Written: February 11, 2007
All things that live suffer. This is the First Noble Truth of the Buddha. It is an odd thought to have first thing in the morning, yet oddly appropriate for one who relishes her bed so and the thought of leaving it so little. Sometimes this truth is translated as ‘all life is suffering,’ but that has always seemed a bit too dark for my taste. Though perhaps it is the more truthful of the two statements.
To my mind, there is joy also in life, things worth living for. This is why I am not ready for renunciation. As long as I am willing to suffer in order to find that joy, those things worth living for, I will never be free. Happiness cannot be bought with suffering.
Suffering is caused by change, like the change of leaving my warm bed for the cold gloomy world of an overcast day. This is what the Buddha teaches. If a person were born in pain, and lived with this constant pain which never waxed or waned, never changed for the whole of their life, would they suffer from it? I wonder. Pema Chodron once said suffering and pain are not the same. One can be in pain without suffering.
Deeper than change, which is just an external condition, suffering is caused by ignorance. We do not understand and we do not accept the inescapable nature of change. We do not know that it is not the change itself which is painful, but our clinging to past conditions, or future conditions we wish to bring about. “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future,” Yoda said. Even the future changes before our eyes, rolling unexpected things into the present and causing suffering because we cannot roll with it.
Wisdom helps us to see suffering for what it is and compassion helps us accept it. These are the two main points of Tsongkapa’s teaching which follow renunciation. First we must determine we want to be free, then we must use wisdom and compassion to achieve it. It think I am better at the wisdom and compassion than the renunciation, which is not saying a lot because I can’t even get that part. I’m not worried though.
It seems I have a strange destiny to become that which people name me, despite any inborn nature to the contrary. My mother and father named me Monica, not after anyone in the family or anyone they knew. I was unique in that. It turns out that there is a Saint Monica, which they did not know at the time, and she is the Saint of Patience. I was never particularly known for patience as a child in a hurry to do everything, but the older I have become the more is has become one of my strongest virtues. My mother finds it ironic.
I am very intellectual, which is really just a big word which means I think too much. I analyze myself, I analyze everything around me, I want to know why things are the way they are. So I feel drawn to the study of wisdom, to knowledge, and understanding. I think it is not destined to be. Khen Rinpoche, from whom I took Refuge, gave me the Tibetan name of Tsetan Dolkar, “Long-living White Tara”. Tara is the bodhisattva or deity of compassion. I always felt a wise person, a smart person, should be compassionate, polite, and kind. A wise person should be able to see the benefit of this, even in a purely selfish fashion. To me, it seems an undeniable logic. We can never see all the connections which bind people together across this globe, so even if the benefit to oneself is not easily known, there is a very good chance that it will be one day.
The more we cultivate kind behavior, from even a selfish standpoint, the more it becomes natural. Until one day to act in any manner other than kind and compassionate becomes unnatural, regardless of self interest. Then true altruism can be cultivated. As we focus more of our attention and energy on others the more our ego dwindles. Finally we can let go of the ignorant notion of self. Then we can be free as we realize there is no self to protect, no self which suffers. This is the wisdom of compassion.
So perhaps I am to dedicate myself more to the study of compassion, at least for the time being. Perhaps that can help me to step backwards and reach renunciation. Then forward to wisdom. Not that the Buddhist teachings ever travel in a linear fashion. I think I know now how to seek my teacher. I think I should go see Pema Chodron when she is in Colorado in August. I do not know that she is my teacher, but I have a funny feeling she may know who is.
Is it odd to speak as though I already have a teacher, I just haven’t found him or her yet? It sounds like fate, Ume, that Japanese word for ‘destiny’ always said with such reverent emphasis in Japanese movies. I don’t know that I believe in fate, but I do believe in fortuitous circumstance and in karma. Is that the same thing? I see sometimes that things do not happen by accident nor pure coincidence, but seem to be set up like a good joke, with me as the punch line usually. Am I seeing what I want to see? Perhaps. So yes, I suppose I believe my teacher is out there. I just have to find him or her. But unlike Luke Skywalker I have to keep my eyes and mind open, because Jedi masters come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. This one is sure to be what I did not expect.
Expectation only works when the future is unchanging, Ume, and when we are not ignorant of what it is to be; otherwise we have suffering, which is a given.