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From just a cursory look at CNN’s daily Five things you need to know to Get Up to Speed and Out the Door, which drops into my inbox each morning: The recent bombings of children in Syria, where “words are no longer sufficient to describe the horror, terror, and suffering.” The leader of the free world calling to congratulate a “dictator on winning a sham election.” The 17-year old who tried to murder his classmates, now numbingly routine. The vigil for those crushed under a Miami bridge. The abysmal life of pigs who are kept in cruel iron cages no bigger than their bodies. And the “good” news that some of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram have been released. (However, most have not; and what kind of shape are these girls in now?) And so on. These all help my renunciation and compassion – I like to call it Five things you need to know to Get Up to Speed and Out of Samsara.
There are three types of suffering that we want to get rid of by being in refuge, which include all the sufferings endemic to samsara. The first is the suffering of manifest pain. We know this one all too well – it refers to any unpleasant bodily or mental feeling. Toothache, heartache, CNN’s five things, etc. This manifest pain is what we normally think of as suffering — we think suffering refers to when something hurts.
Carrying on from this article.
Manifest suffering is obviously horrible. It is the easiest-to-understand suffering. We don’t need to be taught about the suffering of manifest pain – we’re all well aware of what it is, how much we dislike it, and how we’d like to find refuge from it and help others do the same. We try hard day and night to get rid of our own manifest pain, and many people try hard day and night to help others get rid of theirs.
And it’s not just five things of course – there are countless painful reasons to Get Up to Speed and Out of Samsara. It’s not just me — everyone around me is experiencing some variety of discomfort at any given moment.
A random example: As I was walking to my seat just now, on this evening flight to Chicago, I wondered in passing why a woman was hiding behind huge dark glasses.
Turns out she is in the seat in front of me, 25F, and I can hear her talking into her phone before take-off:
“Oh, honey I’m a wreck. I could pass as the twin of the Terminator. I can’t take these glasses off. And, honey, if you could see my arms and legs — I am covered with hives!”
She is doing her best, as many of us are:
“Anyway, I love you. See you soon.”
But whatever improvements we are able to make in our own and others’ lives, that is not the end of the story. There are two other types of suffering in samsara, which underpin and cause this manifest pain; and we need more wisdom to identify these. If we don’t identify changing suffering and pervasive suffering, we cannot bring an end to all suffering. We will have to carry on experiencing both physical and mental pain endlessly, however much and often we try to patch it up.
The second type of suffering is called “changing suffering”. In the big yellow book called Joyful Path of Good Fortune — which contains all of Buddha’s teachings if you get a chance to read it, sort of like the Buddhist bible — there’s a section on how the three sufferings of samsara pervade our experience, including our worldly pleasures:
For samsaric beings, every experience of happiness or pleasure that arises from samsara’s enjoyments is called changing suffering.
This experience of pleasure is called “changing” suffering (or “suffering of change”) because it’s a kind of changeover or switchover point between manifest pain and more manifest pain. It is those brief feelings of relief.
Now, a few weeks later, I am on the tube from Heathrow to North London, my journey colliding with the morning commute. And the expression on many people’s faces, or rather the studied lack of expression, brings to my mind the word “heaviness”. People seem weighed down. One bloke ten years younger than me I reckon, but with heavy creases in his brow, speaks into his phone, “Hey, mate, just got in, you alright?” A pause, then, louder, “What? he did what? That’s just what I told him not to do! Idiot.” He stared dejectedly at the ground. “Look, mate, let’s meet up in about an hour. I need a pint.”
People’s lives are difficult everywhere. And over the course of a lifetime, many people are struggling to muddle through their lives without things going too badly wrong, catching excitement, release, and pints of beer wherever we can.
Changing suffering is pleasant feelings. It feels like a kind of happiness. Buddha called it changing suffering not because it feels like suffering, but because it is not real happiness, it is just relief. This experience is contaminated by delusions and ignorance, and actually has the nature of suffering. Geshe Kelsang also calls it “artificial happiness”.
We may sense that things are not quite right even when they are going well, but we need to know exactly why this is in order to fix it. And we need not fear that this knowledge will depress us further, for it is this knowledge that in fact will finally set us free.
In Joyful Path it says:
We need to meditate repeatedly on this point because it’s not obvious to us that our worldly pleasures are worldly suffering. We can gain a better understanding by considering the following analogy. If we have a very painful illness and our doctor prescribes painkillers we take these and for a while we stop feeling the pain. At that time we actually experience a feeling that is merely the reduction of pain, but because the strong painful feeling has gone we feel happy and experience pleasure. This pleasant feeling is changing suffering.
Selling ourselves short
I’ll just point out that Buddha is not saying don’t go to the doctor or take painkillers. This is subtle, trying to understand what Buddha is saying here. It’s not that we don’t enjoy or take care of things, but that we understand what’s going on. Then we don’t sell ourselves short.
Because, extraordinarily enough, every person on that tube goes unfathomably deep. Everyone I saw racing along the pavements in the unusual spring snow-freeze and darting in and out of the crazy London traffic goes unfathomably deep. We are seeing a tiny fraction of who people are — a fleeting appearance, their body of this life, of this day, just a reflection or imputation of thought. Their real body and mind are indestructible and full of the potential for lasting mental freedom and bliss. As it says in The New Heart of Wisdom:
Each and every living being has their own body and mind, which are their subtle body and mind. These are called the “continuously residing body and mind,” and are his or her Buddha nature, the lineage of a future Buddha. Because they have this, when living beings meets Buddhadharma they will all finally attain the state of an enlightened Buddha.
However, at the moment impure appearances seem so real to us that we are perpetually overpowered and sucked into the daily drama of samsara. Most people of course don’t even know what they have inside them, nor the future that could be. We have been through countless lives already without finding this out.
(Not only are we selling ourselves short by not knowing who we really are and of what we are capable, we are also not even enjoying life’s pleasures a fraction as much as we could be. When we know about changing suffering and the dangers of its usual corollary, attachment, we have the impetus to transform these enjoyments into the spiritual path and make super speedy spiritual progress! But this can be the subject of other articles, such as this one.)