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First of the Four Noble Truths
Flash flooding in the Hudson Valley
We live in biblical times. Fires and floods. Plagues. Or, pandemics.
The Huson Valley at West Point had 7 to 10 inches of rainfall in short order. Thayer Road with its stone wall running parallel to the Hudson River filled like a bathtub, vehicles dotting the muddy waters.
It’s easy to believe in the illusion of control. But when the heavens open up, cars lift away like God’s toys. Asphalt roads, concrete sidewalks, porches, pipes, trees… buckle and crumble into rubble and debris.
My daughter drove into the storm and across the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. She could not get on to West Point for Recall Formation at 1930 hours because of blockades and flash flooding. Her First Sergeant said to go back home, to stay safe. She got in the next day, a crazy route through Harriman State Park. I drove my nephew to summer training later that afternoon and had to drive west onto Interstate 87 and on post through Camp Buckner. At Stony Lonesome gate the guard checked IDs and we head down to Eisenhower Hall.
In ‘Ike Hall’ three U.S. Army officers asked if I needed help. They answered my concerns about the flood damage on post and in their homes. The Operations Officer for the training said he and his family could not get back on post the night before and had to check into a hotel. Another said his basement was flooded. The third officer said his basement filled with water too and added, “We’ve a great community here, we’re helping each other.” They were each in uniform and had a positive attitude, there to work in spite of personal devastation.
New cadets were marching up Washington Road in formation. LMTVs (Light Medium Tactical Vehicles) moved troops off and on the ranges in Buckner. My son said friends training new cadets had them packing sandbags and digging trenches to deal with the water. My daughter made it to class on time the next day and said one student was absent. Road closures, landslides, flooded basements, with business as usual.
The value of suffering and living with adversity could not be more visibly apparent. On such a scale, it is inescapable. And, internal and quiet suffering are no less formidable. The first of the four Noble Truths* is suffering, the characteristic of human existence. The stoic would tell us to embrace suffering.
I cannot change what happens to me but I can determine how I react to what happens to me.
* What are the Four Noble Truths? (Tricycle, Buddhism for Beginners) This excerpt is the passage from card 1 of 13.
In his 45-year career crisscrossing the Ganges Plain in northern India, the Buddha gave a wealth of profound teachings. But underlying them all were the four noble truths.
1. There is suffering.
2. There is a cause of suffering.
3. There is an end to suffering.
4. The way out is the eightfold path.
The Buddha is said to have realized these fundamental truths on the night of his great awakening. But fearing they were too far removed from ordinary experience for others to understand, he decided to keep them to himself. Legend has it, however, that the god Brahma Sahampati intervened, convincing the Buddha he must pass on what he’d learned. So the Buddha tracked down his former meditation companions, the five ascetics, who were residing in the Deer Park near Benares. In what is known as his first sermon, the Buddha taught them the four noble truths. The ascetics are said to have been enlightened on the spot.
The first noble truth—there is suffering (dukkha in Pali and Sanskrit)—isn’t pessimistic, as is often believed, but realistic, according to the Theravada Buddhist monk and scholar Walpola Rahula. The Buddha didn’t mean that ordinary life is nothing but misery—of course there’s sukkha, or happiness, he said. It’s just that even happy moments are ultimately unsatisfying, because everything changes. Good, bad or indifferent, nothing lasts. Impermanence (anicca), like dukkha, is one of the three inescapable facts of existence. We all, without exception, are subject to aging, sickness, and death. Even the self isn’t fixed or enduring: anatta (no-self) is the third mark of existence. Trying to get what we want and hang onto what we have while avoiding or rejecting what we don’t want inevitably leads to disappointment. Ignorance of this reality is the root cause of suffering, the second noble truth tells us.
The third noble truth—that there is an end to suffering—is the saving grace. Pain and dissatisfaction are not all there is. Just as suffering is the human condition, so too is the possibility of an end to suffering.The fourth noble truth—the eightfold path—spells out practical action we can take toward our own awakening and freedom from the suffering of samsaric life. The eightfold path guides us in living ethically, training the mind, and cultivating wisdom.
Why are these truths “noble”? Explanations vary. Some scholars hold that the four noble truths are the teachings that elevated or “ennobled” Siddhartha Gautama by liberating him from samsaric existence. Similarly, they can liberate us.