by Martin Evans
Staying at home and not being able to see our families and friends, we are fortunate to be able to keep in touch, not only by speaking, but also through video. It is surprising how much closer we feel to people when we can see them and the world they are living in.
My daughter is in Germany. She is not stranded there; she is staying with her friend, someone she loves. She is in the right place. But we miss her, as we would normally see her fairly often, and of course, parents never really stop worrying about their children, even when they are reaching their 40s.
Whatsapping her yesterday, I asked how they were coping and if they were keeping safe. She said, ‘Well, it’s only a kind of flu, isn’t it’. My protective fatherly instinct jumped to the fore and I tried to explain the scientific evidence as I understood it. But my wife said, ‘You’re frightening her’.
If fear makes us take this seriously, then it has pulled us out of complacency and that is a good thing. This is a time to get real – to say things as they are, even if it is not what people want to hear.
The Buddha was very direct. Uncomfortably direct. The truth is often uncomfortable - we would rather pretend. But this is a wonderful opportunity to face reality. It might save our lives.
The Buddha discovered that it was possible to transcend suffering. This was what he experience under the Bodhi Tree, the experience he called Nibbana or Nirvana. And he reflected, ‘What was to be done has been done – there is nothing more to be done’.
He could have stopped there, and he considered doing just that, but instead he worked out a path for us to follow so that we could realise the same experience as he did, that same release, the same freedom.
He described his teachings as going against the stream. We would much rather live with the pretence that everything is fine. But we need to be frightened to pull ourselves out of complacency. We have a wonderful opportunity to do this right now, to turn towards reality. And if we do this what will we see?
Calling it by its true name
To understand things, it helps to name them. But the names we feel comfortable with may not be their true names. This is true of the Buddha’s first noble truth. A lot of different translations abound for Dukkha 1; stress, unsatisfactoriness and suffering are most commonly used.
Early Western translators used suffering, but this led to people dismissing Buddhism as negative. The Buddha taught that everything is suffering is still a common misunderstanding. So alternative translations like stress or unsatisfactoriness came into vogue to correct the misunderstanding that the Buddha denied that happiness exists, that our experience is just one of continual suffering.
But avoiding the use of the word ‘suffering’, aren’t we just being polite? Like, not using use the word ‘toilet’? It seems people can’t go to the toilet these days, they have to go to the bathroom, or take a comfort break.
The Buddha taught us that in order to be truly happy, we need to understand suffering. We can’t stop suffering by chasing happiness, because happiness doesn’t last – chasing happiness is like running on a treadmill, it’s exhausting – and we never become truly happy. We need to understand how we create suffering and stop doing it. When we free ourselves from suffering, what fills its place? It’s not the kind of happiness which comes from grasping, but from letting go. He called this teaching the Four Noble Truths.
1.Suffering is to be understood
2.The origin of suffering, which is craving, is to be abandoned. Which leads to
3.The cessation of suffering, which is to be realised. How? Through developing
4.The Eight Fold Path - which he called the middle way.
(The best book I have come across about this is The Four Noble Truths, written by Ajahn Sumedho.)
The Buddha’s teaching is direct; being polite is not being real. We much prefer to pretend – pretend we live in a world of ‘happily ever after’. We really don’t like upsetting people with the truth.
This is a time to get real. To say it as it is. People may not want to stay at home, but it will save lives if they do. We need to convince people of the stark reality (stark means harsh, bare, naked). And most of all, we need to convince ourselves.
The pursuit of happiness
The pursuit of happiness is what we are conditioned to do. We run away from suffering and run towards happiness, and we do this over and over again. We put so much energy into trying to create happiness – trying to make ourselves happy and trying to make other people happy - it’s so stressful – it’s Dukkha. But we don’t know anything else – we think we have failed when we’re not happy. And then we have to block out the feeling of failure by escaping into sleep or drink or drugs – anything, but turn towards reality.
It is the belief that we can and should be happy – that it is our fundamental right to experience a permanent happy state – which is flawed. The law of impermanence applies to all conditioned things – whatever arises by causes has the seeds of cessation within it – it must cease. However hard we try, we cannot create a permanent happiness. The effort of trying to do so creates suffering in itself. It is like chasing rainbows – can you imagine how exhausting it would be if your goal in life was to catch a rainbow? The idea that there is something fundamentally wrong because you can’t catch a rainbow is like the idea that there is something wrong with life when you aren’t happy.
But the conditioning that there is something wrong if we are not happy is all around us. In Brave New World by Aldus Huxley, it is compulsory to take your dose of Soma every day. This is a Governmental decree, because Soma makes you happy and it was compulsory to be happy all the time. Why? Because you wouldn’t question anything. You wouldn’t question the work you were forced to do, your place in society, or what you were told to believe. You wouldn’t have any real feelings, only artificially induced happy ones.
Of course this is science fiction (and written in 1931), but it is easy to see parallels in our present day society. It is interesting how scientific advances in medicine are taking us in this direction – no need to suffer, take an anaesthetic, a pain relief pill, a drug of some kind. Or get a fix of television or chocolate therapy, whatever. But we don’t learn anything by taking a happy drug. What is the point of life if it is just the endless running away from unpleasant feelings. Where does it end? Inevitably in death, and nothing learnt or understood about our world, nothing gained from the wonderful opportunity, the precious gift of experiencing this human existence.
Use your time well
There is a sutta in the Forest Sangha chanting book called Ten Subjects for Frequent Recollection (page 59).
It says, ‘The days and nights are relentlessly passing; how well am I spending my time?
One of our neighbours said, ‘We are sleeping 12 hours a day, what else is there to do?’
I heard in the news that Ukranian football is the latest craze, because it is the only football league still playing. What else is there to do?
I expect there will be a rise in the birth rate. What else is there to do?
We hear it on the news every day – how many people have died. We may already have the virus – perhaps we will get it badly – and there won’t be enough ventilators. But we don’t know what to do. We don’t think that this is an opportunity to reflect:
‘I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness. I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying. All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.’ (Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection, page 55)
And it goes on to say:
I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported by my kamma. Whatever kamma I shall do, for good or for ill, of that I will be the heir.
Kamma means action. What this is saying is that whatever we do with our time, the results of that action will inevitably come back to us. It’s the natural law of cause and effect. If we follow our anger, the results will come back to us. If we act with kindness we will reap the results of that. If we train the mind, if we develop insight…
It is so easy to follow our habit of ‘let’s pretend’. We pretend that dying is what happens to other people. We pretend that the statistics on the news about how many people have died today are not about us. We really don’t know if or when we will pick up the Coronavirus and what will happen if we do. We live in uncertain times. This is such a wonderful opportunity to turn towards reality, to face the truth.
Who will water the orchids?
We have some orchids in our bathroom. I noticed them when I got up yesterday and thought, ‘Who will water the orchids?’ And I noticed a feeling in the pit of my stomach. ‘What’s that about?’ I thought. So I investigated this feeling when I sat in meditation – calling to mind the orchids in flower and opening up to the feeling that evoked. As I rested in that feeling, letting go of any resistance, I knew it – yes, I called it by its real name – and felt completely at ease.
To see things clearly, we let go of our attachment to the way we want them to be and our resistance to the way things are. In coming to understand the world as it is we can’t but accept our mortality. The most fundamental attachment of all is to existence itself. Seeing this clearly is a kind of bereavement – we have to die to the dream to live in the real world. But waking up to reality it is also a kind of rebirth. There is only one thing which lasts according to the Buddha, and that is insight – seeing the way things are. When insight arises and we see something clearly, we can’t un-see it again. Our perception is changed permanently. So when we realise the way things are, that doesn’t cease. In fact, it doesn’t arise either, because the truth was always within us, we knew it all along, it was just that it was hidden, covered by delusion. We call it realising the unconditioned, the uncaused, the uncreated. And the sense of ease which follows is a sort of happiness which not dependent on external conditions. The world doesn’t have to be this way or that to make us happy. It is an unshakable wellbeing based on a natural knowing awareness; it is rightly called the end of suffering.
It is the happiness of wisdom, but not of trying to become wise. This kind of happiness isn’t dependent on conditions, it doesn’t have to be created or sustained. But when we use the word happiness, it comes loaded with an idea of something we haven’t got or have lost, and the desire to have it follows almost imperceptibly.
That’s why mindfulness is so important, so we can recognise the grasping mind, and in knowing it, giving it its true name, we know don’t have to follow it, we can let it go.
Martin Evans, 1 April 2020
1. Understanding Dukkha it isn’t about finding the perfect translation. Look at the range of what Dukkha is: Disturbance, irritation, dejection, worry, despair, fear, dread, anguish, anxiety; vul-nerability, injury, inability, inferiority; sickness, aging, decay of body and faculties, senility; pain/pleasure; excitement/boredom; deprivation/excess; desire/frustration, suppression; longing/aimlessness; hope/hopelessness; effort, activity, striv-ing/repression; loss, want, insufficiency/satiety; love/lovelessness, friendlessness; dislike, aversion/attraction; parenthood/childlessness; submission/rebellion; deci-sion/indecisiveness, vacillation, uncertainty.
— Francis Story - Suffering, Vol. II of The Three Basic Facts of Existence (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1983) http://www.bps.lk/olib/wh/wh191_Burton-etal_Three-Basic-Facts-of-Existance--II-Dukkha.pdf ↩