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Zen Meditation: It's not what you think!

Suffering

According to the tradition, when the Buddha was born an astrologer told his father that the baby Siddartha would become either a great monarch or that he would retire from a worldly life and become a great religious teacher. His father, King Suddhodana, did not want to lose his son so he did his best to keep Siddartha at home. He did everything he could to keep his son in luxury and to avert any pain or discomfort.

But this was to no avail. Eventually, inevitably, Siddartha saw people suffering disease, old age and death. Then when he saw a monk and learned that the monk had abandoned the worldly life in order to go beyond worldly suffering, he decided that he would also do this. That he would leave his comfortable situation and seek out the end of suffering, and that he would not give up until he succeeded. What happened after he took this decision up until his enlightenment is a wonderful story, but I am not going to tell it just now.

After his enlightenment, in his first sermon, he taught the four noble truths. They are the noble truth of suffering, the noble truth of the cause of suffering, the noble truth of the cessation of suffering, and the noble truth of the 8-fold path that leads to the cessation of suffering.

It is from this original teaching that we hear the Buddhism teaches “Life is Suffering.” And we conclude that Buddhism is a joyless and pessimistic religion. Isn't it curious that we see so many great Buddhists who seem to be happy and joyful people? What the Buddha actually said was that he taught the truth of suffering and the truth of the end of suffering. For him, it was the fact of suffering that brought him to practice. I believe the same thing is true for most of us. It is suffering that puts us on the cushion. How is it that we can comprehend the inevitability of suffering and keep going.

I think I have mentioned before why I think it's important to remember that the Buddha taught in a different language than the one in which the sutras were written, and obviously that was a different language than the one we are speaking now. How can we be sure that the word or words that he used mean the same as our word suffering? We can't. In the sutras, the Pali word that was used is dukkha, and although the Buddha didn't actually teach in Pali, I think it's safe to say that Pali comes close to what he was saying. People who understand Pali tell us that the word dukkha does include what we mean when we say suffering, but it is actually much broader. Some Buddhist teachers say that we should stop trying to translate it because all the translations fall short. We should just use the term dukkha and learn what it means and add that to our vocabulary. Really the term dukkha covers everything from extreme pain and anguish to the subtle almost imperceptible sense that things aren't quite right.

Here are some of the definitions of that word: suffering, stress, discomfort, disease, disappointment, sorrow, affliction, pain, anxiety, dissatisfaction, anguish, misery, frustration. In the Buddha's first teaching he said,

"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, ageing is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha, separation from the loved is dukkha, not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.”
It is taught that there are three categories of dukkha. There is dukkha dukkha, the suffering of suffering. This is common everyday stress and suffering. Physical pain, illness, old age and death, floods, fires, accidents, starvation, violence, the unavoidable anguish and sadness of the world.

Then there is the suffering of change. We search for something steadfast and reliable, but we can't find it anywhere. We may have a happy feeling or experience, but it doesn't last. Then when it changes and we experience dissatisfaction or suffering. Not only that, but right in the middle of the happy experience, there is still some awareness that it won't last,  and this bothers us. The American blues singer Fats Waller was referring to this when he said, “Somebody shoot me while I'm happy!”

The third category is the dukkha of ignorance: not knowing, or not accepting who we are and what the world is. The anxiety and frustration of living in a world that refuses to be the way we are convinced it should be. The feeling that we don't quite belong.

Clearly, some kinds of suffering are inevitable. Buddhism doesn't promise us that a stubbed toe or a toothache won't hurt, or that with spiritual practice we can avoid natural disasters. But Buddhist practice can help us see how much of our suffering is our own creation, something that we add on, and that this is avoidable or unnecessary. One teacher says “Pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional.”

In one sutra, the Buddha compares this with being shot by 2 arrows.

“When an untaught worldling is touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feelings, a bodily and a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart.”
The sutra goes on to say that this person tries to find their way out of this mental suffering with distractions or seeking pleasure and that this only makes matters worse. On the other hand, a “well taught noble disciple” of the Buddha does not resist or resent the unavoidable pain of the first arrow and therefore does not add mental suffering to the physical suffering or get involved in a frustrating chain of attempts to escape the inescapable.

Let me give you an illustration. About 10 years ago I was very much in love with a woman, you could say crazy in love with her. For a time she felt the same way about me, but as you might guess, something happened. She called it off.  I was very upset. You could say I felt a lot of dukkha.

At about that time I went to a retreat out of town. The Bellingham Zen Practice Group arranged hosts for people from out of town. As I got to know my host, I learned that she had a teenage son who was a hemophiliac and that her son had contracted HIV through a transfusion when he was only 12 years old. I could only imagine how terrible it would be to have something like that happen to my child. She was very concerned for her son, but she was not out of control. At one point she said, “I wouldn't wish this sort of thing on anyone, but I like the person I am now much more than the person I was before this happened.”

I felt deeply ashamed. I was having trouble with the fact that someone didn't feel about me the way I wanted them to, and this woman was coping with a threat to the life of her son. That helped me to see that the amount of suffering that I was feeling was something that I had added on to the situation. Once I heard a Mexican friend use the expression “drowning in a glass of water.” I was like that.

And having that realization didn't clear up my suffering, I continued with it but maybe that put a crack in it. A few weeks later I got up for work as usual, had a shower and was just shaving when I realized that something was missing. All of a sudden I remembered that I was supposed to be feeling upset, that I was supposed to be feeling really upset, because my girlfriend had left me. And as I thought that, it hit me how much it was my choice to feel upset. If I forgot to keep feeding into it, it would be gone. Even that realization didn't stop my suffering, but the crack did get a little bigger. I could see that being upset was my choice, even as I continued to choose it.

Let's go back to the sutra for a minute. The Buddha said that the “well taught noble disciple” does not resist or resent the first arrow. Neither does he ignore it. Herein lies the key. First of all, Buddhism teaches “Don't set up the target for the arrow.” Not resisting and not resenting doesn't mean allowing the world to walk all over us. We strive to approach whatever we are experiencing with attention and awareness. And we strive to act with wisdom and compassion. We are not looking for more suffering in order to prove our concept of the Buddha's teaching. We're not trying to prove anything.

Even so, stress and suffering will visit us. We will experience dukkha. We don't need to resign ourselves or be victimized by our experience, but we do need to acknowledge it. Refusing to acknowledge it shoots the second arrow. Acknowledging it helps us to skillfully observe the wound so that we can remove the arrow and heal the injury.

When the Buddha taught the noble truth of dukkha, he taught that dukkha is unavoidable. He taught that wherever we go, whatever we see, in all conditioned existence, which is to say the whole world we live in, we will encounter suffering, stress, dissatisfaction. This is just how things are. It's nobody's fault. This is a really important point. We haven't done something wrong to cause dukkha to arise. We should not blame or punish ourselves.

But we can be responsible for how we meet dukkha. When dukkha comes up against clinging, it sticks. As we learn to let go, we deprive dukkha of a place to stick. It may still be there, and we may be aware of it, but it doesn't trouble us so much.

On the cushion, we just sit, acknowledge what's there, and return to the breath and the posture. Off the cushion it's not much different. When anxious or stressful thoughts and feelings arise, we acknowledge them and then return to the present moment, our bodily posture, our breath, and whatever it is that's in front of us. Don't take my word for it, try it for a month and then ask yourself or ask your partner or your co workers, whether it has made a difference, whether you feel better & the people around you get some of this too.

© 2006, Burai Rick Spencer
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