The Old Ennui

If you are not a Sinatra fan, you should be, especially if you love music. Frank Sinatra was an amazing singer. When he was young, his voice sounded like it had been purified with Southern Comfort and then dipped in honey. In his later years, when the voice kept changing, he lost his youthful smoothness, and his register slid down deeper and darker, he always made it work for him and found ways to reinterpret songs he had sung hundreds of times.

A saloon singer in the 1955 film, "Young at Heart."
A saloon singer with the blues in the 1955 film, “Young at Heart.”

Understanding that Sinatra interpreted songs as much as sang them is a good way to cultivate an appreciation. His most enduring gift was actually not his voice but his immaculate phrasing. He would intentionally sing ahead, or behind, the beat so that you really felt the words. Very often, when he sang a tune, he owned it, so that afterwards you’d always think of it as a “Sinatra song.”

I never got much of a kick out of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You”, until I heard Sinatra’s version from the 1954 album Songs for Young Lovers, which by the way, is considered the first “concept” album. It’s the intro that got me. How he sustains the note for the word “leaves,” how lures you into the song, and then when it takes off, he breaks up words, puts pauses in them (“It would bore me teriff. . .fflickly too”) in a way I’m not sure any other singer could get away with.

One line in the intro goes, “When I’m out on a quiet spree,/Fighting vainly the old ennui . . .” That last word comes from old French, it was first used in 1732 and mean annoyance. The meaning we assign to ennui today is different.  Merriam-Webster defines ennui as “a lack of spirit, enthusiasm, or interest.” Listlessness, apathy. There’s even a sort of existential ennui, or intellectual boredom brought on by a dearth of stimulation.

Ennui is a form of dukkha or suffering, one of the three marks of life, which Prof. Trevor Ling* calls “the Buddha’s analysis of human existence.” Ling says that for the Buddha suffering meant “the unsatisfactoriness of life, its pain, its malaise, its inherent ‘ill’-ness.” These are things that everyone feels at one time or another.

In the song, it is the sight of a “fabulous face” that brings the singer out of his malaise. In real life, we shouldn’t expect someone or something to cure our boredom, or be the cause that allows us to enjoy life. We have to find it deep withing. Furthermore, boredom is an illusion. Nothing is really boring, we just think it is. Boredom is just a label. I suppose the same is true of happiness and joy. But a sense of joy, feelings of satisfaction, a sense of humor – these are effective tools in the battle to win over suffering.

I mentioned that Cole Porter was the composer of “I Get a Kick Out of You” (1934), and he was a man who endured a lot of suffering in his life.  In 1937 both his legs were crushed when a half-ton horse fell on him. He developed osteomyelitis, or bone infection, and he experienced chronic pain for the next two decades.  He fought the pain with humor.  Doctors eventually had to amputate the right leg, but before that he gave his injured legs names: the left was Josephine and the right, the one he lost, Geraldine (“a hellion, a bitch, a psychopath”**).

Three months after surgery on my left leg, in which a rod was inserted into the bone, I am still experiencing chronic pain that occasionally leaves me listless, apathetic, and because I haven’t been able to move around much, bored.  Understanding that boredom is nothing but a mental judgment, learning Cole Porter’s story and capturing his spirit of facing suffering with humor, helps greatly.  Without being able to tap into joy and laughter, my current existence would seem like an endless, agonizing perdition.

That’s how I fight – not vainly, but valiantly, I hope – the old ennui.

And sometimes, but not suddenly, I hear this fabulous voice:

* Trevor Ling, The Buddha, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1970

** John Lahr. “King Cole The not so merry soul of Cole Porter.” New Yorker July 12, 2004

Share

God is Suffering

Suffering (dukkha) is a core concept in Buddhism that I have blogged about many times, almost always using words from Buddhist teachers past and present to support or amplify my comments. Today, I’ll start out with some words about suffering from a non-Buddhist source.  The following was written by American aid worker Kayla Mueller to her father on his birthday in 2011, some two years before terrorists captured her after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Syria:

Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love . . . I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

This resonated deeply with me, as did her story.  Kayla Mueller’s life was stamped with service to others.  If you visit her Wikipedia page, I think you will be amazed to see all the different organizations she managed to work with as an activist and humanitarian during her short 26 years.

Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, once said, “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought.” I do not share Mueller’s belief in God, and I don’t necessarily agree with Campbell because I feel the word ‘God’ carries with it too much baggage (superstition, associations, subjective feelings, etc.) to be very useful. However, going with the idea of metaphor here, I am inclined to interpret Mueller’s words as “God is suffering,” or certainly, “Life is suffering,” the Buddha’s famous words, which should not be taken as a negative or pessimistic statement.

In terms of Buddhist practice, suffering has three aspects: understanding and acceptance of suffering, endurance of suffering, relieving suffering.

Shantideva
Shantideva

Suffering is a universal truth of existence and there is relief from suffering but no real end to it. If there were an end of suffering, it would mean an end to life. Shantideva, in Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, says, “For the Buddha said that all fears and immeasurable sufferings arise from the mind only.” So, what we mean by an end to suffering is actually to transform the negative elements of the mind that produce suffering. These negative mental elements or afflictions have as their cause the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to change poison into medicine, sufferings into Nirvana.

Once we have acknowledged the truth of suffering and its inevitability (we will face suffering no matter what), we can then prepare for the endurance of suffering, and how we endure suffering determines much about the quality of our life condition.

In Healing Anger, the Dalai Lama writes,

[Shantideva observes] that pain and suffering are natural facts of existence and that denying this truth can cause additional misery. He then goes on to argue that if we could internalize this fundamental truth of our existence, we would derive enormous benefit in our day-to-day life. For one thing, we would see suffering as a catalyst for spiritual growth. Shantideva implies that a person who is capable of responding to suffering in this way can voluntarily accept the pain and hardship involved in seeking a higher purpose.”

This higher purpose is idealized in the form of the bodhisattva who works for the liberation of all beings. These altruistic heroes take on sufferings willingly, they even assume the sufferings of others, and they endure with great courage. The bodhisattva resolves:

I take upon myself the burden of all suffering. I am determined to do so, I will endure it. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble . . . I am not afraid . . . nor do I despair.”*

The courage of the bodhisattva may inspire us, but the idea of consenting to suffer is difficult to accept.  However, as the Dalai Lama mentions, suffering has a beneficial side.  When we realize that our existence is conditioned and characterized by suffering, then we see there is a possibility of not only personal but also universal liberation. Suffering stimulates our thoughts and motivates us toward liberation. The mind can change its poison into healing medicine, our negative thoughts can be transformed into wisdom, and what seems unbearable in the beginning, becomes easier to bear.

Even when the wise are suffering, their minds are serene; for when war is waged against mental afflictions, many injuries are inflicted in the battle.”

Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, Chapter Six “The Perfection of Patience,” Verse 19

– – – – – – – – – –

* From the Vajradhvaja Sutra and Aksayamati-nirdesa. Read an expanded excerpt here.

Share

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Suffering is His Gift of Non-fear

Most of you are probably aware by now that Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Zen teacher, is in the hospital. His monastery, Plum Village in southern France, announced that he had a brain hemorrhage on November 11th.

thichnhathanh1X3Thay, as he is affectionately called by his followers, has been unwell for some time. A reliable source on Facebook says that he is in a stage one coma. That’s when a patient is incapable of voluntary activities such as eye opening, and speech. However, according to Plum Village, he is “still very responsive and shows every indication of being aware of the presence of those around him. He is able to move his feet, hands and eyes. There are signs that a full recovery may be possible.”

I’m sure we all hope that will be the case. Only last month I wrote a post in commemoration of his 88th continuation day. May every day be a continuation day for this beloved teacher.

I am not part of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist tradition, but for me his life and his teachings transcend sectarianism. Perhaps, you feel the same way. Plum Village is asking people to send Thay healing and loving energy. While that is certainly appropriate and perhaps beneficial, I feel his suffering is an opportunity to do something deeper, to look deeper, go deeper. It’s an opportunity to learn more about the nature of suffering.

In The Heart of Understanding, his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Thay writes,

There are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is the gift of know-how, the gift of the Dharma. The third, and the highest kind of gift, is the gift of non-fear. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is someone who can help us liberate ourselves from fear. This is the heart of the Prajnaparamita.”

Avalokitesvara’s suffering was literally non-substantial, for mythical beings have no real suffering to cross over. Thich Nhat Hanh is real, and like countless other living beings in this world, his suffering is real, and painful.  Moreover, he is truly someone who is helping us liberate ourselves from fear. His current suffering, as well as all his past suffering and future suffering, is his gift of non-fear to us.

Throughout his writings, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to look deeply, listen deeply, understand deeply. He says that to meditate is to look deeply. He tells us that we can learn to love ourselves by looking deeply.  He points out that “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive . . .” When Thay uses the metaphor of a cloud in a piece of paper to explain interdependency or “inter-being,” he says that there is also sunshine in the paper and “Looking even more deeply, we can see that we are in it too.” He suggests that through listening deeply we “can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening.”

And “When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be with it in order to really understand.”

We cannot stand outside of Thay’s suffering. We should take it as our own and enter it. There are many ways we can do this. His writings are full of meditation tips and suggestions for simple practices that can be performed many times each day in various settings and situation, some as uncomplicated and effortless as smiling or walking. All of them help us look deeper.

One plan would be to take a phrase or short quote of his that resonates with us, or speaks to the subject of suffering, and for however long he is in the hospital, make the words our mantra, our koan, and meditate upon them, reflect on them as we go about our daily business.  Enter the words as deeply as possible.

I am very sure Thich Nhat Hanh would want us to use his suffering as an opportunity to engrave his teachings, or any wisdom teachings, into our hearts and minds.  Of course, the deepest manner in which we can reply to Thay’s spirit is through the Bodhisattva way, by being ourselves a person who helps others cross over suffering.  The Bodhisattva’s path of compassion is a path anyone can walk.  The gift of non-fear is the gift everyone can give.

Fear is the greatest suffering and we can never liberate ourselves from suffering until we conquer fear. As Thay says “Suffering is very important for your happiness. You cannot understand, you cannot love, until you know what suffering is.”

That would be a good phrase to use for the purpose of reflecting on the nature of suffering, but there are many others. Here are some links to quotes and talks by Thich Nhat Hanh. You may have an idea yourself about a way to reply to Thay’s gift of non-fear, and if so, please feel free to share it here in a comment.

BrainyQuote

Wikiquote

Goodreads

Transcriptions of Dharma Talks @ Plum Village

Share

Taming the Tiger: Choje Akong Rinpoche

As some of you already know, Choje Akong Rinpoche, 73, was killed this week in Chengdu, a town in southwest China. Although some news reports used the word “assassinated,” evidently the Rinpoche, his driver and his nephew, were all stabbed to death in an argument over money. Whether there is more to this or not will remain to be seen.

Akong_RinpocheAkong was a well-respected teacher, who co-founded the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West and put a great deal of energy into social activism and humanitarian efforts. He was not a monk but was recognized as a tulku, a reincarnated lama, which is the Tibetan translation of the Indian word guru, meaning “teacher.” Contrary to the popular perception, a lama is not always an ordained monk, but often are lay persons.

In 1959, Akong was among a group of 300 Tibetans who journeyed across the Himalayas to seek refuge in India. Only 13 members of the group survived. One of those survivors was the degenerate monk, Chogyam Trungpa. Both men were only 20 at the time. Some years later, the two settled in Britain and together they established Samye Ling in the Scottish lowlands, which as mentioned above was the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West.

Trungpa was installed as the head of the center, while Akong made beds and cleaned floors. But Trungpa had to leave Samye Ling in 1970 due to controversies over his predilection for underage girls and his drunken behavior. He renounced his monastic vows and split for the U.S. Akong took over in his stead and under his guidance the Samye Ling become a major Buddhist center with retreat facilities open to people of all faiths.

Choje Akong Rinpoche was a Buddhist scholar who made a significant contribution to the spread of Tibetan Buddhist teachings in the West, and also as previously noted, a great humanitarian. In 1980, he founded an international organization, ROKPA, whose aim is to improve the quality of life of impoverished people around the world irrespective of their religion, nationality or cultural background. He also went on to establish more than 100 different charitable projects in Tibet.

In his book Taming the Tiger, Akong wrote,

Taming the TigerAlthough the varieties of suffering may be many, and its intensity and degree may change, there is only one effective way of freeing ourselves from the pain of our existence, and that is to accept it. We still deal with our daily life situations but we stop trying to make the whole world conform to our desires and projections. If we are old, we come to accept being old; if we are young, we accept that too whatever the situation, we simply accept it. Once this acceptance occurs, then to a large extent we are freed from the suffering. Once we are able to let it go, it just falls away from us.”

It may not seem like it at first glance, but this is a rather profound teaching. The idea of the acceptance of suffering is counter-intuitive to our basic thinking. No one wants suffering, let alone accept it. Our instinct is to resist, or even be in denial about a situation that brings suffering to us. However, resisting and lingering in a state of denial only worsen the unhappiness.

Acceptance is what is behind the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: suffering is an unpleasant fact, an inconvenient truth. A bit further in the book, Choje Akong Rinpoche points out that accepting the fact of suffering isn’t fatalism. It does not mean surrender or apathy. It is simply accepting the reality of human existence.

As Akong wrote, “Before we can tame the tiger we must first track it down.” The Buddha tracked the tiger to a place called desire (tanha) and found that the beast was none other than our own mind, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for a sense of self, craving to be free from suffering.

There’s a old Chinese proverb that says when you ride on the back of a tiger, it is hard to dismount. I would add that it is easier to dismount a tiger is that has been tamed, than one that is wild.

The practice of acceptance is an key step in taming our unruly mind that often wishes to run away from suffering. Once we can accept suffering, then we can even welcome it, appreciate it, and come to view a time of suffering as a time for reflection on life, and a time for growth.

Share

Suffering is Beneficial

Yesterday I underwent a rather complicated medical procedure that is part of my on-going treatment for cancer, and needless to say, it wasn’t much fun.  First of all, getting up very early in the morning and having to fast (going without food I don’t mind, but no coffee sucks), does not put me in the best frame of mind for these things. I start with a rather begrudging attitude. After all, it isn’t a procedure that anyone in their right mind would want to go through, and no one would want have my medical problem. I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself that having this disease is a great opportunity.

Raoul Birnbaum, author of the definitive work thus far on Bhaisajyaguru (The Healing Buddha, 1979), wrote another book, Healing and Restoring (1989), which includes a chapter entitled “Chinese Buddhist Traditions of Healing and the Life Cycle.” The chapter is devoted to a discussion of healing based on the Sutra of the Master of Healing and T’ien-t’ai teacher Chih-i’s healing methods. Towards the end of the chapter, Birnbaum provides an excellent explanation of what I mean by disease being an opportunity.

The scripture and rituals dedicated to the Master of Healing are pervaded by a sense of transformation, by a sense that healing is a profound process of change . . . For Buddhists, sickness may provide a jolt of urgency, a vivid sense of the immediacy of suffering and the necessity of conquering it. It provides a striking reminder on the tenuous grasp one may have on human incarnation . . . Further, the enormous focused effort required to harness the mind for curing when the body is in a weakened state may be precisely what is required to attain enlightenment . . . Thus, disease – a very great source of suffering – may be viewed as beneficial by Buddhists intent on enlightenment.”

This point of view is not some great Buddhist revelation. There are many people of faith, doctors, psychologists, self-help gurus, etc., with similar viewpoints. But the diverse methods of healing Buddhism has to offer are unique, that is, uniquely Buddhist.

Healing Buddha
Healing Buddha

The “Master of Healing” is Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine or Healing Buddha, one of the most popular Buddhist archetypal figures, revered in India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. Birnbaum notes that “In the texts, this buddha continually pledges to assist devotees not only to become healed, but to attain enlightenment in the process.” The “texts” are works from a long-ago age, written and read by individuals who may have taken such statements literally. From a modern perspective, the Healing Buddha is a mythological figure, but also an archetype representing the natural healing powers of the mind and body. The Healing Buddha can assist only in the sense that by meditating on this figure, by contemplating the qualities represented, one can identify with, and “become” a healing buddha.

In the process of becoming a healing buddha, one can undertake to fulfill the third great vow made by Bhaisajyaguru: “I shall cause all beings to obtain what they need.” Obviously, what they need most is to be able to overcome their sufferings. This is exactly the same as the first of the Bodhisattva Vows, “to liberate all living beings.”

I mentioned the other day that suffering (dukkha) is a sort of ill-ness, a dis-ease. It is a cancer that can cause out-of-control growth of cells of pain, dissatisfaction and disconsolation, a malignant malaise. In this sense, all forms of suffering are a disease that must be conquered.

In Chih-kuan for Beginners, one of the works Birnbaum relies on in his discussion of the T’ien-t’ai approach to healing, Chih-i states, “While in his own practice or when working for the welfare of others, a practitioner should be acquainted with the causes of disease and the method of healing them . . .”

The main cause for the disease of suffering is self-cherishing and the main method for healing is cherishing others. Chih-i is credited with composing the Four Bodhisattva Vows, and he said that if a person cannot fulfill the first vow of saving all living beings, he or she can never fulfill the fourth vow of attaining enlightenment. The first vow is figurative because it would be impossible to save all living beings. Yet, the conundrum presented by the idea of enlightenment juxtaposed with the goal of liberating all beings from their suffering, points to the hidden message of Mahayana Buddhism, and this message was conveyed exquisitely by the Dalai Lama during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, a statement that I’ve presented a number of times before:

If, as a result of one’s commitment to the principles of the Bodhisattva ideal, one sees that the purpose of one’s life is to be of benefit to others, and from the depths of one’s heart there is a real sense of dedication of one’s entire life for the benefit of other sentient beings, and that kind of strong courage and principle – for that kind of person, then time doesn’t seem to matter much. Whether or not that person becomes enlightened, as far as he or she is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of benefit to others, and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose. Such is the kind of courage and determination to altruistic principles that bodhisattvas should adopt.”

Attaining enlightenment, becoming a Buddha with a big “B” is not as important as becoming a healing buddha. Suffering is beneficial when we use it to benefit others. Healing others is as important as healing ourselves. That is the kind of understanding all healing buddhas should adopt.

Share