The Ugly Truth about the Meaning of Life, Suffering and Freedom

Stephen Hawking recently took some heat for the non-statement of the year – heaven and hell are fairy stories for people who are afraid of the dark.
I’ve always liked the guy.
Now Hawking’s view appears to be based on science but it is also a philosophy, of course, that suggests our lives are completely a matter of random, meaningless chance.
Is that the case? Is this a just universe? Does the invisible hand of God or karma that make it right and just and meaningful?
And is there freedom from our suffering? Or is it like Lucinda Williams sings in “Ugly Truth” from Blessed:
From the cradle to the grave
You will always be a slave
To the quiet darkness
Of your memories.

To know if there’s freedom, we need to know the cause of our suffering, no?
Take, for example, a young person I once knew who came into this life with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and pretty much all the other letters of the alphabet in various combinations (ADHD, EBD, DCD, ODD…).
Her mother was an alcoholic, crack addict and prostitute. Of course, they were very poor. There’s evidence that the girl was probably abused in about every way that a child could be abused.
Then things got bad. In her early teens she witnessed her mother’s murder.
This child was born into a shit storm and yet had less innate capacity to deal with it than just about any other human on this little planet.
Do you still believe this a universe characterized by justice? Do those who do good receive good results and those who do harm receive harmful results? Or does God have a plan for everyone? Then how about this kid?
In addition to heaven and hell, justice and randomness, I’ve been re-reflecting on karma and rebirth since reading All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. Click here for my review.
Here’s Dale S. Wright in The Six Perfections (p. 66) on this point
“The first dimension of the Buddhist doctrine of karma that warrants reflective scrutiny is its assertion of ultimate cosmic justice. All of the world’s major religions have long-standing traditions of promise that at some point good and evil lives will be rewarded with good and evil consequences and that everyone will receive exactly what they deserve. But all of these religionis are also forced to admit that this doctrine contradicts what we sometimes experience in our own lives.”
As Job found in a covered-with-boils way, monothiestic traditions tend to leave it to God to straighten out the mess and it simply isn’t the business of large-brained primates to speculate. God, after all, made the mountains and oceans.
Buddhism relies on past lives.
So maybe this kid had been a malicious mass murderer in a past life and thus was getting her brutal just desserts. Does that ring true for you? Not me.
Or maybe God and Satan were hanging out looking for someone else to mess with, like they did with Job. But only a seriously inferior being would take advantage of a kid like this.
So what kind of universe is it? 
“Although we certainly care about matters of justice, it may be that the larger cosmos does not,” writes Wright.
Reminds me of Katagiri Roshi shocking some his students (and delighting those with a sour disposition) during a practice period at Hokyoji, insisting again and again that “Buddha doesn’t care.” 

So is the cosmos caring or not? Just or not? Good or evil? 
Bottom line for me – I don’t know. But “I don’t know” isn’t an excuse to be uncaring, unjust and evil, thereby clearly creating more suffering.

The cosmos is not something out there, apart from us.

“I don’t know” implies that it is up to me to make it caring, just and good by my intentional, meaningful actions.

Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
Zenshin Tim Buckley Dies: One Heartbeat, Ten Thousand Buddhas
Restraining the Nevertheless Deluded One: Vine of Obstacles Turns Two
  • Mike Haitch

    Dosho:One of the books I'm currently readingis Daniel C. den net "Breaking the Spell" which is all about why Humans often might need religion, how it might have evolved due to mis-directed brain skills and various other things.At the moment I'm unwinding my own Christian beliefs. I've been dealing with very deep rooted fears of hell and ideas of heaven as the ultimate "things can only get better". Realising that this wasn't stuff I asked for, it was how I was raised.I know I can create heaven and he'll in my own mind. I know that my actions and words affect others and can bring blessings and sufferings. I know that destroying myself fr the sake of others is selfish.In the end "Do no harm" seems like a good but tricky and unobtainable rule of thumb. To others? To mysel? To the planet? What about trade-offs? It's a mire.In the end I just muddle through doing what I think is best and adapting to the results.The roado hell is paved with good intentions. The trouble is, by definition so is the road to heaven.I don't have any answers and don't even know if there are any. I'm tempted to think the questions are the problem but that is just another answer.But today like yesterday I did what I felt was appropriate and moved on. Even compassion can get you in a mess. Dying to save a puppy from drowning might be noble and compassionate but by dying did you in fact fail to donate a kidney to the next ghandi who will need it in ten year's.

  • Anders HonorĂ©

    A lot of Buddhists seem to reject Karma on grounds that don't really apply to Buddhist notions of Karma. Wright makes a major goof here, since Buddhist notions of karma don't really have any teleological imputations of justice attached to it. It just is and frankly, it's pretty crappy that it is, hence the whole dukkha thing.One of the factors that distinguished the Buddha's notion of karma from his predecessors was his focus on the role of present karma over and above past karma. Whereas the Brahmins interpreted karma as meaning that a good rebirth said something about your moral worth and thus untouchables were inherently inferior while those of high caste were inherently better on account of their positive karma, the Buddha rejected such a morality.He focused instead on present karma as the defining moral character of karma. So yeah, according to Buddhist Karma, that girl probably did do some pretty fucked up shit in her former life. But it doesn't really reflect on her inherent worthiness as a being. That is defined by our acts in this transitory present. It also means that though our lives may be shaped by our past karma, we are not necessarily bound by it. We have the option of choosing new routes in each moment, even if those routes can be rather strained by karma as well.And seeing as we all have a track record of being murderers, rapists and whatever else not somewhere down the line of those endless lifetimes, Buddhism doesn't really open up for judgements about worth based on karma. We're all afflicted by the one karmic burden that trumps all else: Ignorance. And whilst some of us may incidentally enjoy the fruits of good karma at this point in time, it is really down to what we do now that will shape where it will all go.The bottomline in Buddhism, and especially so in Mahayana, is that no one deserves the Karma they get. And this is where Wright drops the ball in that quote of his. What all beings deserve is to be happy and free. Nevertheless, we are the owners of our actions which have karmic repercussions. That may seem unfair, given that our actions are first and foremost guided by plain old ignorance, but then again the Buddha never made any bones about Samsara by and large being a pretty shitty place to live for just about everyone. And if it isn't that now, it will be later.But, as Nagarjuna pointed out: No one likes wisdom, because it usually entails telling you stuff you don't really like to hear.

  • Harry

    "I don't know" implies that it is up to me to make it [the Universe] caring, just and good by my intentional, meaningful actions.Right on, Dosho.Thing I like about Buddhism (Buddhism, that is, that doesn't engender a spurious misunderstanding of what karma is about i.e. universal retributive moral correction; which seems to largely be the case in many Buddhist countries BTW) is that it doesn't pass the buck in this regard… doesn't mean that I don't pass the buck, but it's one less good excuse I suppose.Regards,Harry.

  • Dosho Port

    Andre,Like Issan Dorsey said, "We all get what we deserve whether we deserve it or not."Check out Wright's chapter on sila in Ten Perfections, though, I think he's right on in many ways and raising issues as well that have relevance today.Dosho

  • vibrant moss

    Well said, Dosho. Thank you for saying something.

  • dlaser

    If we consider that life has no inherent meaning, then suffering is just suffering. 'Past lives' is just another version of neverland. Nobody is watching. There isn't any 'reason' that one person suffers more than another- whatever meaning it has, is what we put there. 'Freedom', then, is what shows up when we don't resist what's so– like, 'this is what's so, and this is how I choose to respond'…

  • Larry

    It is all here!

  • alan

    The Universe just is imho! What matters is how I respond to it. How I respond to it depends on my willingness to do the hard work of finding my original face before my parents were born. And even when I do that will be just the beginning of my journey.So I continue to play reruns of that story about that little dog and those two guys who had a conversation about that dog.And the world goes on without giving a shit about what I discover in that practice. That's why I have to give a shit about it!

  • Larry Anderson

    Hi Dosho,Have you ever read Carl Jung's ANSWER TO JOB? It touches on a lot of what's being discussed here.I'm not so enthusiastic about Hawking's hypotheses and the resulting reductive "philosophy" of random, meaningless chance. I really doubt that intelligence or a Love of Wisdom would arise from such a universe. We could not be intelligently discussing it now, nor would our discussion mean anything.I love Lucinda Williams songwriting, but she could sometimes use a little of Hank Williams sense of humor in the face of sorrow and sadness. Maybe she does, and I just missed it.We also need to face the beautiful truth, as well as the ugly, the comic as well as the tragic.Take Care,Lar

  • senshin mats fredriksson

    It seems to be a perfect world, perfect for us to really practice , regardless.