Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Turning Puppies Into Tigers

Phra Cittasamvaro told a story last night of when he went up into the hills above Chiang Mai to meditate for three nights under a tree. There he encountered an old hunter who told him to watch out for the tigers. Meditation was difficult, the monk said. He sat for hours under the mosquito net worrying about the tigers. Then he heard something in the brush and he was certain that a tiger was coming. Finally, able to stand it no longer, he turned on his flashlight. There stood a small dog, so scared by the sudden light that it ran off yelping into the night. Later Pandit learned that tigers had not been seen in that vicinity for years.

Making tigers out of puppies is what we all do. This is the truth of dukkha, the Pali word for what is often incompletely translated as "suffering." Its meaning runs the gamut from torment to dissatisfaction. Dukkha was the topic of Pandit's fourth talk in the Baan Aree Library's Tuesday lecture series.

"The understanding of dukkha got the Buddha enlightened," Pandit told us. It was the subject of his first teaching: what it is, how it is caused, and how it might cease. Suffering is something that needs to be investigated, Pandit said. Our tendency is to avoid it and to develop what the Freudians call defense mechanisms. " The Buddha said, if a dog is shot by an arrow, it bites the arrow; if a lion is shot by an arrow, it attacks the hunter. We must look not at proximate causes but at suffering itself, ther nature of the thing, inside."

In a story from the tradition, The Buddha once asked a student, "If a person is struck by an arrow is it painful?" The student replied, "It is." The Buddha then asked, "If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?" The student replied again, "It is." The Buddha then explained, "In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional." Only five percent of dukkha is real, caused by the first arrow, Pandit said. "Ninety-five percent is made up around it by creating a field of mental suffering." The challenge is to tell the puppies from the tigers. (This puppy was born under the stairs by the pool at the Best Western Ocean Resort in Karon Beach, Phuket.)

Pandit explained to us that there are three levels of dukkha: Dukkha-dukkha (pain of pain) is the inevitable suffering of birth, sickness and death that results from being in a physical body. Viparinama-dukkha (pain of alteration) is the result of change and impermanence. We suffer when we want things to stay the same and they don't. The third level is Sankhara-dukkha (pain of formation) and this is more subtle, beyond me at the moment. It sounds like an extension of the second level, pain caused by the inability to see things as they really are. But apparently the desire for enlightenment arises out of this level of dukkha.

When suffering occurs, it cannot be cured by a "vipassana ray gun," Pandit advised. He had recently learned from an engineer, for example, that stress is inherent in any created structure to preserve balance. Pain can often be the way the body communicates to our consciousness. Often pain is bittersweet, like the tragedy that can only be healed by tears. I found myself thinking about masochists who hold onto their pain as a badge of honor, reluctant to give up their identity as victim. The Dalai Lama was apparently most surprised to learn how widespread self hatred is in the West. The distinction between pleasure and pain can often be blurred.

Sometimes the dhamma seems too cut and dried to me: escape from the wheel of samsara into nibanna, extinction. Blow the candle out. Pandit told a story about a trip to see a spectacular waterfall in New Zealand. Only moments after viewing this wonder of nature he found himself wondering what was in the sandwiches they had brought for a picnic. This story was meant to illustrate the fickleness of mind. When we see our mind playing these games, when we become disillusioned with all mental states, we long "to withdraw to solid ground," Pandit said. But this ground is not physical; it is rather the absence of an ego, the elimination of I and Thou, subject and object. Does this mean we have to give up waterfalls? Too often the ascetical element overtakes Buddhist as well as Christian doctrine. Hatred of the body and physical existence creeps in.

One of my most treasured experiences was going out on pindabat (alms round) in the early morning with the monks from Wat Pah Nanachat. As we walked along the dirt lanes, villagers came out of their houses, kneeled down and deposited their gifts into the monks' bowls. I do not want to give up this memory, or to dissolve it in the fires of meditation. Existence is precious. How can we embrace it passionately for what it really is? Sure, this will quite often involve dukkha. But pain, as Pema Chodron teaches, is a great teacher. Lean into it, she tells her students.
When our emotions intensify, what we usually feel is fear. This fear is always lurking in our lives. In sitting meditation we practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotional distress.
This passage is from The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. I was fortunate to be able to attend the retreat in Berkeley which resulted in this book. Her earlier book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, was of great comfort to me during a very difficult time in my life. The idea that we must "lean into" pain is counterintuitive. But, as physiotherapists know, non-resistance can often lessen muscular pain. It works for the emotions as well.

I'm not trying to propose an either/or kind of solution. But it seems that by becoming enlightened we may have to give up the joys of incarnation. Certainly I want to work on the suffering caused by that second arrow, by the mental states that make ordinary pain even worse, but I wonder if the first arrow is all that bad. The transitory pain of childbirth can lead to incalculable joy. Death as a natural release can be welcomed by some. Even the pain of heartbreak can lead to growth and maturity. Giving up is a prelude to gaining more. And, as my mother used to say when times got tough: "Nervous breakdowns can also be breakthroughs."

In my attempt to harmonize the different paths, I've often thought about the various explanations for suffering in the religious traditions. Christianity and Judaism see suffering as historical, brought about by mythical deeds and moral allegories. Original sin, with the suffering of limited existence as the consequence, was the result of incorrect choices made by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Christians see Jesus as the wounded healer mentioned in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, taking on the sins of others as a scapegoat. In Christian theology, his suffering on the cross makes salvation from the consequences of the first sin possible. Buddhism is a-historical by comparison, despite its mythologies. The second arrow of dukkha is the result of ignorance and can be eliminated by the eight-fold path. While each religion has its proponents of social justice, those more sympathetic to the real-life sufferings of others, there are aspects of each world view that justify suffering with an explanation too simplistic to satisfy me. And each path has been somewhat historically hostile to the flesh, making it a disreputable vehicle rather than a chariot fit for a king.

Less guilt, please, and more waterfalls!

1 comment:

Marcus said...

"Does this mean we have to give up waterfalls? Too often the ascetical element overtakes Buddhist as well as Christian doctrine. Hatred of the body and physical existence creeps in."

Fabulous post Will, thank you. I feel that you are right about the danger of too much antipathy towards the pleasures of life in much of Buddhism.

But then I think about the teachings of people like Thich Nhat Hanh. This is the opening paragraph of his 1987 classic "Being Peace":

"Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, such as the blue sky, the sunshine, and the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, anytime."

All the best Will,

Marcus