The Four Noble Truths
The second Noble Truth is that there is an origin of suffering. It comes from somewhere.
“[The] teaching [of interdependent co-arising] applied to history or nature indicates that we are all conditioned, historical beings, as are our cultures and civilizations. They are not absolutes to be uncritically valued and maintained. In connection with Nature, Buddhism is compatible with science, because it understands the principle of cause and effect and the evolving nature of things. All reality is a flow whose essential quality is energy down to the smallest particle or wave in micro-scientific analysis or the evolution of life and the expansion of the universe in the macro-world” (from The Central Concept of Buddhism: The Teaching of Interdependent Co-arising By Alfred Bloom, Emeritus Professor, University of Hawaii, on the American Buddhist Study Center website). Interdependent co-arising tells us that one thing depends on another – there is a cause and an effect. For example, in regard to the four Noble Truths: we suffer because we don’t see reality clearly, and the reason we don’t see reality clearly is because our minds are clouded by desire. Desire, or “clinging,” is the cause of our suffering.
So we’re not supposed to have any desires? That’s impossible! you might say. Well, it’s definitely not easy. That’s why you don’t hear about too many people overcoming it and finding enlightenment. Especially in our capitalistic society, where desire is considered healthy for our economy, and good for our state, people are encouraged to want more, not less. We look down on people without ambition, who are content just where they are. But Buddhism, and Virginia Woolf, suggest that this might not be the “right view.” Let me give you a personal example that might make it more clear.
Right now, I am looking for a job (or multiple jobs, as the case may be). I need a way to make some money. At least, I really want a way to make some money, and, perhaps even more importantly, I really want something impressive to say to both my own and my husband’s friends, family, and co-workers when they (lovingly) ask about what I “do” and what I write. I want to have an answer that deflects and prevents comments about how I’m going to write a NY Times Bestseller (probably not). The fact that I have this desire, and that it’s not being fulfilled, is really causing me to suffer right now. The more days that go by without any strong, definite responses to my applications, the tighter my mind grips this idea: I must have a job! Nothing will be okay until I have a job! Everything is on hold until then.
But the truth is that actually I do not have to have a job to live. Yes, it is a financially and emotionally responsible thing for me to keep looking for one (and in particular, one that I will enjoy), but in reality my husband has a job that can (albeit just barely) support us both. I have health insurance, plenty of food, a comfortable home, and am in no danger of losing any of these things because of my work situation. All in all, I am better than fine: I am well loved and taken care of. I even have writing and thinking and study that occupies my mind and makes me happy. If the society I live in dictated that intellectual fulfillment, rather than money, were to be the basis of our self-esteem, I'd be doing great!
But it doesn't, and so I want a job, and everything that (I hope) will come with it: new clothes, a haircut (ohmygod so expensive in NYC!!), and respect – both from myself and from others. Buddhist thought doesn’t suggest that I should give up looking for a job, or that my desire to get one is necessarily a bad thing. But what it does suggest is that I look at the situation more honestly. It is actually my desire – my thoughts about the situation, the way my mind runs to all the “if onlys” and “what ifs” and “must nows!” and "what will they thinks" – that are actually causing my suffering, not the situation itself. Buddhism helps me acknowledge that, and in so doing, get some perspective on my suffering, and thus some relief, too.
The same truth about clinging to desires can be discussed in regard to the characters in The Waves. Woolf spends a lot of time outlining what each character desires, and looking at them, and how their desire colors and affects their lives (in comparison, say, to Rhoda, who has no “face,” i.e. no façade, or Bernard, who has blissful moments free from desire) have helped me understand the second Noble Truth better. I think it will help you too; but you'll have to wait until tomorrow.
Until then, consider: what are the causes of your suffering? Remember to ask yourself whether it is really someone else, or a situation that is causing your suffering, or if it is your reaction and attitude about it.