June 11, 2007

What We Call "Suffering"

In response to greenfrog’s post in In Limine today.

Labels are concepts. A way we identify things in our world. We are conceptual beings and cannot escape this nature (until enlightenment, maybe). We apply concepts to self more than any other thing, in an effort to define our actions and affirm our existence. Labels are a tool, and like any tool sometimes we misuse them, but that does not make the tool itself bad (nor good). Just like there is no good or bad karma, there is just action. It is our reaction (to the label, situation, etc.) which decides good or bad, positive or negative, happiness or suffering. That reaction is certainly colored by experience, our own and others'.

The self experiences things. The self has the potential to experience things. This ability & potential is the ground of basic goodness. It does not depend on karma, or our actions, or the outcomes of those actions. It just is.

"It is not just an arbitrary idea that the world is good, but it is good because we can experience its goodness." -- Chogyam Trungpa

Just like we apply labels to ourselves, so we apply labels to our experiences. That car accident was a bad experience. But was it? Did it allow you to have compassion for the other driver? To deal with anger? To apply equanimity? Did it, for that split second when you knew what was about to happen and also knew you couldn’t do anything other than squeeze your eyes tightly shut, did you wake up just a little in the moment? Did you realize anything about your life? So was it a bad experience?

This is not about trying to whitewash everything. To say nothing bad ever really happens. That is delusion. This is real life and in real life there is always a little pain, but pain does not have to become suffering. They are not the same. This is a truth we need to realize.

“In working with ourselves, cleaning up begins by telling the truth. We have to shed any hesitation about being honest with ourselves because it might be unpleasant. If you feel bad when you come home because you had a hard day at the office, you can tell the truth about that: you feel bad. Then you don’t have to try to shake off your pain by throwing it around your living room…Still, fundamentally speaking, our existence is all good, and it is al launderable.” – Chogyam Trungpa

I love that idea. My life is launderable. Whatever my experiences, whatever has gone before, I’ll just put them in the washing machine and wait thirty minutes. When they come there are colors I never saw before, good smells, and soft fabrics. I can look back and see the pain without labeling it suffering. I can look forward and see pain, sickness, old age, and death, without labeling it suffering.

There is a poster hung here in the shop where I work: “You will never be able to reach a non-conceptual state by blocking conceptual thoughts. Take these very thoughts themselves as your object and focus right on them. Conceptual thoughts dissolve by themselves. When the clear away, a non-conceptual state will dawn.” -- Wang-ch’ug dor-je, the IXth Karmapa. (The Karmapa is the head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, Trinlay Thaye Dorje, is the current & 17th Karmapa.)

(Side note: the only difference between this shop and all the many others I have been in is that instead of pictures of naked chicks on the walls, they have posters which say stuff like that.)

Suffering an unnecessary label, a concept which we can transcend.


john said...

Great post! One of the things that has kept me from embracing Buddhism is its treatment of suffering. In college I was taught that Buddhists believe that "life is dukkha." Dukkha is suffering. I couldn't buy that. Life is great, and joyful. Pain happens in life, but it is worth it. I really like the idea of a "launderable life" and "transcending suffering." Thanks.

Monica said...

The First Noble Truth, "life is suffering", is frequently misunderstood/ mistranslated/ misinterpretted, etc.

What it means is "all things which life, suffer." In other words, every living thing will experience suffering, sickness, pain, old age, and death.

However, in an even stricter interpretation of the First Noble Truth, it could be said that ALL life is, in fact, suffering. Things which bring us pleasure, things we often consider "worth living for" are exactly the same things which cause attachment and attachment perpetuates suffering.

Even though I love chocolate, my craving for chocolate causes a dissatisfaction with the here and now in which I don't have chocolate, thus suffering. If I think to myself "if I just had some chocolate, I would be happy," I am deluding myself. Delusion (ignorance, mistaken view) is the dirrect cause of suffering.

So, all life is in fact suffering, until one reaches a state of enlightenment. Even this can be taken very nihilistically, which is why Buddhism is a tradition with a strong student/teacher relationship. The teachings can be dangerous, in that when they are misunderstood they can lead to depression, despair, and nihilism.

Lots of people think "So, okay, I'm not supposed to care about pleasures, I'm supposed to be unattached, an iceberg, no joy, but no pain either, right?" That's also mistaken. When one lets go of attachments, the present moment suddenly becomes perfect. Because we don't want anything we suddenly find we have everything we need and more, an overabundance of good things, basically. This moment is perfect, with or without chocolate. So when I get some chocolate, that's just icing on the cake. The same is true of anything, clean water, good food, and soft warm place to sleep. They are all perfect and they are all joy. I find a great deal of reassurance and hope in that.

"Life is suffering" may be the First Noble Truth, but my personal favorite is the Third Noble Truth "The cessation of suffering is possible."

Monica said...

Mmmm...speaking of choclate, I think I'll wander up to the gift store. :-9

greenfrog said...

I'm reminded of a teacher who said that when he was talking to people under 30, his message was that Buddhism would teach them how to be happy. When he was talking to people over 40, his message was that Buddhism would teach them how to end suffering.

Me? I'm a 45 year old who still likes to hear how to be happy.

Monica said...

You know, it's funny. I started writing this post thinking about labels and concepts and experience and somehow brought it all back to the Four Noble Truths, all back to suffering. I tend to do that a lot. I intend to write about something and Boom! there pops up a Noble Truth. :-)

I really am a mental masochist, eh? LOL

I think about happiness the Nike way: Just do it! Of course, I can be happy while pursuing mental musings about the universal nature of suffering, so who am I to talk? Oi vey!