I receive messages from many about crises they are undergoing. Some express outrage at this devastating interruption to their routines, the inconvenience of the pandemic to them personally. All of this understandable. Some express hopelessness, fear, despair, confusion. Anyone who’s watching is feeling something. But few are looking at those feelings themselves and starting there. We’re all watching the screen instead of noticing the projector and why it’s important to understand how that projector works.
Who remains truly and completely untouched in this current crisis? And as importantly, who remained untouched before it by all kinds of intractable problems; by loss, hardship, injustice, sickness, aging, and death?
But the pandemic is another layer of thick suffering on top of the layers many of us had allowed ourselves to ignore and distract ourselves from for far too long, resulting in shocking and paralyzing manifestations of vast, layered, and complex personal, interpersonal, international, and institutional dysfunction.
Who needs or wishes for sadness and depression and misery in life? When we experience such we can do one of two things: We can become more self-focused and isolated by making frantic and often self-destructive efforts to push it away and otherwise distract ourselves from it, or we can use it as *the* springboard to awaken to reality and to a meaningful life.
It really boils down to those two. This is why the Buddha declared in his first Teaching after Awakening:
That is, know your experience, know the condition, the reality as you experience it. The more you try to deny it, to cover the sky with your hand, the more it entraps you with false promises. To know suffering we have to take apart the projector and see how it works.
In the Nalanda tradition we speak of the three types of suffering:
1) suffering of suffering (dukkha can be translated many ways), or dissatisfaction of dissatisfaction, misery of misery. This refers to gross manifest suffering: disease of body and mind, starvation, war, things that none of us wants, etc.
2) suffering of change: this refers in fact to the misery in things we consider to be pleasant, advantageous, worth striving after. We think the shiny new car and big fancy house and diamonds and stocks and gadgets, status, position, fame, kudos from others, even the very good and decent things we believe we stand for are going to guarantee actual inner peace, safety, security, and pleasure. We are unable to see the underside to these sorts of advantages. Many institutional structures that once sustained people are crumbling beneath the weight of corruption and scandal… We keep taking the bait again and again. Doesn’t this suggest we need to review the essences? We don’t see the compounded miseries masked by the nice things in life. This doesn’t mean we should not have or experience nice things in life, of course not; it means we must not be deceived into thinking that they last forever or deliver deepest peace. We hear from plenty of rich and famous people that wealth does not produce sustained and sustaining happiness. Sure, it can insulate us a bit from the suffering of suffering, but it deceives us into trusting the condition more than we can afford to. In that sense, many who’ve grown up cushioned from the worst blows have the most difficulty gaining traction in deep spiritual work. Like Cypher with his steak.
3) pervasive conditional suffering; this is far subtler and more difficult to identify, and the sort of suffering we need to develop insight with respect to if we are truly to wake up. In the absence of the above two forms of dukkha (Pali word for the dissatisfactory nature of unawakened existence), having recognized the limitations of conditioned reality what would be left? A very subtle form of suffering which left unidentified prevents deepest insight into the nature of reality. More could be said but it’s a deep topic, and it’s well worth spending time considering the limitations of the first two types of suffering.
The crucial thing here is to understand these sufferings in terms of our own experience now, not as a label to add to the many we already have for what we perceive as being “out there” and having nothing to do with our own minds.
The purpose of Buddha’s teaching is not to make a person a Buddhist, but to address suffering, at the level of individual experience, one’s own direct experience. My role as a Buddhist nun is not to make another a Buddhist, to give a person a list of tips to live by, a doctrine to swallow, a hat to wear, a card to carry, and there we go. The role as I see it is to be of benefit in any way I can. This does not require being a Buddhist; but for a particular kind of extraordinary benefit related specifically to addressing deepest existential malaise, I can direct others to resources to explore, so that they can consider what it was that Buddha was doing with suffering that can benefit an individual, regardless of his or her beliefs or worldview, in a sustained and sustaining way, assuming that they no longer accept the unthinking notion that “this is just the way it is.”
What I can’t do is soften the blow of reality. If I do that I would be insulting your intelligence and my commitment. I can tell you that there are great rewards and deepest peace that issue from facing the truth about reality…and I can tell you that spiritual work is not a vacation, an escape, or a spa treatment. It’s the most difficult work there is, since it involves confronting our direct experience, all that we really have to work with: our mind and body and how those show up here.