In the Pali Canon the Buddha is quoted as saying:
‘One thing do I teach, now as always: suffering and the cessation of suffering. Whoever understands suffering, understands the origin of suffering, the extinction of suffering and the path leading to the extinction of suffering.’
The words ‘suffering’ or ‘unsatisfactoriness’ have different levels of meaning. There is the idea of something like pain or a feeling of despair that intrudes on us because of certain facts about our life situation. This would include the suffering of sickness, of bereavement, of hunger or loneliness. To avoid such suffering we try to find suitable medicines, protect the lives of our loved ones, work to find food or seek companionship.
This is all the activity of sensitivity and responsiveness. It is the activity that leads to temporary solutions to recurrent problems. This is important. It would not be sensible to think that because ultimately we seek to go beyond all suffering, at the present time we should lay ourselves open to every kind of suffering without lifting a finger to save either ourselves or others.
It would be as nonsensical as someone who thought they could stand in front of a train, because ultimately everything was empty. Such bravado does not cut through our deeply ingrained habits of clinging to things as real. Those habits have to be dismantled through gradually re-aligning with the power of the fundamental qualities of openness, clarity and sensitivity.
The idea of suffering (Dukkha) as something universal in all conditioned experience represents a more subtle level of understanding. Obviously pleasure is not suffering in the ordinary sense. It becomes suffering when we cling to it. In other words when we have pleasurable experiences, we think the pleasure is in the object and try to cling on to it, instead of recognising that the pleasure is coming from our own fundamental quality of sensitivity.
Here suffering is not so much the facts of our life situation, but our response to them. At this level we do not talk about giving up suffering, but of turning towards feelings and thoughts associated with suffering or pain and noticing that they arise out of and dissolve back into space. Our intrinsic sensitivity is inseparable from the spacious nature of our experience.
Behind this second level of meaning of suffering is a third even deeper level of meaning. The essence of the actual feeling of suffering or pain (beyond all the conditioned thoughts and feelings that are associated with it) is nothing other than the fundamental quality of sensitivity that is the Indestructible Heart Essence. When we touch this we touch something that is profoundly sacred. At this point the suffering could be said to go beyond joy and suffering and to be the true nature of all phenomena. It is more akin to bliss than suffering. It is because of this that we find apparently paradoxical statements in some Buddhist scriptures, such as ‘the essence of suffering is great bliss.’
Wanting to get rid of pain, depression, anger or desire actually stems from that fundamental quality of sensitivity. It is an outraged sense of well-being. We have realised that the situation we are in is not the real cause of our suffering, and our sense of well-being is fighting to express itself. This means there is a lot of openness and rawness. You could gain inspiration from the fact that you are able to suffer so much.
Maybe sometimes you say to yourself ‘I wish I could be dull and insensitive’ or ‘I wish I were dead’ or ‘I wish I were stoned out of my mind’. When we say these things we are feeling extremely raw and vulnerable. Strangely when we feel that, we are actually very close to the experience of Awakening but we are frightened of feeling so exposed and tender, and instead of linking into the awake quality, we try to run away from it. As we do that we solidify the experience and it seems to pursue or haunt us. The pain or the suffering seem to be hovering around us ready to pounce and we feel the need to escape or to protect ourselves.
The more we solidify the experience, the more we suffer. Learning to understand this process and not let yourself get caught up in it increases your confidence in the fundamental quality of sensitivity. Gradually the sense of suffering is replaced by a sense of well-being.
Turning towards impermanence and suffering in this way leads naturally to an understanding of ‘not-self’. We come to understand that as we solidify our world, we lose touch with the spaciousness and the natural dynamic of change that is inherent in every moment of experience. This helps us to understand how suffering and pain become very solid and real to us, and that turning away from pain and trying to avoid feeling it makes it even more solid and real. Gradually we learn to let go of that clinging and return to the spaciousness and dynamic nature of experience.”
Lama Shenpen Hookham
An extract from the Sensitivity coursebook of the Living the Awakened Heart Training course – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme. The training in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight, is open to all and brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at www.ahs.org.uk/training
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