Back when I first started studying Zen Buddhism, I found the best way to navigate some of the thornier concepts in the path was to pretend you were explaining them to someone else. I found some of this really came in handy when I did end up having to explain them to someone else, typically someone whose understanding of Zen had been shaped by self-help gurus and bad movies. The difference between Zen as it has been caricatured and Zen as it actually is practiced is only slightly smaller than the difference between John Shelby Spong and the Westboro Baptist Church.
The first thing most everyone got hung up about was the first precept, which typically gets translated something like "Life is suffering". People reject that one out of hand, because a) it sounds intractably pessimistic, and b) it's visibly wrong. If reading Richard Gombrich taught me anything, it was that a good deal of why Buddhism generally is misconstrued is because of bad translation. I don't want to make that sound like a cop-out, but it really does hold water the more I think about it: you can't talk about some of this stuff properly if you swap in language that doesn't really correspond to what's being said.
My way of putting this for layman ears is like so: "Life and suffering are inextricable." You don't get one without the other. You can't take the suffering out of life, because then you have something that isn't life. And likewise, you can't take the life out of suffering, because then, again, you have something that isn't wholly life either. It's a package deal, and there's no backs and no penny tax, as they used to say on playgrounds in my youth.
The picture that emerges with that phrasing is not only a little less bleak — always a good thing for people who are just poking their heads in the door and not expecting to get it chopped off — but also, in my view, a better representation of what the philosophy is actually about. Life and suffering are inextricable, and the source of our suffering is us trying to unscramble that particular scrambled egg and trying to separate out the white and yolk of our suffering and joy. But you don't need to do that; if anything, such struggle only makes things worse. The problem is that most of us identify the business of life with such a struggle and nothing else; no wonder we're so reluctant to give it up.
(Yes, the title is a Napalm Death reference. Still the shortest song in the world!)
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