Monday, July 3, 2023

The First Teaching

 “Burying the lede” is a journalism term for when the most important idea is buried
deep within an article. (They invented a new spelling to differentiate it from the lead used to make typeface for the printing process.)

            A quick look at the first teachings of Jesus and Buddha reveals one thing: They most definitely did not bury the lede. Instead, their first teachings conveyed the central theme of what would become their life’s work.

            The gospels tell us that after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, he went into the wilderness for forty days. When he returned the first thing he said was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2) Repent is an awkward rendering of metanoia, meaning “change of mind.”

On the heels of his own profound transformation, Jesus begins his teaching career not with a demand for obedience, nor with a call to obsess shamefully about our mistakes, but with the suggestion that we simply let go of our old ways of thinking—our prejudices, our conditioning, and our second-hand explanations. What’s the point of learning new information, no matter how true and insightful that information, if the very cognitive routes by which we process that information are clogged with distorting, structural errors? It is not a new world we need, but new eyes and a new mind with which to see and understand the world.

            In India 500 years earlier a young seeker named Siddartha Gautama had his own spiritual transformation in the wilderness. After a long period of study, practice, and meditation, Siddhartha shifted, seeing through the fog of conditioned consciousness, glimpsing the essential nature of things, and thereby earning the nickname Buddha—“the one who woke up.”

            After his enlightenment Buddha walked out of the woods and met with a few old friends in a deer park near Benares. There he gave his first teaching—the Deer Park Sermon—the two core themes being the Middle Path and the Four Noble Truths.

            Born from his own experience, Buddha suggested avoiding the twin extremes of over-indulgence and self-mortification. Both paths are equally self-obsessed and lead nowhere. Instead, walk the middle path of moderation and follow the Four Noble Truths.

            The first three of the Four Noble Truths are, simply put: life is characterized by suffering and dissatisfaction, suffering and dissatisfaction are primarily caused by attachments and cravings, and reducing attachments and cravings would reduce suffering and dissatisfaction. The Fourth Noble Truth is a list of action items called the Eightfold Path.

The first three Noble Truths are the diagnosis and prognosis. The Eightfold Path is the prescription, the behavioral and thought-level changes that would reduce selfish attachments, which would in turn release us from the wheel of suffering and dissatisfaction. Many of the eight suggestions have to do with learning how to think differently. In a word, Buddha is counseling metanoia. As he said in The Dhammapada, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts.”

            Our mind is the tool with which we grip and hold the world. Before we can change the world, we must change our minds. And the work begins not with second-hand explanations but with the immediacy of self-examination, courageous purging, and loving transformation. As we suspected all along, wisdom is an inside job. 

[This piece was first published in my A to Zen column in the July/August issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]