With the advent of tools like Google Translate, it’s tempting to forget that translating between languages can be difficult, even futile, especially when translating between eras. Think how hard it is to follow Shakespearean English—and that’s our own language. Now take a South Asian text from 2,500 years ago and try putting it in terms modern English readers can understand.
This has always been an obstacle to my comprehending Buddhism. When I first encountered Buddhism in college, I was smitten: here at last was a religious system long on spirituality and short on god and ritual. (Ritual, our professor told us, is seen as a vaulter’s pole: you need it to reach a certain height, but to succeed you must let go of it.) But I never found the sutras helpful; their words may have been dutifully translated, but not their meanings, at least so I could understand.
I found the Four Noble Truths easier to grasp, but they too presented translation problems. For those of you unfamiliar with (or who have forgotten) the Four Noble Truths, they are:
- Life is suffering.
- Suffering is caused by desire.
- If you eliminate desire, you eliminate suffering.
- The way to eliminate desire is by following the Eightfold Noble Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right consciousness.
All my adult life I’ve struggled to understand the meaning of these words — to distinguish, say, between right view and right mindfulness, right action and right effort. Doubtless they describe specific kinds of perception and behavior. But even if they were translated in a way I found clear, could I ever be sure I understood them as their authors intended?
And those concerns pale compared to the ones raised by the word desire, variously translated as want, need, or some combination thereof. Eliminating desire seems like an impossible demand. Need is intrinsic to existence. We all need clean air, clean water, nourishing food, and shelter from the elements. We also have psychological needs that are difficult to renounce: context, meaning, dignity, safety, and stability.
Though I’ve learned little about the culture and languages of ancient India, after forty years I’ve decided to come to my own conclusions about what these vague words mean. I’m probably wrong, but I’m motivated by a heartfelt desire (there’s that word again!) to honor the Buddha’s message, so at the very least I’m probably demonstrating right intention.
I used to think of Nirvana, or enlightenment, as something we strive for — and gain. I’ve since realized we reach enlightenment by losing stuff: first our material wants, the things we think we need but really don’t (although I tried Ben & Jerry’s Netflix & Chilll’d ice cream last night and enjoyed it, so I’m a far from perfect ascetic); second and more important, our delusions.
There are clinical terms for delusion, but I prefer to define it simply as wishful thinking. That’s because I perceive delusion as less a psychological disorder than a common defense mechanism against vulnerability. Starting with mortality, where we take for granted our next moment (and many people believe in consciousness after death), delusion distorts every aspect of our inner lives, as well as our relationships with family, friends, and strangers. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat is a very public — and horrifying — example, but all of us have hurts we hide, ignore, or lie about. (This is why I never play Truth or Dare.)
Eliminating all delusion is impossible, just like eliminating all suffering. I’d even argue that we shouldn’t eliminate all delusion, because a certain degree of it is necessary for us to survive. Nonetheless, our best chance of reaching Nirvana is weeding out our delusions, one by resisting one.
Were the Buddha to return today, twenty-five centuries after sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree, and somehow given the ability to speak modern American English, would he agree with my interpretation of his teachings? It’s almost certainly delusional of me to say yes. But for now I’m holding on to that delusion. And if you don’t mind, please pass the ice cream.