Studying Our Suffering
given by Nomon Tim Burnett
Bellingham Zen Practice Group Sunday Retreat, July 1, 2001
Bellingham Dharma Hall

I think we all come to practice with some lofty ideas. Maybe we're drawn to stories about spontaneous wonderful Zen masters. Maybe enlightenment sounds like a good plan. Or maybe we just want a little more peace and ease in our lives. And such ideas are really wonderful. These ideas helped bring us to practice. Having such ideas is the emergence of bodhicitta - the wholesome desire for awakening, and the arising of such an idea is seen as the first step on the path of the bodhisattva.
And as we all know from our zazen practice, ideas are also just ideas. Inherently flimsy, without substance or abiding reality. They come and they go. They are like the weather of our mind. One day it's sunny, one day it's rainy. As we Northwesterners know, there's no point complaining about the weather. As they say around here, "if you don't like the weather, just wait 15 minutes." And it's the same with our mind. If you don't like your mind right now just wait 15 minutes. It will all change by then.
And so in a way our idea about practice, our idea about Zen, really doesn't matter. It changes all the time anyway, there's nothing to grab onto.
This all just sounds like another lofty idea though, doesn't it? Oh, yeah, that's right mmm Zen so mysterious, ideas don't matter, everything changes. Yes, grasshopper. Very lofty and esoteric. And not terribly useful!
Zen is lofty and mysterious, no doubt, but Zen is also practical. Down to earth. A simple path that we can do. No problem. "Just do it," as Katagiri roshi used to say. So how on a practical level do we engage our life though the vehicle of Zen practice?
I want to suggest today that the primary activity of practice is studying our suffering. Studying the patterns in our life that lead to discontent, to separation, to feeling less than completely satisfied with our circumstances. And not the kind of studying where I'm over here and I have this magnifying glass called Zen practice so I can scrutinize and dissect my life. More like full immersion language school where you are just show up in a new country and they refuse to speak English to you. Studying our suffering means really being our suffering. Living our suffering. Embracing and loving our suffering. Completely putting down our shielding and resistance to our suffering.
As I've mentioned before, suffering is the most usual translation for the old Buddhist term dukkha. And suffering is a maybe a little to loaded as an English word. It sounds a bit extreme. What does he mean study our suffering? I'm not suffering at the moment. Do I need to wait until I have a horrible crisis before I can practice Zen? Do I need more suffering in my life? Other possible translations of dukkha are stress, discontent, a sense of dis-ease, a feel of disconnectedness with our life, that vague quivery feeling that even in the midst of happy times something isn't quite right. This isn't quite it. How are you? Oh, nothing to complain about really. The excellent website comments on this translation problem this way: "One helpful rule of thumb: as soon as you think you've found the best translation for dukkha, think again: for no matter how you describe dukkha, it's always larger, subtler, and more unsatisfactory than that."
I don't know if Shakyamuni Buddha coined the term dukkha or if it was a regular word that he recast with a different shade of meaning. Usually he used everyday language which was part of what made his teachings so revolutionary at the time. The situation in Buddha's day was that the mainstream orthodox religion was an esoteric form of Hinduism that was controlled by a priestly class called the Brahmins. It was full of elaborate rituals and secret teachings known only by the Brahmins. And to be a good religious person you needed to always consult with the Brahmins and bring them in to perform rituals and tell whether this or that is in accord with the proper religious teachings. I'm sure it was a very beautiful and elaborate spirituality, but it was also very lofty, full of special terminology and language, and generally beyond the ken of regular people. A specialist's religion.
This was a time of social change and relative wealth in Northern India. There was a growing merchant class, the beginnings of a middle class and people probably had a little more free time and a little more resources to invest in exploring their own spirituality and philosophy and for supporting others. A time not unlike our own.
Out of this social milieu there was arising a movement in contrast to the mainstream religion run by the Brahmins. This was an anarchistic counter movement of groups of ascetics, mystics, and yogis. These guys (and I think they were almost all men) were interested in direct spiritual experience. There were many different groups and different teachers, and I don't know if we can call what they were doing a religion, it was too diverse. And these holy men, yogis and ascetics were supported by their society. I imagine a good middle class merchant family of the time probably gave handouts to wandering holy men and also supported their local brahmin. They would maybe have felt deeply moved by the seriousness and devotion of these ascetic practitioners, and probably they found them a little odd too. You certainly didn't want your own son or daughter to live that way.
This was the situation the young Siddharta Gautama, who was later to be the Buddha, grew up in. You all know the story I'm sure of how at birth his father, who was in the noble class and very wealthy, learned from a respected prophet that there were clear signs of prophesy around the birth of his son. Either he would grow up to be a great political leader or a great holy man. Preferring the former, his father tried to shelter his son from all hardships and educate him as an up and coming noble leader. But sooner or later the cat always gets out of the bag. And the story goes that Siddharta talked his charioteer into taking him out into the town unsupervised and there he was deeply shocked to see a sick person, and then an old person, and then the body of someone who has just died. It sounds simplistic, but it's a compelling story if you think about it. His father had great resources and had completely devoted himself to hiding his son from these realities.
One account of Siddharta's sheltered life is that not only did he stay in his palaces all the time, he didn't even go to the ground floor. Ashvaghosa wrote: "Thus he passed his time in the upper part of the palace, which was as brilliantly white as rain clouds in autumn, and which looked like a mansion of the Gods shifted to the earth. It contained rooms suited to each season, and the melodious music of the female attendants could be heard in themŠ soft music from the gold-edged tambourines which the women tapped with their finger-tips as they danced as beautifully as the choicest heavenly nymphsŠ" and so on. His life had been one endless party and then suddenly he goes out for a little exploring and: bammo he finds out the truth that every one us will inevitably get sick, get old, and die.
And then in the midst of this incredible despair and shock he also sees a wandering monk. A disciple of one of the local ascetic yogis. And this monk was walking through the suffering world Siddharta suddenly found himself with a deeply focussed feeling of contentment and equanimity. You can imagine a monk really focussed on his meditation practice, walking mindfully down a dirty back street in ancient India. Maybe he's walking by when they are loading the body of someone who just died into a cart to take to the cremation grounds. And his eyes are cast down, just following his breath, smiling slightly. Mindful of each step.
I'm going about this because I'm leading up to Shakyamuni Buddha's use of this term dukkha. I think it's helpful to remember the context of his practice.
Anyway, Siddharta realizes that his life has just shifted too radically to allow him to go on as before. It's hard to understand a future teacher of ethics leaving his family to practice, but that's what he does, he leaves behind his wife and his young son and slips off into the woods to find a teacher. This feeling of bodhicitta was stronger than we can imagine. He really had no choice but to take up practice and devote every ounce of his being to trying to understand the truth about suffering. How can we every find peace in the midst of sickness, old age, and death. In the midst of inevitable decay and loss. They say that one of the stages in becoming a Buddha is when you mind reaches a state when it can no longer turn back on enlightenment. It just can't return to self-identification and thirsting after sense pleasures. Sometimes when we experience a big, surprising shift in our lives we maybe have a glimmer of what he must have felt.
We all know that the Buddha sat down under a tree, devoted himself wholeheartedly to sitting meditation and experiences a great enlightenment, but keep in mind that he didn't do that right away. First he practiced intensively with every meditation and yoga teacher around. He was a student of practice before he was a teacher. And he didn't just dabble. He mastered many meditation techniques, became adept at many yogic practices. He kept at it, working hard, learning, but still his question burned in his heart. Still he didn't understand how we can live with any real peace. And as often happens during intensive practice finally he hit bottom. Do you know what I mean? It was when we was doing a severe ascetic practice where he and 5 others students were only eating one jujube fruit, a one sesame seed and one grain of rice a day, not bathing, not sleeping particularly and working very intensely on their practice. He must have been in a wild kind of starved, spiritual daze. Really out of his mind, and yet deeply present. They say he had really awe inspiring spiritual and psychic energy. There's a famous Ghandaran statue of what he looked like then and it's really creepy looking. Ribs showing, wild hair, sunken, intense eyes. Anyway finally something snapped and he realized "this just isn't it." He stumbled across a girl from the nearby village, the story goes, and accepted an offering of rice and milk from her and then finally he began what was to become known as Buddhist practice. The middle way.
Well his five practice buddies were shocked. What a sell out! Eating rice and milk. And then he even made a cushy seat out of kusha grass instead of sitting on hard rocks like he was supposed to. So they left in utter disgust.
After his enlightenment, it was to these five men the Buddha gave his first formal teaching after his awakening. It was to these five friends from his years of hard practice that he first tried to formulate what he'd learned from his awakening as the Buddha. He must have loved them very dearly. And they were a little skeptical as you can imagine. Oh, now you say you have all the answers 'eh softy? Listen to what the sutra says they muttered to each other as he walked up: "There is our pleasure-loving friend, the mendicant Gautama, who gave up his austerities! When he comes to us, we must certainly not get up to meet him, and he is certainly not worth saluting. People who have broken their vows do not deserve any respect. Of course, if he should wish to talk to us, let us by all means converse with him. For it is unworthy of saintly people to act otherwise towards visitors, whoever they may be." But his argument was deeply convincing and they became his first students on the spot. One of them had a big enlightenment experience just listening to his lecture.
That talk, which we now call the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, The sutra on Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion, was on the teaching of the four noble truths. And that's where this term dukkha comes in. See, I got back here eventually!
There is a wonderful part of Buddha's enlightenment story that explains exactly when during his final night of sitting he realized each of these four truths, but I will spare you that level of detail. Anyway the first noble truth as that all life that's conditioned by our regular way of thinking is absolutely always characterized by dukkha. By suffering, by a feel of discontent. You can experience this even when things are going really well. And it's more obvious when things aren't going so well. Somehow we just aren't quite satisfied really no matter what. That is dukkha.
The second noble truth is when Buddha realized why this is. The second noble truth is the cause of dukkha. That as you all know is attachment. Or craving. Or aversion. Many names for the same deep impulse. Attachment and aversion happen at a few low level in our consciousness. And they happen constantly. The Buddha's mind was so clear he could see the functioning of attachment and aversion just like we can see our own hand opening and closing. And further he could see that engine of suffering operating in everyone throughout the world. It must have been a pretty awesome and creepy thing to see!
The third noble truth is that Buddha realized from his own personal experience that we can transform our life so that it isn't dukkha. That's important. The first noble truth gets shortened to "life is suffering" and Buddhism has a bad reputation because of that. That is not the first noble truth. The first noble truth, is "all conditioned existence is suffering." The second truth is the origin of the condition. And the third noble truth is there is a cure for this condition.
The forth noble truth is the practical way to solve the problem. The forth noble truth is the eightfold path leading to liberation. You've heard of this for sure: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
So this is wonderful and pivotal teaching of Buddhism. Maybe the number one teaching and good to hear and know about. But of course hearing and knowing something in our mind doesn't change much. The important thing is that we need to practice with a teaching, be with a teaching, study a teaching with our breath, with our body. Enter into it completely and check it out. See what are the noble truths really? How to they feel? What are their dimensions? We have to explore the territory, step by step, even though it may take quite a while and quite a bit of persistent effort.
Our tendency, I think, is that we really like cures. So on truth #1 to #3 we nod our head and say yeah, yeah, okay, and then #4 comes along and we say - great that's what I was waiting for. I want the cure right away. What do I have to do?
But the example of Buddha's practice doesn't suggest that course of action. Buddha studied hard with his whole body and mind for year and had to completely realize the first noble truth before he could awaken.
So my suggestion to you today, which sounds a little grim, and it can be horrible and it can be really wonderful, is that we embark on the project of studying and realizing this first noble truth in our lives. What is suffering for me? What are the dimensions and varieties of dukkha? What is stress? What is that feeling of dissatisfaction? To really be with so-called negative emotions and mind states. Gently, but firmly to check out our condition as human beings.
We have many tools available to us in this exploration. The most obvious is our regular discriminating mind. And we can use that skillfully in dharma for sure. We can pay attention with our minds to when we're suffering. What do the causes seem to be if we can discern any? Does this action lead to more suffering? Basically I'm happy right now, but is there a deeper feeling of dis-ease included in that? Not that we are seeking out misery, but while learning about the first noble truth we commit ourselves to being open to misery, open to suffering, if it's there we aren't going to hide from it. We're exploring a new territory with dispassionate interest - we want to see what's really there not just what we hope will be there. So the use of discriminating consciousness to explore dukkha is very common sense and we already do this all the time. But maybe we refine our efforts a little in light of this teaching of the four noble truths.
The second tool available to us is our body. This is easily neglected. We can be much more sensitive to feelings in the body and how they connect to mind states and emotions. If there is a strong feeling of stress where does that manifest in the body. And what, in particular, does that feel like. Is it a warm feeling? A cold feeling? Does the feeling move around? When we experience stress does it always manifest in that same place?
There are many practices to help us employ the body as a tool for awareness. We can do a "body scan" during sitting or anytime when we are able - examining the feeling in each part of the body. We can practice relaxing the face - I almost always have tension in my face. It's really surprising to check. We can take on other practices like yoga, tai chi, chi gung to help us be more aware of what's happening in the body. We can also pay attention to our posture. In sitting and in every activity how do we hold the body? What impact does our posture have on our life? How is posture itself bound up in the noble truth of dukkha.
The tool emphasized in Suzuki roshi's way is the breath. I'm almost out of time, so I won't say too much about the breath. But the breath is incredible. It is always available to us, and entering deeply into the breath is really beyond all conceptions of space and time. The breath is a very powerful tool for understanding and liberation. I think we really need to have a lot of respect and veneration for the breath. Which we usually take for granted thousands of times a day.
And there are many particular meditation practices and things we can emphasize in our life to help us realize this noble truth of our life conditioned by attachment and aversion. I would like to touch briefly on one and then we'll close.
You've probably heard of "metta" practice - or lovingkindness practice - it's a common practice in Vipassana. It involves raising the spirit of love and kindness in your self and extending it to encompass your whole self with all of your perceived failings, to people you love, to people you're neutral about, and finally to people you really can't stand.
Metta is one of a set of four practices called the Brahma Viharas, for the divine abodes. These practices embody and create the place where the Brahma gods love to hang out.
The other three are karuna or compassion, mudita or sympathetic joy, and upekkha, or equanimity.
Lately I've been trying to practice with mudita, sympathetic joy, because I noticed a strong pattern of suffering in my life. I noticed that whenever I encounter someone who has accomplished something that is the kind of thing I want to do, or the kind of thing I once wished I had done, or even something I've failed to do, I really suffer. Instead of being happy that someone else is doing something I value I get pissed. I feel jealous. I feel regretful.
On the basic level just having this term "mudita" in mind, having a category in my thinking for this particular brand of suffering helps me be more aware of it. The teachings on mudita also suggest specific meditation practices, such as visualizing people we feel jealous of and wishing "May she continue to have material gains and may she gain even more. May he continue to have spiritual happiness and gain even more." and so on. And that's wonderful to take up for a while.
Mostly for me studying mudita has been really paying attention, with discriminating awareness, to what actually arises when I feel this way. For example, I care a lot about the natural world and I used teach kids about nature but I haven't for several years. The other day I received the catalog from an environmental education institute that I respect and leaving through the pages I felt such strong emotion! These guys are doing what I'm supposed to be doing! Where did I go wrong? And look at the way they're doing it! I would have done this program another way! And so on.
Examining those feelings I noticed that there was a combination of jealousy, anger, real joy and appreciation. Both sides were in there I just didn't notice at first. So my suffering contains my joy. And when that feeling of jealousy and upset arises I can practice turning towards it. Appreciating the complexity of it and appreciating the joy and gratitude that is part of being human even in the middle of being upset.
And that's the note I'd like to close on. Studying dukkha, studying our suffering, is not a grim chore to take on because as good Zen students that's what we are supposed to do. Studying our suffering is embracing fully our actual life, and within every moment of that life is deep gratitude and infinite joy. This doesn't fit our usual idea of how things are, so we have to study to loosen up on our misunderstanding. Turning towards anguish, turning towards discomfort, turning towards upset, entering into it. Just being it. Appreciating our life.
I'd like to close with a quote from a great American Bodhisattva, Woody Guthrie. There is wonderful exhibit on his life at the State history museum in Tacoma. And learning more about Woody Guthrie's life I can tell you he went through some incredible suffering and could still somehow express great joy in being alive.
He wrote one time:
Whoever has traveled a similar road
can tell of the rocks and weight of the load . . .
take it easy, but take it.
-Woody Guthrie