The dharma is not rocket science. Life is suffering. Well, duh, we knew that. Sure some of the concepts are esoteric and occasionally things get lost in translation, but fundamentally most of it is pretty simple. ‘Emptiness’ may sound very cryptic, but all it really means is that everything exists with and because of other things – including us. ‘Non-self’ seems counterintuitive until we realize what we call ourselves are really just a complex collection of interdependent and changing phenomena with no fixed existence. If we want to sound really fancy, we can use original terms in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, or Chinese.
However, the dharma is really very fundamental. That’s why it’s the dharma. The nature of the universe is complex, yes, but it operates according to some very basic principles. Take physics for example. There are really only four forces in the universe: electromagnetism, gravity, the weak and strong nuclear forces. Those four forces may interact in complex ways we can’t always follow or understand, but anything that occurs is a result this interaction.
Likewise, the convoluted thoughts and actions of living beings, humans in particular, are a result of a very small set of driving forces: the desire to achieve happiness and avoid suffering. The trouble occurs not as a direct result of these desires, but from an ignorance about their fundamental nature. The gravity of our ignorance acts like a black hole, pulling us deeper and deeper into suffering. Because black holes give off no visible light, we cannot see them for what they are. But we can feel their effects.
Lucky for us, ignorance is easier to escape than a black hole, which swallows everything, including light. It may take time and some tricky navigation, but all of us have the ability to be free of the forces that push us around, our habitual patterns, karma, and ignorance. The dharma is our star chart, showing us a safe path, warning us where the black holes and supernovas are. It doesn’t take a genius to realize flying through an exploding star is not a good idea. Likewise, seeking freedom from suffering is something we can all find value in.
We’re the ones who make the dharma far more complicated than it needs to be. Just like children, we become distracted by finding shapes in the patterns of the stars, naming constellations, and creating stories to explain why this one looks like a bull and this one like a hunter. They’re just stars. The patterns are of our own invention. They may help us remember the positions and names of each fusion engine, but in the end they don’t tell us anything about why they burn.
Likewise, most of what we actually call the dharma are just concepts to help us understand the fundamental nature of reality. They are not reality themselves. Why are there Four Noble Truths, not three? An Eightfold Path, not ten? Three Hallmarks of Existence, not five? Because these things are best suited to our understanding, the most helpful paths. They operate the same way that finding the North Star is easiest by first locating the Big Dipper. But just like there aren’t actually virgins or lions in the heavens (that I know of), the conceptual thoughts we traditionally call the dharma only actually exist in our minds. We should no more mistake them for existence than we should mistake the letters that spell ‘electromagnetism’ for the physical force the word represents.
So while the dharma may actually be very simple, we, as linguistic creatures, are ever in danger of complicating and misunderstanding it. However, this complexity and misrecognition are not inherent to the dharma itself. Though the teachings may seem daunting from time to time, for their sheer volume if nothing else, the truth of the matter actually remains basic. If we can just keep that in mind, then we can start to feel like, yes, we can actually do this thing called ‘practice’ and, yes, we can actually understand this thing called ‘dharma.’ It is personally accessible to each and every one of us, not just something only a lucky few will ever understand. Recognizing this gives our motivation to actually follow the path a much needed boost.
Keep it simple sweetheart.