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Buddha’s Words: Samsara Sucks

June 12, 2012

‘after the tsunami, yala park’ by micrognostic via Flickr.com

You are going to die.  I am going to die.  Everyone we love is going to die.  So is everyone we hate, everyone we feel indifferent about, and everyone we’ve never met or even considered.  Everything we know will be washed away.  And before that happens, life is going to suck a lot.

Why is that?  And how do we get out of it?  That’s what the Buddha set out to discover.  Really, honestly, in a nutshell, I am not kidding you, that’s all.

You may have noticed I deal with the subject of suffering, sickness, and death by being brutally and ironically blunt.  If Death were here, I’d probably tell the bitch to “bring it.”  That’s just how I cope.  Other people prefer euphemisms and metaphors, “passing away” and “becoming lost.”  Still others prefer not to discuss it at all, as if calling its name three times will cause it to appear.  But none of us are comfortable with the idea.  Believe it or not, this is where the Dharma starts.  The facts of life themselves are our most fundamental problem and how we deal with it has everything to do with whether we perpetuation those problems or get out of them.

This starting place is also the first chapter of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book In the Buddha’s Words, although he calls it more precisely “I. The Human Condition.”  In this chapter he describes how the Buddha applied careful attention to understanding the problems of human existence.  Suffering was chief among these.  The lives we live, bounded by inevitable old age, sickness, and death, are born and end in suffering.  We suffer because of pain, because things change, and because we misunderstand our own nature.  We suffer because we allow greed, anger, and delusion to drive our actions and those actions have consequences.

However, the Buddha discovered that although death is inevitable, suffering is optional.  Through ethical conduct we can reduce our suffering in this life and through spiritual enlightenment we can eliminate it altogether now and in future lives.  When this happens, the prospect of death no longer frightens us.

It is commonly assumed that physical and mental pain are inseparably linked, but the Buddha makes a clear demarcation between the two.  He holds that while bodily existence is inevitably bound up with physical pain, such pain need not trigger the emotional reactions of misery, fear resentment, and distress with which we habitually respond to it.

I would take this one step further and say that even events commonly assumed to cause suffering, such as loosing a job, being stuck in traffic, or getting mugged, need not trigger the emotional reactions of suffering.  The death of a loved one should cause grief, but it need not bring abject misery.  In the Buddha’s time, physical pain was more prevalent and physical comfort scarcer.  Here and now, our pains are somewhat different, but the Buddha’s truth is no less relevant.

To support these claims, Bhikkhu Bodhi cites fifteen passages from the Sutta Pitaka.  My favorite from this chapter was not the shortest or the most colorful, most profound, or even the most entertaining.  In typical Nebraskan style, it’s the most pragmatic.  I hope you find it equally as practical.  It’s rather long, so instead of retyping it from the book, I have used Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s very similar translation from Access to Insight.

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.

“As he is touched by that painful feeling, he is resistant. Any resistance-obsession with regard to that painful feeling obsesses him. Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure. As he is delighting in sensual pleasure, any passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him. He does not discern, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling. As he does not discern the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling, then any ignorance-obsession with regard to that feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain obsesses him.

“Sensing a feeling of pleasure, he senses it as though joined with it. Sensing a feeling of pain, he senses it as though joined with it. Sensing a feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain, he senses it as though joined with it. This is called an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person joined with birth, aging, and death; with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs. He is joined, I tell you, with suffering and stress.

Bhikkhu Bodhi translate this phrase as “feels it attached” rather than “as though joined with it.”  Nyanaponika Thera translates this phrase as “feels it as one fettered by it.”  No matter how we choose to translate it, the feeling is the same – we’re trapped, stuck, caught, hooked.  Rather than us controlling (as we prefer to believe) our pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, it is controlling us, driving our feelings, thoughts, speech, and actions.  We are not free.  Things are very different for one who has practiced and understood the Dharma.

“Now, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. He feels one pain: physical, but not mental.

“As he is touched by that painful feeling, he is not resistant. No resistance-obsession with regard to that painful feeling obsesses him. Touched by that painful feeling, he does not delight in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns an escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure. As he is not delighting in sensual pleasure, no passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him. He discerns, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, and escape from that feeling. As he discerns the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, and escape from that feeling, no ignorance-obsession with regard to that feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain obsesses him.

“Sensing a feeling of pleasure, he senses it disjoined from it. Sensing a feeling of pain, he senses it disjoined from it. Sensing a feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain, he senses it disjoined from it. This is called a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones disjoined from birth, aging, & death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is disjoined, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

“This is the difference, this the distinction, this the distinguishing factor between the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones and the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person.”

-SN 36:6; IV 207-10

For this person, although they may be standing right beside us watching the tsunami sweep in, things are very different.  Samsara still sucks, but they’ve found a way out.  The message of the Buddha is that this path is available to all of us.  The first step is understanding the nature of the problem.  Then we’ll know what we’re looking for and be able to discern when we find it.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 14, 2012 9:37 pm

    I like this one, …”You may have noticed I deal with the subject of suffering, sickness, and death by being brutally and ironically blunt.” Can totally relate, like the way others deal with our living situation. ;-) “The first step is understanding the nature of the problem. Then we’ll know what we’re looking for and be able to discern when we find it.” What if you can’t make it through or to that first step, what if you can’t run from the tsunami, what if your pain is incurable, what if… do we give up? Accept defeat, return to where we started? Not this Okinawan Ancestral Worship guy. :) Keep on driving on!

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