Thursday April 5, 2007
A couple of years ago, I read The Unexpected Way by Paul Williams, an account of the author’s conversion from Buddhism to Catholicism. Williams, for those who have not come across him, is one of the UK’s most well-known Buddhist scholars, and his introduction to Mahayana Buddhism is probably the best book on the subject available. In The Unexpected Way, he is writing in a more confessional vein, explaining how it is he came to reject the Buddhism to which he had previously assented, and to embrace Catholicism. The book is a curious document – part argument, part autobiography, and along the way takes in such important issues as whether Williams’s cat, the charmingly named Wensleydale, will be saved (no, because he’s a cat, dammit), and whether his wife will be saved (yes, because although she is not a Catholic, Williams is, and according to Catholic doctrine they are therefore of “one flesh”). I came away from the book utterly unconvinced by Williams’s arguments in favour of Catholicism – he errs in favour of the authenticity of the Turin shroud, after all – but at the same time I was rather more convinced by his arguments against certain forms of Buddhist understanding of the world.
It is one of the latter that most sticks in my mind. At one point, whilst writing about samsara, he tells the story – which I have not managed to locate in a glance through the book – of being on a retreat with a visiting Tibetan lama. It was a beautiful afternoon, rather like the afternoon on which I write this, and he and the lama (I may have got the story a little wrong in its details, but the substance is, I think correct) were gazing out at the hillside. Then the lama turned to him and said, ‘All this is suffering.’
This view – some might say a view prevalent within certain forms of Buddhism, others might protest (wrongly, I think) that it is only attributed to Buddhists – that the world is suffering is one that Williams makes clear he found distasteful; and with this I have to sympathise. To be sure, there is a great deal of suffering in the world, but at the same time, to reduce everything to suffering seems to be unwarranted. Not only this, but it also raises ethical problems, I think. Such reduction of the world to suffering can foster a kind of unhealthy disdain for the world.
And yet, whilst not everything is suffering, suffering is inescapable. This seems to me to be the import of the first noble truth: that there are sufferings, that these sufferings are a part of the warp and woof of the world, and that these sufferings do concern us. This is not a condemnation of the world – for nobody ever said it would be a smooth ride – but rather it is the necessary first step in being able to respond intelligently to our predicament. Nor is it a denial of the fact of pleasure and delight in the world, for there clearly are such things in abundance. Whenever I reflect on this question of suffering, I come back again and again to the beautiful passage right at the end of Italo Calvino’s novel, Invisible Cities where Marco Polo tells the great Khan about the “inferno of the living”:
And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make then endure, give them space. (Invisible Cities 165)
Calvino does not offer us the comforts of some kind of redemption, nor does he underestimate the burning of the inferno; but even here, amid the inferno of the living, he recognises that there is a space that can be opened up, the possibility – if only we are vigilant and apprehensive enough – of a kind of peace. And, given that I have no belief in worlds beyond this one, in heavens or hells or the possibility of some future redemption, this vigilance and apprehension seem to me to be amongst the most worthwhile of things for which we can strive.
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