Foundations:  The Teachings of the Buddha         

January 2020

By Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson

Red Rocks Zen Circle

Good morning everyone.  It’s good to be sitting together this morning.  Today marks the beginning of our winter Ango, our two-month period of intensified practice. Ango means “peaceful dwelling”, and it has a long tradition in Buddhist practice, of people coming together to practice more intensively at certain times of the year.  This Ango our study text is the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.  So we’re going back to Foundations, to the roots of Buddhist practice, and will explore what the Buddha taught, the framework that he used for his teachings, and what these teachings mean in our own life today.

So in starting to look at the Four Noble Truths, I was reminded of an anecdote about Suzuki Roshi.  It’s a story told by one of his students, Ed Brown, who went on to be a teacher at San Francisco Zen Center.  So as Ed Brown relates this story, it happened during a sesshin. And I’m imagining that it was perhaps Day Two of the sesshin, often a difficult day, when we can have our most physical and mental discomfort.

So according to Ed Brown, Suzuki Roshi got up on this second day of sesshin to give the dharma talk.  He started and he began saying:  “This pain that you are experiencing now.  This pain.  This pain will ….”  And then he took a little pause.  And Ed Brown said that he and everyone else in the room was mentally filling in that blank.  This pain that you are experiencing will …. what?  Go away?  One day be worth it? Lead you to enlightenment?  But Suzuki Roshi just went on to say … that this pain that you are experiencing Will Never Go Away.  And Ed Brown related that the way that Roshi said it, everyone laughed.  They saw how true it was, despite how much they wanted it to be otherwise.

That anecdote made me laugh too, and it has stayed with me.  There’s something about this that just encapsulates so much of our experience.  How much we want things to be different than how they are, whether in the largest ways, such as about our health, our family, our financial situation, our mental states, our way of dealing with our life …. Or about relatively transient things, like the weather, the food for today’s meal, the achy feeling in our back.  Just look at the astonishing volume of consumer items, or technology, that is about making us more comfortable, making things more convenient.  We’re often looking for that, and in today’s world, we’ve been conditioned to believe that we’re entitled to it.

So Suzuki Roshi, when he says that this suffering we are experiencing will never go away, is pointing to this edge of discomfort that is never far from us, as embodied beings.  Some level of discomfort or unease is always going to be there, as much as we really, really try to avoid or deny that fact.  Suffering is not all there is in life, of course.  While the Buddha’s teachings begin with the fact of suffering, the universality of suffering, the Buddha did not say that this is all there is.  What a gloomy view that would be, and that is not what the Buddha taught. In fact, life of course has happiness, joy, fun, beauty, love, laughter, wonder, contentment, peacefulness. But as we all have seen, life is a mix of wonderful and difficult aspects. Suffering is certainly not all there is, but it is woven in to the fabric of life. The teachings tell us that all conditioned things have this nature of suffering.

Isn’t it kind of a relief, to see that when we have suffering in our life, that we are not doing something wrong?  That times of suffering are just part of this existence. The First Noble Truth of Suffering says simply that it’s part of being human to feel discomfort.”

In his teaching, the Buddha differentiated two kinds of suffering.

-One is simply the pain of the world.  There is sickness, old age and death. There are the binaries, or dualities, of gain and loss, praise and blame — and we swing between them.  To be human is to experience this.

-The other category is what we add to this, the mental misery we add in our unconscious or misguided way of trying to avoid painful circumstances.  It emerges when we ignore, or refuse to accept, the inevitability of change, which we often experience as a sense of loss.  This area is the heart of where the Buddha’s teachings lie.  The teachings are to guide us to see how we sometimes create more suffering, for ourselves and for others, and how we can cultivate a spacious awareness that can contain all our human experience.

So the Buddha’s First Noble Truth was about this suffering.  Before we look further at what he said, let’s take a moment to consider what is a “Noble Truth”, besides a kind of lofty expression?  A Noble Truth is something that is worthy of reflection and contemplation.  And a Noble Truth speaks to something that is important and is universal.  We can be old or young, woman or man, rich or poor, and it will speak to a truth that is relevant to each of us.  The Buddhist teacher Ajahn Sumedho adds that to really see a Noble Truth means that we are no longer just blaming others for our suffering – that we are ready to look more deeply.

So in the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha sets out his first teachings in the most simple form of logic, almost like a medical case.  First, what is the problem or difficulty;  second, what causes this problem or this disease;  third, what would treat it;  and then finally, what are the steps that we should take to heal and to stay well.  Those are the Truths, followed by the Eightfold Path of how we can live a life of wisdom and sanity in light of the Noble Truths.   And what he is talking about, of course, is our life.

So the Buddha’s first Noble Truth is that “there is Suffering.” In the Pali, that there is dukka. It’s important to note that this isn’t framed in a personal way.   He didn’t say, “You have dukka.”  Just that “There is dukka.” 

Now the Pali word dukka is quite an interesting word.  It is generally translated into English as suffering.  But there is more nuance to it, and the nuances are helpful.  The root of the Chinese kanji for this word is “bitter”.  So it is something that has a bitter flavor.  Dukka also is said to have the feeling of the wheel of a cart that is slightly off kilter. So there’s a roughness, a lack of ease, with this wheel that is not quite right and is always bumping us.  Another frequent translation is “dissatisfaction.” Dukka could also include aspects such as anxiety, stress, irritation.  Then there is my personal favorite translation of dukka:  “not going my way.” We all know how things feel when they are “not going my way.”

In the Second Noble Truth, the Buddha taught that the cause of much of this mental suffering comes from desire, or craving.  Grasping.  What are we craving or wanting?  At its most fundamental, it is wanting things to be different than how they are.  Not getting what one wants is dukka, and so is getting what one does not want. 

I really want …. fill in the blank.  To get a cup of coffee so I can feel better.  To get a better job so I will be happier.  To feel better physically so I will be happier.  The common link is our strong desire, sometimes our demand, for things to be different.  I would encourage all of us to look closely at this, to see how even in ordinary life, the seeds of wanting and grasping are present, even with the most mundane things.  What would it be like if those seeds weren’t there?  So of course we are human, and there are things we want.  When we are hungry we want to eat.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It is a fundamental need.  When we are in pain we want to feel better.   But we all know how this can spiral out of control into a generalized state of mind of wanting, wanting, wanting.

In some meditation traditions, we are encouraged to recognize and acknowledge the presence of the “wanting mind”.  The object of the wanting is not all that important.  It’s more about seeing that the mind state of wanting is there, this Hungry Ghost, and to look closely, to really experience, what that feels like.  To get to know it well, and to see the suffering in it …. Instead of just fixating on the content of the wanting and how we can get it.

So there is this dukka, this wanting to get what we don’t have. But there is also the other side, which is getting what one does not want.  I don’t want to have this sickness, this pain, this depression, this anger.  I don’t want to have to deal with this.  That’s dukka too.  And our aversion, the pushing away of those experiences, is just the other side of the same coin of the Wanting Mind.   Wanting and pushing away are the same energy, just going in different directions. 

So at this point we might start to feel quite discouraged about the human condition.  But the Buddha didn’t spell this out to depress us, but rather to encourage us, because he saw that there was a way out of this box that the mind that can put us in. The way out of the box—which is the Third Noble Truth — is to let go of the grasping and the wanting.

In the classical tradition, letting go of grasping and wanting is Nirvana.  The word Nirvana, or Nibbana, translates as quenching, or extinction, or cessation. Literally it means “blown out.”  Our popular culture views the word Nirvana as a kind of heaven or paradise of delights, but in the Buddhist tradition it conveys the sense of peacefulness and ease that comes with non-grasping. A crucial aspect of this is the clear seeing of how the mind wants to grasp, and has the habit energy of grasping.  But when we can see clearly and acknowledge what is happening, we are not just pushed around by these forces.  We can see them and work with them.

One of the reasons that our zazen practice is integral to the path is that the simplicity of sitting allows us to see very clearly what passes through the mind.  We can get to see the wanting mind, or the aversive mind, very clearly.  We can see just how self-centered our thoughts are.  Remember one of the definitions of dukka as “not going my way”?  There’s a certain amount of suffering just baked into that right there since it’s all about me. 

There is a contemporary Taoist philosopher who writes under the name WuWei.  He says this:  “Why are you so unhappy?  Because 99 percent of your thoughts are about your self – and there isn’t one.”  ~

One more point about suffering.  In the Buddhist view, it’s important for us to see that suffering is more pervasive, and more subtle, than we often think.  One of the obstacles for us is to see and acknowledge our own suffering, the suffering of our own minds.  And we can really be resistant to that.  We associate it with feeling sorry for ourselves so we’re resistant to that, or we  attempt to trivialize or minimize our mental suffering, perhaps by calling it “first world problems.”  We think to be suffering is only reserved for people living in the most terrible of circumstances. 

But Buddhism starts by asking us to look at and recognize the suffering in our own minds, even in ways that the suffering may be relatively subtle.  That sudden twinge of resentment, or jealousy, of pushing away our experience, is a kind of contraction in the mind, and that is seen as a suffering mind. A mind consumed with obsessive thoughts is certainly a suffering mind.  A mind that is caught in angry thoughts going round and round is a suffering mind.  The teachings are for us to really see that and be willing to acknowledge it.  Even the mind that feels so inadequate, that longs for enlightenment to make it well, is a suffering mind.

The teacher Joseph Goldstein states it clearly:  “To not see dukka …. IS dukka.”

Many of you have heard my story about the teacher Larry Rosenberg and the bird.  I mention this story again because it really brought to light these subtle seeds of suffering.  So as Larry Rosenberg tells the story, he was in a  meditation hall practicing meditation.  And he hears this bird that has a beautiful song.  He was captivated by this bird call and he wanted to hear it again.  So as he was sitting there, waiting and listening and hoping and eventually disappointed …. because the bird was silent, or flew away. He saw that right there, in that experience, was some suffering.  Not a lot of suffering.  Just a tiny grain of sand of suffering.  But it was a microcosm of how we operate through the world. Wishing, wanting, hoping.  Maybe something will happen, maybe it won’t.  But that wanting it to be different, wanting to be in control, those are the seeds of mental suffering.

And the key is to see it.  When we see it, we can work with it.  It loses its power. But when we don’t see it …. It can run our life.

So does the Buddha mean that we should never hope or want something different in our life?  No, of course not.  Maybe we want to get into a different kind of work.  Maybe we want to move to Arizona.  Maybe we want to learn a new skill or learn to play the piano or spend more time in Zen practice.  Great.  The key is to be able to ascertain what genuinely speaks to us, what we are moved to do …. versus a kind of habitual energy of wanting in the mind, a wanting for things to be different, a grasping of  the next thing that we think will provide ultimate happiness.

So eventually we arrive at the Fourth Noble Truth – that there is a path, a way for us to live sanely, wisely and compassionately in the world, with less suffering for ourselves and for others.  And the Buddha lays this out in the Eight-Fold Path, which is really a “how-to” of the Buddha Way.  It gives us guidance in three primary areas.  First, the cultivation of wisdom through understanding the true nature of things.  Second, ethical conduct, or how we are in the world.  And third, cultivation of the mind’s stability and clarity through meditation.  

In the Prajna, or Cultivation of Wisdom area, we find Wise View and Wise Intention.  In other words, what the lens is through which we see the world, and what our intention is for what we do.

In the Sila or Ethical Conduct area, we find Wise Livelihood (which is sometimes translated as Wise Way of Life), Wise Speech and Wise Action.

In the Samadhi or Concentration area, cultivating the mind’s stability, we find Wise Effort, Wise Mindfulness and Wise Concentration, which all point to the importance of meditation practice in living the life we want. 

Each of the Eight support each other, and each includes aspects of the others

The traditional translation of the Eightfold Path uses the word “right”.  Right Livelihood, Right Action.  I have been using the translation “wise” instead of “right.”  This word “right” sounds a bit moralistic and it can be off-putting.  But I think our understanding can transform if we see this word not as “right” as opposed to “wrong” in the usual dualistic sense, but rather that it carries with it a sense of uprightness, balance and composure.

It is a quality that Zen teacher Norman Fischer describes as “attuned”.  Here is his perspective:  “With the Eightfold Path, the Buddha is saying that what is really required is a way of life.  This way of life has different aspects to it, from how we earn a living to how we speak or how we view the world.  In each aspect, we can try for a kind of attunement, to be aligned with reality as it really is.  That’s the way to be peaceful, to be happy.  So this really is a life-long undertaking of living your life with an even greater degree of clarity, understanding and alignment with reality and with what is.”

So, when the Buddha looked at the human condition, he saw that there were certain fundamental aspects of our life that needed to be integrated, to support each other.  For example, it is no use having right concentration if our livelihood involves manipulation or deceit.  So we are asked to pay attention to all aspects of the Buddha’s path, to live a life that is awake, integrated, and in balance.  In the upcoming discussion groups we’ll be looking at these issues and exploring how we understand them in our lives today.  I hope you can join us.    ~   ~   ~