When we turn our attention to the teachings of the Buddha the first thing we see is suffering. The First Noble Truth, the Truth of Suffering. The Sanskrit word, dukkha, is what is generally translated into suffering, although it isn’t a terribly great translation. It can be difficult for us to identify with the concept of dukkha using the word suffering, because suffering carries a much heavier meaning the way we use it. When we say suffering we generally mean something to the effect of extreme pain or hardship, like being shot or being the victim of some terrible tragedy. The concept of dukkha could be better understood as discontentment, the feeling that something just isn’t quite right, just real fidgety. It is almost like attention deficit disorder, bouncing around looking for something to complete us. With this understanding of dukkha we can begin to relate to the experience that the term is trying to convey. We constantly feel as though something is just a little off, so we are always looking for the right combination of this or that to remedy our discomfort. We wander around aimlessly all the while trying to figure out the right mixture of this & that. "If she or he would only do as I say, everything would work out for the better!", or "If I had more money I would be happier" Here everything becomes very goal oriented, we come up with some idea, and if we can accomplish this goal we we will produce happiness. At this point, in our mind, the whole world in some way or another becomes about pay-offs, this for that. We believe that everything would be just fine if we could accurately identify our problem, develop a plan of action that will solve our problem, and carry out our plan. The whole thing seems to serve us, revolve around us, and this, in my estimation, is ego-centrism. By ego-centrism I mean we believe that we are at the center, and the purpose of everything other than "I" is to serve as variables in our equations for personal happiness.It becomes very materialistic, extremely small & confined. Then it all begins to collapse on us, creating this very claustrophobic feeling.
In an attempt to escape this increasingly claustrophobic situation we get involved with religion or so we think. We come to a certain religious tradition and we are told if we do this or that everything will be ok forever and ever, amen. So we say some stupid number of mantras, prayers, we meditate, and read wordy books. We walk around saying, "Om Mani Padme Hung", or "Hail Mary Full of Grace....", and for what? We do all this in the hope that one day we will come to be enlightened, saved, liberated, salvated, or whatever. So essentially when we came to religion nothing actually changed. We brought the same self-centered materialistic life theme, these prayers for that happiness, into our religious practice. This is what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche referred to as Spiritual Materialism.
Eventually we hang around religion long enough to learn the big secret. We learn that in order for religious practice to work, whatever tradition, some way or another we have to become less self-centered, less self-involved. So we decide that in order for us to become happy, this religious stuff is going to have to work, which means we need to adjust our formula. We know that all the great religions of the world talk of benefiting others, loving-kindness, turn the other cheek, and compassion. So we decide we need to get some of that, we need to say those prayers & mantras, we need to meditate & study not for ourselves, oh no, but for everyone else. We need to do this for others sake if we want to be happy. Well actually we want to be really happy, so we decide that we are going to cultivate "The Super Great Loving-Kindness Compassion", whatever that is. So we go about our business, not concerned with the welfare of anyone, all the while saying to anyone who will listen, especially ourselves saying "I am doing this for others, I really want to help others!" So we beat people to death, sometimes literally, with our beliefs trying to force them to conform to our ideas. It is odd that we still wonder why we aren’t happy. It couldn't have been us though, had to be something else. All the other people must be wrong, just to ignorant for us to really help.
Finally we have an even bigger revelation so to speak. The problem is that we have been fooling around with all these prayers and stuff, thats the problem. That stuff maybe good for beginners, but not for me. I need the highest teaching, the most secret, we want the most perfect teachings from the most realized teachers. We would raise the Buddha, Lao Tzu, or Confucius from the dead to teach us if we could, but instead we dart off for India, Mecca, Jerusalem, Rome, or wherever. Still happiness doesn't seem to be coming together for us. This is not because the teachings or teacher is flawed though. It is because we never had any real basis for understanding these teachings & practices.
So we change churches, teachers, preachers, or religions, because those systems are obviously flawed and just do not work. We start watching Dr. Phil, or maybe we turn to "The Modern Day Church of Nihilism" and it's recently appointed prophet Charles Darwin. This is self-deception, we convince ourselves that the problem has nothing to do with us, and that the answer lies in properly arranging the outside world. We live and die by the philosophy that we can squeeze happiness out of the world if we only get the right amount of this or that. It is no wonder why many people come to see religion as a negative strain on society!
This sort of self-deception can be extremely intelligent and subtle, and will drive you half mad. The frustration becomes overwhelming as we spend the better portion of our life chasing our tails. Our ways of wrestling happiness out of the world have evolved into extremely subtle and manipulative patterns. It is often very difficult for us to even see all of this taking place. It is like we are flying on auto-pilot most of the time, and have no idea we are doing any of this stuff. Our mind is hardly tamed, and we have little awareness of what or why we do the things we do. As a result we find ourselves confused, wondering why this stuff keeps happening to us. We have done it for so long that it has become so ingrained in our thoughts, emotional responses, and actions. However it is also very intelligent, and by intelligent I mean cunning, difficult to detect. We are fooling ourselves, which is absolutely insane when you really think about it. We wake up every day and grab life by the face and shake it until it gives us what we want, but convince ourselves that we are just the most compassionate loving people in the world. It’s like we are telling the world, "It hurts me more than it hurts you!"
If we want to break through this semi-schizophrenic way of interacting with the world we have to let go, stop, and settle down. We have to lose all our expectations, find our bottom so to speak. In finding hopelessness, everything begins to relax. William James in his book, "The Varieties of Religious Experience" says that hopelessness is the foundation of religious experience. When we are without hope we are stuck, it seems as though there is no where to go. We quit churning out solutions, or we relinquish the responsibility of managing the world. As a result we begin to calm down & relax, then we can start to see things more clearly. We see things aren't so black and white, that there are infinite number of possibilities in any given situation.
After we have taken the time to rest for a second, awareness starts to dawn. We begin to see that the whole thing isn’t quite as bad as we had originally thought. Actually we start to realize that everything is perfectly fine, and maybe, just maybe, we have been over reacting a little bit to this whole life thing. In the beginning we had this feeling of discontentment, like something just isn’t quite right. Now we begin to see that we are just fine, that the whole thing is beautiful, it really is. When we meditate we sit for the purpose of sitting (although you do not have to be sitting), not to solve our problems. Thomas Merton called meditation a process of unknowing. The word for meditation in Tibetan is gom, which means to familiarize. As we begin to unknow all that trash we have taught ourselves, we begin to become more familiar with our true nature. Through the practice of meditation we begin to loosen our grip on this idea that we are defective, and that we must find the right pill to remedy our problem. Then we are left with things as they are, which is complete. One could say we are becoming familiar with ourselves, strangely enough for the first time. We start to realize that we can live life, what else could you do with it!