Buddhist Geeks is a favorite podcast of mine I make time for less often than I should. Today over a lunch of peaches in yogurt and granola, I was listening to BG 177: Working With Sexual Energy with guest Christopher Titmuss. Towards the end of the podcast, Titmuss muses on the meaning of the word “geek,” giving it the classic technical twist (though now “geek” has been updated to apply to any subject about which one has an almost obsessive passion, be that Buddhism, pizza making, or Star Wars).
“You know, people who have good knowledge of technology, and thank goodness for you all. What one has to be careful about is too much in the world of technology—information, the small-screen television, computer, or cinema too—could be reducing the heart’s life, the feeling life.”
Basically, what Titmuss is talking about is the Middle Way or keeping balance in one’s life, traveling between extremes. Of course, when the Buddha first propounded the Middle Way he was speaking specifically in relation to the extreme of hedonistic luxury in which he had been raised and the harsh asceticism practiced by many spiritual seekers, including the Buddha, in India at that time. Having tried them both, he found neither led to the cessation of suffering and so proposed the Middle Way between extremes. This Middle Way has since been applied as a navigational aid between all sorts of dualities (the very existence of which many Buddhists, especially the Zennies, will refute as delusionary mental constructs, but that’s beside the point).
It reminded me of the saying “You can never have too much of a good thing.” This is commonly applied to all sorts of indulgences, such as peaches, chocolate, new shoes, and good books. However, common sense dictates we can, in fact, have far too much of any of these, as rising rates of obesity, diabetes, credit card debt, and bankruptcy indicate. But is it really a question of having “too much,” or is it more about what is or is not a “good thing?”
The Second Noble Truth is the truth of the origin of suffering, which is commonly labeled as desire, craving, or attachment (and their antonyms aversion, distaste, and hate). However, another, deeper answer is also put forth – suffering is caused by ignorance. We ignorantly believe that the satisfaction of our desires will lead to happiness or a cessation of suffering. But this is not the case. Desires are rarely satisfied and when fulfilled, they often only give way to new desires. I was hungry, so I ate, and in a few hours I was hungry again. The problem is not that I was hungry, nor that I ate, nor even that I became hungry again. The problem is in believing the cessation of hunger will lead to the cessation of suffering, or even further, that hunger itself is suffering.
Now, I know a lot of folks are going “Wait a minute. What do you mean hunger isn’t suffering. Are you telling me if you’re starving to death you’re not suffering?” Well, to a certain degree yes. In a 2006 interview, Pema Chödrön once spoke about the different between pain and suffering with Bill Moyers
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: “[O]ne of the principle teachings of the Buddha was that he said, ‘I teach only two things. Suffering and the end of suffering.’ So this conviction that sentient beings could be free of suffering, they could end their suffering. That doesn't mean physical pain. It doesn't mean outer circumstances being unpleasant. It means what you do with the things that happen.”
BILL MOYERS: “What do you think he meant by suffering? And what do you Buddhists mean by suffering?”
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: “Well, that's a complex question, but it doesn't mean that we could be free of that, if fire burns you, it won't hurt. If you get cut, it won't hurt. It also doesn't mean that if someone you love very dear, deeply, dies you won't feel sadness. And it doesn't mean that bad things won't happen to you anymore, you know? ... So it's all about that the end of suffering has to do with how you relate with pain. Let's distinguish just for semantics, the difference between, let's call pain the unavoidable and let's call suffering what could what could lessen and dissolve in our lives. So, if there's sort of a basic phrase you could say that it isn't the things that happen to us in our lives that cause us to suffer, it's how we relate to the things that happen to us that causes us to suffer. …Putting up with little cares, I'll train myself to work with great adversity. So in other words, the premise there is that if you work with two, feeling hot and feeling cold, you work with mosquito bites and aisle and middle seats. And at that level, notice that you're hooked and work with not escalating it—"
BILL MOYERS: “So you escalate the anger.”
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: “So I escalate the anger, you know? My teacher Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, he calls it pouring kerosene on the fire, you know? In an attempt to put it out, you pour kerosene on the fire.”
In this way, hunger is not suffering. It’s just hunger. Suffering is the mental state that follows along behind it. “Man, I could use a cheeseburger right about now. I’m so hungry. When are we gonna get out of this damn meeting? I wish that damn guy would shut up so we could get the hell out of here. I’m hungry!” On and on it rolls.
Now we might think, well, that’s just the hunger of a spoiled, middle-class, American. What about the people who are really starving? What about the mothers in Africa who go hungry so their children can eat today and go to sleep still worrying about if they’ll find enough food to keep them from starving to death tomorrow? What about the extremes?
I have heard a story attributed to the Dalai Lama. He tells of meeting a monk who came out of Tibet many years after the Chinese invasion. This monk had been imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese for many years, beaten and starved. “Where you afraid?” the Dalai Lama asked.
“Yes, I was often afraid.”
“You were afraid they would kill you.”
“No. I was afraid I would no longer be able to have compassion for the soldiers who were torturing me.”
I’m not saying you or I could be as strong in the conviction of our compassion as this monk, but I’d like to think we each have it in us – that we have the ability to endure physical pain and still love, to endure pain without compounding it with anger, hate, and suffering. We can endure hunger, pain, disease, old age, and even death. More than endure, we can dwell in nirvana even as our body aches or our heart grieves. This is what the Buddha taught.
So what does this have to do with “good things?” Just this – as we delude ourselves into believing the satisfaction of our desires will lead to the cessation of suffering and creation of a lasting happiness, we also delude ourselves as to what are “good things.” Generally a “good thing” is classified as something we want. I want peaches in yogurt. Therefore, peaches in yogurt are a good thing. Likewise, a “bad thing” is something we don’t want. I don’t want rain. Therefore, rain is a “bad thing.” But we all know rain makes the grass grow, right? And the cows eat the grass and make the milk that gets turned into yogurt and yogurt is a “good thing,” especially when it comes with peaches, right?
We need to fundamentally reevaluate what is “good” and “bad,” or perhaps do away with such ideas altogether (although in everyday use the words may still be useful) and focus instead on what is helpful and what is harmful. What leads to suffering and what leads to the cessation of suffer? I would posit the later includes things live love, compassion, wisdom, and equanimity. So if those are the only truly “good things,” can we ever have too much of them?
But often we mistake even these things, or we have the wrong kind. Infatuation, for instance, or desire for a certain person and the feeling they evoke is often confused with altruistic love. Compassion must be tempered by wisdom lest it become “idiot compassion,” a kind of enabling behavior that despite our best intentions fails to lift others out of suffering. My friend Danny Fischer recently pointed out (by way of his Facebook status) that "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." (Bertrand Russell) Therefore, even wisdom is problematic. As for equanimity, there is a danger in cultivating a calm demeanor as a way to insulate ourselves from the world rather than stand steady as all around us falls to pieces.
It is very easy to mistake these “good things” or helpful things because, in the end, we want them too. We want to love, to have compassion, wisdom, and equanimity. So we convince ourselves we know what these are and we pursue them. (“Look! Over there! It’s compassion! Get it!”) It is in that pursuit mentality that suffering arises. In truth, we don’t have to pursue these things at all. We already possess them. But we don’t think we do. We don’t recognize the buddhanature within ourselves. We are ignorant of this truth.
Ignorance is the root problem. Ignorance gives birth to delusion that gives birth to desire that gives birth to pursuit that gives birth to suffering. And this path has been trod so many, many times, it has become a ravine so deep sometimes we cannot even see the top.
It is the great paradox of Buddhism that we are simultaneously all awakened buddhas and all ignorant suffering beings. The traditions tell stories of those practitioners who were awakened in a single flash of insight. The question is not how do we get to the flash, but what do we do in the meantime? Because if we go chasing after it, it just becomes another pursuit, another desire, another source of suffering. (“Damn it! I’ve been at this for fifty years! Why the hell aren’t I enlightened yet?!”) In the meantime we have to live our lives. That’s where the Middle Way comes in, and the Noble Eightfold Path, and the multitude of other Buddhist teachings.
“Putting up with little cares, I'll train myself to work with great adversity.” We can learn bit by bit what is helpful and what is harmful, what eases the suffering of the world and what contributes to it. And awakening my creep up on us like fog on the water or arrive in a flash like lightning in the sky. In the meantime, it's okay to enjoy the peaches and call them good, but don't delude yourself into believing that if you could just have peaches in yogurt or [insert this moment's desire here] every day you'd be happy and never suffer.
Don't make your happiness contingent on an 'if.'