|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1998|
Mindfulness of Dukkha
In one of his more famous quotes, the Buddha said: 'There is the unborn, the un-originated, the un-created, the unformed. If it weren't for this unborn, un-originated, un-created, unformed, there would be no escape from the born, the originated, the created, the formed. But since there is this unborn, un-originated, un-created, unformed, then there is an escape from the born, the originated, the created, the formed.' He's talking about our psychological reality, the creation that we experience as our world, and directing us to examine it as we receive it through the senses. If you think about it, there is nothing in the world as we know it that does not come through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or the mind (discriminating consciousness). So he is directing us to examine these sensory doors, in order to come to understand the world, because it's only through this understanding that we can begin to appreciate what this unborn, uncreated, this Deathless - this ultimate Refuge - might be.
In his teaching, the Buddha points us to look at the obstructions to this ultimate peace - to know them so fully that they can then be put down and abandoned; seen through as not who and what we are.
|In his teaching, the Buddha points us to look at the obstructions to this ultimate peace - to know them so fully that they can then be put down and abandoned; seen through as not who and what we are. This is a tremendous undertaking - primarily, because much of what we experience is painful, and our natural response and reaction to pain is to try to get rid of it. But this is a misunderstanding, and so it takes quite a training to begin to turn towards what we experience as un-peaceful or productive of dukkha; that's why the Buddha started with dukkha* as the beginning of his teaching: "I teach dukkha and the end of dukkha." In fact, these are conjoined - because it's only through coming to understand our pain, our reactivity, that we can then experience that which is beyond it. |
For me, dukkha is the primary reflection in my practice. Some people think this seems rather pessimistic but I find it to be a very realistic approach, because it's about our actual experience in the present moment. We tend to deny so much of what we're feeling. This is because we haven't developed the capacity or confidence to truly feel what we're experiencing, to bear the pain of it. To really allow ourselves to feel what's going on there needs to be this confidence or faith: saddha - because we're letting go of our hold on our world, our life; we're letting go of the very attempt to make our life comfortable, bearable, happy. To be fully present in the moment means that we have to let go of the habit of creating ourselves in the future: always thinking about what I'm going to do next, tomorrow morning or what might happen in ten years' time.
|In our meditation practice we may experience times of being fully present, and recognise the peace of those moments, but the difficulty is in sustaining this reprieve from the creation of 'self' and 'the world'. It's not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with 'self' or 'the world'; rather, it's the ignorance with which this habit continues, keeping us in darkness; until we can break free of this cycle of recreating pain for ourselves, we won't experience the full depth of the liberation that the Buddha's saying is available, is possible. But if we bring our awareness to this point of dukkha, or unsatisfactoriness then that's the position in which we can find freedom.|
Inevitably, dukkha is painful because of our identification with it, and so there's a certain degree of unconscious activity that keeps us bound up and struggling with any kind of painful physical, mental or emotional state - whether it be a major trauma or just minor things. For example, just in meditation, when we find we're caught up in a run of thoughts or a mood of the mind that feels trapped. Any sense of self at all is limited, and has a sense of grief involved in it; so we need to begin to know it as it is, which means entering right into the struggle. This is difficult, because we're often judging: 'This is not right. This is not what the Path is, I should be free of this.' These aren't conscious thoughts, they're just attitudes - hidden assumptions. So then we can begin to ask: 'How am I relating to this struggle?...' really being right in the midst of it, recognising that: 'This is dukkha; this is pain, grief or anger. This is how it feels.' Whatever it is, we allow our mindfulness to be big enough to hold it, to bear with it. But if the heart can't expand to hold that pain, then it continues to be a struggle, there is a tight, contracted response to what is happening, and it's pushed back into the unconscious or denied, or even fully expressed - but still clung to.
There are different ways opening up to dukkha. One way is to feel it in the body, as a hard knot of tension. If we are able to allow our awareness of that knot to remain relaxed, we can begin to find a peaceful relationship with the feeling. Of course we don't know how long this is going to take - maybe we can be mindful of a difficult emotion, and then get awfully frustrated because it's not changing! But if we can just be prepared to feel it as it is, then at some point there will be a release, an opening: and 'the world' will change. There'll be a recognition of what the Buddha meant by transcendence; it no longer carries this sense of 'self' and 'the world', of 'me' and 'other', past and future. The whole mental construct can be dissolved in that moment - and that is a tasting of the Deathless.
This is perhaps the experience the Buddha was talking about when he said, in one sequence of teaching* that dukkha can condition the arising of saddha. As we turn to dukkha more and more, bearing with it unconditionally and experiencing release, that then feeds into our sense of confidence: 'Ah yes, this does work. This is the way...', and we find that we can actually bear with what we might previously have thought to be unbearable. That's really important, because so much of what we need to face are great monsters in the mind that seem to have a power to darken our awareness, actually turning our mindfulness away from them. So we have to keep turning to re-apply that attention, that openness of heart. However, when something ceases and there's a relaxation into the place of no identity, no self, it can be a frightening place for people - which is possibly why we can't sustain it for very long. To be able to sustain that place of Buddha, the place of pure awareness, there needs to be an incredible faith: to not need to be reborn again.
|In another quite famous quote, the Buddha said that the true nature of the mind is luminous; it is only defiled by transitory defilements. Often we take what's occurring in our minds so seriously: 'I've got a problem with anger' or, 'I've got a problem with lust'- we believe that to be who and what we are. But the true nature of the mind really has nothing to do with that: our problems, or whether we have a great personality or a pathetic personality, a great intellect or a dull intellect. Rather, it has to do with our capacity to look honestly within - whether we have the courage to bear with what's really there, and to continue to go deeper and deeper. This doesn't mean putting ourselves up in a cave or a kuti for years (though we might long for that at times), but to keep facing into what life is presenting us with. So what we find ourselves involved with in our daily lives need not be seen as a distraction, in fact those are the very things that can teach us the most. Are we willing to face them? When I look at my own practice I often find an unwillingness to face what's presenting itself; there's a picking and choosing going on and the idea that there's something better to be had elsewhere. This 'the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence' is very common and runs very deep in our attitudes, but this is just discontentment, a lack of ability to fully be with the dukkha, right here and right now. |
Every strand of technique that the Buddha taught comes into this practice of mindfulness and facing dukkha. When we look closely and examine what is happening, that involves the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and the Eightfold Path, and also includes cultivation of loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, and the balancing of the spiritual facultiesÁ. But it's not as if we first have to understand it all on an intellectual level. I heard that Ajahn Chah often encouraged his Western disciples to put their books away; he'd say: 'Read the book of the heart' - that's where the real knowledge is and where true understanding can arise. With what we learn in this way there need no longer be any doubt. Even if everyone we meet disagrees, we don't have to argue or make a show, because we know it for ourselves.
However, we often don't have the confidence to go ahead with this kind of private investigation - having been undermined by certain aspects of our cultural conditioning and education - so we can grow up with the tendency to feel that everyone else knows how to be happy, but somehow we don't. We tend to look to other people for affirmation of how we should be and how we can be happy - whereas, actually, we can only know that for ourselves. And the Buddha gave us a direct route, he provided hundreds of teachings to point us back towards ourselves - clues as to how to look at experience, in order to reap the most beneficial results - rather than gaining knowledge about many things that won't necessarily lead us towards liberation.
The first of the Four Noble Truths is phrased: 'There is dukkha.' It comes with the instruction that dukkha should be understood. The second Truth says that there is the cause of dukkha that this cause should be abandoned. Now although I can say that the cause of dukkha is craving, in fact that won't help to bring about understanding what craving is, how it arises in ourselves, or how it can be abandoned - all of that work we have to do ourselves. The third Truth directs us to realise the cessation of dukkha, and the fourth Truth is that of the Eightfold Path to be developed, leading to complete liberation - this Path is understanding dukkha, and abandoning its cause in each moment. Actually, it's not such a great undertaking after all, because we can deal with things moment by moment - we have that capacity - if we don't try to take on more than what this moment actually is. That's the simplicity of it, but of course it's not that easy, because of our habit of taking on too much at one time.
So don't believe that liberation is a long way off, it's always here and now. Although the Path is often described as a gradual one, it's not something particularly done in stages, like cultivating the first foundation of mindfulness then the second one. It's the coming together of all of this - a deepening spiral of understanding that can arise in a moment, and deepen over time.