Aging, sickness and death are suffering.
Loss, grief, and despair are suffering.
To lose what you love is suffering.
Putting together my thoughts around this talk has felt a little like I would imagine walking across the desert in search of an oasis. One thing that I found – and which shifted the goal posts immediately – was that my intention in wrapping up a series of talks on The Dharma Seals (The Marks of Existence) by talking about Dukkha and “All things suffering,” became problematic when several of the sources I consulted presented the 3rd seal not as Dukkha, but as Nibbana. Which, honestly, was confusing, at first, because I had been taught that it was Dukkha some 20 odd years ago. But then, I realized, the 3rd Seal is just a coin, if we can use that metaphor, with 2 opposing sides. And around the edge of the coin is The Way from one side to the other, which is the Eight-Fold Path.
In presenting this series of talks, we have really talked about the Seals from an intellectual framework. We began with Impermanence, Annicca – the ever-changing nature of conditioned phenomena of which everything in the Universe is a part. We explored how it is our attachment to things that feel good, and the desire for them to remain forever stable, or our aversion to things that feel bad, and the desire for them to leave, the sooner the better, work against the Universal Law of changeability. We then looked at the idea of Non-self, Annatta – which is simply the notion that there is no independent and abiding self that is an exception to the rule of Impermanence. And that it is the grasping on to the idea of terminal uniqueness that causes one to act in unskillful ways characterized by greed, hatred and delusion. While the “wrapping our minds around” these marks of existence, does not guarantee enlightenment, it simply gives us a way to begin to orient our practice. And to the degree with which we accept or struggle against the first two seals, we move towards one side of the coin, Nibanna with acceptance or to the other and Dukkha with denial.
I teach only two things;
Suffering and the end of suffering.
“My dear friends, the Dharma I offer you is only a raft to help you cross over to the other shore.”
I was actually introduced to the teaching on the 3 Seals in the mid-90’s when I was on a month long Outdoor Educator’s Course in Alaska. It was, at the time, one of the more challenging psychological exercises I had experienced. We were living out of backpacks in extremely hostile conditions. Over a 21-day period we experienced 19 days of constant rain, 1 day of 6” of snow and 1 day near the end that was partly cloudy. No sun in a place where the sun was, in theory, up more than 23 hours a day. Everything I owned was wet, which made the packs extremely heavy, and because our feet were in sopping boots, and hands in soaking gloves, I developed a fungus – think of fungus you see growing at the base of a tree – growing between my fingers and toes. Well, my mind was a mess. This was simply not the experience I had imagined, and this says nothing of the external threats we were dealing with hiking through bear, wolf and mountain lion country. And the 3 Seals became my mantra – Life is suffering. Things are impermanent. There is no self. And intellectually, I am pretty certain there were days I didn’t believe any of it, the internal chanting allowed me to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And the darndest thing happened, as soon as we got back to the base camp outside of Anchorage, the sun came out, things dried out, and the fungus immediately began to be starved of moisture and disappear. And Boom, I awakened to the truths of Impermanence and Non-self, and in an moment experienced a oneness with everything in the Universe which I can only describe as a taste of Nibanna. And isn’t this really the way our lives move?
The First Noble Truth, that Life is characterized by Dukkha, and that as long as we are living, breathing beings on Earth, we will age, we will, at certain points, get sick, and eventually die. Fred Luskin, from the Stanford Forgiveness Project, says that we are all really just swimming in a sea of vulnerability. No matter how much wealth, position, privilege or opportunity one has, there is still this sense of doubt and despair. The metaphysical questions persist: Why am I born? What happens when I die? What is death? Will I go to heaven or hell or just be wiped out? Is there a soul? Why did Hurricane Harvey flood my house? Why am I an alcoholic? Will I be reincarnated as a Lama or a mosquito? These types of questions, by the way, are what the Buddha called Imponderables – maybe there is a message of unification here, we can call ourselves the Imponderables – at any rate, the Buddha says that there are really no answers to be had to these questions, and as such it is really a waste of time to spend much time with them. In fact, such questions may lead us to spin out in the origin of the suffering itself – our attachments to the Five Aggregates – Body, Feelings, Perceptions, etc. The better question is How can I lead a skillful life in this moment, right now?
And so Suffering – the inherent un-satisfactoriness (this is a better translation of the Pali term Dukkha) that comes with being alive, the fact that what we have in this lifetime is a one way ticket on a trip where we will lose the things most precious to us – the aging and dying of grandparents, parents, friends and loved ones, the diminishment of our own sense organs – a friend said to be a few years ago, “Nobody told me that the world was on a dimmer switch that keeps getting dialed down or that rigor mortis starts well before we die.” The drumbeat of marching into the drugstore to get the next higher magnification for our readers or the stiffness that we feel, beginning after about age 40 – when we are approximately halfway through our journey in this body by the way – at just getting out of bed in the morning. And the games that we play at trying to prolong our youth. (Gym memberships, fad diets, botox and plastic surgery, etc.)
Dukkha is not a doctrine to hold onto – it is just a point on the compass, a way to orient ourselves. It is not saying that everything in life is pain and misery and sad. It is not saying that everything is suffering, it just says, “There is suffering.” We aren’t blaming it on anything outside – it’s not because of our mother or a teacher, or the government. We are just interested in the suffering that we create for ourselves through the very nature of our minds – which by the way – are not unique.
The Power of Meaning statistics
By doing this – looking at our unlimited capacity for self-loathing, for instance – we begin to adopt Right/Wise View, which is the first spoke on the wheel that is the Eight-Fold Path. And we can start to cultivate from here, the ground of Wise Thought, Wise Speech, Wise Action, Wise Livelihood, Wise Effort, Wise Mindfulness, and Wise Concentration. And all of the spokes of the wheel really dance with each other in The Way that holds the whole center. And when one element gets unbalanced, the wheel wobbles until we wake up a little more.
So, as I began to wrap this talk up, let me just conclude by saying a few words about Nibbana or Nirvana. While most people think of this as the final goal on the Buddhist Path, as we are talking about it here, as the opposite side of a metaphorical coin, we find our way out of suffering by being completely with our lives as they unfold – by embracing the inherent vulnerabilities of life. By, as Pema Chodron, the Tibetan Buddhist nun says, “turning towards the places that scare us.” We can’t run away from everything – ok, I don’t know what it is like to be a billionaire – maybe they can. (Steve Jobs at the end of his life when asked what he would change, “I wouldn’t have worked so hard.” But on this path, we aim to open to everything equally – the good, the bad, the ugly. St. Francis said that we can only find our way by looking and working at those on the edges of society because it is in getting close to them that we confront our own suffering. Through practice, we begin to feel at ease in just being with things as they are, and we begin to have moments where we can just stop the war, as Jack Kornfield says.
The other morning, I was sitting on my cushion in my little meditation spot I have at the house. It looks out a big plate glass window onto a narrow garden spot at the back of the house – the view is not special as it looks directly at a wooden fence 4 feet away. But as I opened my eyes at the end of a half hour of sitting, I saw a little lizard not more than a few days old. A tiny little thing. And I just watched him – he was very active, moving in small jerky bounds of energy. And out of the corner of my left eye I saw a small fly bouncing into the window over and over, and I realized something was up. And in a flash, this little bitty lizard bounded in the most smooth and elegant way possible, across the ground, up a small step, leaped up onto the window, swallowed the fly, and bounced off the glass to the ground. And then proceeded to ingest the fly. I could see every little muscle in his mouth, his neck and his belly articulating. And as he and I stared at each other through the ½” pane of glass, there was a warm sensation that passed throughout my entire being, and the simple thought arose, “This is it.” The clarity of observation, and that total absorption of mind – the cessation of suffering (if you’re not the fly), the realization of nibbana – is just not all that far away.
When you look back at the suffering in your own life, each time you would have avoided it if you possibly could. And yet, when you look at the depth of your character now, isn’t part of that a product of those experiences? Weren’t those experiences part of what created the depth of your inner being?