Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Four Reminders, Part Four: Suffering (or the Shortcomings of Samsara)

Fourth, the homes, friends, wealth, and comforts of samsara
Are the constant torment of the three sufferings,
Just like a feast before the executioner leads you to your death.
I must cut desire and attachment and attain enlightenment through exertion.

-- The fourth of the Four Reminders, on Suffering, or the Shortcomings of Samsara

In our entire lives, when have we ever been satisfied for more than a few minutes? We are forever wishing we had more of something, or something better, or that we could make it last longer. We even bring this approach to our meditation practice, measuring ourselves against some ideal concept of the perfect meditator and coming up short, wishing we were better. Even when things are going well, the undercurrent of dissatisfaction, the sense that things are not yet good enough, is always there. This constant restlessness and desire for improvement is the basic suffering of human existence. We can never simply be happy with the way things are.

We live under the illusion that if we could just get the pieces of the puzzle lined up correctly -- the right job, the right apartment, the right lover, the right spiritual state -- then this whole samsaric picture would really be fine, and we wouldn't have to suffer anymore. But this is delusional. If we were lucky enough to get all the pieces together, we still couldn't make it last. We'd still have the suffering of change, of seeing it all slip away, and the suffering that comes from the fear of that happening. The promise that external satisfaction is going to bring us lasting happiness is a false promise, one that can't really be fulfilled. Even when we get what we want, we soon want more.

Just being alive brings suffering, because there is always the basic clinging to life and fear of death. In fact, the suffering of fear pervades human existence. Look at how many things we are afraid of: death, illness, pain, ridicule, loneliness...the list goes on. But all these fears arise on the basis of desire and attachment. How could we be afraid of losing something to which we are not attached? From this perspective, the recipe for diminishing our fear and suffering is very simple: cut our desire and attachment.

The problem is that we constantly fail to recognize attachment and self-clinging as the cause of our suffering. When we are trapped in a state of anger and aggression, for example, we feel righteous and justified; we fail to notice the suffering that comes from being attached to our own point of view, which is being challenged by someone else. Similarly, when we are caught up in lust or poverty mentality, all we can see is the desired object and the happiness we believe it would bring us if we only had it. We fail to see that it is our own attachment to a concept that makes us unhappy.

Buddhism teaches that there are three forms of suffering:

  1. All-pervasive suffering: The basic quality of dissatisfaction and fear that pervades human existence
  2. The suffering of change: The actual experience of unwanted change, pain or loss
  3. The suffering of suffering: The added suffering that comes from struggling against the first two sufferings and trying to deny or avoid them, which only makes things worse -- in other words, the suffering that we bring upon ourselves

It's easy to see that the homes and wealth and comforts of samsara -- being liked, being respected, getting what we want, getting pleasure -- are the constant torment of the three sufferings. No matter how much of them we get, we always want more; they don't last; and we're always worried about losing them.

But what does it actually mean to cut desire and attachment to the homes, friends, wealth, and comforts of samsara? It doesn't mean that we have to wall ourselves off from the world and go live in a cave and eat nettle soup like Milarepa. Rather, it's a matter of ceasing to put our faith in these things, ceasing to believe that our ultimate happiness really depends upon them. It's okay to enjoy these things when they arise, but to get caught up in attachment to them or craving for more of them only leads to suffering.

Even if we were able to enjoy all the comforts of samsara for an entire lifetime (which would be the popular definition of a life well-lived: "the one who dies with the most toys wins"), it would still be temporary and not of any lasting benefit.

The challenge is to find a middle way, a balanced way of being in the world that avoids both the extreme of ascetic renunciation and the opposite extreme of materialist indulgence. This means being open to the experience of whatever comes to us in our lives -- without spending too much time worrying about keeping things a certain way. As Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says, "Happiness is not at fault. Samsaric happiness can bring real happiness when we truly see its nature." There is nothing inherently wrong with the search for happiness; the problem is that it has been misdirected outside, rather than inside.

Cutting desire and attachment means cutting our tendency to put priority on mundane activities, and returning always to the true priority: waking up. How much time do you want to spend pursuing temporary pleasures that come from outside, versus ultimate liberation -- which comes from inside?