In Honor of Bodhi Day - On Transforming Suffering
Today is Bodhi Day ~ a day of commemorating Siddhartha Gautama's realization of and his presentation to his fellow seekers of the Four Noble Truths.
Each of us is familiar with the experience of suffering or dukkha. Our suffering may be distilled into moments within the course of a day, or it may stretch out to days on end. Dukkha may be lifelong if we fail to recognize its nature.
Our first inclination is to find something or someone to blame for our suffering. Seldom are we able to see that when we experience dukkha, we need only look within for the reasons why. There may be the tendency to look away since an acquisition of this knowledge would mean that it is up to us to take responsibility to end our suffering.
The causes of dukkha may seem numerous but they can easily be refined into one ~ desire or tanha. With the willful ego constantly lusting our cravings are insatiable. There is no pleasing the ego, which gets its kick from feeling superior, independent, separate, and permanent.
Expectations are a form of tanha. When we attach a desired outcome to any situation we are setting ourselves up for dukkha. This is not to suggest that desires are of no value. It is our attachment to the desired outcome that causes us to feel sorrow. We can think of healthy desire as planting seeds, lovingly tending the earth, and then simply standing back as a witness to the process.
In tanha we see ourselves as separate and invincible, which contributes to the collective well of pain and suffering. In a state of drunken oblivion we invoke both personal and planetary dukkha; a selfish, reckless, and dangerous act. A basic tenet of (Mahayana) Buddhism tells us that our happiness and suffering is the happiness and suffering of others.
Tanha is witnessed in greed; in our consumerism and consumption, in our desire for permanence and perfection. We are forever searching for the thing that will bring us happiness. There is no end to our desire for things so no one thing could ever produce lasting happiness. How many times have we said, "If only I had X, Y or Z, then I would be happy". Ah, but happiness does not come in this form. While we may feel happy the moment that we have obtained something, we are already moving towards dukkha as our pleasure wanes in search of the next (empty) treasure. Ever witness a child opening gifts, eyes sparkling as the wrapping is torn off and the gift is revealed; only to see the gift tossed aside in anticipation of the next one? We are like this child, eyes wide with anticipation, tossing aside this moment in our curiosity of what the next will bring.
Happiness is an inside job, an inner peace, an inner knowing of what really matters. What is it that really matters? How do we achieve this elusive happiness?
Perhaps one of the most important and effective ways that we can work towards the cultivation of happiness and the alleviation of the suffering of all beings is to be mindful. Being mindful requires living fully in the present moment, with no regrets of yesterday and no idolizing of the future. This sounds like a simple enough directive until one sets out to put it into practice. And this is what mindfulness requires ~ practice.
When we are mindful we are aware of our breathing and therefore of our actions. Attention to our breathing changes our awareness. As an example, while on my way to work a few mornings ago I found myself mildly irritated. Already running a few minutes late, it seemed that the traffic lights were conspiring against me. While sitting idle at one of the stop lights I caught hold of my breath, slowing it down, inhaling... exhaling. With just one complete breath I was able to turn my attitude around. As I sat and watched the stream of traffic flowing past me I realized that everything is unfolding in its own rhythm, that the universe is in divine order, and all I need do is breathe and be in the present moment.
Imagine the ease of living solely in the moment. Mindfulness, the most practical form of meditation, offers this. The only requirement is an attention to the breath, which gently keeps us focused on what we are doing. Mindfulness is the path to understanding. In mindfulness we observe, we listen, we surrender. We begin to catch glimpses of our true nature and thus the nature of life. We begin to realize that all of our searching for things was our heartfelt desire to find ourselves.
One of the most important concepts of Buddhism is Pratitya-samutpada, the interconnectedness of all life. In our knowledge of pratitya-samutpada we recognize that each strand in the cosmic web of life is dependent upon all the other strands for its integrity and harmony. When one strand weakens and breaks each of us feels the effects of that. Just as when one being suffers, we all suffer. Separating ourselves from others ~ imagining ourselves as the web rather than simply a strand in the web ~ keeps us separate from our self, which keeps dukkha locked in our heart.
Imagine the bliss of living in a perpetual state of pratitya-samutpada where we consciously, joyously accept each sentient being as an intimate part of our self and therefore strive to end the suffering of all. Imagine our ability to fully comprehend the origins and co-dependence of everything in existence, and the consequent willingness and desire to take responsibility for creating our own reality.
This is the goal of life, to recognize where the primary source of our own suffering originates, to strive to understand it, (accomplished by awareness or mindfulness) and to surrender to our true nature. In this we find liberation, enlightenment, and sukha or happiness. We are then free to be of infinite service to others, to be a vessel of compassion and love, devoting ourselves to the ultimate goal of nirvana for all beings.
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