Four “noble truths” underpin Buddhist philosophy. The first has always struck me with the most force. It has a cutting quality. Strikes the bell of truth cleanly.
“Life is suffering.”
The idea is straightforward. Everything that lives, suffers—it’s simply the natural state of existence for all living things. As natural as breathing. It’s part of the deal and should be expected. (Though the remaining three noble truths are all about eliminating suffering, oddly enough.)
There’s real wisdom in this. To remind ourselves as often as possible that whatever suffering we’ve been doing lately, it’s essentially the same basic component of life, in various forms. The one that has always been there.
Remind yourself enough times, in enough different situations, and you’ll start to recognise the pattern. The same baseline experience. An unpleasant and primal motivator that sticks to all life forms.
Wisdom taken the wrong way can lead you into danger, though, and the first noble truth of buddhism is easy to misunderstand. For example, suffering might be unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean we should accept suffering being inflicted on ourselves or others.
Better would be to accept that suffering will find you, whatever: so you might as well make a stand and suffer fighting for things you stand for (and against). Choose your suffering and you can take control over what you get back from it.
Seen through that lens, it means don’t allow suffering where it can be stopped, but equally don’t cling onto the idea of eliminating suffering from your life. Stay in fighting shape, cause suffering is going nowhere. Find worthy battles and get into Good Trouble.
That’s the kind of attitude I think can be found in buddhism’s first noble truth. A beautiful fighting spirit, underwritten by good things. Based on an acceptance that suffering is a component of life that can’t be removed.
As always, if you can find a principle worthy of discussion, the cinema will have spoken on it. Countless examples of most any viewpoint can be found in films. A few jump to mind here.
Training Day (2001)
You gotta control your smiles and cries, because that's all you have and nobody can take that away from you.
Rookie cop Jake Hoyt shares his mantra with two older corrupt cops, one of who is meant to be mentoring him. It serves as the moral axis of the film, establishing Jake's nature as wise and good. His wisdom accepts the inevitability of suffering as “cries,” and asserts the importance of taking control over them.
Saint Maud (2021)
Never waste your pain.
Maud is a pious nurse who self-inflicts pain in order to further her spiritual ambitions. This would be an example, it’s safe to say, of taking the “control your suffering” concept too far. When she is not impaling her feet with nails and walking around town, though, the core of the concept that she is obsessed with, of making your suffering “count” and getting something good back from it, is sound.
The Grand Hotel Budapest (2014)
You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.
Monsieur Gustave H. is the eccentric owner of a fancy mountainside resort. He strives to live the good life, but never shirks from a fight (surrounded by fascists and rich loungers, he is never short of one). Underneath a refined exterior he has a deep understanding of evil. He looks soft, but is actually always ready to throw away his luxuries or put his life on the line for a principle. He is a man who never forgets that life is suffering.