The Suffering is the Medicine
I recently received an email from Carole, one of the umzeds (chant masters) in our sangha, sharing with me a reading she offered at practice last night. She said people connected to this reading and asked for copies. It’s beautiful passage and I’d like to offer it here along with some commentary to connect its timeless wisdom directly to the teachings of the Buddha.
The Purpose of Suffering
“We think of pain as something that is inflicted on us as matter of ill fate or a sick world, but pain is a calling signal. It is you pressing up against a block that stands between where you are and what you want to be. It is the contrast through which we can understand and feel lightness. It is a privilege to feel discomfort, it is a gift to be gutted. There is only one purpose here, and there is only one direction: growth. Whether you avoid it or ignore it or hide from it or remain unaware of it or embrace it and see it and desire it and go to it before you’re forced, ultimately, we all move forward. We all expand.
This is what some of the greatest thinkers in existence knew, and what every person who wants to be at peace should: your suffering is not punishment. It is a tool, like anything else, to deepen your awareness and expand your consciousness. In other words: to make you more present, and more capable of feeling the joy and light and gift of that present moment. That probably sounds deliriously, annoyingly optimistic, especially when you’re in the thick of it, but remember that anger is recognition, and the inability to accept.”
– Brianna Wiest
The Lotus and the Mud
There is a metaphor in Buddhist teachings of the lotus and the mud. Its symbolism reminds us that only through the conditions of the mud can the beautiful pristine lotus emerge. This is a powerful image to hold in our hearts because it reminds us that the unwanted experiences of our lives are the actual conditions that lead us to emerge, to blossom, to grow as spiritual beings. We call this process of emerging walking the noble path because it holds for us the inevitability of our awakening, our opening into our full potential as human beings.
“All I teach is suffering and the end of suffering.”
The very first teaching the Buddha gave, called The Four Noble Truths, addresses suffering and the nobility of its purpose in our lives. These “truths” are offered more as propositions because they are meant to be realized by each of us, not taken as some kind of dogma or direction we can’t investigate and question. In fact, the whole point is to investigate them, to see for ourselves, do they lead us to states of greater ease or angst? What is their validity and value in our lives? How can we employ these propositions, so brilliantly constructed, to bring forth our own wisdom, our Buddha nature.
As practitioners, we work with the Noble Truths using the practices of the three wisdoms. We hear them, we investigate their meaning within the context of our lives, and then we practice with them. Through our practice the insights or wisdom embedded within each Noble Truth is released, informing every aspect of living, gradually lessening and liberating our experiences of suffering. All we must do is accept their challenge. Take them on! Test them with open, discerning minds and hearts. As we do, we gain the personal experience that gives rise to confidence in our own goodness and in a deep, clear and liberating knowing of who we are and what the nature of all that we experience is, particularly suffering.
At a most essential level, the Four Noble Truths serve as the provocation of a lifetime. When we’re ready, we hear the call to engage them and when we do so with sincerity and dedication, we come to enjoy the deep sense of meaning and fulfillment they bring to our lives.
Their call may present itself as a mid-life crisis. My son articulated his at age 13. For some of us it arrives as a crisis, with an urgency that cracks us open, literally and figuratively bringing us to our knees. For many it’s a gradual recognition or intuitive feeling that we’re missing something important. Somehow, we’re not “doing life right.” We may feel our lives have lost some sparkle, a dullness has invaded the promise of the way our life should be. If we look carefully, the call to realize these Noble Truths may be a subtle bracing against life, a trying to control and arrange and protect ourselves and those we love. We’d rather stay busy than feel this low-level dread of no control, or it’s full blown storm of anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and anger. My mother referred to this collection of unwanted experience as the vicissitudes of life. (Well said Mom.)
Our investigative journey of opening up these noble propositions is called by some the path of the warrior, the Bodhisattva path, because it requires a measure of courage. Not the grin and bear your suffering courage, but the courage to not turn away and reject ourselves, others or the way things are. Rather, it’s the courage to expand our hearts and minds, to allow what comes to come and what goes to go, to make ourselves big enough to include all experience, equally and gratefully. To journey as a warrior, is to learn to reside in a state of settlement and ease with the life we have. It’s complete freedom from the life we want, which can only be some form of sleeping existence, a shadow of what it means to be fully alive. A warrior uses the Buddha’s noble propositions to abandon the projected past and future, the constructs of a wanting mind, realizing they only serve to stifle and appropriate all means of actual happiness and joy.
As we allow this set of propositions to guide us, our practice deepens, and our courage becomes a kind of fierce compassion that views every aspect of experience as an opportunity to awaken. Our habit of rejecting the unwanted in life, transforms into a wisdom that finally has the power and clarity to interrupt the dance of desire. We come to know the fuel of our misery is simply an unconscious life of distraction and enslavement to our preferences. We see the way our whole being can be lost in the motion of “I want this, and I don’t want that!” It is only through a carefulness of mind, and gentleness of heart that the practice of opening and expanding our awareness can free us from the inside out. Letting BE the mind that grasps and rejects, and keeps us bound in a cycle of suffering—a cycle the Buddha exposed in the wisdom of the Noble Truths.
These truths are ours to discover and explore, when we’re ready, when their call can no longer be placated by the entertaining, yet fleeting pleasures of this world. They are simple and logical when we first hear them. Yet they are vast when we live with them. Their potency is in their vastness, for all of the Dharma’s wisdom rolls up into them. If you allow them to captivate you, they have the power to introduce you to your own boundless and free nature.
They are formulated with logic, first stating a problem, then it’s cause, then the possibility to be free of the problem and finally the way to “solve” it. (Not that any THING can ever be found much less resolved into a solved state! There you go, a hint at the liberating wisdom of the Buddha, captured within the Noble Truths.)
The Four Noble Propositions of a Lifetime
Said another way: By virtue of being alive there is dissatisfaction or suffering. There is a cause for this suffering and there is a way to be free of it. The way is to follow the noble path—a path of realization, whose momentum naturally produces the conditions that allow the mud to give rise to the pristine lotus, the exquisiteness of who we really are.
Don’t be fooled by their simplicity. The Four Noble Truths give us a way to stand upright on a ground that cannot be shaken. As we rely on them and make their wisdom our own, we become a bright and boundless light in a world that is waiting for us to remember ourselves.
As a place of spiritual refuge and sanctuary, Dharma Refuge is open to everyone, without exception.
"Hatred never ceases by hatred but by love alone is healed.
If you identify as part of a community that has been marginalized or discriminated against, knowingly or unknowingly, we hold our hearts and our doors open to you, always. We aspire to offer to all who are seeking the liberating teachings of the Buddha the safety and support of spiritual friendship and unconditional respect.
"As a mother would risk her life to protect her child, her only child, even so should one cultivate a limitless heart with regard to all beings. So with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world."
At Dharma Refuge we rely on the path of transformation and love, built upon the principle of inclusion and the wakeful state of equanimity. We practice cultivating the heart and mind that rejects no thing and no one. This wise mind abides in a deep personal recognition that we belong to one another as part of a ceaseless web of relationship. What affects one of us directly affects us all in some way. Our states of mind, our intentions, and our actions ripple out into a sea of mutuality where everything is under our influence and nothing is under our control.
“What is the state of my mind?” is our sangha’s continual inquiry. Mindful awareness allows us to discern directly the states of mind from which we “create our world.” Through our practice we experience the destructive states of anger, aggression, and greed as a deep confusion and misunderstanding of our nature. We see that when we project these states outside of ourselves we add to a cycle of sorrow and struggle for ourselves, those we love, and ultimately for all beings and this planet we call home.
“Know that aggression and malice are Mirror-like Awareness itself,
We value diverse thinking and participation because it reminds us to adopt the beginner’s wakeful mind. As Bodhisattvas in training, we know that the treasure of peace and freedom we seek is alive and available when our hearts and minds reside in a continuum of curiosity, seeking not to arrive at conclusions of good, bad, right, wrong, for, or against. Through our practice we come to see that, as individuals and as communities, we feed the cycle of suffering when we pick, choose, and hold firmly to sides, positions, and certainty.
We commit ourselves again and again to the practice of turning inward and holding ourselves and our experience with courage and kindness. As we nourish ourselves into relaxing our walls of self-protection, we fortify our ability to turn toward one another with vulnerability, kindness, and care.
At Dharma Refuge we welcome all with great humility, and we aspire to make the Buddha’s wisdom tradition accessible to all those who may benefit. We honor the sacredness and wisdom of all faith traditions, and of this most ordinary life. We aspire to hold firmly the mind of Bodhichitta, a heart that is open to every single being, without exception.
With palms together, the Dharma Refuge sangha welcomes you.
May bodhicitta, precious and sublime,
Arise where it has not yet come to be;
And where it has arisen may it never wane,
But grow and flourish ever more and more.
“As long as a society holds regular and frequent assemblies, meeting in harmony and mutual respect, can they be expected to prosper and not decline. As long as a society follows the long held traditions of wisdom, and honors its elders, can they be expected to prosper and not decline. As long as a society protects the vulnerable among them, can they be expected to prosper and not decline. As long as a society cares for the shrines and sacred places of the natural world, can they be expected to prosper and not decline.”
It’s time for healing, the kind of healing that comes from a change in consciousness. In popular language, it’s a shift from ME to WE; from a myopic, isolating focus on self to an orientation that’s grounded in connection, community, and shared humanity. In Buddhist language, it’s a deepening of our lived experience of the awakened heart—Bodhichitta.
Our path is the Bodhisattva Path of awakening through serving others, bringing to life the two balancing wings of wisdom and compassion. The wing of compassion is sometimes referred to as skillful means, and in the wake of a divisive and wounding presidential election, many of us feel the call to be in the world in a new way. As practitioners we know this way is a natural responsiveness, born of a deep and abiding wisdom—the fruit of our practice.
Showing up for ourselves and for all beings in ways we’ve yet to conceive, is now our shared agenda—the calling of this time and place in our history. It’s a universal mandate to remember and to return, again and again, to the homeland of Big Mind and Heart. It’s the trust and the knowing that we must find our way back to each other and to the place of states united—united by shared values, by respect, and by the awakening understanding of our compassionate and interdependent nature.
“All suffering comes from the wish for your own happiness,
Perfect Buddhas are born from the thought to help others.”
—Ngolchu Thogme Rinpoche,
The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva
The heart of the Buddha’s teachings, Pratitya Samutpada, tells us we cannot ignore the well-being or the suffering of “those other people.” In fact, we are bound to one another, profoundly interconnected. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. When one of us awakens, the Buddha taught, the whole world wakes up.
To dismiss the suffering of others, to turn away, is to dismiss one’s own suffering, to abandon oneself. Mother Teresa expressed this beautifully when she said, “If we don’t have peace, it’s because we’ve forgotten we belong to each other.”
“This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises;
this not being, that does not become;from the ceasing of this, that ceases.”
The United States is experiencing a collective turbulence of heart and mind. Our ability to heal requires that we come together with our fear and our vulnerability exposed, but not blindly exposed as the offspring of dualistic conditioning, the unconscious expressions of aggression and divisiveness. Rather, our task is to expose our vulnerability with awareness and intention, through the courage we find when we open our hearts to our own suffering and the suffering of our neighbors. As practitioners, we know the courage to look with unwavering honesty requires safety. We build this safety within ourselves by meeting our own suffering with kindness and care. We build this safety in our communities in exactly the same way.
Stepping out of our conditioning
With the unpredictable nature of our post-election situation laid bare, our instincts are to scramble for protection, for safety, for refuge. It is precisely in these experiences of upheaval and dissolution that our practice offers us a choice. Either we react as our conditioning bids and enter into the endless scramble for control and security, or we let unreliability and uncertainty touch and open us. We can invite upheaval to escort us to our cushion where the process of digesting and penetrating our experience does the work of freeing our minds and hearts.
"It is not possible to control all external events. But, if I simply control my mind,
What need is there to control other things?"
The call of sangha
Sangha, in its essence, means community. In our tradition it’s one of the three refuges. As I reflect on this election season, the refuge of sangha comes alive in new ways. It arises as a call to wake up and to see that our awakening is all of our awakening.
This call of sangha is asking us to make friends with the “other side” by challenging ourselves to drop conditioned and fixed ideas about who “we” are and who “they” are. It’s asking us to step into humility, to recognize complexity and the fullness of common humanity. It is asking us to suspend judgment and reach out to each other with a kind and discerning curiosity, appreciating that none of us are just one way. To be human is to be fully under the influence of this world!
In our current political environment curiosity could be conveyed through a genuine interest in coming to know a voter on the “other” side. For example, as a Hillary Clinton supporter it might sound like this: “If you voted for Donald Trump, I want to know you because, the pain of not knowing you, of literally ‘unfriending’ you is my own pain of disconnection, of separation from wakefulness, from remembering the nature of all beings.” For all of us, this suffering is the heartache of rejecting, of not being able to know and welcome all the parts of ourselves. It’s the grief born of unawareness, of avidya, primordial ignorance.
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find
all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
The post-election call of sangha is a vow to do our best to listen with respect and tolerance, to actively seek and discover our shared values. It’s a pledge to build on our common ground, not on our differences. It’s the call to offer respect, and to show a willingness to compromise, even when it seems impossible. At the most basic level the call of sangha is a commitment to be in community with altruism and goodwill. It’s our animated, energetic intention to live in awareness and to come to know intimately the mechanics of the suffering and happiness we share. Sangha is present every time we choose love over fear. It’s the foundation of an examined life, a vow to do no harm.
The practice of fierce compassion
When we see harm, aggression, and expressions of hatred, the call of sangha is none other than embodied fierce compassion. Armed with the weapons of love, mindfulness, and discernment, and with the necessary strength and skillful means, we denounce the acts of oppression when we see them without denouncing the oppressor.
We disarm our hearts to feel our own suffering as we witness hate crimes, racism, misogyny, divisiveness, and disregard for the gifts and the limits of our natural world. Remembering that these “crimes against wisdom” are the expressions of deep confusion and fear, we step in fiercely to do what we can to interrupt aggression and delusion. But responding with our Bodhisattva vows, we don’t banish the aggressors themselves from the realm of our love and care. At all costs our practice is not to lose our Bodhichitta, not to direct anger towards the people we don’t agree with. If the poisons of greed, anger, and delusion are the cause of our suffering, then in this world of infinite relationship, suffering ceases when the poisons cease.
“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison
and expecting the other person to die.”
I’m reminded of a teaching beloved Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hahn gave about sangha and the coming of the next Buddha, Buddha Maitreya, the Buddha of Love.
"I think it must be true that the future Buddha is somewhere, very ready to manifest to us. We have to prepare the ground for his or her appearance. I have the impression that maybe this time the Buddha will appear not as a person but as sangha, as community. We have to be very open in order to be able to recognize the new Buddha and, whose name is love.” —Thich Nhat Hahn
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of sangha as “Beloved Community.”
“Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution to the race problem. —Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957
The great masters of the Buddhist tradition teach us that the “enemies” we must attend to first are our own afflicted, contracted, chaotic states of mind. They are our armored hearts caught in confusion and misapprehension of the way things are. As we bravely face these conflicted states within ourselves, we serve the whole world. We support our collective awakening, our shared peace and prosperity, the vision of Martin Luther King’s beloved community. When we meet our own turbulence and stress with goodwill, we are preparing the ground for meeting all beings with goodwill.
"If outer foes are destroyed while not subduing the enemy of one’s own
hatred, enemies will only increase. Therefore, subduing one’s own mind with
the army of love and compassion is the bodhisattvas’ practice."
--Ngolchu Thogme Rinpoche,
The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva
It’s time to meet in the field beyond and answer the call, together
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.”
May we step together into the field of not knowing, the field of perfect wisdom that has “gone, gone, gone, beyond” the enemies of right and wrong.
May the hearts that break today expand the courage needed for tomorrow, planting firmly for the benefit of all the stake of fierce compassionate wisdom!
May we not turn away from harmdoers or compromise our goodness as we destroy the mind of fear and ignorance. Cultivating the wealth of love and wakefulness, may we establish for all beings the ground of refuge and protection.
May the unwanted circumstances of this life not cause our Bodhichitta to decline.
May we find the resting place we long for in the ease of the open heart that loves without conditions.
May our shared struggles give birth to the Buddha of Beloved Community, and never fail to offer to the world a land whose states shine forth—the promise of liberty in perfect union.
Buddhist teacher and spiritual director at Dharma Refuge.
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