Tuesday, March 02, 2010


I wonder if any of you have ever heard an old song titled “Life Gets Tedious,

Don’t It?” It has several verses, but I’ll mention only one.

Grief and misery, pains and woes,
Debts n’ taxes, n’ so it goes;
And I think I’m gettin’ a cold in the nose.
Life gets tedious, don’t it?

According to the Buddhist Four Noble Truths, life is suffering. One modern writer put it another way, stating that life is difficult. Yet, another writer noted that life is loaded with one damn dilemma after another.

Is that a negative outlook? Is negativism what Buddhism is all about?

No, that’s what life is all about.

Buddhism is about dealing with suffering.

Buddhism is about living life.

However, because the word suffering is so common in Buddhism, many Westerners make a giant leap and conclude that Buddhism is based on a negative outlook. That it is pessimistic.

Buddhism is definitely not pessimistic.

On the other hand, Buddhism is not optimistic, as are most Western religions.

Buddhism is realistic.

Buddhism is sensible.

In his book Buddhism, Damien Keown writes, “The Truth of
Suffering . . . presents the facts of life in an objective way.”

Keown goes on to say the Buddha realized that the notion of suffering was like admitting you have a serious disease, but you won’t admit it, and until you do own up to it there’s no hope for a cure.

So, what causes suffering?

In a word: dissatisfaction.

In another word: craving.

In several more words: hankering in an abnormal way for something you think you need but really don’t need.

A jazzy car, a classy house, more money, a year’s supply of whisky, a face lift.

To acquire such stuff human beings literally pawn their lives. They figuratively hock their souls.

That concept of selling one’s soul has spawned many folk tales. Such fantastical stories may have their origin in a 1500s German fortune teller and magician named Faust. He was a real person, who was reputed to have supernatural powers that were given to him by Satan in exchange for his soul.

The story was the source of the opera “Faust,” by Verde, the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” by Stephen Vincent Benet, and many other spin-offs related to the selling of one’s soul.

I’ve drifted.

According to one source, soul is a non-real element that, together with the real body, comprises a human being.

Only human beings? What about cats, or dogs, or pet hamsters?

Let’s stick with humans.

Another source says soul is the principle of life.

Most known cultures believe in a principle they call soul, an ethereal “thing” that can exist separately from the body. Sometimes, it is believed this insubstantial thing makes itself known in another life form. Sometimes a human, sometimes a different sort of animal.

Encarta Encyclopedia notes that in many societies humans are said to have as many as eleven souls.

Can you imagine that?

What does Buddhism, or Zen, say about reincarnation, you ask?

I was taught by Master Hiromu Oda, and Master Kobun Chino. Oda had little to say about reincarnation; that is, being reborn in another form.

He once told me “Reincarnation is a cozy notion for individuals who are unable to conceive of death as an absolute end. It pretty much goes back to the Indian notion of atman, a personal soul that lives on.”

What does live on is what Oda referred to as the essence of a person. The memory of an individual’s physical appearance. The memory of their smile, their frown. The sound of their voice. The way they did this or that.

According to Keown, the Buddha said he could find no evidence for a human soul. However, the Buddha mentioned that a person’s moral identity lives on after death.

The individual is physically gone, but memories of him or her endure.

The Buddha was not a theologian but a down-to-earth realist. He believed that each person has a moral individuality—a sort of persona—that should be cultivated during life.

That moral individuality is what survives death.