Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Three Hard Teachings

Teaching 1: We Are Responsible for Our Mental Suffering

Recently, I went to see the esteemed vipassana teacher, Joseph Goldstein, give a public talk. Joseph was one of the first Americans to be granted permission to teach vipassana in the West back in the '70's, so I believe he knows whereof he speaks regarding Buddhadharma. (Although he will be the first to tell you not to believe anything he says, but rather to experience things for yourself.)

I have been sharing the Dharma for a while now - coming up on ten years - and although I may never have the gravitas of a Joseph Goldstein, I know a little bit of what it is like to be up there presenting these sometimes (often times) difficult to understand and accept teachings. They are hard.

In the first part of his talk, Joseph spoke about compassion. A nice, easy subject that isn't too controversial and doesn't make people squirm in their seats. After all, this was not his sangha, and he did not know the "experience level" of the audience, so keeping things light is a good way to start. 

The pitfall of this kind of approach, however, is that it can give rise to contradictions. If I'm talking about one of the main hallmarks of compassion as being the desire to help someone, I am contradicting the teachings of the Dharma that are clear about releasing attachment to desire to change anything (more on that in a forthcoming blog). This is exactly what happened to Joseph.

When it came time for the Q&A portion of the evening, however, he was able to take the temperature of the audience, and he could see that they were open to a bit more than just the vanilla Dharma talk he had presented. Finally, in answer to a question, he replied, "You may not want to hear this," (I love it when Dharma teachers begin a statement like that), "But we are one hundred percent responsible for the suffering in our own minds."

This means that any mental suffering that we experience, we create ourselves. It does not mean we are responsible for abuse perpetrated upon us, or for any physical illness or pain we may experience. It means that we are responsible for the suffering that comes after those events. If I was abused as a child, the initial responsibility for that abuse rests with the abuser. The continued suffering I carry with me is my responsibility.

It is the same principal as the Parable of the Second Arrow (see 10/31/09 & 1/16/10 blogs). If I am shot with one arrow, that is legitimate, physical pain. If I curse the shooter, lament my sorry situation, and go into a panic, that is the suffering created by the mind.

An antidote to this suffering is to deploy the first three of the Four Noble (or Knowable) Truths. If you find yourself suffering over some past event (the First Knowable Truth), ask yourself, "Is this thing happening right now?" The answer, of course, is "No. It happened a long time ago." So the suffering is caused by clinging to the memory of that experience (the Second Knowable Truth). To stop (or at least ease) the suffering, you merely need to release the tight, clinging fist from around this memory (the Third Knowable Truth). (For more on the Four Knowable Truths, see my series of blogs on the subject from July 18 to 23, 2010.)

This does not mean that we deny the experience happened, nor does it mean that we condone the harm that was done to us. It means that we can be with the memories of the experience in a new way - a way that promotes seeing the events clearly for what they are: objects of mind. When we cultivate this kind new relationship with these past events, we decrease our level of suffering around them. We can then understand more fully that the memories are thoughts, and not facts.


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