handful of leaves

Last week, I spent 5 days at the Omega Institute learning about mindful self-compassion.  The potential redundancy of the topic title and the nuances of dharma may chafe a bit but it does point to the current trend in turning Buddhist psychological concepts into therapeutic processes.  That’s not a bad thing because given what interventions actually work and the paradigm shift we need so we can improve as therapists, another approach would be a Godsend… or Buddhasend in this case.  In fact, when done right (read: commitment to training on the part of the therapist), there is no greater accountability than that for a professional who has to test the medicine before administering it.  And what medicine it is!

The Buddha said that what he had taught was a handful of leaves in comparison to the numerous leaves in the simsapa forest.  In the Simsapa Sutta, he explained that what he had not taught was irrelevant because 

… they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.

The Buddha went on to say that he taught one and only one thing: suffering and the end of suffering.

A few things about this sutra have bothered me for a long time.  First, why the heck would he avoid teaching something because it did not lead to suffering*?  By inference, it means some of the things he taught opened us to suffering – which, of course, is what he said.  Second, in my pea-brained head what he taught has always been two things: (1) suffering and (2) the end of suffering.

Somewhere in the week of the retreat/training, I had a chance to walk with a dear dharma sibling.  As we discussed the intricacies of what the Buddha taught (and didn’t teach), I wondered out loud why suffering never seemed to cease.  Why was it that each time we drilled down into that deep gut somewhere under the hara, we reliably struck the oily, thick, black smoke of ancient twisted karma?  We talked some more about this “walk of disillusion” we often take as practitioners, this path of disenchantment, grief, and sorrow that we mistake for an obstacle to our progress.  Stopping under a towering tree (close as we can get to a simsapa forest), I chuckled with the realization that perhaps we had become experts in drilling for suffering.  Perhaps we only found suffering each time because that precisely was what we drilled for at every sitting.   Perhaps it was time to hang up that dowsing rod and turn to something more balancing.

I can’t think of a better argument for a practice of love; not just compassion but also lovingkindness, equanimity and joy.    The fourfold practice that warms and opens the heart.  And ends suffering.

So the Buddha did teach one and only one thing.  Our practice is not only about the origins of suffering and the defilements that cause them.  It is equally and likely even simultaneously about the cessation of suffering through the practice of warming the heart so it can open and not fear being broken.


*The Buddha’s teaching are not simply an exercise in intellectual exploration of suffering.  In order to understanding suffering, we first need to open to it in the body, experiencing the very sensations we struggle against and strive to avoid at all costs.  So paradoxically, his teachings lead us directly to suffering because that is the only route out of this tangled mess born of craving, hatred, and ignorance.

8 thoughts on “handful of leaves

  1. the suffering is already there in everyones life. Often people say to me they don’t like Buddhism because it’s about suffering. It’s not like the Buddha asks us to create suffering! But your question is a thoughtful one. I used to ask my Zen teacher where’s the joy in this teaching. But I guess I am getting to see more and more that it is a transformative practice, that we need to experience the suffering (rather than push it away, which is my natural inclination!).

    but as someone inclined to wallow, I have learned that I do need the balance of metta practice and uplifting things, so that I can have the energy to live in a whole hearted way and not get sucked into the suffering vortex.

    thanks for reminding me of this! sounds like a wonderful retreat.

  2. To not be afraid of being broken- lately the events in my life are teaching me continually this very thing. Thanks Genju, I would love to go on that retreat sometime! I completely agree about trying out the medicine before administering 🙂

  3. Hi – this is my first foray into blog responding! But I wanted to say that for me, this issue is the crux of practice. “Bring me your suffering and I will put an end to it”…. Entering into the suffering in a physical sense, with a warm curiosity, meeting resistance with no resistance, this is the only place that has ever ‘shifted’ my suffering. Only by truly entering my suffering have I been released from it. And yet… how much of life can you spend in this space? As a mother of young children and working, I have time limits… (perhaps separating practice from parenting/work is the issue…). How to calmly settle into whatever arises at each moment, and work with it in no rush, alongside the needs of others in your care?

    And yes, sometimes I need a lift. My partner practiced Metta for a year solid and it did him no end of good. I love Ezra Bayda’s metta from the book “Being Zen’ (which incidentally, helped me greatly with the relationship between practice and therapy). It reads:

    May I dwell in the open heart.
    May I attend to whatever clouds the open heart.
    May I be awake in this moment, just as it is.
    May the awakened heart be extended to all beings.

    Somehow it brings together both being with suffering and also being with joy.

    Thanks for your posts Genju – I’ve enjoyed reading those I have had time to so far.
    With Metta from New Zealand.

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