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Suffering and the End of Suffering

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 21, 1997
Location: Mountain Rain Zendo
In topics: General Topics in Buddhism, Zen Forms
In his introductory remarks as a weekend sesshin, Zoketsu suggests that we respect the forms of our practice during a retreat period. If we do not, we may not end our suffering before we are dead.

 

In Zen, formal talks given by teachers are called "Taisho", which actually doesn't mean "dharma talk," it means "presenting a shout." In Zen we're not really concerned so much about the dharma and the teachings, as we are about getting down to cases with our own experience, and seeing things in our lives as they really are. So my job in a formal talk isn't so much to give you Buddhist teachings as it is to indicate that.

There's a sutra from the old Pali canon that I really like called the Malunkyaputta Sutta. It's about a monk named Malunkyaputta who one day was meditating, and in the midst of his meditation he got really mad. He started thinking, "Gee, you know, the Buddha never said anything about who made the world. And the Buddha never said anything about whether the world is eternal or not. And the Buddha never said anything about what happens to Buddhas after they die." And a whole bunch of other things like that that the Buddha never said anything about. He said, "I want to know about those things, and I'm really pissed that the Buddha didn't say anything about that. Now if the Buddha didn't know anything about that, that's one thing, then he could just admit it, and that would be fine. But he didn't say that either, so I'm really angry about this , and I don't feel like I can go on with this meditation period until I get to the bottom of it."

So he got up from his meditation seat and went right to the Buddha. He said to the Buddha, "You never said anything about whether the world is eternal or not. You haven't mentioned anything about how the world was created. You didn't tell me anything about what happens to a Buddha after he dies, if she dies. I think that if you don't know any of these things you should be man enough to say you don't know, and I'll be happy. But if you do know, I think it's really not right for you not to say, because I'm really interested. I think you should tell me, it's pretty important." So he said this to the Buddha, it says in the sutra.

Well, the Buddha said, "Malunkyaputta, did I ever promise you when you came that I was going to tell you about these things?" Malunkyaputta said, "No, actually, you didn't." The Buddha said, "You know, it really doesn't have anything to do with whether I know the answer to these things, or I don't know the answer to these things. Imaging someone who gets shot with an arrow, and who is lying there mortally wounded, with the last moments of life ebbing away. A surgeon comes along to pull the arrow out, and the man weakly looks up at the surgeon and says: 'Before you pull the arrow out can you tell me to what clan belongs the person who shot this arrow? Would you find out for me, please, before you pull the arrow out, whether the person who shot me was a tall person or a short person? Would you mind inquiring, before you pull this arrow out, the colour of skin of this person: was it light skin, dark skin, medium skin? What was the profession of the person who shot this arrow? Could you tell me, please, was it an artisan, or a physician, or a scholar? And furthermore, what sort of arrow is this anyway? Was it made from a cherry tree, or an oak tree, or a pine tree? And what about the feathers on the end of this arrow? Were they made from goose feathers, or are they eagle feathers, or vulture feathers? And what about the tip of the arrow, how is that made?'"

The Buddha said, "If the person who was shot were to seek the answers to all these questions, definitely, he would be dead before he found the answers to these questions. So Malunkyaputta, it's not that I know the answers to these questions and I'm not telling you, or that I don't know the answers to these questions. It's just that I know for sure that speculating on these questions does not help to live the life that we want for practice. Malunkyaputta, I have not been silent. There is something that I have told you. I have spoken of suffering, and the cause of suffering, and the end of suffering, and the path. Suffering and the end of suffering, that is what's important. About that I have spoken."

This is why we're here for this weekend, because we are concerned with suffering and the end of suffering. This is the whole point of the Buddhist path. We can't help but notice, and our sitting practice makes it ever more clear, that we are in a condition that is suffering and that continues suffering. Impermanence is suffering, not getting what you want is suffering, being close to what you don't want is suffering, seeing others in pain is suffering. There is no way to be human in this world without encountering suffering. But suffering is not enough. There is a way to end suffering, and that's why we're here. That's the purpose of this weekend retreat.

What's the cause of suffering and how can we overcome suffering? There are many explanations and many ways of looking at this in Buddhist understanding. But maybe we can say that the fundamental cause of suffering is an unwise relationship to our self, to our very self. Some people think that the Buddha taught that there is no self, but I don't really think that the Buddha taught that there is no self or that there is self. It was one of those questions that he thought was useless, and which we could spend lots of time on, and waste the precious moment for practice. I think that the Buddha was only concerned that we see that it's not a question of what the self is, or whether there is a self or not a self. It's a question of how we relate to our self, how we stand in relation to our self.

Our deeply ingrained habit, our natural human tendency, is to define ourselves, almost reflexively, almost before thinking a single thought, in a narrow way; then to defend ourselves, and attach ourselves, and avert and run away from anything that seems to attack this self that we have created. Actually, if we really watch our experience, we know that self is one meeting point after another. We meet something, and it goes away, and we meet something again. So our life, really, if we live it most intimately, is meeting-meeting- meeting, warmth-warmth-warmth, love-love-love, moment after moment. This moment of meeting our experience, without anything standing in the way. But we don't see it that way. We put things, and ideas, and notions in between ourselves and our experience, and we're removed, or narrowed down every minute. Because of that many things seem threatening, many things seem difficult, and we suffer, and we see a world in which others suffer as well. To be truly intimate with our experience, whatever it may be, is our job in Zen practice, and definitely the job for these few days coming up.

Once a monk asked Master Tozan, "What is Buddha?" Master Tozan said, "Three pounds of flax." In saying this, Master Tozan was not talking about flax, he wasn't talking about Buddha, he was talking about intimacy. He was talking about being present with nothing between ourselves and our experience. If one can enter into these words of Master Tozan, without projecting ideas of enlightenment or ideas of Buddha, but just completely entering the words, one can see beyond suffering. If we can just be with a single sound, a single sensation of the body, even a single thought, or a single breath, we can be intimate with our experience and understand that that which we interpose in the midst of our lives, that distances us from our real self and from each other is only something added from the outside.

Most of you, I think, are experienced hands at retreats and sesshins so I don't have to say much about it, other than to remind you that all of our routines here, our forms, our little rules, are all to create a container for the intensity of our experience. Usually, our experience is fairly distracted experience - many ways to not pay attention. We create a very intense environment by all of us cooperating with these rules, so that each one of us can have a very intense experience, and the possibility of really becoming intimate with our self. So I would encourage you all to exactly honour the spirit that Liona was expressing in the beginning: to keep silence, not make eye contact with each other, try to follow the forms as best you can, bowing to the cushion, the form of kinhin, and so on and so forth. All of these things are ways of creating more intense space in which we can experience ourselves in a different way. Hopefully, not to hold all this with a sense of uptightness or rule-bound feeling, but with some understanding of its purpose, and some good spirit and kindness for each other, I think we can keep these rules and forms.

In sitting practice, I like to emphasise paying attention to the breath, because I think it's good for us. I think that we are very much given to lots of thinking. Western people, I think, or modern people (everybody's a Westerner - Eastern/Western, anymore, what's the difference?), are full of information and thought, about ourselves, about our world. We're really good, we can figure out a lot of things. The antidote to this, which can be quite distancing, is: just be with the breath. Following the breath in the belly, being aware of each breath as you breathe in ("This is breathing in."), being aware of each breath as you breathe out ("This is breathing out."). Trying your best to sit up straight, and sitting up straight means: lengthening your spine, so that the lower back has a little arch; your chest is lifted up; the top of the head is pressed up toward the ceiling, the chin tucked in; the shoulders are back. The upper body is open, and this will free up breathing, and make it more vivid. Paying attention to posture, paying attention to mudra: thumbtips just touching; holding the mudra, if it's at all possible, up against the belly; the arms making an oval and the palms of the hands making an oval.

Paying attention to the posture, and each breath, in and out, and using those things to anchor our attention, so that if something other than breath and posture should arise one sotices it clearly. In other words, we're not trying to eliminate other phenomena. If there's a thought in the mind, or a sound, or a bodily sensation, one clearly comprehends it. If you find it helpful, you can note what it is, like "Thinking about the future," "Worrying about money," whatever happens to arise. It doesn't matter so much what the label is, but it might help you, or not. You can try - label the thought. As soon as you label it, though, not to speculate or follow it, but this is a way of acknowledging: "Yes, there is a thought of the future; there is fear; there is discomfort in the mind," whatever it is. Then coming back to the breath, and the posture. The same thing if there should be a physical sensation in the body, of discomfort or painfulness, noticing: "Yes, this is a painful sensation in the knee (or in the back)," and then coming back to the breath and the posture. Sometimes a physical sensation becomes persistent. You can notice it persistently, but then keep coming back to the breath, don't let go of the breath.

You will find, of course, that as you are sitting you will forget about the breath and be dragged off by a train of thought, or something like that. When you notice that, just come back anyway, at that point, to the breath. There's no blaming about it, or anything like that. In fact, zazen includes all of this: it includes the time when you are paying attention to the breath, and the time when you are not paying attention to the breath. Although, it also includes the intention always to pay attention to the breath.

This is how we practice in our weekend retreat, and it's very important that we have a serious intention to make an effort in this way, very important, even though it's counter-productive to have any plans of getting anywhere with it. If you are not sure whether you have that intention to make that kind of effort, I would say: think about it this evening, and find the intention, even if you have to excavate fairly deep to find it. Do find it. Because otherwise, it would kind of be a waste of a pretty nice weekend. There are a lot of things to do, and why hang around here? This is a nice room, it has clouds and everything, but it's not that nice a room. It's really important, I think, to find that intention, that you do, because it's very happy to do zazen. It's very happy to make an effort to be present, intimately, with your experience, and to actually be present. If that could be the case, this room would be all one would ever need for one's whole life, actually. It's true, if one could just be intimate with one's own experience, and pay attention. On the other hand, if one doesn't make that effort, then, like I say, there are a lot of nicer places to be.

Reflect on this tonight, and if you are a little bit wobbly, and you're not sure, then please remember: soon you'll be dead. It's true, death comes pretty fast, and maybe many of you in this room have friends, loved ones, who are facing death now, or who have died. Think of them. Remember that, really, it's important, and find that intention, and bring it here tomorrow morning, and sit with it for two days.

Once, a monk asked the Zen master Zhaozhou, "I've just come to the temple. How shall I practice?" And Zhaozhou said, "Have you had your breakfast?" The monk said, "Yes, I have." Zhaozhou said, "Then please wash your bowls."

This is a wonderful teaching of Zhaozhou, and it reminds me of what I am trying to say to you now. We've already had breakfast. Whatever spiritual goals you have, whatever you would like to gain from your practice, to become calmer, or wiser, or to let go of this or that that is in your life and you wish wasn't in your life, or to get this or that that isn't in your life and you wish was, it's already there. It's truly already in you. There really isn't anything that you need to acquire, or anything that you need to get rid of. Just wash your bowls. Just move on to the next moment. Just be intimate with what's happening now, and let go, and be surprised at what's going to happen...now.

Really and truly, the surest way to misery and frustration is to make plans about how it's going to be, and what you're looking for. Abandon all hope, like it says over Dante's Hell, abandon all hope and just resolve to pay attention to each and every breath, for this weekend, and when you forget that, remember again. Try it again, and do it over again. With that spirit, it's pretty much guaranteed that you will find what you need to find in this weekend.

It's a non-residential retreat so that means that this evening and also Saturday evening we will be going home and joining the everyday, regular world, and maybe some of us have to talk or engage in activity. If possible, be as quiet as you can, and do as little of that as possible. Even if you do have to be with activity, if you can do it in a subdued way, that's nice, so that you feel as if the weekend is continuous, not that we take a break at five o'clock and then start up again the next morning.

I think one of the things that becomes quite obvious when you do let go of all of your confusions and notions and do really find a way to just be present with your life as it actually is, and you experience your life as moment after moment of meeting-meeting-meeting warmly, it becomes very obvious that nothing is separate from your life. You really can't do this practice for your own benefit. This becomes obvious. It's not like a moment of altruism or something like that, it's just an obvious fact that what you are is connection. You actually are that, and nothing but that. To practice the Way, and to see the mind and the heart in the way that I am urging you to do, is to see how it is that you and our world are mutually created, and are one and the same. When you have the eye of practice you have the eye of love and you can be with others in a new way, a way that doesn't include jockeying for position and fearful flight. Truly, I always feel when I attend a retreat like this, if there are fifty people in the room there are two thousand and fifty, or twenty thousand and fifty, because each person touches the lives of many other people. If you can realise the Way on your cushion, it will have benefit widely, not just in your life. This is really true, especially for the ones closest to you, but also in mysterious ways that we can't exactly reckon.