We have been meeting now for seven weeks, and in these seven weeks we have discussed several different topics, all of which could be placed into one of two categories, intention & instructions. The first five weeks we spent discussing the attitude or intention necessary to properly engage meditation practice. With Meditation we are not looking to become a new person, rather we simply discover the essential perfection which has always been present. This attitude is related to Buddha Nature and is also referred to as the foundation of all practice, because all meditation begins with Buddha Nature, consists of realizing Buddha Nature, and the result is the discovery of Buddha Nature. In Buddhism there are many methods one might practice in order to discover their essential nature, but they are all grounded firmly in meditation. The last two weeks we discussed the instructions for shamatha meditation, or calm abiding. First we talked about placing the body, or taking our seat with confidence & dignity. Then we talked about placing the mind, also referred to as remembering now. There is an awful lot more that one should understand in regards to the practice of shamatha meditation. Unfortunately we do not have the time to discuss all of these things on Thursday night. Therefore I encourage each one of you to continue to cultivate your practice by seeking individual instruction and guidance from me when you feel comfortable. As for this week’s talk we will begin our discussion of the nature of samsara.
Samsara is a Sanskrit word that literally means, “to wander on”. Here wander is closely associated with being asleep, just kind of moving through life aimlessly. Samsara is also often associated with the western concept of hell. However the comparison between samsara and hell I am afraid is inaccurate. The western concept of hell seems to be describing a location, a realm, and this is not the case with samsara. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says, “The Sanskrit word samsara is explaining an activity, or a process, rather than a location.” Samsara is an easy concept to misunderstand, so let me tell a story to better illustrate the idea.
I work at an assisted living home on the weekends. One weekend, a couple on their way home saw an elderly lady just kind of wandering around in the neighborhood. The husband came in and told me about the situation. He then gave me a ride down the road where his wife was waiting with the elderly lady. When we arrived I asked the lady several questions none of which she was able to answer with any sort of clarity. She was out wandering around in an unfamiliar area with no real purpose, and was definitely scared and confused. We walked back with her to the assisted living home trying to workout the confusion for her. I am afraid we had little success with her confusion, but at least we were able to get her back in the Alzheimer’s unit. This story illustrates the concept of samsara perfectly. As a result of our confusion we just kind of wander around aimlessly, and as we wander around we constantly find ourselves wandering into uncomfortable situations. For the purpose of tonight’s discussion we will only talk about the discomfort. In upcoming weeks we will discuss the confusion in great detail. For now though it is only important that we recognize how this dissatisfaction has been a consistent feature of our life.
The first of the four noble truths taught by the Buddha in Sarnath was the truth of suffering. Suffering here comes from the Sanskrit word duhkha, although that isn’t a terribly great translation. Duhkha would be better understood as discontentment or dissatisfaction. The purpose of the first noble truth is to recognize this discontentment, to accept it as a consistent aspect of our life. In order to do this we have to further investigate this concept of suffering. Suffering in this context can be understood in three different ways: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and pervasive suffering.
First we will discuss the suffering of suffering. This type of discontentment refers to the type of pain we experience as a result of things like physcial pain, the blunt sensation. It is not necessarily referring to what caused the sensation, such as hitting our finger with a hammer, rather the way we experience it. There are all sorts of things that we experience in daily life that fall into this category; having our heart broke, some sort of physcial or mental pain, basically it is some apparently dramatic sensation.
Second is the suffering of change, this refers to the fleeting nature of things. One of the best ways I can think of to explain this is the example of intimate relationships. At some point in our life we all meet someone that we think is absolutely amazing. From that point on they are all we think about. We make every attempt to arrange our life around this person, we try to spend as much time with them as possible brushing off family and old friends. Eventually the relationship gets much more serious and you decide to move in together. After a while the person who was at one time God’s gift to earth, suddenly appears very human. We start to notice their more annoying side. Before long we start asking for more space, telling them we want to spend more time with our friends & family, that we are feeling crowded, pressured, or whatever. Pretty soon the relationship that was once the center piece of our life becomes the most irritating aspect of our life. We decide to move out and break up with our partner. Now the mere mention of the persons name makes our skin crawl. Today we may find ourselves in a pleasurable situation now, but the fact is that this situation is fleeting. This is the suffering of change. At one end is pervasive suffering, and at the other is the suffering of suffering. It is the suffering of change, the gradual movement of these things, that inevitably gives rise to the suffering of suffering. It is taking one to many bites of our favorite ice cream or having one to many beers. It was fun at first but now we are laying on the bathroom floor curled up around the toilet. When something we once considered pleasurable transforms into something we consider dissatisfactory this is the suffering of change leading into the suffering of suffering.
The third form of dissatisfaction is called pervasive suffering. Pervasive suffering is referring to a much more subtle level of suffering than the previous two. It actually could be said to be the foundation of the first two forms of suffering. Here we are talking about a fundamental feeling of discomfort, the underlying feeling that something just isn’t quite right. This type of suffering is connected with the poverty mentality, the mentality that tells us we need something else in order to be happy. We constantly come up with different plans in order to become satisfied, but these plans never work out quite like we expected, which was explained in the suffering of change. The solution always seems to be in the future, and so does our satisfaction, just out of reach. So we go through life wandering around constantly seeking contentment. We are not neccisarily talking about the plans we come up with or whether or not thay are successful, rather we are talking about the idea that we need a plan. This idea that we lack something, that we must find something in order to be complete, our insufficency, is pervasive suffering. We constantly need, so we continually wander around looking for the missing piece. This is how pervasive suffering could be said to be the foundation of the other two forms of suffering.
If we investigate the causes of suffering, and realize that we create these causes then we can begin to change our situation. However before we can discuss the causes of suffering we must first identify the suffering in our own lives. So this week I ask you to look closely and see if you can recognize suffering in your life. Once we accept suffering as a real aspect of our life, something that consistently plagues us, we can begin to work with it. We see that our problems are in one way or another created by ourselves, and from this point the whole thing becomes very workable.