Reprise: Is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism Inside Christianity? (Part 6 of A 13-Part Series)
Having written more than three thousand words discussing the Second Noble Truth, I thought I should directly address Mr. MacPherson’s remarks on it—now that we have something to compare them to. I think it is clear, first of all, that any analysis of the Second Truth that doesn’t take Dependent Arising into account is a non-starter. Simply saying that “desire causes suffering” does not go far enough. Unfortunately, that is as far as Mr. MacPherson goes. Moreover, the textual evidence he brings to bear on his point—specifically, the Sermon on the Mount and some examples of greed leading to sin in the Old and New Testaments—add nothing to his case. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount does not even really say “we suffer because we focus too much on impermanent material things.” Rather, in his sermon Jesus is calling for a reorientation of priorities—away from the everyday trivia of life towards God. A discussion of suffering (in the sense of dukkha) and its causes is not his focus. So, while Buddhists, Hindus and even good, old fashioned materialists (of a certain stripe) can laud Jesus’ teachings, as a Christian demonstration of the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, the Sermon on the Mount falls flat. This is not to disparage the Sermon in any way; simply, the Second Noble Truth is not its principle subject matter and it should not be judged as such.
Mr. MacPherson also discusses the Biblical story of the Fall (Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit) in the context of the Second Noble Truth. While Biblical creationism is a total non-starter for me, and its advocacy by anyone the fastest way to lose my intellectual respect (other than, perhaps, arguing for a flat earth), as a meaningful myth the Genesis account has great merits. That is to say, the writers of these early creation stories clearly had insight into the nature of suffering and its causes. I don’t intend to discuss here all my thoughts on this subject—this is a blog on Buddhism, not Biblical mythology—but I will grant that great wisdom is contained in those stories provided they are not taken as literal history. That said, in not a single passage do the Biblical writers demonstrate knowledge of the rise and fall of conditioned phenomena à la Dependent Arising, or see the escape from them; there are no sotapannas walking around in the Bible. In the end, this is the critical point, the only thing that matters as far as Mr. MacPherson’s argument goes.