Suffering Exists

suffering exists

The Pali word for suffering is Dukkha and is translated as dissatisfactoriness or dissatisfaction. In our most recent post entitled “How to become enlightened in 30 days”, we made reference to the Buddha’s teaching that ‘suffering exists’. We have since received a number of emails asking us to elucidate on this point further. Today’s post is therefore a brief introduction to the Buddhist teachings on suffering.

‘Suffering exists’ represents the first of what are commonly known as the ‘Four Noble Truths’ (Pali: cattāri ariyasaccāni). The Four Noble Truths was the subject of the first discourse given by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. The teaching was given to the five ascetics (the Buddha’s former companions) whilst the Buddha was residing in the Deer Park in Isipatana (now called Sarnath). The teaching of the Four Noble Truths is that: (i) suffering exists, (ii) there is a cause to suffering, (iii) there is cessation of suffering, and (iv) there is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering.

Although there are (obviously) four components to the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths, each of the noble truths contains the ‘truth’ of each of the other three components. For example, if we assert that suffering exists, then because of the law of causality, it is automatically implied that suffering has a cause (i.e., the second truth). The same applies to the third noble truth – if we assert that there is cessation of suffering (or Nirvana if you prefer), then it is likewise implied that Nirvana also has a cause (which is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering – the fourth noble truth).

Similarly, because suffering (and every other mentally designated concept) exists only as a relative notion, when we assert that suffering exists, the notion of non-suffering (i.e., Nirvana) is produced by default. The same applies to examples such as ‘here and there’, ‘this and that’, ‘high and low’, and ‘hot and cold’. ‘Over here’ exists in dependence on ‘over there’. If we take away ‘over here’, then we also take away ‘over there’. If there is suffering, there is also Nirvana. If there is no suffering, there is no Nirvana.

Thus, although we are not suggesting that this should be done, because all noble truths are implicit within each individual noble truth, we could actually condense the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths down to just ‘suffering exists’.

Suffering Exists

This first noble truth of suffering exists contains three principal categories of suffering: (a) the suffering of suffering, (b) the suffering of change, and (c) all-pervasive suffering.

a)    The suffering of suffering

The suffering of suffering is the most obvious category of suffering and refers to discomforts such as poverty, hunger, disease, injury, and so forth. This human body is extremely fragile and even a small bump or cut can give rise to unbearable pain. This is suffering in its grossest aspect and even animals recognise this form of suffering. The majority of people have a tangible fear of this type of suffering and experience discomfort even at the thought of it! We are acutely aware of and sensitive to this first category of suffering – suffering definitely exists!

b)    The suffering of change

Unlike the suffering of suffering, people tend to be less aware of the suffering of change. Despite this, the general tendency seems to be that people make a conscious effort to underpin their whole life with this form of suffering. Few people are truly satisfied with their lot – people always desire more, something bigger, something better, or something different. For example, imagine that we start saving our pennies to buy our first little car. We’re young, money is tight, and car insurance is super expensive. However, we really need something to get us from A to B. We frequently comment to ourselves: “if only I had a little car, it would make all the difference”. Eventually we do a good job of convincing ourselves that life cannot function without the car and voila, we do it – our first and very own motor vehicle:

car

However, as we get a little older, we are influenced by our peers and before we know it, our beautiful little car isn’t so beautiful any more. We ‘need’ something better and we make excuses to justify this ‘need’. Then, before we know what’s happening, we’ve done it again – out with the old and in with the new:

car 2

Gosh, this is better, wait till my friends see this” we think to ourselves. However, once again, it doesn’t take too long before our mind starts telling us that we ‘need’ something even more comfortable. After all, we now have an ‘important’ job and must make the ‘right’ impression! Once again, we manage to convince ourselves to visit the car dealership and hey presto, we’ve done it again:

car 3

Wow, I’ve really done it this time – now people will understand who and what I am – this is really going to change my life – people can’t ignore me now”! However before long, the mind gets to work and begins to nag again: “Hey, this isn’t you after all – it’s not the image that suits you best. Perhaps it was at one time, but now people will think that you’re unimaginative and boring”. You resist for as long as you can but eventually the mind gets its own way: “People really are looking at me as though I am dull, stuffy, and boring – I really ‘need’ to change this car”:

car 5

Aaah – this is definitely me! At least for now”!

We play out this scenario with almost every aspect of our lives. Dominated by the conditioned mind, our desires, thoughts, and feelings get the better of us each and every time.

 

a)    All-pervasive suffering

All-pervasive suffering acts as the basis for the previous two types of suffering and is the root of all suffering. In general, people are totally unaware of this form of suffering. All-pervasive suffering comprises two basic elements: attachment and aversion.  Attachment and aversion govern all of our choices and decisions and arise because of a deeply-rooted belief that the ‘self’ or ‘I’ exist autonomously. With obstinate determination, people believe that the ‘self’ is fixed, unchanging, real, and unending. It is the ‘I’ that becomes attached to phenomena and it is the ‘I’ that has aversion toward phenomena. We, as human beings, cling to this ‘I’ and the reality that the ‘I’ creates. The ever present ‘I’ is inevitably followed by ‘me’ and ‘mine’! So we could say that the root of all suffering is the deluded mind – a mind that insists that the ‘self’ is real and independent. We discussed this in our recent post entitled “The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners” (see the section entitled ‘Ontological Addiction’), and we will visit it again in forthcoming posts.

 

The wisdom of suffering

In order to progress on the spiritual path, we need to become deeply aware of both the existence and nature of suffering. This, in part, is the wisdom that we referred to in our post entitled “Meditation: A Three-fold Approach”. We should aim to see suffering in every aspect of human existence including birth (because birth gives rise to sickness, old age, and death). This is not an extreme attitude whereby a person becomes infatuated with suffering. Rather, it’s the case that if we want to let go of something, we first need to become aware of it. Becoming aware of our suffering means that we can begin to objectify it. We can begin to loosen up and even start to foster an appreciation and sense of humour towards the suffering that we experience. Without suffering (attachment and aversion), we could never attain liberation. Thus, although the spiritual practitioner certainly doesn’t go out of their way to experience suffering, they do their best to take it onto the path and use it to propel them forward.

 

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

How to Become Enlightened in 30 Days

How to Become Enlightened in 30 Days

pulling wool

If you had dedicated yourself to spiritual practice for many decades and had reached a level of realisation that meant you were only one month away from attaining full enlightenment, then it would definitely be possible to attain enlightenment in only 30 days. However, for ordinary people like you and us, we’re sorry to disappoint, but the prospect of reaching enlightenment in just 30 days is not very realistic. In fact, enticements and promises like the title of this post are indicative of what has become the spiritual market place of modern times. To different extents and via both subtle and blatant means, religious organisations and so-called spiritual gurus often go to great lengths to tender for our undivided loyalty and blind adherence to whatever dogma they might be broadcasting.

The problem with promising people quick and easy routes to salvation, a deity that can absolve them of all their sins, or even instant enlightenment, is that such promises can never be upheld. An approach like this plays on people’s basic insecurity and effectively denies them the opportunity to shoulder their responsibility to practise and cultivate spiritual awareness for themselves. The truth is, since the very beginning, we have become so enslaved to the ego-mind, so self-addicted, that there are now countless layers of thick-set ignorance that need to be removed before we can eliminate all of our suffering. Nobody other than ourselves can do this for us. The problem is ours alone and it will remain a problem until we decide to do something about it.

According to HH XIV Dalai Lama, we should have reservations about anything offering the best, the quickest, the easiest, and the cheapest way to spiritual fulfilment. Rather than pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes and offering them an easy way out, we personally believe that a truthful approach is required. Only when we are willing to see and accept the scale of the mess we have created for ourselves – the huge pile of faeces that we have each deposited on our own doorstep – can we begin to take steps in order to rectify the situation. This is what the Buddha was asking us to become aware of when he taught the First Noble Truth: ‘suffering exists’.i

closed mind 4Before we engage in any kind of advanced meditative practice, we need to become established in the practice of observing the mind in all of its facets (i.e., mindfulness) so that we can more fully appreciate the extent and nature of our own suffering. However, in these modern times, most people are so immersed in their own suffering, that they are totally ignorant of just how unruly and narrow their own minds have become. Perhaps this is why there is the saying ‘ignorance is bliss’. However, in reality, ignorance is far from a state of bliss. Ignorance causes people to act in increasingly unskilful ways. Ultimately, ignorance causes the mind to continue to implode upon itself – becoming ever narrower and narrower. Just as there is no limit to how much the mind can expand, there is also no limit as to how much it can contract. Narrow minds tend to live life as though taking part in a soap opera or game show. Narrow minds not only harm the individual but also society as a whole. Just look at how many wars and conflicts have been caused by narrow and self-absorbed minds.

Taking the above into account and from a certain perspective, it could actually be argued that the increasing number of people who experience psychological problems such as stress, anxiety, and depression are actually in a fortunate situation. People in this situation cannot continue to pretend that the soap opera or game show they are currently living is a wise and skilful way in which to conduct their lives. Something is not quite right. Ego’s game doesn’t quite work. Maybe anxiety and depression and other such chronic psychological illnesses are a way of telling ourselves that we need to stop, breathe, slow down, and change the way in which we live. Perhaps that small voice within us, that has been suffocated for so long, is finally beginning to waken up and is crying out for spiritual nourishment. In a recent blog entitled ‘The Biopsychosocialspiritual Model of Mental Illness’, we discussed how spiritual factors play a vital role in our overall levels of psychological wellbeing. From this standpoint, feelings such as stress, sadness, discontent, and anger could actually be an opportunity in disguise – maybe they are the “divine sign” that we have been waiting for all along. They could become our greatest teachers – the raw material that we work with and transform as we progress along the spiritual path.

If we listen to this inner voice and gradually turn the mind towards spiritual practice, then we can steadily begin to progress towards enlightenment. As we discussed in our recent blog entitled ‘The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners’, the important thing is not to make enlightenment into a goal. If we try too hard to attain enlightenment then we will never get anywhere. It will always remain a concept or an idea – something that exists out there somewhere and from which we are always separate. Therefore, the trick is just to take things one breath, one moment, and one step at a time. Try to be patient and consistent in your practice and take a long-term approach. Then, before you know it, you might find yourself in a position where you can predict your own enlightenment and where enlightenment is not as far away as you think! Perhaps you will see that it has been there all along – right here and right now.

tasting the fruit 3

i Within Buddhist philosophy, we find four basic forms of ‘suffering’: birth, sickness, old age, and death. We find also three principal categories of suffering: (i) the suffering of suffering, (ii) the suffering of change, and (iii) all-pervasive suffering (which forms the basis for the previous two). This latter category comprises attachment and aversion to things – especially to the ‘self’.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

The Practice of Impermanence: Learning how to be Alive

impermanence

The Practice of Impermanence: Learning how to be Alive

 In our most recent blog entitled “The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners”, at fourth place was the mistake of “Forgetting about death”. This section provoked some interesting comments and questions which we would now like to briefly address.

Not forgetting about death means to remember that all phenomena are impermanent. All things are in a constant state of flux. Moment by moment all things change. We were born, we live, and we will die. Absolutely nothing escapes the cycle of impermanence.

The Buddha said:

This existence of ours is as transient as autumn leaves. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.”

According to the Buddhist view, the law of impermanence represents one of the three ‘marks of existence’ (Pali: tilakkhana): (i) impermanence (anicca), (ii) suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and (iii) non-self (anattā).

As human beings, we have the tendency to ignore the fact that we have a limited time to walk upon the shoulders of this earth. Rather than simply experiencing the moment, we tend to superimpose our last moment onto this moment. That is to say, we cling on to whatever experience conditioned us yesterday, and we experience the ‘now’ through that conditioning. In this manner we prevent ourselves from experiencing the present moment exactly as it is.

Therefore, as meditation practitioners, we should aim to remember that whatever we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in this moment will never happen again – this ‘happening’ has gone by and if we were not aware of it, then we have missed it. So try not to sleep-walk through life. Give yourself a pinch to remind yourself that you are awake and life is happening now.

We are born with an in-breath, we leave this world with an out-breath. That which lies in between is this very precious thing called life, and this life can exist only because of the law of impermanence. In fact, it is actually thanks to impermanence that any phenomenon can come into existence.

Basically, impermanence has three aspects: (i) an outer aspect, (ii) an inner aspect, and (iii) a hidden aspect. These three aspects of impermanence constitute a temporal doorway to intuiting emptiness. This is different from the concept of interconnectedness which is a spatial doorway to intuiting emptiness. We shall discuss interconnectedness in a future post.

 

Outer Aspect

 impermanence practice 3 winter

The outer aspect of impermanence is its most obvious form. The fact that a phenomenon that existed at one point of time, does not exist at a future point in time implies that its nature is impermanent. Take the universe for example: the universe was born some 13.7 billion years ago and from it emerged our sun and the other planets in our solar system. They, in this moment of time, are all ‘existing’, but one day they will die. That which becomes has to dissolve, all that is born must die, all that is accumulated will be dispersed, and all meetings must end in separation – this is the nature of things, this is the law of impermanence.

We can, if we wish, easily recognise this outer aspect of impermanence in our daily lives. We can witness impermanence in our relationships – former friends become our enemies and people we previously didn’t get along with can become our close friends. One moment a person is happy but the next day the bubble bursts and they feel low again. The seasons come and go, as do the years, months, weeks, days, hours, and so forth. Impermanence is all around us.

 

Inner Aspect

 boddhi leaf

In order to best describe the inner aspect of impermanence, We have chosen a quote by Pema Chodron:

That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. It is the ordinary state of affairs. Everything is in process. Everything—every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate—are always changing, moment to moment.”

This is slightly different than the first aspect of impermanence in which we were basically saying that things which currently are, will ultimately not be. Here however, we are extending this logic a little further and are now saying that because phenomena ultimately cease to exist, they must be subject to an ongoing process of change that eventually leads to their dissolution.

You might think that the mountain is solid, has always been there, and will always be there. However, as any geologist or physical geographer will tell you, this is actually untrue. The mountain is changing all of the time. Furthermore,  every time you look at the mountain you and your perspective have also changed. So essentially, the mountain that you saw in the first instance can no longer be said to exist. Likewise, the ‘I’ that first apprehended the mountain no longer exists. If you try to impose your first experience of seeing the mountain onto the present moment, then effectively you are not experiencing the mountain as it is now. In exactly the same manner, this truth can be applied to your life in all of its aspects.

 

Hidden Aspect

 impermanence

The hidden aspect of impermanence is the most subtle aspect and, conceptually speaking, is perhaps a little more complex. Although it is called the ‘hidden aspect’ of impermanence, it is in fact in plain view of everyone but only few people have their eyes open enough in order to be aware of it.

This aspect of impermanence is probably best explained by a verse from a short doha (a kind of spiritual song) that we wrote:

Recognise that all phenomena are composite and therefore impermanent.

Yet if all phenomena are momentarily transient,

then what exists to undergo change?

And so recognise too the contradiction of impermanence!”

 

Tips on how to practise impermanence

Use impermanence as an antidote to ‘mental poisons’ and ‘mundane concerns’ by reflecting upon the following:

1)    Greed: No amount of wealth can be used to barter our way out of death. Whatever we have accumulated, we will have to leave behind.

2)    Power: Not even the General of the strongest army can overpower the process of death.

3)    Fame: No amount of followers or reputation can protect us at the end of our life. It doesn’t matter who you think you are – death has no interest.

4)    Desire: All phenomena, no matter how beautiful and attractive, are subject to the process of decay (change) and death.

5)    Anger: Where this involves another party, try viewing both angry parties 100 years from now – is there really any point to anger?

6)    Procrastination: Try not to put off until tomorrow because tomorrow may never arrive.

Integrate impermanence into your meditation/contemplation by reflecting upon the following:

1)    As suggested in our post entitled ‘Life is a Precious Happening’, contemplate the preciousness of this life and all that happens in it. Each life on this earth is extraordinarily fragile and unique. The beat of a heart is all that separates life and death. So do not squander this precious gift of life.

2)    In a similar manner, contemplate all of the conditions that were necessary in order for this life to come in to existence. Things exist only as a result of the complex interplay of innumerable causes and conditions. We exist in dependence upon the sun, stars, moons, planets, and every other living being upon this planet. Without any one of these ‘happenings’ this life now would simply not be.

3)    Understand that the past is a memory never to occur again. The future is a fantasy that never actually happens. All that exists within the scope of experience is to be found in the here and now. However, as referred to above, if the past is only a memory and does not exist, and the future is only a fantasy which will never arrive, then does the here and now actually exist?

4)    Try to recognise that impermanence flows through all phenomena. Begin by looking at your thoughts, emotions, perceptions, the words you have spoken, and the words you have chosen not to speak. Observe how they too are transient in nature – especially if you choose not to cling onto them.

5)    Contemplate the uncertainty of life and the inevitability of death. Death is part of the process of change. Just as birth gives rise to death, death gives rise to birth. This is the cycle of existence.

Practising impermanence correctly will certainly bring great joy and is a very liberating experience. By allowing the realisation of impermanence to infuse our being, we will gradually learn not to hold onto things too tightly. This means that when the things we love are present we can cherish them even more, but when they dissolve we can let go of them more freely. Just remember, every time we do something, that will be the last time we do it. The recognition of this will invest the things we do and say with great meaning and joy. We no longer have to sleep-walk through life – we are no longer walking corpses. If we become proficient at this practice, in time, we might come to realise what we call the ‘permanence of impermanence’. This is when impermanence becomes a place where we can always be. We have liberated ourselves by learning to completely let go so that the recognition of impermanence becomes a permanent way of perceiving reality. Now we are truly learning how to be alive!

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Mindwithness

practice 3Mindwithness!

The Pali word for mindfulness is sati (Sanskrit: smrti). Although the term ‘mindfulness’ is the most popular rendition of sati, the word sati actually means ‘to remember’ (i.e., ‘to remember’ to be aware of the present moment). In fact, the term mindfulness doesn’t really capture the full intended meaning of sati. The main reason for this is because to be ‘mindful’ indicates that one should be ‘full of mind’. Being full of mind implies that there is a lot of mental activity and cognitive exertion. However, when we practice mindfulness, we’re not aiming to fill ourselves up with too much mind. Having our minds full-up all of the time becomes very stressful and tiring. Too many people have their minds full-up. If our minds are too full then there is no room for wholesome thoughts to grow and flourish. In a full mind there is no space for simply being, and there is no emptiness to nurture and refresh our being.

Therefore, rather than endeavouring to remain mindful, perhaps the meditation practitioner should actually be trying to achieve a state of ‘mindlessness’. However, being ‘mindless’ equally doesn’t quite capture the essence of sati because rather than being without the mind, what we are attempting to achieve during sati practice is to be fully ‘with the mind’. Perhaps ‘mindwithness’ is therefore a better term to describe the practice of sati!

Nowadays, more and more people are becoming interested in the practice of mindfulness and people are beginning to make a living from teaching mindfulness. From one point of view, this could be a good thing. If people are truly living meditatively then it will certainly be beneficial for the individual as well as for society as a whole. However, from another point of view, trying too hard to ‘spread’ the teachings of mindfulness may actually contribute to the decline of the Buddhist teachings.

Let us give an example to explain what we mean by this. Recently, we were giving a series of talks about meditation and Buddhism in India. It just so happened that at one of the conference venues, a mindfulness and yoga retreat was also taking place. It was really easy to identify which people were involved in the retreat because, with the exception of just one or two participants, they all behaved in a similar way. The retreat participants would walk around the grounds with an air of superiority, with their hands cupped together and held in front of them, head half bent to the side, and with a ‘holier than thou’ smile permanently fixed across their faces. The only exception to this behaviour was when they thought they were out of public view and would slouch around or gossip about their fellow participants.

Mindfulness practice should enable us to become more familiar with the chaotic and unruly nature of the untamed mind. The idea is that we begin to appreciate just how much ego is involved in each and every one of our thoughts and perceptions. It’s when we begin to become aware of the extent to which ego has overwhelmed the mind that we can take steps to loosen ego’s hold. Effectively then, the practice that the abovementioned retreat participants were making was just for show. They were trying to be fashionable and keep-up with the latest spiritual trend. Indeed, for these people, rather than a means of spiritual development, their (so called) practice of ‘mindfulness’ was actually acting as an obstacle to spiritual growth. Their practice was reinforcing the ego rather than dismantling it.

So we should definitely try to be natural in our practice of mindfulness. We should try to be honest with ourselves and check to see whether we are the type of person who varies their practice depending on who might be looking. It is also useful for us to check whether we are straining too hard to be mindful. Indeed, rather than straining too hard, we should try to adopt a relaxed and spacious approach. Using your breath as an anchor if you like, try to expand your mindful awareness so that it encompasses the entire present moment. Try and make the ‘here and now’ your object of meditation. Whatever is happening right now – that becomes your practice. This includes external phenomena such as sounds and sights, as well as internal noumina such as thoughts and feelings. Effortlessly incorporate them all into your field of awareness – without any separation between you the observer and the object that you are observing. In other words, rather than trying to remain aware of the present moment, just try to simply be the present moment.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

A Close Truth

be free 2

A Close Truth
Like the repose that follows,
When waking from a nightmare.

Like the reprieve of an isolated General,
Who recognizes the encroaching soldiers as his own troops

Like the relief that arises, when realizing that the snake,
Was, all along, just a piece of old rope.

Like the rapture of the despairing treasure hunter,
Who returns to find the riches buried beneath his own home.

Oh self who has enslaved me for so long,
Now I have shed the shackles of ignorance,
And entered the non-returning blissful abode.

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

Buddhist teachings: A brief introduction

Buddhism originated approximately 2,600 years ago and is based on the teachings of Siddartha Gautama who is said to have been born in Lumbini (near the Nepalese/Indian border). At approximately 29 years of age, Prince Siddartha is believed to have left behind worldly and palatial life (against his parent’s wishes) to become a homeless mendicant who attained ‘enlightenment’ approximately six years later whilst meditating under the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya in east India. He henceforth became known as Shakyamuni Buddha who ‘turned the wheel of Dharma’ in Varanasi and taught elsewhere throughout India before passing away in Kushinagar (north India) at approximately 80 years of age.

Although accounts of the Buddha’s life are well-documented, rather than the worship of an historical figure, Buddhist practice is quintessentially concerned with the everyday application of spiritual and meditative principles as a means of transforming suffering and realising the ‘Buddha nature’ (Sanskrit: sugatagarbha) that lies within each and every one of us.

To call ourselves a real Buddhist, we have understood that the Buddhist teachings are just one means of actualising a universal truth. They are a finger pointing to the moon and not the moon itself. For this reason, the Buddhist practitioner should be as comfortable with visiting a church, a synagogue, or a mosque, as they are with visiting a Buddhist Temple. In other words, to call oneself a real Buddhist, one has to let go of any kind of attachment to that label.

Please don’t try to own the Buddhadharma. Please don’t feel the need to retaliate against those who defile it. Please don’t try to make people become Buddhists. Please don’t try to become a great meditation teacher. Just simply be the teachings. Work in harmony with the conditions around you and allow your enlightened presence to grow organically. In time, that presence will be felt by everyone you meet. It will sound throughout the entire universe – like the roar of a lion in full prime.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon