Switzerland: An old Simpsons episode appears out of nowhere, just as I’m beginning to despair here in the long journey through Central European TV channels; one end to the other, then back again. The samsara of television. So I do find something I can identify with in Homer’s world view, but afterwards, I notice, there’s this strange, unreal quality; the Simpsons effect. Everything else on TV seems changed and it takes some time for this altered perception to pass. The way I find to emerge from the ennui mind is through recognition of the Noble Truth of Suffering: dukkha, the characteristic ruminations of thought, same old thing, and I can just say: oh, that’s what it is, let it go and be done with it. But, how about poor old Homer? I wonder if the creators of the Simpsons ever properly considered that Homer might have a basic understanding of the Noble Truth of Suffering? It seems unkind if they didn’t. He’s so close to it but never quite gets there.
Whether it’s intended or not, Homer is at the very beginning of the spiritual search. He is pre-first Noble Truth, doesn’t know this is dukkha; he doesn’t know what it is. He hates it, he loves it, he’s indifferent to it, he is in denial. He’s so totally immersed in the experience of it, there’s just a dull glow of obscured awareness – enough to see that this is the fundamental human condition? Probably not, Homer is so busy ‘wanting’ things to be different from what they are, he doesn’t realise that this involvement with tanha craving/desire is exactly the reason he’s in the unpleasant situation he’s in.
He tries to see beyond desire and sees only more desire. The idea of ’giving up desire’ triggers the conditioning that desire is ‘bad’. It does stuff to Homer’s head. That’s why he got the idea inverted somehow and managed to explain it to himself that giving up desire is ‘bad’. This means he’s not able to see that (even if he did get it the right way round) we don’t give up desire because it’s ‘bad’, we give it up because it’s what’s causing the pain.
The possibility of release: 3. nirodha [there is a way out], and: 4. magga [this is how you do it], these things are not on his to-do list. Homer has the wrong idea, completely, but I have to remember he is a cartoon character – and I have to consciously remind myself about this. There is no ‘Homer’, there is no ‘self’, there is only the driving mechanism of craving and attachment. Homer can’t see it in this way because he’s conditioned to believe that if there’s desire, it must be happening to ‘somebody’ and that’s Homer. So, it looks like the way to go is to gratify that desire immediately, rather than stop and look at how it came to be like this.
Everyone would be very happy if the creators of Homer could get around to thinking about Homer’s predicament: what does it take for him to get closer to his desire urge and look at what’s really going on there? Without responding to the tugs and pulls, just observing, he’d see that the desire is there because it’s in the nature of desire to be like that. Homer’s curiosity, a dim glimmer of wisdom, is all it needs to clear away the ignorance – there is understanding and desire loosens the tenacity of its hold on him.
Accepting the Noble Truth of Suffering means he can let it go. He’s not confused by it or perplexed by the fact that he doesn’t know what’s wrong. He knows what it is. Knowledge displaces ignorance, so he can let it go. The difficulty of being bound up in difficulty is suddenly not there anymore. Instead there’s the familiar feeling that things are fine just as they are and something about this says to him there can be a profound awakening to the allrightness of just being in the moment.
This small glimpse of the innate quality of peace all beings share might be enough for Homer to seek the Path to Liberation.
‘The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism, that there is suffering in life, was enormously important to me. No one had ever said it out loud. That had been my experience, of course, but no one had ever talked about it. I didn’t know what to do with all the fear and emotions within, and here was the Buddha saying this truth right out loud. I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t weird, and I didn’t have to feel isolated. For the first time I didn’t feel so utterly alone, like I had a shameful secret…. Then I learned the next three noble truths – I could do something about the suffering. I could change how I dealt with it. I could approach my pain with compassion instead of bitterness, in community rather than isolation. I could change my relationship to pleasure. The Buddha offered a very simple, pragmatic tool — meditation – to transform one’s relationship to everything.’ [Sharon Salzberg, except from an interview in Huffington Post Aug 30 2012]