Suffering Should be Welcome

by Ajahn Sumedho


From a Dhamma Talk given by Luang Por Sumedho during the Vassa at Amaravati, 2001; Intended for inclusion in a proposed book of his teaching, Intuitive Awareness.

One of the epithets for the Buddha we chant is lokavidu, knower of the world. We can see this is a quality of the Buddha. But it is also a way of reflecting on the world, the situation that we are experiencing now; that is to reflect on life as it is experienced rather than describing how life should be. If we're just rationalists then we have theories about how things should be. But in reflective awareness we're noticing how things are.

With breathing, we're not saying you should breathe a certain way, that there's some standard of breathing that is ideal, but rather that breathing is like this. We can begin to notice the fact that the human body - this body that we're in with its eyes, ears, nose, tongue, the body itself - is sensitive and 'sensitivity is like this.' Then we look inward. What is it like just being sensitive? We're now noticing what it is to feel, to see, to hear, to smell, to taste or touch, to think, to remember. We can have ideas about being sensitive, or we can try and make ourselves insensitive because we see it as a sign of weakness, but right now we're not placing any judgement on sensitivity rather noticing 'it's like this'.

This is very important to recognise and to know - that the world is the world. Having a human body is a continuous experience of being irritated. Consciousness is in a human body which is made up of the four elements, earth, water, fire and air, from birth to death. From the time you are born, the moment you're out of your mother's womb, you start screaming. And impingements keep coming to this sensitive form until it dies. I encourage you to contemplate this rather than to judge it according to whatever ideals you might have. This is then called the state of awakened awareness. To wake up means to know the world as it is; it's not a judging of the world. When we are coming from ideals, usually quite high standards of 'if everything were perfect...' then we have ideas of how countries should be, governments should be, our parents, partners or whatever should be. But this realm's perfection doesn't lie in taking conditioned experience to some kind of ideal.

Notice how irritating it is just to be able to see, hear, taste, smell and touch. There's always something that isn't quite right. It's too cold or too hot, we have a headache or backache, unwanted noises, odours and things like this impinge or come in contact with this form, and then we experience its beauty, its ugliness, pleasure and pain. But even pleasure is irritating when you think about it. We like pleasure, but just having a lot of pleasure is also very exhausting and irritating. This is not a criticism; it's just noticing that, 'having a human body is like this,' 'breathing is like this,' 'consciousness is like this.'

How sensitive we are just to words and thoughts. We can say things and upset everybody just through a certain tone of voice, or the use of certain words can be very distressing. We can remember things of the past that are pleasant or unpleasant. We can obsess our minds about things we shouldn't have done in the past; we can feel a lot of guilt and remorse or self-aversion because of mistakes, failures or unskilful acts in the past that we remember. We can get really neurotic, because in the present moment we can be totally obsessed with the thing we shouldn't have done twenty years ago. We can drop ourselves into real states of depression and despair.

Some people think it's good kamma to just have an easy ride, to be born with wealthy parents and high status, a beautiful appearance, intelligence, an easy life, all the blessings, all the good things. It's good merit, good parami and all that. But when I look at my own life, incredible challenges have come to me that have shaken me, that really upset me, and disappointed me to the point where I have contemplated suicide - 'I just want to get this over with. I don't want to spend more and more years in this realm. I can't take it.' But awakening to that I realised, that I'm quite willing to take what life presents and learn from it. That's the challenge to see that this is an opportunity that we have as human beings, as conscious beings. If you put it in the context of knowing the world as the world, we can take anything. We have incredible abilities to learn from even the most unfair, miserable, painful and nasty conditions. These are not the obstructions to enlightenment; it's whether we awaken or not.

Now the teachings of the Lord Buddha are teachings pointing to this. They're to awaken you rather than to condition you. We're not trying to grasp them as doctrinal positions to take, but expedient means to use to develop awakened awareness, mindfulness and intuition, to not fear sensitivity, to really open to it. Be fully sensitive rather than trying to protect yourself endlessly from possible pain or misfortune.
Knowing the world as the world is not a resignation in a negative way - 'Oh, you know how the world is!' - as if it were bad, that there's something wrong with it. That's not knowing the world as the world. Rather it's studying and taking an interest, examining experience, and being willing to look at and feel the negative side. It's not just seeking pleasurable experiences, but seeing even your most disappointing ones, your worst failures as opportunities to learn, as a chance to awaken; as devadutas or 'messengers' that tap us on the shoulder and say, 'Wake up!' That's why in Buddhism getting old, sickness, disabilities and loss are not seen as things to fear and despise, but as devaluates or 'heavenly messengers'. This word devaduta is a Pali word; duta means a messenger of some sort, deva is 'angelic' or 'heavenly'; so heavenly messengers sent to warn us. A Christian asked me once if we had angels in Buddhism. 'We have angels in Christianity; all kinds of white and beautiful beings that play harps; they're very radiant, light beings.' I replied, 'Well, Buddhist angels are not that way. They're old age, sickness and death!' The fourth devaduta is the samana, the human being who has spiritual realisations.

> Old people you can see as devaluates. Like me: I'll be sixty-seven in a few days. Not only a devaduta on the level of a samara, but an old man too. As I get sick and senile, I'll be even more of a devaduta; and when I'm dead, I'll be four all in one! For reflecting in this way, to see how to use life, the malleability of our human mind is endless.

> We can be so set and conditioned by dualistic thinking. For example, I was brought up in a very dualistic way of looking at everything. Things were absolutely right or wrong, good or evil. These were very fixed ways of looking at everything. I had this very limited use of my mind because it tended to move between these two extremes.

> Are we going to become inflated egotistical monsters if we admit that we love good things? Why did I become a Bhikkhu? I could give you reasons like 'I've got to shape up and get my act together. I can't do it any other way.' I can look it in terms of weakness and inability, that I need the support from external conditions because I can't do it by myself. Or I can look at it in terms of being attracted to what is good, virtuous and beautiful. Both have their points to make; it's not that I'm so good, that I just gravitate to everything that's light and beautiful, I've certainly had my fascinations for that which isn't, but I would say that my preference leans towards the light and the good, the true and the beautiful. This is the movement that I'm interested in and that's something to respect. I see that this is something very good in my character.

Learning to be honest, to admit and make a conscious appreciation of your own humanity and your individuality helps to give you a confidence that you don't have if you're too obsessed with being critical and seeing yourself through negative perceptions. This is being able to use our critical mind, our discriminative abilities not just to analyse and compare one thing with another, but to examine and investigate in terms of experience. We awaken to the breath - 'It's like this,' - awaken to the sensitive state that we're in - 'It's like this,' - awaken to the irritations that we experience as conditions that contact and irritate our senses. With our obsessions and emotional habits, whatever they might be, we put them in perspective rather than seeing them as something to get rid of. They're something to awaken to; this is a change from pushing away, resisting and denying towards awakening, accepting and welcoming.

In the First Noble Truth, the Buddha proclaimed that 'there is dukkha (suffering).' It is put into the context of a 'Noble Truth' rather than a dismal reality. If we look at it as a dismal reality, what happens? 'Life is just suffering, it's all just suffering. You get old, you get sick and then die. You have to lose all your friends: "All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me." That's all it's about; it's just dukkha from beginning to end'. There's nothing noble in that, is there? It's just pessimistic and depressing seeing it in terms of, 'I don't like it. I don't want suffering. What a bad joke God played on us creating this mess. And me being born in this mess, to live just to get old. What am I living for? Just to get old, get sick and die'. Of course, that's very depressing. That's not a Noble Truth. You're creating a problem around the way things are. With the Noble Truth, 'there is suffering,' the advice to deal with this suffering is to welcome it, to understand it, to open to it, to admit it, to begin to notice it and accept it. It's a willingness to embrace and learn from that which we don't like and don't want - the pain and the irritation, whether it's physical, mental or emotional.

To understand suffering is to open to it. We say, 'We understand suffering because it's...' We rationalise it, but that's not understanding. It's in welcoming the suffering that we are experiencing - our frustration, despair, pain, irritation, boredom, fear and desires - just welcoming, opening, accepting. Then this is a Noble Truth, isn't it? Our humanity then is being noble; it's an ariyan truth. This word ariya means 'noble'. What is this English word 'noble'? It's a kind of grand quality; it rises up. If you're noble, you rise up to things. You don't just say 'Oh, life is misery and I want to hide away from it. I can't bear it'. There's nothing noble in that; or in blaming - 'God, why did you create this mess? It's your fault,' if you're brought up as a Christian. I used to feel furious with God. I remember as a child thinking that if I were God I wouldn't have created pain. You fall down and hurt yourself and you think, 'Why does God allow this? Why did He create a realm where there is so much pain?' My mother could never answer that question very well, because the pain was seen as something wrong. Or is pain a Noble Truth? Is loss, separation, all these experiences that we all have to have in this human realm, a Noble Truth? Seeing it in terms of a Noble Truth, rather than complaining and blaming, this is what I'm pointing to.

We can look at things in different ways. We can choose. The programme from the culture and family that we're born into might not be a very good programme. Sometimes it is, but still it's limited. Now we have this opportunity to explore, to investigate reality, to know it in a direct way. Enlightenment is not something remote and impossible. You can see it in terms of some very abstract state that you hold up and aim for but that you don't think you'll ever achieve. That way of thinking is based on what? If I depended on my personality, I couldn't do anything, I'd never hope to get enlightened because my personality can't possibly conceive myself as a person being enlightened. My personality is conditioned to think of myself in terms of what's wrong with me, coming from a competitive society where you are very much aware of who's better and who's worse. So I can't trust that. My personal habits are conditioned things, so they're not flexible in themselves. If we just attach or interpret experience through those perceptions and never learn to look at things in any other way, then we are stuck with a limited view that can be a very depressing way to live a life.

Awakening; wake up and begin to see beyond the rigid dualism or the initial programme that you acquire through your family and social background. Trust in your own intuitive awakened sense. Don't trust in your views and opinions about anything - about yourself, about Buddhism or the world - they are oftentimes very biased. We get very biased views about each other; we have racial prejudices, class identities, ethnic biases and feelings of social superiority. These are not to be trusted.

We can look at things in many different ways. We don't have to look at something always from the conditioning that we have acquired. So when the Buddha talks about the Buddha-mind, it's very flexible and malleable; it's universal. The mind has a radiant quality to it. Consciousness has a radiance. So when we begin to let go of limiting ourselves through the distortions of our conditioned mental states, then we begin to understand, to see things as they really are, to know the Dhamma - enlightenment. This is not something remote and impossible, unless you want to hold to those views about it and about yourself as a person, holding it so high that it's way beyond your personal ability to achieve. Then you haven't awakened to what you're doing. You're merely operating from a conditioned view of everything.

'There is dukkha', and 'dukkha should be welcomed'. This is my new interpretation. Usually it's 'dukkha should be understood.' 'Dukkha should be welcomed'; how's that? Try that one. You can experiment with these different words. You don't have to say 'Pali scriptures say "understand," they didn't say "welcome"!' Pali scriptures don't say 'understand', they use a Pali word that we translate as 'understand'. Maybe we don't understand what 'understand' means. Did you ever think about that? We're so limited to a particular narrow view of the word 'understand' that we can't expand it. That's why we can experiment with the words. Just observe the effect. So I say 'welcoming' now. I'm not interested in proving that I'm right, that my translations are the best, but rather seeing how they work, what the effect is in the here-and-now. I am sharing this with you as a way of encouraging you to have that right and that freedom to know for yourself. You don't always have to try and fit yourself into the views and opinions even of our tradition - orthodox forms or definitions, our particular group's way of looking at things.

'There is dukkha', and 'dukkha should be welcomed'. 'Dukkha has been welcomed'. What is that like? Try that one. I don't know if it works for you, but it does for me, because the tendency is to push dukkha away. That's my conditioning, my personality. Suffering? Push it away; I don't want it. With somebody else's suffering , I don't want to go near them, I want to push away from them. There's a problem - 'Ajahn Sumedho, I've got a problem' - I don't want a problem. This is my character tendency, to do that. I don't want to know about suffering; tell me about the good things. 'How are you today?' 'I'm fine, Ajahn Sumedho. I just love it here at Amaravati. I love being a monk. I just adore the Dhamma and the Theravada form and the Vinaya. I love the whole thing.' Oh, that makes me feel so good. Tell me more. And I go to somebody else -'How are you this morning?' 'Ugh! This life is such a dreary, miserable thing. I'm fed up. I want to disrobe.' I don't want to hear that; don't tell me that. We go around trying to make people make us feel good. Tell me the good things, because that makes me feel good. Don't tell me the bad stuff, because that makes me feel bad. I don't want to feel bad. I don't want suffering; I don't welcome it, I want to get rid of it. Therefore, I'm going to try and live my life so that I can get as much of the good stuff as I can and push away the bad stuff. But in this new translation of 'There's suffering and suffering should be welcomed,' it changes, doesn't it? You see the suffering, your own, or somebody else's problems, as things to welcome rather than as things to run away from or push away.

We've been on retreat for the past week: I really like formal practice. I like to sit here and face the shrine. I like the temple; it's a very pleasant place to sit. I sit on a triangular cushion that supports the spine, so I can sit very comfortably for long periods of time. I look at the shrine and the mind goes very still and quiet. Then when I look around and face you... What happens when I'm looking at all of you? This is just a way of contemplating. When I look at the shrine, all the things on the shrine bring peace and calm; the candles, incense and Buddha image, they aren't dukkha for me, they inspire, they're pleasing. They aren't irritating or causing me any kind of unpleasant feelings. If I don't particularly want to look at them, I can just close my eyes and not look at anything. But then turning around and you're all here - what happens? It brings up a sense of there being so many possibilities, with all these different people, some of whom I don't even know. I've got views about some of you - you're like this and you're like that. Each person will bring up certain memories, some pleasant, some unpleasant; you have different ways of moving and saying things that brings up different feelings in my mind. If I think, 'Oh, I can't bear this.' I have to immediately turn around and look at the shrine again. Or if I'm looking at the shrine, I can begin to allow awareness to take me to non-grasping, to the reality of non-attachment, and really know this; not merely depend on the lack of stimulation for this or turning away from the community in order to get it, but really turning towards the community and realising it's something here. It's not dependent on facing any direction. So beginning to awaken to reality rather than being dependent upon a conditioned experience.

The refuge in Sangha we can define in terms of the four pairs, the eight kinds of noble beings. How many of you fit into that description? How many of your egos can think of yourself as sotapanna-magga, sotapanna-phala, sakadagami-magga, sakadagami-phala, anagami-magga, anaagami-phala, arahatta-magga, arahatta-phala*? Which one are you? How can I take refuge in 'four pairs and eight kinds of noble beings'? It's very abstract; sages, ideal beings who are somewhere - maybe. Or are they here: this monk, or that nun? What's the refuge in Sangha then? Is it up to me to decide who's a sotapanna, sakadagami and so forth, to figure out who I can take refuge with? Then it's just a matter of my ego again. Here I am trying to decide what somebody else is. Rather take these words like Sangha and make them work for you. Make it practical. Our refuge is in Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, not in personal attitudes or habits, or views and opinions. When we see each other in terms of Sangha or as devaluates, it's a way of looking at each other that is beginning to appreciate, respect and get beyond just personal preference and reactivity. But we're not trying to annihilate those either because the dukkha we welcome is this personal reactivity. Why I feel angry, why I feel jealous or why I feel rejected; it's not trying to dismiss this. But as we trust in this awakened state, then we can welcome our own feelings - foolish feelings or neurotic habits - we can welcome these things in terms of a Noble Truth rather than as personal faults.

(*These are the 8 kinds of noble beings, in respective order - One realising the path of stream-entry, one realising the fruition of stream-entry; one realising the path of once-return, one realising the fruition of once-return; one realising the path of non-return, one realising the fruition of non-return; one realising the path of arahatship, one realising the fruition of arahatship.)


Forest Sangha Newsletter: October 2002, Number 62

Source : http://www.forestsangha.org


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