By Mark Donovan
A Dharma Talk given March 16, 2021
I’m sorry to report, but last week there was fake news that was shared and spread in our Sangha. It was reported that I would have the last word on “suffering.” Do you want to know the truth? The truth is that as long as we are alive in these particular body-minds, the worldly winds will blow. Like that wind yesterday on the Ides of March; a date that coincided with the first full moon of the Roman calendar and when tributes were paid to gods and goddesses. That wind wore me out. The dogs and I climbed into bed and under the covers at 8:00 last night. I had started the day paying tribute to a 7-year old girl whose grandmother requested that I bake cupcakes for her birthday. The first cupcakes I’d ever made, marbled cake with chocolate buttercream frosting and blue and white sprinkles.
A couple of weeks ago I held up the computer video for you to see the calligraphic sign I taped to the wall for the month with the word, “suffering.” I found that I didn’t really want to look at the sign. Although the calligraphy turned out pretty well, there was something I found aversive, dark and heavy about the word. To suffer, from the Latin sufferre meaning “to bear.” An image that comes to mind is of the god Atlas, on one knee, bearing the weight of the world. In our study of Ajahn Chah, he often used the phrase “patient endurance.” To bear, to endure.
Over the weekend I participated in a Zoom retreat with Brian and Sebene titled Cultural and Spiritual Bypassing. We explored what gets left out, such as the feminine, in Buddhism. The Thai Buddhist tradition, the birthplace of Insight Meditation, will not ordain women. We can bring to mind multiple examples of American cultural dominance and oppression, such as the historical disenfranchisement of African-Americans, Native Americans and people of color. Last week the pope declared that any person who is not cisgendered heterosexual is
a sinner. LGBTQ persons are left out. There is the present scapegoating and violence directed at Asian-Americans, a clear reaction to Trump’s blaming China for the pandemic, calling it the Chinese virus, and his dog whistling to white supremacists. And in all of this there is both personal and collective suffering. Besides the physical blows of violence, such as those we read about weekly now directed at elderly Asian-Americans in our cities, there is the hardening of hearts, the loss of rights and dignity, the pains of poverty. Last night on the PBS Newshour there was a report on Yemen and the millions of people there who are at risk of starvation, 600,000 children who are now dying of starvation. I felt consumed by pain watching the video documentary of their small bodies immobile, limbs shrunken to bones without muscle or flesh, stomachs bloated, huge eyes vacant, hauntingly filled with pain. And their parents and families bearing the pain of losing a young family member -- the impacts of war, climate change, famine.
Bearing pains small and great in this life. At the weekend retreat, we learned a traditional Cambodian Khmer Buddhist chant, that included the verse: O pain, great pain, Beyond measure, Small pain, Great pain, Pain boils within, without relief, pain leads to death.” Yesterday at our sangha teachers meeting, one of the themes was “I Fall to Pieces.” Do you remember the song by Patsy Cline? (Other titles: Crazy, Strange, Walking After Midnight). I used to own one of her double LPs and enjoyed singing along. Although her song “I Fall to Pieces” was about romance, our discussion yesterday included personal stories of aging, sickness, and loss. There are headaches and body aches, there is fatigue, insomnia, confusion, loss, trauma, strong emotion. We don’t get what we want. We get what we don’t want. And it’s all in flux, not much security, purchase, reliable satisfactoriness.
In the text, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Cannon, edited by Bhikku Bodhi, he writes:
Because worldlings (that’s us) misconceive things, they are agitated by change, especially when that change affects their own bodies and minds. The Buddha
Dukkha. Grasping, clinging, changing, unsatisfactoriness, a cart axle that is a misfit with the hub of the wheel and makes for a bumpy ride. I could tell a story another time about whizzing up and down and around for twelve hours on the hard back bench of a bus in the Himalayas in monsoon rain and every time we hit a bump my bum would bounce up and then slam back down compressing the spine, blow by blow. Nausea from all the twists in the road, some fellow passengers moaning and hanging their heads out the window to vomit.
Suffering is the theme of one of my all-time favorite films, The Four Hundred Blows, by Francois Truffaut. There is the lyrical beauty of a postwar black and white film set in Paris, the beguiling sweetness of a school-aged boy and his friends, and a narrative of parental neglect, coldness, and the young boy’s descent into petty crime and juvenile detention. Beautiful and really, really sad.
As Kenn pointed out, the first noble truth does not proclaim “all life is suffering.” No. The first noble truth is “the origin of suffering.” If Buddhism’s purview was that of “all life is suffering,” I imagine nihilism would have led to a quick end.
Instead, as the other teachers have noted, a Buddhist spiritual path is about awakening as a warrior to face pain and suffering with courage. I see you, Mara!
Working in the Men’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic at the Albuquerque VA Hospital was such an intense time in my life, witnessing profound suffering, studying and learning psychology and psychosocial functioning, and deep collegial collaboration with bright and caring clinicians. One of the three core symptom clusters of PTSD is avoidance. Avoidance of any sensation, thought, feeling, environmental cue, etc. that may trigger traumatic memory. And, as a result of avoidance, many lives given over to distracting, numbing, isolation. Ten years ago, when I was at the VA, the most evidence-based treatments for PTSD were structured around controlled exposure to the painful traumatic memories and internal events. In other words, I see you, Mara! To heal, to move onward joyfully, and with confidence, is to face pain, fear, suffering. To see the five aggregates, clearly, plainly, and to drop the self-limiting stories that we tell ourselves.
Stories, narratives, meaning-making. As far as we know, we are the only species that makes meaning of our experiences. Although I suspect that’s a species-ist perspective, limited by our own biases. Other animals may make meaning in their own ways. What is the meaning we make of our pain, failure, loss, depression? What stories do we tell about the world and our character within it? For years I carried a negative narrative of inadequacy-- not being good enough. Not masculine enough, strong enough, smart enough. It’s been a theme throughout my practice as a health professional. The sadistic ego. There’s been a lot of suffering for me in those stories of inadequacy. There’s been recurring depression, a super-deep psychic pain that all too easily leads to a wish for escape, avoidance--to jump off the edge of the planet. Suicide. But suicide is like those Yemeni moms and dads watching their children die. Suicide is like a stone dropped into a pool, the ripples reverberating out through countless lives.
The things we bear and patiently endure. This path of heart is learning how to be in relationship with the rich, fullness of our journeys. Learning to be the wounded healer. Learning, as Nita said, to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.
This is our moment to live! Remember that story about the turtle that surfaces somewhere in the middle of the ocean once an eon and the chance that he/she will break water at the place where a small golden ring floats on the surface and the ring slips around the turtle’s neck--the chance that those conditions will be right is so unbelievably low. That is how precious it is to be born a human being. These brief lives in which we can learn “to be with,” with compassion, with greater insight, with equanimity and patience, with a broken heart of love. The broken heart hurts, but it is what we have to give one another, to hold ourselves, it is what connects. It is good exercise for the heart and mind to grow stronger.
I'll close with a quote from Pema Chodron's The Wisdom of No Escape, p. 36:
For us, as people sitting here meditating, as people wanting to live a good, full, unrestricted, adventurous, real kind of life, there is concrete instruction that we can follow, which is the one that we have been following all along in meditation: see what is. Acknowledge it without judging it as right or wrong. Let it go and come back to the present moment. Whatever comes up, see what is without calling it right or wrong. Acknowledge it. See it clearly without judgment and let it go. Come back to the present moment. From now until the moment of your death you could do this. As a way of becoming more compassionate toward yourself and toward others, as a way of becoming less dogmatic, prejudiced, determined to have your own way, absolutely sure that you’re right and the other person is wrong, as a way to develop a sense of humor about the whole thing, to lighten it up, open it up, you could do this. You could also begin to notice whenever you find yourself blaming others or justifying yourself. If you spent the rest of your life just noticing that and letting it be a way to uncover the silliness of the human condition--the tragic yet comic drama that we all continually buy into--you could develop a lot of wisdom and a lot of kindness as well as a great sense of humor."
...to this resource for our community. Much gratitude goes out to our entire Sangha – and the numberless causes and conditions – for making this website possible, and for the joy I have experienced in creating it.
Detail of the Great Hall Mural
Courtesy Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Used with permission