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Unquestionably, that this seeming good fortune in reality was the greatest misfortune of his life. Or take another case: A certain person thinks good eating and drinking the chief good in his existence. Therein he takes pride and comfort, and does not hesitate at times to set forth this happiness of his life in the right light before others. But by and by, in consequence of this life, there supervenes a grave malady, say, cancer. Will he now, writhing in torments, still think the time of good eating, recognizing it as the cause of his present suffering, a happy one, and remember it with pleasure, thinking, "still it was nice"? Or will he not rather curse it as the source of his present suffering? Or, suppose a man tormented by thirst, sees a cool drink. Full of greed he drinks of it, and feels a momentary pleasant sensation running through his body. Afterwards he feels pains and thus sees that he has drunk poison. Will he still have the courage to call this cool drink a good? Or will he not rather, recognizing this "good" as the cause of his keen pains, now look back upon it as a misfortune, and therewith register it under the heading of suffering? From this it is evidentially clear that a momentary sensation agreeing with our will, does not give us the right to enter it in our book of life as a good. Even innumerable pleasant motions of will, released by some event, lose afterwards all their value, yes, may even become accurst, if one single moment in the long chain is miserable, and this single decisive moment happens to be the last one in the chain of effects produced by the so-called happy event. This single last moment alone gives to the whole chain of perhaps yearslong impulses of will, its definitive character. When itself is full of misery, it sucks up the happiness of years, as a sponge the water surrounding it. It may even erase it utterly from the account of life as if it had never been there. But equally well it may erase the misery of years
like a corrosive acid. A person may have been the unhappiest of men during his whole life. But if now, in this moment, he becomes really happy, if he really feels himself quite well, if his feeling of happiness is not darkened by any prospect of the future, then the whole past full of suffering will be utterly forgotten. He will feel as if liberated from a heavy oppressive nightmare that now has vanished in the abyss of the past, and therefore counts no
Certainly it cannot be otherwise. It is always only the present that is real; hence it is always only the satisfaction of will and thereby happiness, or, on the other hand, the obstruction of will and thereby unhappiness which I feel now that is real. Happiness or unhappiness belonging to the past, are, like everything gone by, nothing but a shadow without reality. Especially is bygone happiness, brought into relation to my present woe, apt only to intensify the latter, according to the law that a fall is accompanied by more painful results, the greater the height from which it takes place.
Accordingly only the last moment of life counts in the evaluating of a life as a happy or an unhappy one, and ultimately, the last moment of consciousness before death. For only this present will then be real. If I, in this moment, feel well and thereby happy, a whole life full of greatest misery will count nothing against this; and if I feel unhappy, this feeling is not modified by even the happiest past, but rather increased to unbearableness by the frightful contrast with the latter.
In regard to this, above everything else entire clearness must be reached through deep reflection, before one is competent to pass judgment as to how far life is to be put on record as happiness or as suffering. From this fundamental fact therefore the Buddha too sets out in developing the
first of his four excellent truths, the truth of Suffering. It forms the clue to their understanding.
According to the arguments just advanced, the following chain of thought forms the foundation of all the expositions of the Buddha on suffering. I may be made as happy as possible by a satisfaction of my will: but in that moment where, by the taking away of the object conferring this satisfaction of will, it has changed into suffering,-into suffering that will be the greater, the greater the luck has been that granted the possession of the object-only the fact of suffering will be real, and thereby will furnish exclusively the standard for evaluating the object as one happy or painful for me. The object was such that at last there has remained to me only one thing: suffering. If I am honest, therefore, I can only post it up in the book of my life with this as final result, i. e. as a negative entry. As there depends very much, strictly speaking almost everything, on this cognition, we will come down once more to immediate experience. A person may find the complete and exclusive satisfaction of his will in possessing or cherishing some object, in his wife or his children, or in the realization of some idea grown dear to him. And now this object upon which his interests are entirely concentrated, is snatched away from him, further occupation with it becomes impossible to him; thereupon life itself will become worthless to him, and he will break out into the lamentation: Life has no more value for me.
After this, however, according to the Buddha, the decision of the question, as to how far life must be looked upon as suffering, depends upon this other, as to whether there are objects of the will which cannot be taken away from man, and thereby satisfactions of the will which do not become suffering. Only such with inner justification might be registered as wellbeing, as happiness; every other satisfaction purified cognition cannot honestly register otherwise than
under the heading of suffering. But an object of will that cannot be taken away, necessarily presupposes that it is not perishable. For in the moment when it perishes, when it dissolves, it is irrecoverably lost for will, even if will clings to it ever so much. The question, therefore, amounts to this: Are there imperishable objects of will? Or, to put it otherwise: The real, ultimate criterion of suffering is transitoriness: "Whatever is transitory, is painful."42
Indeed this dictum forms the basis of granite upon which the whole doctrine of the Buddha about suffering is built: "That there are three kinds of sensations, I have taught: Pleasure, pain, and that which is neither pleasure nor pain.... And again I have taught: Whatever is felt, belongs to suffering. Thus alone in regard to the impermanence of things I have said that whatever is felt belongs to suffering, having regard to the fact that things are subject to annihilation, to destruction; that pleasure in them ceases, that they are subject to cessation, to changeableness." 43
As we see, these words not only give transitoriness as the infallible criterion for what may be looked upon as suffering, but they also contain the statement that everything follows this law of transitoriness: all things are impermanent, are subject to annihilation, to destruction.
Really to recognize this, and to its whole extent, is the point on which everything depends. Certainly, the mediate objects of our willing, the objects of the external world, everybody without further ado will concede to be transitory without exception, because here the continual change, the incessant dissolution is evident. But the matter becomes quite different, when the immediate manifestation of our willing in that which we call our personality, comes into question. This personality is said to be the only thing in the world which lies outside the realm of transitoriness, either entirely and to its whole extent, so that man, neck
and crop, as it were, would be immortal, or partially so, if at least its kernel should be permanent and thus imperishable. This kernel some think to find in the soul: others, as Schopenhauer and his disciples, in will manifesting itself in the personality.
That even the powerful genius of Schopenhauer thought himself forced to recognize in the personality, if only in its last substratum and with manifold reservations, the only insurmountable barrier to the law of transitoriness comprising everything else, shows clearly how deeply rooted in man is the illusion that personality includes the imperishable, the eternal. Even thus from of old, within that part of the personality that was thought to be removed from the realm of transitoriness, there was found the island in the ocean of worldly misery, to which one only needed to flee, perhaps as pure spirit, to escape from suffering. And precisely for this reason, mankind never has been able to penetrate to the first of the four excellent truths that everything, everything without exception in the world, is suffering.
Here within the personality lies the great obstacle to the acknowledgment of the first of the four excellent truths. Everything else, as said above, is obviously perishable and therefore, according to our exposition above, painful. To eliminate this obstacle had to be the main task of the Buddha in the direction here in question; and this, in fact, it was. For he always limited himself to this; but he also takes every imaginable trouble to make clear that everything connected with personality, and therewith personality itself, is without exception subject to the iron law of transitoriness, and thereby, of dissolution and decay, therefore painful throughout its whole extent. This he does by dissolving personality into its parts: corporeal form, sensation, perception, mentations and consciousness, and by showing the characteristic of transitoriness present in each of them.