Last week we spoke about the first noble truth, the truth of suffering. It was said that the Sanskrit word samsara means simply, “to wander on”. I explained how wandering here is the result of confusion, and results in us wandering into a variety of uncomfortable situations. We investigated these uncomfortable situations further and found that they can divided up into three classes; the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and pervasive suffering. It is important to understand that these are not three different types of suffering, rather they are moe like three stages in the evolution of pain. Pervasive suffering was the most fundamental form of suffering we experience, actually it is the foundation for the other two forms of pain. Pervasive suffering is connected with our poverty mentality, our belief that we always need something else in order to be completed or satisfied. As a result of this poverty mentality we continually wander around like beggars looking for the perfect solution to all our problems. Eventually we find something or someone, and then we cling to it. We drain every lick of happiness and satisfaction out of it that we can. At some point it runs dry, and we once again are left unsatisfied, but first this dissatisfaction is painful & dramatic. This initial blunt sensation is the suffering of suffering. Hopefully on some level you were able to relate to the concept of duhkha, which here has been translated as suffering although that isn’t exactly what I mean. The idea duhkha is trying to convey could be better understood as dissatisfaction or discontentment. This discontentment has been explained in three stages here, and hopefully we have been able to identify with these three aspects of suffering on a personal level. If you have been able to do so then now it is time that we discuss the causes of duhkha, the second noble truth.
Last week I told the story of an elderly lady wandering around in some neighborhood, and we asked her what she was doing or where she was going but she couldn’t answer, she was totally confused. Well our wandering around isn’t much different. We wander around as a result of our confusion also. What is it that we are confused about? We are confused about the true nature of things, the way things actually are, especially the idea of self. We have developed and cultivated this idea of a real, solid, permanent self, and on top of that we have been wandering around trying to arrange the world to suit this idea of self. Our idea of self, the ego, isn’t some real solid thing, rather it is born out of complete confusion. Ego is a relative and limited term, and by this I mean it is always defined in relationship to something else, and is only concerned with itself. Furthermore everyone has developed and cultivated their own ego, so as long as we live under the control of our ego we will be in constant conflict not only with the world around us, but also with others. We will be constantly at odds with reality when our ego doesn’t agree with the way things actually are, and at war with others when their ego is in disagreement with ours. That is why it is said that the sole activity of ego is to create and maintain secure & solid ground for itself, it is like a form of egotistical colonization, coupled with egocentrism. In order to maintain the territory we already have, and acquire new territory we always find ourselves involved with some sort of conflict, with some pressing matter of egotistical security. These different battles we always find ourselves fighting give rise to suffering as we have already discussed . We experience emotional, mental, and physical suffering as a result of this these continual conflicts. Now that we see confusion gives rise to our idea of who and what we are, and that from here our ego is continually engaged in conflict which only leads to suffering, we can now move on and discuss why this whole process simply does not work .
Discussing selflessness can be a really lengthy, deeply philosophical, and somewhat dry conversation in Buddhist circles and in ancient text. Hopefully we will be able to avoid these things and really investigate this idea of ego in a practical sense. When analyzing the ego it is done on two distinct levels, first a grosser level and then a much more subtler level. Tonight we will be looking at the grosser levels which primarily deal with the subject of impermanence. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “That no same man could walk through the same river twice. As the man and the river have since changed.” This statement perfectly explains the concept of impermanence, and clearly states the two classes of impermanence to be understood, the river and the man. When looking at impermanence there are the two classes as just mentioned, self and external phenomena, but for tonight’s discussion we will not speak of either specifically, rather we will speak of their relationship with one another. It should be understood, and there is no philosophy or scriptures needed to make this point, that all things are always changing. If you understand this then we can move on to applying this principle of impermanence to the way we relate to the world.
As I mentioned earlier ego is a relative concept, and by this I mean it is established in relation to something else. To give an example many people define who they are by what they do. Maybe you meet someone and ask them who they are, to which they reply, “I am a doctor.” or “I am a teacher.” Others do the same thing with religion, “ I am a Buddhist”, “I am a Christian”, and even better, “I am an Atheist.” Still others identify with politics in this way “I am Republican”, “I am Democrat”, and much like the atheist “I am an Independent”. One of the more common things people identify themselves with is their intimate relationships, “I am Tom’s wife”, or “I am Barbra’s husband”. The point is that ego always finds something other than ego in order to validate ego. At this point all we need to see is that we definitely grasp at other things in order to identify ourselves. We need to see that just as we can have no idea of left without right, up without down, or hot without cold, we can have no idea of self without other. We need to see that in order to have some idea of who we are we become dependent upon other, we cling to something else. This something else is the solid ground we go to war for. We do not need to understand the process by which all this happens yet, we only need to see that it does happen.
Now you might say, “Sure I see where this happens sometimes, but why do you think this is what causes suffering?” There are two primary reasons the process I just described contributes to much of your suffering. First, is the situation I described earlier, the conflict. We are in constant conflict trying to secure solid ground or reference points in order for ego to identify with, so that we can have some understanding of who and what we are. Second, is the river or the impermanence of external phenomena. External phenomena are in a state of constant flux. The river, the job, the girlfriend, the husband, the car, the computer all these things are changing from one moment to the next. There isn’t really a problem with the fact that they are changing, that is fine. The problem is when our idea of who we are is dependent upon these things which are in a constant state of flux, then who and what we are becomes an emotional roller coaster. For example, we go out and buy some sports car so we can be that guy or that girl who drives the new 2009 red Corvette convertible. This is fun, and we enjoy it for sometime. We keep it clean and park it where everyone sees us get in and out of it, the car serves it’s purpose until 2010. The next model comes out and now you want that one. You see others driving it and now you need one. Your idea of yourself was the guy/girl who had the new red Corvette, and now that idea no longer holds water anytime you pull up at red light and some one has the 2010 Corvette. This is kind of a silly example, although it is certainly applicable in some cases. The point is that we attach our self identity to things that are constantly changing. These reference points are changing from one moment to the next, and when they do it causes a great deal of insecurity or fear for us because it challenges our existence. It challenges our existence because it destroys our idea of who we are, and with out an idea based on some reference point we can have no idea of ourselves, just as left makes no sense without right. This explains the second class of impermanence, the man. Ego is constantly changing from one moment to the next, because it’s status is dependent upon things which are in continual motion. Our idea of ourselves is constantly dieing and being born over and over again. Every time one of these reference points change enough for us to notice it, our idea of self reaches it‘s expiration date. That is why this whole process is totally dependent on ignorance. Not ignorance like uneducated, rather ignor-ance, like, “I didn’t see that”. We become somewhat asleep, or take the what I do not know will not hurt me attitude. There is a gap, and it is here that most of freak out. From here we go to war in order to acquire some new reference point, some secure solid ground, and then there is re-birth of the ego. In this short process we see all three forms of suffering discussed last week.
In meditation, with the rise and fall of the breath, we can recognize the impermanent nature of both external phenomena and self. As D.T. Suzuki said, “The idea of self comes and goes on the breath.” Things are constantly changing from one moment to the next. Right now it is our habit to cling to these things in order to derive some sort of security. However since these things are incapable of providing us with any sort of security we need to unlearn this habitual pattern. We begin to do this by simply returning to the breath. When we begin to fantasize in meditation practice in order to create some form of entertainment or a distraction, just return to the breath. This is the best practice, just return to the breath and in this way we begin to cut through our delusions and the habitual patterns created out of our confusion.