Buddhism and soundbites

Last week I was on BBC Radio 4 again, taking part in the History of Ideas series. We were investigating four different perspectives on the question of how to live a good life, and I was tasked with exploring the Buddha’s four noble truths. I decided to focus on the idea – expressed in the second of the truths – that suffering is caused by craving. I talked to Ani Rinchen Khandro, a local Buddhist nun, about the role of renunciation in fostering non-attachment, and the producer also interviewed Willem Kuyken from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. I think the overall result was pretty good given the restrictions of the format. You can make your own mind up here.

The process of making this recording and of hearing people’s responses to it has got me thinking about the perils of trying to reduce Buddhism to soundbites. One Buddhist audience member, for example, objected to my summary of the first noble truth in Monday’s roundtable programme to ‘life is suffering’, preferring ‘life is a place where lasting satisfaction is not possible’. On one level I completely agree, for the simple phrase I used can give the misleading impression that Buddhism is thoroughly pessimistic. However, I cannot bring myself to translate a single word – dukkha – with a long phrase, and there are limited alternatives in terms of single-word translations. Some people prefer “life is unsatisfactory”. Well, I’d say the fact that everyone we love – and eventually ourselves too – will get sick and die is a little more than “unsatisfactory”. In my longer programme on Thursday I was able to give a more nuanced account of this Buddhist teaching, but even there I necessarily had to reduce the complexity to simple statements.

It is ironic that I have, in packaging up big Buddhist ideas into a media-friendly format, been guilty of the sort of generalisations that I am constantly warning my students to avoid. I have recently been commenting on student essay plans, very often reminding students to be careful when they make sweeping statements about Buddhism. Anytime someone writes “Buddhists believe that…” I immediately respond, “Which Buddhists? Where? When? Do all of them believe the same? What is your evidence? And what are the limits of this evidence?”

And yet we need generalisations too, perhaps especially in teaching. While we encourage students to appreciate the great internal variety in the Buddhist tradition, and the fact that not all Buddhists see life or the path in the same way, we also teach them potted summaries of key teachings, histories, and practices. I have already heard from a couple of schoolteachers who plan to use last week’s programme in RE lessons, which is very pleasing to hear. I myself will probably use the delightful little animated summary of the four noble truths, narrated by Stephen Fry, that was produced to accompany my programme.

So, as always, we come back to the idea of a middle way, this time between over-generalisations and over-complications. Communication must be tailored to the medium and audience. And I hope that, whatever its limitations, my little programme at least made some more people aware of the richness of Buddhist ideas for living.

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About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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