PZI Teacher Archives

Gifts, Gods in Disguise, & Freedom


Buddhism is based in reality. When we lose what we thought we had, our panic asks, “What will happen to little me?” and any answer to that question is likely to be overwhelming and shadowed. It is human to panic out of habit, without asking ourselves what is really going on and what our true, deep reaction is. But the gods in disguise show that sudden change can happen in a positive direction. The path out of suffering is closely related to accuracy, to noticing what really is, as opposed to what we first thought.

Article by John Tarrant published in Lion’s Roar magazine on May 1, 2009.

There are surprising parallels, says Zen teacher John Tarrant, between the noble truths of Buddhism and money guru Suze Orman’s advice on getting real financially. Both use the truth of suffering to wake us up from our delusions.

Tonight I’m watching Suze Orman teaching the first noble truth of Buddhism on CNBC. Suze Orman, if you don’t know, is a financial advisor, and she is very popular in this season of facing realities.

Now that the zeroes in mutual fund accounts have whooshed away as fast as you can say “credit default swaps,” we are in a moment of waking from a dream. Waking from a dream is the theme of the meditation path, so this crash offers promise as well as shock. When I first met Buddhism, I thought of the fundamentals as boring and obvious, but paying your mortgage seems boring and obvious too, so maybe we can find some excitement in the basics. There’s nothing more fundamental in the Buddhist recipe for freeing the mind than the four noble truths. They are Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition followed by his treatment plan. Here is the first truth:

This is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what you want is suffering.

Once Upon a Time

The Buddha’s story is about what to do when you find out that the world is not as you have been told. The Buddha was raised in a palace that was like Disneyland or the Truman Show. The hero of the Truman show grew up and lived inside a television show built around him. In the palace where the Buddha grew up, suffering and pain were concealed from him. As in the Truman Show, the hero was the last to know about the conspiracy. The sights that were hidden from the Buddha involved any encounters with sickness, old age, death, or any person who was on a spiritual path. This is a level of information management that would have made Kim Jong-il very happy, and in such circumstances it is natural for questions to arise.

Eventually the Buddha went absent without leave from the palace. He had the help of his charioteer, the equivalent of a limo driver today, a person who might be able to arrange a variety of experiences for you. During these unauthorized trips, the gods came in disguise and took on the forms of those forbidden sights: someone old, someone sick, a corpse, and a pilgrim—the pilgrim being a person who meditates and offers a different possibility for how to live. The forbidden sights taught the Buddha that reality was different from the dream he had been raised in. A discovery that we have been misinformed is always the first step in awakening and is something like a joke. Meditation and jokes both have a banana-peel effect; they turn you upside down:

Father: Well, yes Sallie, it is true. We made up the Santa Claus story to explain the presents we give you. Santa is imaginary—you know, like the Easter Bunny.

Sallie: What! There’s no Easter Bunny!!??

The first step in waking up was to see through the dream and for this step the fact of suffering was the important clue. The Buddha found this realization to be so important that he called it the first noble truth. In the Zen view, this tragic discovery, in which you notice the pain of being human, is the beginning of freedom. It is a tragedy that is happening in a dream. If you notice that the walls of your prison are confining, you might look for a way out, a way of waking up. Or as Gregory Bateson said, “All learning is aversive.”

Back to What’s on TV

After September 11, President Bush went on television and said, essentially, “You can fight terrorism and show your patriotic spirit by shopping. Please don’t make sacrifices.” This is not Suze Orman’s way. 

Suze as a TV personality seems generally loveable and high-spirited and I, like many others, have happily ignored her recommendations for years. I enjoy her, though; she gives me the impression of a dreamer who became practical and wants to share the benefits of her discovery with others. This is what in Buddhism is called the bodhisattva path—in which your motive is to help everyone to wake up.

Here is how Suze preaches the first noble truth. If you are someone who used the equity in your house as an ATM machine, she points out that this is in itself a matter of suffering. Sooner or later you will have to pay that adjustable rate mortgage. Or perhaps foreclosure has already occurred. There is a salutary sternness in her expression (I’m not offering Suze as a source of financial advice, something I’m not qualified even to consider; I’m commenting on the way she is filling a necessary role in our culture as we wake out of a dream).

If you took out one of those loans for which the mortgage broker said, “No need to fill in your income, I’ll do that for you,” then her show is for you. She offers a mixture of discipline, catharsis, and hope. A certain amount of regret usually attends a self-examination, but Suze is not interested in blame, she focuses on where to go from here—very like the Buddha when he escaped from the palace.

Now Suze has a segment in which the metaphor is a loan application. People call in because they want to buy a trinket but in the current, changed economy, have qualms about their own judgment. She tells them whether she will allow them to spend their own money. Today the trinket in question is a Maserati—$85k. Think of a low-end Ferrari, but still very cool, and wicked fast. 

So,” she says to the caller, “you need a useless and expensive car.” (Tell us what you really think, Suze.) “And your wife doesn’t like this idea, am I right?”

“She told me to call you. We agreed that we would follow your advice.”

So Suze is not just teaching the truth of suffering; she is moving on to the second noble truth, the cause of suffering: grasping, aversion, ignoring cause and effect. Thinking that a Maserati will make you happy is greed, regretting the loss of value of your house is aversion. Suze teaches by reason, as the Buddha did: “Well,” she says to the caller, “show me the money. how are you going to pay for this thing?” If a woman is on the line she calls her “Girlfriend,” which perhaps makes the medicine go down a little easier.

The man who wants a Maserati tells how much income he has (a lot), and expenses, also a lot. He confesses that he is going to put half the price of the car against the house. This is the high moment for Suze. “You are going to mortgage your house for a car you don’t even need?”

This is the (second) noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is craving that leads to rebirth, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there, craving existence, craving nonexistence. 

The camera zooms in on Suze’s face and her teeth are bared and her cheeks are rounded like a temple guardian’s. A stamp appears at an angle on a screen just as it would on a loan application. “Denied!” she snarls, gleefully. “Here,” she says, “I’ll say it again, Denied!” and again the camera focuses on her lips and bulging cheeks and the stamp reappears. The camera pans back, she smiles for the new moment, and on we go: “Ruth, in Cincinnati. What’s up, girlfriend?”

Suze believes in giving you information, and in encouraging you to get information. In her world you earn what you get; according to her bio she started out as a waitress and lived for a while in a bus. Now that we don’t have lots of money, our dream world has become a form of suffering that makes no sense. People want someone to explain that these are new times, more sober and perhaps more understandable. Suze is not dispensing financial advice, she is dispensing reason. In this way her show helps to redefine what kindness can be. This is one of the roles of a goddess in disguise—an encounter with her makes suffering comprehensible, which is why we seek such an encounter.

After teaching that suffering exists and comes from ignoring cause and effect, Suze begins to teach the third noble truth—that a change of heart is possible. You might find you don’t need everything you think you need. It might be good not to get the Maserati, because grasping is itself a kind of suffering that continues even after you have the car. And if you are not distracted by the car and how to pay for it, you might set off after freedom.

This is the (third) noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it.

Most people appreciate money because it’s useful. Yet there are plenty of unhappy rich people, who are trying to buy their own personal Truman Show. So awakening is even more useful than money. Waking up is a different way of understanding in which all the meanings change. To wake up is to notice what is really going on and what we really want.

Meanwhile, in India

Under the influence of the gods in disguise, the Buddha tried hard to escape from the delusions of the Truman Show he grew up in. He tried to escape physically, by leaving home in the dead of night, and mentally, by meditating. The problem at first was that wherever he went, he took his delusions with him. Meditation can be just as full of wanting and greed as life at a palace. So after pushing this path to its logical end, which in Buddha’s case turned out to be exhaustion and near starvation, he stopped everything. He stopped doing and started noticing. Noticing is the beginning of the end of suffering.

But the story needs another emissary from the heavens, and she arrives, as a milkmaid, in the nick of time. Her name is Sujata and she is a Buddhist heroine. The milkmaid has a dream in which she is instructed to milk many cows and feed the milk to half that number and to milk them, and feed the milk to half that number and so on. She takes the rich milk and mixes it with rice and carries it in a golden bowl into the forest. This is as far as her dream instructions have taken her, so it is an act of trust when she walks into the woods with the bowl of milk.

There she meets the Buddha, who is so much skin and bone that he seems to be giving off a faint light, and she thinks at first that he is a tree spirit. She hands him the bowl, saying, “May this milk give you as much pleasure to drink as it gave me to make.” He drinks, goes on to meditate through the night, and is fully enlightened when grace comes with the dawn. He declares that he has lived in the house of suffering but now he sees the builder and has broken the roof beams of that house.

Sujata’s gift changes the world—she breaks us out of the dream we have been living. “May you take as much pleasure in drinking this gift as I took in making it.” She is not just handing out food, she is giving a blessing and a welcome into a larger, more generous, less selfish way. This milk rice she brings is a child’s food, comfort food; something innocent and delightful. Sujata indicates that it’s good to find out what you really want. If you follow Sujata you’ll do what you love.

This is the fourth noble truth. The Buddha described this path in very specific terms, but you can also see it as a simple question and response: How can we live in the world and care for ourselves and one another? Not through craving what isn’t here, but through noticing that when craving drops away, kindness and joy appear.

This is the (fourth) noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is the noble eightfold path.

Buddhism is based in reality. When we lose what we thought we had, our panic asks, “What will happen to little me?” and any answer to that question is likely to be overwhelming and shadowed. It is human to panic out of habit, without asking ourselves what is really going on and what our true, deep reaction is. But the gods in disguise show that sudden change can happen in a positive direction. The path out of suffering is closely related to accuracy, to noticing what really is, as opposed to what we first thought. To ask for our true, deep reaction is to step beyond the gods and into our own, handmade lives. It is like drinking the milk and rice. Here’s an example from a woman who notices a change of heart that came unasked for, just by paying better attention to what is really going on, as opposed to what she thought must be going on:

I have a fundamental underlying happiness even though many things, some of them hard, have been happening—difficulties in my family, breaking up with my partner, money. It’s been quite a year. Within that, even the word “happiness” does not convey it. Happiness suggests an emotion and what I have is more like a fundamental state. Every day is a good day. Something victorious about that; the rafters breaking open.

When a friend lost more than half his money with the assistance of the fraudulent Mr. Madoff, he said, “Oh well, it might be interesting. I might have to think about working differently.” Equanimity isn’t indifference, or denial; it’s an orientation to reality, the ability to turn quickly. What is real is more interesting than what might have been.

In the story of the Buddha, there is a progression of insight. First we realize that what happens to others will happen to us. And that loss and dying and so on must be a part of being human. The next step of the realization is that what is happening to others is happening to us. We can move from being worried about ourselves to being concerned about others. Kindness appears even more suddenly than money disappears.

Empathy is a feature of the product we call consciousness, something as fundamental as loss. Instead of asking, “Why is there so much sorrow?” we might ask, “Why is there so much kindness?” 

And it doesn’t take time to develop empathy, since it is already here. We just have to notice it. Empathy is natural— we naturally enter the minds of others. When a chimp watches another chimp eat a banana, the neurons in her brain associated with lifting the fruit to her mouth become active. When we see someone who is worried, we feel it. So the empathy is there, it is fundamental to consciousness and it takes no time to cross from one being to another. The Greeks called thought “winged” and imagination is even faster. The thought, “What will happen to little me?” blocks our feeling for each other. “How will I help?” opens the possibility of gifts, of gods in disguise, of freedom.

Mentoring is also basic to being a mammal, it’s something in our genes, and the bodhisattva path depends on this. The question, “How can I wake up from the dream I am having in the night?” Naturally drifts into, “How can I help others wake up from their dreams?” Suze Orman, a messenger in disguise, is doing her bit, asking, “What can I do to be of service?”

The Buddha’s big discovery was that most of what happens to us happens in the mind and that you can change your mind in no time. You just step out of the dream and in one motion you leave the Truman Show. Then it’s a new world, full of the brightness of what is real.

—John Tarrant

Link to original article: The Buddha and Suze Orman