Monday, July 19, 2010

The Knowable Truths, Part 2

The Knowable Truth of Suffering

Here's the bad news: If you take human birth, at some point you will experience suffering. When I say "suffering" I don't mean pain. Pain is a physical event, but suffering is the mental experience that arises because of the pain when the mind colors the experience. (For more details, see my 10/31/09 and 1/16/10 blogs on the Parable of the Second Arrow.)

I also do not mean to imply that all of life is suffering. That would be too much to bear. There are natural moments of cessation from suffering, and many extended periods of neutral experiences, which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. But at some point, you will suffer.

What is suffering? For me, suffering can be defined very simply as "wanting things to be other than the way they are." Sound familiar? When we are doing one thing but wishing we were doing something else, we are suffering. When we want something but don't yet have it, we are suffering. When we get that thing we want but then lose it, we suffer. When we are with people we don't want to be with, or not with people we want to be with... you get the idea.

In the Pali language (as spoken by the Buddha), the word used to denote suffering is "dukkha." Dukkha has a much more subtle meaning, however. It also means "unsatisfying." Nothing that we can ever achieve or possess will give us lasting satisfaction. Eventually, we will lose it, or it will prove unsatisfactory in some way. Then we experience dukkha. An even more subtle association with this word is "an off-centered wheel." If the axle hole for a wheel is off-centered, the result will be a very bumpy and painful ride. As I mentioned in a previous blog (1/3/10), the sound that this kind of wheel would make would be "dukkha...dukkha...dukkha...dukkha!"

Suffering is often defined as being synonymous with "desire." To a certain extent this may be true. However, wholesome desires do not always lead to suffering. If you have a desire to read this blog, for example, that is good thing (at least as far as I'm concerned). In the context of the Four Knowable Truths, it is desire that "gives rise to a sense of self" that is a more accurate definition. My wanting to write this is a wholesome desire, I think. However, if I am clinging to the desire that it be read by a certain number of people, then "I, me, and mine" have arisen, and I will suffer if my blog is not as widely seen as I want it to be.

Wanting things to be other than the way they are, and the resultant desire that gives rise to a sense of self, imply that we are clinging to something, or in aversion toward something else (really just two sides of the same coin). So the operative functions that lead to suffering are clinging and aversion. These are the origins of suffering, and more will be said about them when we get to the Second Knowable Truth.

In order to realize the Knowable Truths and then utilize them in our daily life, we first have to know that we are suffering. After all, these are the Knowable Truths. We come to know suffering quite clearly during vipassana practice. When an itch arises on the nose, we suffer for a moment with it without trying to scratch it. When a sound we don't want to hear arises, we let the sound be known, and then watch as the mind creates preferences and stories that are chock full of "I, me and mine," even though the sound is a neutral event that has nothing to do with us at all. 

In fact, though the realization of even this First Knowable Truth, we can begin to see that there is no "me" in anything, even the thoughts that my mind creates about a situation. Eventually, this awareness of No Self will come in quite handy in relieving our suffering, but for now, it is enough just to know that suffering is present.

So in your practice, and in your daily life, turn toward the experience of dissatisfaction when it arises. Notice how the mind wants things to be other than the way they are, and notice all the ways the mind colors the situation out of habit. Say to yourself, "There is suffering, and the knowing of it" as you allow the experience to move through you moment-by-moment. Now that you know you are suffering, you have a chance to begin to make some skillful and effective choices to diminish the suffering, but the first step is always to know it.


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