The bumpy bits without quick fixes


~ by Winton Higgins •


Endemic to our modern approach to life are problems (eg, broken teeth, or broken hearts through loss of loved ones). Problems like these lead us to solutions (three sessions with a dentist/therapist, at around $1500 all up) after which we attain closure and move on. Even easier, with the broken heart problem, we can take a course of anti-depressants and move on that way.

With these quick fixes we’ll have achieved the modern ideal of problem-solving. Life is supposed to be plain sailing (isn’t it?); when it’s not, then we have a problem, which we solve with some off-the-shelf solution or other, and then get back to our appropriate default setting, which is plain sailing. Some of us may even adopt a broad-spectrum, problem-solving spiritual practice which envelopes the heart in a teflon coating on a ‘path’ to a dissociative detachment.

In his 1999 article ‘The unconscious motivations for meditation practice’, Jack Engler writes that the motivations in question may include ‘a narcissistic wish: through practice I am going to become self-sufficient and invulnerable, I am not going to hurt any more, I won’t feel pain or disappointment… My experience with western practitioners is that we’re too detached… When people talk about detachment and renunciation, it often means there is some phobic avoidance.’ Other unconscious motivations in meditation practice can be ‘the fear of intimacy or the fear of social involvement’.

After that, we may still notice the bad dreams and black thoughts recurring, and the sinking feelings sneaking up on us in those moments when we’ve carelessly neglected to overschedule ourselves. But hey, let’s not go there, man! With grim determination let’s walk on the sunny side of the street, refixing our happy-faces when they slip. Until another problem whacks us on the head, and we’ll deal with that in the same way.

With little relish, Friedrich Nietzsche called this approach to life ‘the optimism of reason’. Its critics dismiss it as shallow, beneath human dignity, but these days in the west it’s pervasive. Its ‘solutions’ are relatively time- and cost-effective, and so attract the patronage of the economically correct and powerful. But does it cut the mustard as an approach to what in Zen is called ‘this great matter of life-and-death’? Let’s put it up against both the dharma and an equally old western counter-approach now being revived.


The first ennobling truth, no problems

In this sangha there’s been some recent discussion of the four ennobling truths, especially the first one: the truth of suffering, which is to be deeply understood. The mind boggles at the job of exploring all the varieties and intensities of human anguish and suffering, so the Buddha gave us a few opening clues to where we might start looking: old age, sickness and death; being united with what and whom we detest; and being separated from what and whom we love. When you’ve exhausted those clues, he suggests, move on to the frustrated craving for existence (in some preferred mode, such as celeb or millionaire) and non-existence (oblivion – when it all gets too much).

Last time I looked, there were still no solutions – off-the-shelf or otherwise – to these predicaments which, not so incidentally, seem to be co-terminous with the human condition. One can’t attain closure against old age, sickness and death, and after the inevitable deep personal losses of life; one can’t move on from them, in the sense of leaving them behind as if nothing has happened. So I guess they’re not problems, otherwise they wouldn’t be so intractable. The Buddha never called them problems, just as he never proposed any quick fixes. So what exactly are they? What’s this first ennobling truth all about?

Let’s check into our own cultural roots, and temporarily access another tradition – our own western tradition – which has also been beavering away at this conundrum since the time of the Buddha.


The tragic vision

Two modern western philosophers – not just Friedrich Nietzsche, but also Simone Weil – have argued strongly against ‘the optimism of reason’, the modern problem-solving view of life. In doing so, they take us back to the Greek tragedians (Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides in particular), for whom life always consisted of a very uncertain mix of great suffering and great joy. We find the same ideas crystallising in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

To a large extent, for the tragedians, the mix of suffering and joy in any individual life – or that of any community – is beyond human control or even prediction. Rather, many of the predicaments that confront us arise from something variously called chance, fortune, providence or luck.

Nonetheless, self-respecting humans have to respond to it, however lucky or unlucky, or ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’ the mix. They have to respond to it with courage and intelligence, from a sense of moral agency and personal integrity, uniting theory and practice – what the Greeks called theoria (not theory as opposed to practice). There is absolutely no point in asking why I’m facing the predicament I’m in, they suggest. That question will only distract me from the real question: how should I respond?

This view has come to be known as tragic vision, and has recently been revived, once again in opposition to today’s problem-solving mindset, by the contemporary Catholic theologian David Tracy. As he explains in the ABC Radio National Encounter program, ‘Tragic vision: the abandoned vision of the west?’ of 16.10.05, the tragic vision has three elements: necessity, suffering and response. In this it resonates powerfully with the dharma. So let’s quickly look at these elements in turn.

Necessity: for Simone Weil, this is ‘the reality of force in every human life’: we will all die, those we love die, disease comes, pain and separation come. They come as force or necessity – we can’t deflect them or negotiate with them. The tragic vision never blinks in keeping them in sight.

This in no way entails fatalism or determinism. Just realism.

Suffering: last time I spoke here I criticised the fundamentalist idea of karma, the idea that we have somehow ‘deserved’ or brought upon ourselves everything that happens to us. I criticised it on the basis of the Buddha’s own conception of causation, in which karma is only one of five separate modes of causality – the other four being quite independent of our previous actions and intentions. Logically, then, suffering does not arise solely from evil or unskilfulness.

The tragic vision converges with his view: it is pointless to ask God, the universe or any other imagined cosmic justice system why I suffer, and how my suffering will somehow be compensated in some future existence. David Tracy praises Buddhism for showing how the why question comes from the ego. Then he quotes the Christian mystic Meister Eckhardt: ‘Learn to live without a why.’

There are many diversionary ways of answering the why question, from the fundamentalist view of karma and rebirth for Buddhists, through theodicy (God has a good reason for everything, even if it’s mysterious to us) among theists, to cynicism and despair. But for the tragic vision – as with the first ennobling truth – suffering is always a question rather than a fact that demands an explanation. The question is: how should I respond to my/our predicament?

Response: as Nietzsche reissues the tragic vision, the response must always be in the affirmative. Say ‘yes’ to life; embrace ‘the whole catastrophe’ (as Zorba the Greek famously put it) in all its energy and its exasperating mix of joy and suffering. ‘Tragic’ does not mean fatalistic, hopeless, pessimistic or passive.

But for Simone Weil, the response may also need to contain an element of ‘no’: a person of integrity will always respond – in theory and practice – with a ‘no’ to injustice and cruelty. And will do so no matter what the odds against being able to set matters to rights. For her, the tragic vision empowers: it throws us into the struggle for justice and compassion, but with open, realistic eyes.

Any philosophy that can’t help us to confront the evil and suffering of life is worthless, she says. But we are not problem-solving here; we may even know we can’t win. We go on resisting evil in order to express our dignity as self-aware and self-responsible human beings. This is not ‘heroic’ – this is simply what it means to be human.

Think here of two immortal lines from Bertolt Brecht in Galileo Galilei:

  • So much is gained if just one individual stands up and says ‘no’;


  • Unhappy the land that needs heroes.


A community without problems or heroes

Some of you may have heard me talk about Le Chambon, the poor, rural Huguenot community of 5,000 souls in France. During the Holocaust this community took in an equal number of Jewish fugitives threatened with death. In taking this unique action, the Chambonnais risked death themselves from the Vichy officials, and then the German occupiers. No one told them to do what they did, nor did they discuss it or take any collective decision to do it. They just did it, openly and defiantly. They saved all of their 5,000 ‘guests’, including a baby, Pierre Sauvage, born in their midst to fugitive Jewish parents.

Decades later, this same Pierre Sauvage came back to make an unforgettable film about communal rescue in Le Chambon, Weapons of the spirit. The locals couldn’t understand why he wanted to make the film – they hadn’t done anything extraordinary, they said; they weren’t heroes. (This from a community unique in the annals of rescue during the Holocaust!)

When the film was shown on PBS television in America, it was followed by an interview with Sauvage conducted by Bill Moyers. If you watch the longer DVD of the film, you can see the interview. At one point Moyers says: these people were so poor and had so many problems of their own, how is it that they could undertake all this rescue work as well?

At this point, you can see Sauvage draw a deep breath. Let me try to explain something to you, he replies. My family and I live a comfortable, upper middle-class lifestyle in Los Angeles. We have problems. For instance, each school day we rely on a complex carpooling arrangement to get our children to the school of our choice some distance away. If someone drops out of the carpool, we have a problem.

The Chambonnais are not like us. They live in poverty and uncertainty, in small two- or three-room cottages. If a desperate fugitive family of four or five knocks on the door of a poor Chambonnais family and asks for sanctuary, this is not a problem. It’s just another new situation demanding a response. So they respond. They don’t have problems like you and I do.

That’s the best modern example of the tragic vision in action that I know of. A community of bodhisattvas, but one with no heroes and no problems. The sort of deeply wise people who embrace the whole catastrophe and really do make a difference. And show us how to do so ourselves.


• This talk was given to Beaches Sangha, Sydney, in June 2009. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.


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