To Comprehend Suffering
Survey your body. Survey your mind. You’ve been practicing meditation continuously, so even if your mind isn’t yet quiet, even though it hasn’t reached a level of concentration as solid as you’d like it to be, meditation is still a skillful activity in terms of developing conviction, developing persistence. At the very least it will give results on the sensory level, making you an intelligent person, at the same time developing the perfections of your character on into the future. So try not to get discouraged. Don’t let yourself think that you haven’t seen any results from your meditation. When you come right down to it, what do you want from your meditation? You meditate to make the mind quiet, and the mind becomes quiet from letting go. That’s what the meditation is: letting go. If you meditate in order to “get” something, that’s craving, the cause of suffering. Meditation isn’t an affair of craving. The Dhamma is already here, so all we have to do is study it so that we’ll know the truth. The truth isn’t something new. It’s something that’s been here from time immemorial.
All the Buddhas of the past have awakened to this very same Dhamma, this very same truth. Even though the cosmos has changed from one aeon to another, the Dhamma hasn’t changed along with the cosmos. No matter which aeon a particular Buddha was born in, he awakened to the same old truth. He taught the same old truth. The same Dhamma, the same truth, is always right here all the time. It’s simply that we don’t recognize it. We haven’t studied it down to its elemental properties. All I ask is that you be intent on studying it. The truth is always the truth. It’s always present.
The truth the Buddha taught starts with the principle that stress-and-suffering is a truth. Do you have any stress and suffering? Examine yourself carefully. Is there any stress and suffering within you? Or is there none at all? As long as there’s suffering within you, the truth of the noble truths taught by the Buddha is still there. When you’re mindful to keep your eye on the suffering appearing within you, you’re studying the truth in line with what it actually is.
But in addition to pointing out the truth of suffering, the Buddha also taught the path to the end of suffering. This, too, is a truth. The Buddha has guaranteed that when we develop it in full measure, we’ll gain release from stress and suffering. It’s not the case that suffering is the only truth, that we have to lie buried in stress and suffering. The Buddha found a way out of suffering, like an intelligent doctor who not only understands diseases but also knows a miraculous medicine to cure them.
This is why the truth of the path is so important, for many, many people who have put it into practice have gotten results. The truth of the path is something we put into practice to gain release from suffering — as we chanted just now:
Ye dukkhaṁ nappajānāti,
Those who don’t discern suffering,
Atho dukkhassa sambhavaṁ
suffering’s cause …
Tañca maggaṁ na jānāti
who don’t understand the path,
the way to the stilling of suffering …
Te ve jāti-jarūpagā
they’ll return to birth and aging again.
If we don’t comprehend suffering and the way to the end of suffering, we’ll have to experience birth, aging, and death, which are the causes not only of suffering but also of the craving leading to more suffering.
We should take joy in the fact that we have all the noble truths we need. We have suffering, and the path to the end of suffering doesn’t lie far away. When we look into the texts, we find that the Buddha and his noble disciples didn’t practice anything far away. They purified the actions of their bodies and minds. They did this by knowing their own bodies and minds in line with what they actually were. When we don’t know our own bodies and minds as they actually are, that’s a cause of suffering. When we practice knowing our own bodies, our own minds, as they actually are, that’s the path to release from suffering. Aside from this, there’s no path at all.
We already have a body. We already have a mind — this knowing property. So we take this knowing property and put it to use by studying the body in line with its three characteristics: aniccatā, inconstancy; dukkhatā, stressfulness; and anattatā, not-selfness. Inconstancy and stressfulness lie on the side of suffering and its cause. We have to study things that are inconstant in order to see who they are, who’s responsible for them, who really owns them. This issue of inconstancy is really important. Rūpaṁ aniccaṁ: form is inconstant. Who owns the form? Rūpaṁ dukkhaṁ: form is stressful. Who’s on the receiving end of the stress? Stress is something that has to depend on causes and conditions in order to arise. It doesn’t come on its own. Just like sound: we have to depend on contact in order to hear it. If there’s no contact, we won’t know where there’s any sound. In the same way, stress depends on contact. If there’s no contact, we won’t know where there’s any stress. If stress and suffering were able to burn us all on their own, the Buddha would never have been able to gain release from them. There would be no way for us to practice, for no matter what, suffering would keep on burning us all on its own. But the fact of the matter is that when we practice, we can gain relief from suffering, because suffering isn’t built into the mind, it’s not built into this knowing property. It has to depend on contact through the sense media in order for it to arise.
This is why sages study the truth. As when we chant:
Ayaṁ kho me kāyo,
This body of mine,
from the soles of the feet on up,
from the crown of the head on down,
surrounded by skin.
Within this body we have all five aggregates: form, feeling, perception, thought-fabrications, and consciousness. Form is the coarsest of the aggregates, for we can touch it with our hand and see it with our eyes. As for feeling, perception, thought-fabrications, and consciousness, they’re mental phenomena. Even though we can’t touch them with the body, we can still know them and experience them. For instance, we constantly have feelings of pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain. Perception: we remember things and label them. Thought-fabrication creates thoughts, and consciousness notices things. We all notice things, label them, fabricate thoughts about them, and experience pleasure and pain because of them.
The primary issue is the form of the body. The Buddha taught us to study it in order to know the noble truths in both form and mental phenomena. When he taught that birth is suffering, aging is suffering, death is suffering, he was referring to the birth, aging, and death right here at the form where the five aggregates meet — this form we already have. And yet most of us don’t like to reflect on the truth of these things. We think that birth is pleasurable. We get pleasure and stress all confused. It’s because we don’t realize the truth of these things that we don’t search for a way out. The Buddha, however, knew this truth, which was why he practiced contemplating it. He tested to see if birth is pleasurable by noticing if the mind could stay quiet with birth: “Are there any pains? Anything disturbing the mind? And what’s paining and disturbing the mind aside from the birth, the arising of things?” It’s because of the birth of the body that we have to keep finding food for it, requisites to keep it going. Greed, anger, and delusion arise because of birth. And once there’s birth, there’s aging, deterioration, wearing down, wearing down all the time. Whatever we get runs out, runs out every day, wears down every day.
The Buddha awakened to the truth that birth isn’t pleasurable at all. The only pleasure is when, if we get hungry, we eat enough to make the hunger go away for a little while. But soon we get hungry again. When we get hot out in the sun, we take cover in the shade to cool down a bit, but then we start feeling hot again. When we get tired, we rest. But then if we lie down for a long time, we start feeling stiff. If we walk for a long time, we get weary. When this is the way things are, the mind can’t find any peace or rest. It gets disturbed and gives rise to defilement because of birth. And that’s not the end of it. Once birth takes place, it’s followed by aging and deterioration. No matter how much you look after the body, it won’t stay with you. In the end, it all falls apart. And once it dies, there’s no one who can stay in charge of it. If we come to our senses only at that point, and realize only when it’s already dead that it has to die, it’s too late to do anything about it.
But if we gain conviction in these truths now in the present before death comes, we won’t be complacent about our youth or life. If we can be mindful at all times that death is inevitable, that — even though we may be as strong as a bull elephant — a disease could come along at any time and oppress us to the point where we can’t even sit up, can’t do anything to help ourselves: when we realize this, we’re said not to be complacent in our health. Then we can act in ways truly benefiting ourselves, providing us with the refuge we’ll need when we can no longer take refuge in our youth, health, or life. Wherever you look in the body you see it wearing down. Wherever you look you see diseases. Wherever you look you see things that are unclean. Nothing at all in the body is really strong or lasting. When you see this clearly, you’ll no longer be fooled into clinging to it. You can analyze the body into its parts and see that they’re all inconstant, stressful, and not-self. When you develop clear insight into not-self, you’ll be able to shake free of stress and inconstancy. That’s because inconstancy is a not-self affair; stress is a not-self affair. They’re not our affairs. So what do we hope to gain by letting ourselves struggle and get defiled over them?
This is why the noble ones, when they see these truths, call them the dangers in the cycles of saṁsāra. You have to understand what’s meant by the term, “cycle.” There’s the cycle of defilement, the cycle of action, and the cycle of the results of action.
The cycle of defilement is the ignorance that makes the mind stupid and defiled. These defilements are the cause of stress, suffering, and danger.
Then there’s the cycle of action. Any actions we do under the influence of defilement keep us spinning in the cycle, acting sometimes in skillful ways, sometimes in unskillful ones. Even skillful actions can lead to delusion, you know. When we experience good sights, sounds, status, or wealth as a result of our skillful actions, we can turn unskillful, careless, and complacent, because we get deluded into investing our sense of self in those things. When they start changing against our desires, we grow frustrated and start acting in evil ways. When they leave us, we act in unskillful ways. This causes the cycle of action in terms of both our physical and verbal acts.
When we act in ways that are unskillful, this causes the cycle of results to be painful. When we experience this pain and suffering, the mind becomes defiled. Our vision gets obscured because the suffering overcomes us. This gives rise to anger as well as to greed for the things we want, and this starts the cycle of defilement again.
For this reason, if we can comprehend suffering as part of this cycle, we can block the cycle of defilement that would give rise to new cycles of action and results. So let’s study the truth of suffering so that we can cut these cycles through discernment in the form of right view, which is a factor of the noble path. Let’s foster and strengthen the path by knowing the suffering in birth, aging, illness, and death. When we comprehend suffering for what it actually is, we don’t have to worry about the cause of suffering, for how can it arise when we see the drawbacks of its results? Once true knowledge has arisen, how can ignorance arise?
It’s as when we’re in the darkness. If we try to run around tearing down the darkness, it can’t be torn down. If we try to run around snatching away the darkness, it can’t be snatched away. The darkness can’t be dispersed by us. It has to be dispersed by light. When we light a fire, the darkness disappears on its own. The same with ignorance: it can’t be dispersed through our thinking. It has to be dispersed through clear-seeing discernment. Once we give rise to discernment, the cause of suffering disappears on its own, without our having to get involved with it.
So try to give rise to clear-seeing discernment in full measure, and you’ll gain release from suffering without a doubt. Be really intent.
That’s enough for now. Keep on meditating.