I recently came across a striking reading of the "four noble truths" in Stephen Batchelor's new book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (Spiegel & Grau, 2010).
I think Batchelor's argument is worth discussing here because it succinctly frames what I take to be the fundamental issue of human existence: the nature of suffering.
Is suffering (here understood in the broadest sense of a deep, root passivity) an accidental feature of this world from which "grace" or "enlightenment" can free us?
Or is this deep, root passivity unexpungeable in a way that might lead us to associate it with the grace of life itself?
II. The Mythological Reading
Batchelor’s thesis is that the four noble truths – originally anti-mythological, pragmatic, and phenomenological – were almost immediately re-embedded by the Buddha’s followers into the more familiar and comfortable mythological framework of Hinduism in a way that conceals the straightforward but radical logic of the original formulation.
Batchelor’s argument is based in part on some textual criticism but its real strength is, I think, its pragmatic and phenomenological force.
Batchelor’s critical-textual argument boils down to this: the four noble truths as we typically receive them in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (or “Wheel Turning” discourse) have been profoundly molded by the later insertion of “explanatory” subheadings that nominalize and mythologize each of the truths while simultaneously reversing the causal direction of some key relationships.
The received, “mythological” version of the four noble truths looks like this:
The Four Noble Truths
Batchelor’s claim is that where the Buddha originally presented four noble “tasks,” this version presents four noble “truths” (i.e., claims or dogmas; hence the nominalization). Once the “tasks” have been turned into dogmas, it is only possible to make sense of them in relation to Hinduism’s mythological claims about karma and rebirth.
Note how their transformation into dogmas requires that we read the four noble truths out of order. The relationship of cause and effect looks like this:
2. Cause: craving/clinging.
Note that suffering is now understood as a contingent effect of an avoidable cause (craving).
Note that talk of cessation (nirvana) as the cessation of suffering only makes sense in light of the Hindu project to be post-mortally free from the wheel of samsara and rebirth.
On this model, suffering is a contingent effect that can be avoided and freedom from suffering is framed in relation to a post-mortal reward (nirvana as the cessation of re-birth).
II. The Phenomenological Reading
Batchelor’s argument is that this traditional reading not only does violence to the text but to the groundbreaking nature of the Buddha’s entire approach.
Let’s assume, he argues, that the subheadings that transform the list into claims or dogmas were added later. Also, let’s give full weight to the final portion of the discourse where the Buddha explicitly “operationalizes” the list into twelve actions (three actions for each of the four elements).
Then what does the list look like?
The list instead looks pragmatic and phenomenological like this:
The Four Noble Tasks
On this reading, the Buddha is not presenting a list of things to be believed, but a list of things to be done.
Note that in this light the logic of the list’s order is direct and requires no creative re-ordering.
1. The task is to fully know – on the basis of a penetrating, firsthand examination of one’s own experience of suffering – the nature of suffering as an unavoidable aspect of life’s being interdependent, co-conditioned, and impermanent.
Batchelor also argues (persuasively, I think) that the relationship between the four noble tasks and the eightfold path should be understood as cyclical.
The eightfold path is clearly described as leading to the four noble tasks and the four noble tasks explicitly lead back into the eightfold path. The clarity of this cyclical relationship, however, is apparent only when the four noble tasks are not re-ordered as in the standard, mythological version. It’s also only clear when nirvana/cessation is understood as an element along the way to the eightfold path itself rather than as a final solution to a problem specific to Hindu metaphysics (karmic re-birth).
Note that in this second version nothing is organized around a post-mortal problem or question. Note that in this second version suffering is essential rather than contingent. Note that in this second version no dogmatic beliefs are required.
Where the four noble truths lay out a path to an ultimate, cosmic redemption from suffering, the four noble tasks lay out a path to the ongoing cultivation of a human redemption of suffering.
Batchelor explicitly argues that the Buddha breaks with Hindu mythology most radically in his rejection of the idea that, at root, reality is fundamentally One. For the Buddha, the noble truths are four (and, as such, irreducible), the path to be cultivated is eight, the truth of existence is co-conditioned multiplicity, etc.
This is to say: the Buddha breaks with Hinduism in that he intentionally brackets mythological claims to a transcendent, fundamental Unity and sides wholeheartedly with the immanent and "pathetic" (in the original sense of the word pathos) givenness of phenomenological multiplicity.
Does the Buddha announce an ultimate cosmic redemption from suffering? Or does he announce a way to engage in the ongoing cultivation of a human redemption of suffering?
I think Batchelor is on the right track here.