the options offered by suffering

Last week, John Briere was in town giving a lecture on Mindfulness & Trauma.  He was quite entertaining, insightful, and very well-versed in the pain of trauma.  I appreciated his transparency in talking about his own trauma – just enough for us to know he’d walked the talk for many miles but not so much that he became a caricature of “heal thyself.”

At one point he challenged the now-trite phrase “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”  I won’t go into all of his argument on whether suffering is truly optional.  Suffice to say he made irrefutable points backed with solid data.  It did however remind me that I prefer to say, “Pain is inevitable; suffering offers options.”  I shared this with Briere at one of the breaks and we discussed the paradox of pain – that without pain we may not know our true suffering; without suffering we cannot know our true nature.  And that perhaps, our practice of sitting with that suffering burns way the multiple layers of assumptions and false logic we are heir to.

There were also parts of his talk that affected me deeply and so I sat with it over the days that followed.  I noticed that the suffering I felt gave me options large and small.  I had the option to tuck back into my autopilot ways of facing pain.  I had the option to turn towards it tentatively, ever ready to duck back under the covers of my favourite delusion, numbness.  I had the option to face it head on, engage it fully, and burn away the protective shell of stories in one firestorm.  I had the option to dance with it.

What was not an option however was the knowledge of being in pain.  We often hear that pain is the body/mind’s way of saying it needs something, that it is trying to adapt to a shift in demands and resources.  I wonder now if suffering is the body/mind’s way of saying we need to look closer to what is going on, to locate what is awry, and meet it with compassion.

winds of joy, light at my feet

From Bodhidharma Anthology by Jeffrey Broughton: Entering through practice – equanimity

The second entrance to the path is through the practice of following conditions or (Red Pine) adapting to conditions.  

(S)entient beings lack a self and are all whirled around by conditions and karma; suffering and joy are to be equally accepted, for both arise from conditions.

When life throws up these dust storms that blind me or the days grow darker and darker, my support circles point to the light at the end of the tunnel.  I understand that in their love for us and their wish to speed up the journey through the dark or bumpy parts, they’d like us to look into the distance and grasp that this experience is impermanent.  However, it’s a risky process which can carry us too quickly away from the reality of what is right here.

The light at the end of the tunnel is actually more useful when it shines right here in tunnel at my feet.  

Bodhidharma’s teachings suggest that we are vulnerable to being swept away by the winds of joy and the dust storms of suffering.  To attach to each one unduly makes no sense because the conditions that created them are not sustainable.  (Oh yes, I can definitely continue to make myself miserable but that’s not the same misery I started out with.  Check it out for yourself!)  To reject either unconsciously is dangerous because this creates a loss of intimacy with ourselves and others.  To become confused about the origins of them is pointless because the causes and conditions lie in an intricate and oft-times tangled web of action and reaction.

Unmoved by the winds of joy*, one is mysteriously in accordance with the path.

Now you may thank that this reduces you to zombie-like blob, careening off the walls and lamp posts of your path.  At their extreme, all statements are untenable and likely false.  To be unmoved is to be steady in the experience of joy, to be connected deeply with it.  So deeply that there is a spaciousness that arises which can contain the entire spectrum of variability in each joy, sorrow, contentment, pain, love, and anguish.

The adaptability we practice is not to the great brush strokes of impermanence.  It is to the rhythmic variation in the winds of joy and woe.

Auguries of Innocence
William Blake 

It is right it should be so:
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

*”Winds of Joy here may refer to the eight winds or eight worldly conditions.  For a brilliant story read here.

ceasing the conditional

Waiting patiently has never been my strong suit.  After I laid down the larger viridian circle, I panicked at the tone which to my eyes ground into the neighbouring sap green with the ear-splitting sound of colliding metal.  Luckily, I was distracted away before I could “fix” anything and when I returned the wide swath of eye-ache had softened.

The capacity to simply pause or to attend without acting – wu wei – is a tough skill to cultivate.  I’m starting to see, however, that it is the heart and soul of the Third Turning of Wheel in practising the Second Noble Truth.  To realize the truth of the cause of my suffering requires me to step back from the sensations that drive me to act impetuously.  It’s a hypnotic process and I can really feel it in my breath.  Well, I can feel that I’m holding my breath as I fall into a desperation to “get it over with.”  The Second Noble Truth however is not just a recognition and clarification of what causes and sustains suffering, it is also the first step to the breaking the links of the damaging cycles.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that the Third Turning of the Wheel can be summarized as “When I’m hungry, I eat.  When tired, I sleep.”  Practice is not just the recognition and knowing of the roots of my suffering but also cultivation of the appropriate response.  Hungry -> eat.  Tired -> sleep.  These are good psychological tactics; we only ever restrain a bad habit but it helps to have a good one to fill the space left behind.  I can tell when I’m hungry or when I’m tired… mostly.  And usually “cranky” points to hungry or tired anyway.

The tough practice is with the more fine-grained sensations that underlie “disappointment,” “uncertainty,”  “loss of faith,” or the Big One, “breakdown of belief systems.”   Usually it goes something like “when I’m disappointed, I shut down.”  Or it may be “when I’m uncertain, I push your buttons.”  Or “when I lose faith, I wipe the hard drive clean.”  And this Big One: “When my belief systems breakdown, I want you to fix it.”

Realization of the cause and maintenance of suffering is in the willingness to wait in that space between “I am <fill in the blank>” and “I <fill in the blank>.”  But I want to push it further (No!  Really?).

Cease the conditional.

“I am disappointed.”

“I am shut down.”

“I am uncertain.”

“I am pushing your buttons.”

“I am losing faith.”

“I am wiping the hard drive clean.”

“I am feeling a breakdown of my belief systems.”

“I am wanting you to fix it.”

“I have laid down a swath of viridian.”  “I am walking away.”

Let’s see if that works.

Thank you for practising,


steering wheel

I’ve been looking at this painting for a long time.  It’s strange to say but I can’t recall which I did first: the inner or outer circle, the viridian or the ochre.  Technically I’m supposed to load the brush with the colours and let the enso unfold in one stroke.  I do that but then I feel compelled to do more… and we know where that leads, don’t we!?

The ways in which I encourage my suffering through poor consumption of nutriments are legion.  It’s quite likely that I will be spending the rest of my lifetimes just on one turning of the wheel – recognition.  Yet every so often, I hit an understanding of how I not only encourage the causes of my suffering but also how I can encourage a different choice.  This is the second turning of the wheel of the Second Noble Truth.

In a response to a question during our zazenkai dharma discussion, Frank pointed out that the joy of practice is not about feeling a sense of whoopee when we become aware.  It is in seeing that we now have the opportunity to make a different choice for the next moment.  It struck me that the second turning of the 2NT is about attaching a steering wheel to the turning wheels!  Now this buggy can take those hair-pin turns without flipping.

Buckle up and hang on!  We’re about to hit the Autobahn of Awareness practice!


growing sustenance

In her comment to yesterday’s post, ZenDotStudio offered to adopt my suffering from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Suffering.  This got me thinking about the rather disparaging way I treat my suffering.  Of course, the cause of my suffering is that I don’t think anything I do is good enough.  Like the paintings you see this week.  Not good enough.  Yesterday’s was too dark, today’s is too washed out, tomorrow’s will be too obvious.  So it’s no surprise that even my suffering is really not up to snuff.

Like a good little Buddhist, however, I’m taking a shot at (so much for ahimsa) looking into the true nature of my suffering before I truck it over the ZDS and sign off on the adoption papers.  Two weeks ago we checked out the First Noble Truth – the reality that suffering exists and our responsibility to examine the shape of that suffering.  The Second Noble Truth faces us with the way that suffering germinates, the roots of suffering.

Conventionally, cravings is the identified culprit for the cause of suffering.  Thich Nhat Hanh, however, points out that the Buddha didn’t say only craving is the cause.  It’s just first on a long list of things that cause suffering but for ease of recitation it stands as the exemplar of causes.  That helps clarify my own examination because when I look at the causes of my suffering, they are multi-dimensional.   It’s not just wanting more, better, bigger, stronger, prettier, steadier (fill in the blank).  It’s also “anger, ignorance, suspicion, arrogance, and wrong view…” that pours fuel on the fire.

Take these paintings.  I hold this assumption of how they should look, what green, red, ochre look like to someone else, and I forget that I can’t know how someone else’s sense consciousness will consume the painting.  Or perhaps, it’s more a case of being afraid that I really don’t and can’t know how someone will perceive the colours.  I have no control over their desires which also are born of beginingless “greed, anger and delusion.”  And therefore, I have no control over their likes or dislikes of what I put out there.  I know this  but the fear is powerful and the judgemental mind is compelling.

The Second Noble Truth refers to the power of mind.  Suffering is caused by the mind’s ability to generate story lines of desire, rejection, and denial.  And the first step – the first turning of the dharma wheel of the Second Noble truth – is to look at how the mind gains and sustains that debilitating power (rather than a beneficial power).  In practice, I’ve been noticing how I feed my mind with a constant stream of comparative thoughts and a push-pull of grasping.  In fact, I’m beginning to realize I have a whole farming industry that produces these twisty little roots, salty greens, and bitter herbs that I serve myself in generous heapings.

Well, I’m happy to recognize how I sustain my suffering.  Just wish I had realized it before I “fixed” these paintings…

Thank you for practising (and try not to fix anything your mind insists needs tweaking).


as do the sun moon and stars

I like the word “decent.”  It means “fitting and appropriate.”   Children learn to be decent to one another by the influence of parents and teachers.  Societies learn to be decent by the influence of parents and teachers like the Buddha and the Christ.

The Thai Buddhist master Buddhadasa pointed out that the sun, moon, and stars live together as a cooperative and that our very bodily parts function as a cooperative.  This is the ultimately fitting and appropriate way of the universe.  He went on to warn that if our lives are not based on this kind of universal decency, then we shall all perish.

It is surely high time that we enter into a process of purification.  Let’s you and me conspire with friends to vow each morning to practice the way of decency in our homes, our neighbourhoods, and our workplaces and to follow through as best we can.  Let’s join our sisters and brothers who are already in the streets, and bang our pots for the human way that is fitting and appropriate to Earth and its beings.

Let’s organize for decency!

Robert Aitken Roshi