive verb provides. To endure is to suffer. To live is to endure. To live is to suffer. I can play this symbol substitution game all day if it makes me happy. But I’m beginning to feel the first breath of suffering on my hands as they flit across my Microsoft split keyboard, a useful device that has certainly lowered my risk of “suffering” from carpal tunnel syndrome.

  2. fenton

    Hello, I think that using a purely academic approach to this means that you are at risk of missing the point. Unless you experience the exercise by following the method it is only rhetoric. Any person can have an opinion, however to solve a problem you must look at the situation through new eyes. I believe Einstien said that trying to solve a problem with the same thinking is a definition of madness.

    love, fenton

  3. Dear Marvin,

    Certainly the lotus does grow out of the mud! It is my experience that the greatest paradox in Buddhism is the vast expanse between the actual experience of the practice and the heady, sometimes extremely convoluted translations of the teachings from the original Pali language to the difficult English language (a study in and of itself!)

    It has been said that if you see the Buddha in the road, shoot him. I take this to mean that there is no substitute for experience. The Buddha said something like, “see, for yourself, certainly don’t take my word for it.”

    Of the many Buddhist teachers that I have known, I do not think that one of them would say that suffering is simply caused by desire. The first noble truth states that suffering exists. Sickness, old age and death are facts of life.

    The second noble truth speaks to the relationship between clinging, attachement, desire and suffering. My favorite Dali Lama story follows. I heard it from Sharon Salzberg from a time when he visited her meditation center many years back.

    She said, “The Dali Lama was scheduled for a visit to IMS and we were all very excited. Many preparations were made for his visit. Among them was a visit to a a local farm/factory which produced cheeses and fruitcake. When asked how his visit was, smiling, he said, “Oh, it was very nice. They took me on a special tour and showed me everyhing. At the end, they fed me cheeses. They were delicious but I wanted fruitcake (followed by laughter) . . . hahahahaha!”

    If you are interested in exploring the vast expanse between the translations and the actual practice, then I would recommend beginning with reading or listening to Jack Kornfield or Joseph Goldstein, both very accomplished practitioners. Jack’s latest book is about the Dhammapadda and is called ‘Wise Heart’.

    May you be peaceful, may you live with ease. Toby

    If you would be interested in seeing for yourself, there are many, many opportunites. Let me know if you would like.

    May you live with ease, Toby

  4. Toby, I very much appreciate your calm and whimsical style of writing. The logic among the words fails to reach me but the words themselves are warm and amusing.

    A good friend of mine recently directed me to Kornfield so I posted a blog on that. It is on the idea of innate goodness vs the innate evil of Freud and the Church.

  5. marvin chester

    “There is no vengeance and righteous indignation in the texts. That produces gentler people.” Unfortunately this conclusion is not true in 2013 Myanmar (Burma) where Buddhist monks have attacked and harmed innocent Muslims of that country.
    Any Faith can be perverted.