Cloud’s Illusions

In The Art of Living, Thich Nhat Hanh says,

“We should not be afraid of suffering. We should be afraid of only one thing, and that is not knowing how to deal with our suffering.  Handling our suffering is an art.  If we know how to suffer, we suffer much less, and we’re no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by the suffering inside.”

I don’t feel I am afraid of suffering.  I just don’t like it.  Suffering sucks.  Especially physical suffering.  I used to think I knew how to deal with suffering.  I am not so confident about it right now.  I am not sure I have yet mastered the art of suffering,

As I write, a dull pain is throbbing through my left leg.  My knee feels as though hot needles are piercing it.  This is my “normal.”  Constant pain has been my reality for over two years now.  It’s called lymphedema and has been described as “swelling in one or more extremities that results from impaired flow of the lymphatic system.”  There is no medical cure.

According to legend, the Buddha’s first teaching was The Four Noble Truths.  The first truth is sarvam idam duhkham: “all this is suffering.”  It’s important to understand that the truth of suffering is based on the two principles of interdependence and impermanence.  With regard to the former, this is why I have always maintained that Buddha could have easily said, “all this is happiness.”   As for the latter, suffering or the “the unsatisfactoriness of life, its pain, its malaise, its inherent ‘ill’-ness” has as its primary cause our inability to find complete and lasting satisfaction.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Shunryu Suzuki puts it much better than I can:

“In Buddhism it is a heretical view to expect something outside this world. We do not seek for something besides ourselves. We should find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering.  This is the basic teaching of Buddhism.  Pleasure is not different from difficulty.  Good is not different from bad.  Bad is good; good is bad.  They are two sides of one coin.  So enlightenment should be in practice.  That is the right understanding of practice, and the right understanding of our life.  So to find pleasure in suffering is the only way to accept the truth of transiency.  Without realizing how to accept this truth you cannot live in this world.  Even though you try to escape from it, your effort will be in vain.  If you think there is some other way to accept the eternal truth that everything changes, that is your delusion.  This is the basic teaching of how to live in this world. Whatever you may feel about it, you have to accept it.  You have to make this kind of effort.

So until we become strong enough to accept difficulty as pleasure, we have to continue this effort. Actually, if you become honest enough, or straightforward enough, it is not so difficult to accept this truth.  You can change your way of thinking a little bit.  It is difficult, but this difficulty will not always be the same.  Sometimes it will be difficult, and sometimes it will not be so difficult.  If you are suffering, you will have some pleasure in the teaching that everything changes.  When you are in trouble, it is quite easy to accept the teaching.  So why not accept it at other times?  It is the same thing.  Sometimes you may laugh at yourself, discovering how selfish you are.  But no matter how you feel about this teaching, it is very important for you to change your way of thinking and accept the truth of transiency.”

I accept the truth of transiency.  Somehow it doesn’t make things much easier.  It’s still difficult.  I am not afraid of the pain, but I am sick to hell of it.

The question is how deeply inside I accept impermanence.  There is no cure for lymphedema, except in my mind.  Right now, my mind is depressed and I lament at the thought that this chronic pain is going to be the reality of the remainder of my life.  But that’s because I am viewing what I am experiencing in the present moment to be permanent.

All this, our perceptions, thoughts, feelings are like clouds in the sky.  They change shape, they move, appear, and reappear.   I guess it’s like Joni Mitchell wrote, “It’s cloud’s illusions I recall.  I really don’t know clouds at all.”

That’s something I need to change.


Dalai Lama on the Four Noble Truths

You may have read that the Dalai Lama has announced his intention to relinquish his political role as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. This should help dilute the argument put forth by critics that the he is some sort of autocratic ruler.

I heard Robert Thurman say one time that if the Dalai Lama had his way, he would just as soon go back to being an anonymous monk and do a three-year retreat. I seem to recall hearing the Dalai Lama say pretty much the same thing himself.

Fortunately, he is not resigning as the spiritual leader of Tibetans, or as a Buddhist teacher. That is how I tend to view him, as a teacher, especially as a scholar of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy. He is one of the few Buddhist teachers who lectures from that perspective, as that is the general view of Tibetan Buddhism, and certainly he’s the only one who can present Madhyamaka teachings to such a wide audience.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of the Dalai Lama’s teachings over the years. From time to time, I have posted my transcript of the teachings he gave in 1997 at UCLA on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland. [Here, here, here, here, here, and here]

For newer readers of The Endless Further, I’ll mention again that I taped the entire four days of teachings, some 24 hours worth of tape, transcribed it by hand, and then made a second copy using an ancient writing device known as a typewriter. A rather tedious and time-consuming process, but it really helped to engrave these teaching on my mind.

When the Dalai Lama lectures on Buddhist dharma,  he always speaks in Tibetan and then it is translated. This is from the English translator, and it is verbatim, so in places the sentences are a bit fractured.

In this short excerpt, the Dalai Lama talks about the Four Noble Truths. When he speaks of the Ariya Sangha, in this context, I believe he is not referring to a small, elite group of individuals, but rather to anyone who has “perfected these levels of realizations.”

It is on the basis of a profound understanding of the nature of the Four Noble Truths that one can finally arrive at a deeper understanding of dharma. All the Buddhist traditions agree that the Four Noble Truths was among the first dharmas or doctrines that the Buddha taught. And according to this dharma, the cessation of suffering that one attains, and also, once you are able to recognize the possibility of such attainment, then one will also be able to the path that leads to such cessation.

So if you able to understand the nature of dharma, then you will be able to conceive the individual or being in whom such realization has taken place. These individuals or beings are sangha, the true sangha, and once you are able to conceive the existence of Sangha, once you can conceive of Sangha, then one will be able to recognize the possible attainment of Buddhahood, because these fully realized and enlightened beings, these Ariya [Pali: Ariya-Pubbala: “noble ones”] Sangha who have perfected these levels of realizations to the highest point – through these perfections, one is able to develop a good understanding of the Three Objects of Refuge: the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Therefore, in the text it reads, “he is utterly free from all faults”, referring to the qualities of the Buddha, which is an elimination of all faults. In the next line, it reads, “adorned with all good qualities,” refers to the perfections inherent in our consciousness. In that sense, the capacity to perceive, to know something is inherent within our minds and it is only the delusions that obstruct that full expression of the natural capacity of the mind.

So when the obstacles are removed, then the full flowering of that natural capacity of the mind to know is expressed as the wisdom of the Buddha, which directly recognizes the ultimate nature of reality and the relative world of multiplicity and diversity.



Four Noble Facts

A  week or so ago, in paraphrasing Prof. Trevor Ling, I wrote that the Four Noble Truths were not offered as religious beliefs, but rather as the Buddha’s analysis of the human situation. But that doesn’t mean that they are theories either. Technically, they are satya (“Arya-satya-pariksa”), a Sanskrit word defined in the Soothill Buddhist dictionary as “true, genuine, a proved or accepted truth.”

So here “truth” means something that conforms with the judging of a fact. When what is judged to be is, then the judging is true. They are facts. You could just as easily call them the Four Noble Facts. The Buddha looked around and saw a whole lot of suffering going on. It was true then, as it is now. Suffering is.

Now, the Buddha was not interested in merely proclaiming philosophical truths. He was also concerned with offering a method to solve human problems, a prescription to cure the dis-ease of dukkha (suffering). This is why, when the Buddha taught the Four Noble Facts, it is described as the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma. It unites the Buddha’s analysis, his statements of fact, with action. And that is really what the Eightfold Path of the Four Noble Facts is all about, the laying out of actions that can taken to reduce suffering.

We might say that the Buddha had a “scientific” approach because he arrived at this judging of fact through a process of investigation and critical analysis. Starting with the premise that the world is permeated by suffering, the Buddha wanted to find out if it was possible to transcend suffering. He did this by tracing the origins of suffering. The Four Noble Facts has its procedure: The first stage is to recognize that suffering has a cause. The second stage is to determine where suffering comes from, where the principle source of suffering lies. The third stage is to investigate whether or not it is possible to end or transcend suffering, while the fourth stage is to search for the way, or path, by which one can obtain liberation from suffering.

I believe the Buddha also wanted to free people’s minds from the prejudices of dogmatic tenets, so I don’t feel it is necessary to get hung up on having just one specific cause for dukkha, because even suffering does not exist from its own side. So it doesn’t matter if tanha (thirst, craving) is the primary cause or something else, or if there is just one cause or many. Once we have identified the fact that suffering has causes, we can then proceed to change the conditions by dealing with the vehicle for suffering, which in most cases is our very own mind.

Dogen-zenji said, “Teaching which does not sound as if it is forcing something on you is not true teaching.” The teaching itself is true, and in itself does not force anything upon us, but because of our human tendency we receive the teaching as if something was being forced on us. But whether we feel good or bad about it, this truth exists. If nothing exists, this truth does not exist. Buddhism exists because of each particular existence.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind