A vital element in our practice and understanding of dharma is a sense of appreciation. In the way I’m using the word, it’s not the same as gratitude. Gratitude is a feeling in response to something received – a kindness, a gift, an opportunity. Appreciation, on the other hand, is a quality that should always be present and is not dependent upon any external causes. It goes beyond merely being an aesthetic admiration of the beauty and wonder of life. We develop this sense of appreciation at the very core of our being and it encompasses everything we observe and experience. That includes appreciation for our sufferings.
We naturally want to avoid suffering. We seek freedom from life’s miseries. Buddhism is supposed to help us attain nirvana, which is freedom from sufferings. In Mahayana, we say that sufferings are nirvana. Many people wonder how that makes sense. How can nirvana be the very thing we are seeking to escape?
Understanding “sufferings are nirvana” begins with the recognition of a simple fact: it is only through suffering that we can even approach nirvana. It’s like the simile of the raft. You’re on this shore and in order to reach the other shore, where nirvana awaits, you must cross over the sea of suffering. There’s no other way. You have to do it.
In Shoji (“Birth and Death”), Dogen wrote,
When we see that sufferings are themselves nirvana, there is no need to avoid suffering or to seek nirvana. Only with this understanding is there a possibility for freedom from birth and death.
“Birth and death” is often a metaphor for Samsara, this mundane world we inhabit, and because Samsara is permeated with suffering, so it too is a metaphor, representing suffering itself. What Dogen is saying is that nirvana can be found only in the here and now, in this world, in the midst of suffering.
He also says that there is no need to avoid suffering, but the truth is we cannot avoid them. Now, he’s actually referring to the non-dual nature of sufferings and nirvana, and he may not have also had the idea of cultivating appreciation for suffering in his mind when he wrote those words, but they certainly lend themselves to that additional interpretation.
Appreciation for one’s sufferings may be a hard concept to wrap our minds around, but when you consider, for instance, that suffering can be a teacher, it starts to make sense.
I didn’t pay that much attention in the past when people would tell me about the loss of a pet. Kinda like baby pictures. To me, all babies look the same. Ho hum. Yawn. But now I know what it feels like to lose a beloved pet. When I hear of someone’s loss in the future, I’ll be able to feel their pain. I had to do through my own suffering to be able to see the suffering of others. My personal suffering taught me a lesson.
A small lesson, perhaps, and yet, that’s what life really consists of – small things. The big stuff, the large events of life come few and far between, actually. Typically, life is just a series of small moments. That’s one reason why mindfulness practice is so beneficial. Because mindfulness helps us to become aware and have appreciation for the small, present moments that make up our life. And the small lessons.
Appreciation is a prerequisite for awakening. We often think of awakening as being this big, esoteric thing. A quality of an elevated state of being. But awakening, too, essentially is rather small. At least, it starts out that way. It’s just being aware of the moment you’re in. Thich Nhat Hanh came up with a little verse I like a lot:
Breathing in, I am happy.
Breathing out, I smile.
I am in the present moment.
It’s a wonderful moment.
That moment may be joyful or sorrowful. Buddhism doesn’t make any distinctions between what sort of present moments are worthy of our awareness. Nevertheless, whether the moment is good or bad, if you have appreciation, it’s wonderful. To be able to see it in that way is the essence of awakening, perhaps even the key to freedom.
We cannot avoid sufferings, so when they come, try to cultivate appreciation. It’s hard to do, but within your suffering is something very valuable for your life. Remember that irritation is the stimulation that produces a pearl. Should a tiny grain of sand get inside an oyster’s shell, the oyster coats the irritant with layers of fluid, and from that coating, a pearl is formed. No irritation, no suffering – no pearl.
My present tribulation is not so heavy,
And will be beneficial;
Let me be glad of a suffering
That redeems the world of its suffering.
– Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life