At a Spirit Rock retreat on “Training in Compassion,” Norman Fischer gives a talk on Suffering and Gratitude on January 28, 2015.
Suffering and Gratitude Jan 2015
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
When you take the time to think seriously about the preciousness of this human life, the absolute certainty of death, the indelibility of all our actions and the inescapability of suffering, it dawns on you that there is nothing more important than your spiritual and ethical life. Nothing is more important than this. A life of just going along could not possibly be enough for you: trying to enjoy yourself the best you can, avoiding trouble, and seeking security. You realize that spiritual life isn’t just a matter of meditation or of having different spiritual thoughts and feelings. It is actually about relationships, starting with the relationship you have to yourself and moving out from there. Spiritual practice is about our connection to everything in our lives, especially others. Think about this.
All of the religions that we know about disagree about what life is and how it should be lived. The one thing they all agree on is love and compassion. Love and compassion is the centerpiece of a spiritual life. But in order to love and connect to others deeply, you cannot avoid facing pain. If you just love somebody when everything is pleasant and nice and going along well, then as soon as there is trouble, you stop loving them. Nobody would seriously take this as anything more than a pleasant infatuation. It couldn’t be love. Love requires some courage, some pain, because there are going to be troubles in any life. There is no way to love and avoid pain and suffering. Everybody wants to love. Everybody thinks it is the most wonderful thing, to be in love and to love and to be loved. But we tend to forget the part that it is going to bring suffering.
This means that compassion always goes along with love, because compassion is the capacity to receive the pain of another. Not to avoid it, deny it, try to fix it, paper it over – just receive it. This is what we need from one another, isn’t it? This is what we want from one another. We want to be seen, to be heard. We want to know that our life, including our pain, can be freely received by another person, whose eyes are open.
You can’t be compassionate with others if you are not first compassionate with yourself. The two always have to go together, because actually they are not two different things. I am “I,” but oddly you are also “I,” and I am the “you” to your “I.” Didyou ever notice that? To me, this is one of the strangest things that I have ever experienced. We all say “I,” the same word, when we are speaking of ourselves. But we are all “you” to one another. So our language already knows what our heart does not yet understand, that “I” and “you” are interchangeable positions. They don’t refer to actual people. They are changeable, temporary positions. In fact, in linguistics, they call these words “shifters,” because they are shifting position from person to person all the time.
So we are all temporarily distinct from one another, but at a deeper level, at a more real level, at the level of awareness itself, we are actually sharing the truest and most real part of our lives together. One life is passing through all of us, moving through us our whole life – beautiful and bright.
So, compassion is not such a big stretch, not a big thing. It is the most natural impulse of the human heart. If I am walking down the path and step on a nail, and the nail goes through my shoe into my foot, my brain is going to automatically tell my hand to pull the nail out, and my hand is immediately going to do this, without debate, without questioning. Foot and hand and brain are just different expressions of one body. There is no big discussion about whether the hand has something more important to deal with at that moment than the thorn in the foot, or whether the brain at that moment is thinking of universal compassion and can’t be bothered with the thorn in the foot. The brain doesn’t say, Why didn’t the foot pay more attention or look where it was going? How come the eye didn’t tell the brain to mention to the foot that there was a dangerous nail right in the path? You are laughing, because it is completely ridiculous. Nothing could be more obvious, more natural, than that all parts of the body take care of the body. And compassion is naturally, automatically just the same. We all know to take care of one another, because we are each other’s hands and feet and eyes and brain.
In a famous Zen story, Yunyang asks his dharma brother, Daowu, “Why does the bodhisattva of compassion have so many hands and eyes?” Daowu says, “It is just like reaching back for your pillow in the dark.” That is what compassion is like. It is as simple and natural as reaching back for your pillow at night. You just reach back and do it. Compassion is that simple and natural.
In the story of the four heavenly messengers, we usually emphasize that the Buddha realized that he had to get serious about his life because of the inescapability of sickness, old age, and death. He saw that the suffering of others was not just the suffering of others. He really felt that the suffering of others was his own suffering. He was compelled to take the suffering of others absolutely personally as his own and to change his life and do something about it.
From the beginning, Buddha was practicing for and with others. From the very beginning, Buddha knew that self and others are not two distinct things. In the Zen version of the Buddha’s awakening story, at the moment of the Buddha’s awakening, he exclaims, “How wonderful! How wonderful! In this moment I and all beings are awakened. My suffering and the suffering of all beings in this moment comes to an end.”
This is the second point that we have been studying, training in compassion. Absolute compassion is the practice of resting in awareness itself, returning to the breath, returning to the present moment, returning to the bottom line feeling of simply being alive. Just that. Returning to the breath and feeling how your life is held in safety and love, in the wide space of endless awareness.
Relative compassion, based on absolute compassion, is the practice of being willing to take in the suffering, to feel it, to be willing for your heart to be broken, to be willing to go out of your way to work on the behalf of others. To give of yourself, to practice kindness, to be interested in and moved by others, and to meet everyone, always taking into account the suffering we share as human beings. I feel like none of us have come to the end of these practices.
Today we are studying the third point of the seven points [of mind training]: to transform bad circumstances into the path. This has happened a million times: somebody begins to practice, and they seem really intent on it; they come to retreats; they come to seminars. I can see that they are interested and motivated. Then, all of a sudden, I don’t see them anymore. Time goes by, maybe a long time. They come back, and I see them again. I say, Where have you been? We’ve missed you! Then they say, Well, some really hard things came up in my life. It took all my time and energy. I had nothing left for practice. I just stopped practicing.
But this is the backward way to look at it. Practice isn’t for the good times, when things are pretty peaceful and everything is more or less under control. Practice is not a recreational activity. Practice is a whole life. It is for the good times and especially for the bad times. When things are really tough, that is when it is essential that you practice. There is a Zen saying, “Practice as if your hair is on fire.” In other words, with great urgency, especially when you are in dire straits.
When I was young, I had times of tremendous anguish. During those times I practiced a lot. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was painful to practice. In a way, practicing when my hair was on fire made things more difficult. It seemed that it made my pain worse. But I have no doubt that it was really good for me to practice then. It helped me get through that hard time, and it strengthened my life.
I think this is true for everybody. So when you are having a hard time, and you don’t have time to practice, remind yourself that that is the time when it really matters to practice, even though it may not be so easy.
There is another Zen saying, “The whole world is upside down.” In other words, the way the world looks from an ordinary point of view is pretty much the opposite of the way the world actually is. There is a story that illustrates this. Once upon a time, there was a Zen master called Bird’s Nest Roshi. He was called that because he meditated in an eagle’s nest at the top of a tree. This was a dangerous thing to do. One false move, one gust of wind, one moment of falling asleep, and he would be finished. He did this persistently over time, and he became quite well known. Once, a government official from the Song dynasty stood on the ground, looking up at Bird’s Nest Roshi. He said, “Why in the world would you do this? This is so dangerous.” Bird’s Nest Roshi said, “You think this is dangerous? What you are doing is way more dangerous.” That is, living normally in the world, ignoring death, impermanence, loss, and suffering. This is what we all routinely do, as if this was a normal and reasonable and safe way to live. This is actually much more dangerous than going out on a limb to meditate.
While trying to avoid difficulty may be natural and understandable, the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t work. We think that it makes sense to protect ourselves from pain, but the self-protection ends up causing way more pain. We think we should be holding on to what we have, but often the very holding on causes us to lose what we have. We are attached to what we like, and we try to avoid what we don’t like, but the attractive object never stays the same, and it turns out that you can never avoid the unwanted object.
So even though it is counterintuitive, it really is true that avoiding life’s difficulties is not the path of least resistance. It is actually a dangerous way to live. When your eyes are open, you see that. If you want to have a safe and happy life, in good times and bad times, you just have to get used to the idea that facing misfortunes squarely is better than trying to escape from them.
This does not mean that when we can prevent difficult things we don’t do that. Of course we do. When we can prevent difficult things and fix something that is broken, we roll up our sleeves and do that. So we pay our taxes and have home and car insurance. We drive safely, do maintenance and take care of things, including our body and mind and heart. Turning difficulties into the path does not mean that we don’t do that. Instead, it means addressing the underlying attitude of anxiety, fear and narrow-mindedness that is so pervasive in our lives that we don’t even notice that it is there.
The third point of transforming bad circumstances into the path is the practice of patience. Patience is my all-time favorite spiritual quality. Patience is one of the six Paramitas in Mahayana Buddhism, six qualities to be developed by the practitioner. Patience is the capacity to welcome difficulty when it comes, with a spirit of strength, endurance, forbearance and dignity, rather than with fear, anxiety and avoidance. Nobody likes to be oppressed, in pain, defeated. Yet, if we can endure with patience, if we can bear defeat, oppression, and pain with strength without whining, we are ennobled by that. The very thing that hurts us ennobles us, when we can practice patience with it and meet it with strength.
Still, in our world, patience is not very sexy. People don’t really prize that quality. When we come to spiritual practice, we are not coming to develop more patience. We want to develop love, compassion, insight, enlightenment, but not patience. But when tough times come, and our love frays into annoyance, our compassion is overwhelmed by our fear, and our brilliant dharma insight evaporates instantly into thin air, patience looks good. Patience makes sense. That’s why I love patience. I think that it is the best of all spiritual qualities – the most serviceable, the most reliable. Without patience, without this ability to face difficulty with courage, every other spiritual quality is on shaky ground. It lasts only as long as things go well.
The practice of patience is very simple. When something tough arises, you notice all the ways you try to avoid it. That is the practice of patience. You notice the things you think, the things you say, the things you do, and you notice that all of this is somehow in the service of getting around this difficulty. We are so clever and sneaky. We have the most devious ways of tricking ourselves and justifying ourselves. When you practice patience, you notice the whole thing. You see how it works. You are present with your mind and body and all the things that you are foolishly doing, and instead of buying it all, you just notice it. You take a breath, you return to awareness of the body, and you don’t let yourself react and flail around, like you would normally do. You see the impulse to do that. It is very clear, but you observe the impulse patiently without acting on it. You pay attention to the body; you pay attention to the mind; you pay attention to the breath. When possible, give yourself some good teachings about the virtue of being with this anguish, rather than trying to run away from the feeling in the moment. This is the practice of patience.
In the face of suffering, we can also practice gratitude. Gratefulness is a profound, deep thought. It is wonderful and beautiful, and it makes you happy. The practice of gratefulness is not as much about feeling a certain emotion as it is about understanding who you really are and understanding what your life really is.
My wife and I were all excited about the birth of our first grandson, as you can imagine. We went to see him when he was about six weeks old. He was a mess; he couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t even hold up his head, much less feed himself. If he were in dire straits, he couldn’t ask for help. If he all of a sudden found his hand in his mouth, and he started chewing on his hand, he didn’t know what was going on. If he was chewing on his hand, and he liked chewing on his hand, and he found it really agreeable, but then his hand fell out of his mouth, he had no idea how to get it back in. [Laughter] In fact, he had no idea about anything in this whole world, even though he clearly had likes and dislikes. He had strong likes and dislikes, but he was 100% powerless to do anything about them. All he could do was experience the world as it changed moment by moment, and often it did not change to his advantage. He was completely dependent on his mother’s care and constant attention. She fed him, she cuddled him, she tried to understand and anticipate his needs and took care of everything, even down to his peeing and pooping.
Well, you were once in exactly that situation, precisely that situation, not long ago. Somebody must have cared for you in exactly this way. Everybody sitting in this room, at one time, had 100% total care and attention from one or more other human beings. If not, you would not be here now.
That is a start on the practice of gratitude. Our dependence on other people does not end there. We think we grew up, and we became independent. Now we can all hold up our heads, we can cook dinner, we can wipe our own butts, we don’t need our mother or father to take care of us anymore. We are autonomous individuals. We do not necessarily need other people to support our lives.
Really? Did you grow the food that maintains your life every day? Did you till the soil or milk the cow? Did you make your own car? Do you sew your own clothes? Did you build your house? Really, how do you live? You need others, every single moment of your life. It is thanks to others and their effort and their presence that we all have the things we need to continue our lives every day. Not to mention friendship, love, and meaningfulness. Without others you have nothing.
Then somebody comes along and says, Well, that’s really an exaggeration, because I make a lot of money, and I pay for all this stuff. I didn’t do it myself, but I paid for it. So all these people aren’t taking care of me; it’s my money that is taking care of me. Even the highways. I pay taxes. Where do you think that money comes from?
People say that, but let’s suppose you have a gigantic stack of money—this whole room full of thousand dollar bill denominations. However, there is no other human being in the world but you. The only thing that exists is you and this gigantic stack of money. You have a lot of money, but how are you going to survive? Can you eat the money? Can you hollow out a little fort and live in there? The only reason that money has any value is that other people exist. If other people don’t exist, money has no value. Money makes no sense without others. Its value exists because others exist.
Our dependence on others runs deeper than that. Where does the person we take ourselves to be come from in the first place? Apart from our parents’ genes and their support and care and society, there’s the whole network of conditions and circumstances that intimately makes us what we are. We think that nothing could be more personal, more our own and less dependent on others, than our very thoughts and feelings. Right? But where do our thoughts and feelings come from? Without words to think with, we don’t think. We don’t have anything like the sense of self, as we understand it, and we don’t have the emotions and feelings that are shaped and defined by our words, which are the product of untold numbers of speakers, over untold numbers of generations. Without the myriad circumstances that provided us the opportunities for education, speech, knowledge, we wouldn’t be the person that we think we are. Without all the people in our lives, whom we know, and who know us and love us and create complications for us, we would have nothing to think about! We would be very bored—and worse than bored.
It is literally unimaginable to think of oneself without others. Without others, consciousness would be shattered by loneliness. It is literally the case that there could not be what we call a person without other people. There’s no such thing as a person, as if it were a separate, autonomous thing. It doesn’t exist! There is only a shifting of persons, popping up here and there, co-creating each other over the long history of humanity. The idea of an independent, isolated atomized, lonely person is absolutely impossible, even though we think it is possible. This is not just the way we meet each other practically. I am talking about our inmost sense of human identity. Consciousness itself cannot be independent of others.
That’s what emptiness, non-self, means in Buddhist thought. There is no such thing as an isolated individual. We can say such a thing; we might think that there is such a thing. Many of our thoughts and motivations seem to be based on this idea – which is why we are suffering so much – but it is not a true idea. Literally every thought in our minds, every emotion that we feel, every word that comes out of our mouths, the material sustenance that we need to get through the day, comes through the kindness of and the interaction with others. Not only other people, but non-humans too: the whole of the earth, the soil, the sky, the air we breathe, the water we drink. We are more than dependent on all of that. We are all of that. And all of that is us.
This is not a theory or a poetic reflection. It is simply the bald fact of the matter. That’s why we are grateful, because we are everything, and everything is us. We can’t do without one another. Being is gratefulness. Living is gratefulness.
So we are training in the actual fact of who we are, cultivating every day the sense of gratefulness, which is the happiest of all attitudes. You cannot feel gratitude and unhappiness in the same moment. If you feel grateful, you feel happy. You feel grateful for what is possible for you in this moment, no matter what your challenges are. You feel grateful that you are alive at all, grateful that you can think, that you can feel, stand up, sit down, walk, talk. These are miracles.
The other day, our third grandchild, a little girl, stood up. Everybody was so excited. She stood up! It’s a miracle, and you do it all the time. You can stand and walk and think, all at the same time. You are brilliant! You have so much to be grateful for, and you really appreciate it after a time when you can’t stand up or walk or sit.
Gratitude practice comes under the category of the third point of mind training: turn difficulties into the path. This is the Buddha’s most profound teaching, I think, that life and death is one phenomenon. Suffering and joy is one phenomenon. As soon as life arises, there is tremendous beauty, and in the same moment, there is going to be trouble. Trouble is already the beauty, and the beauty is already the trouble.
There are things that happen in our lives, and in the lives of others, that are absolutely terrible. Yet, in the end, after much effort and many, many tears, and lots of sleepless nights – maybe stretching into months and years – we come to accept that this terrible thing really did happen, and now it’s part of our lives. What happened broke our heart. It sliced our hearts wide open. It was really, really hard, but, in the end, it was a good thing, because of our pain. We have way more love. We have way more tenderness. Because of our pain, we really understand other people. We are really sympathetic to them. Because of our pain, our lives are so much richer.
I think that after a lot of trials and tribulations, we are grateful, truly and really grateful. It’s a lot of work, but there is no other way. We can be broken by what happens to us, forever and ever. The only way we cannot be broken is when we finally come to the place where we say, I would never choose such a thing, but, yes, finally, I am grateful.
We want at the end of our lives to be able to say to ourselves – maybe only to ourselves: Yes, this is my life, and I am grateful for all of it. I made a lot of mistakes. Bad things were done to me. I suffered a lot. Maybe I made others suffer. But that is what happened. That’s the way it was. And I healed my wounds. Because of all these things that happened to me, I was finally able to love. It took a long time, but that made it even more beautiful, that it took so long and that it was so hard. Now, it is enough, and I can let go. The whole past was beautiful, and it was hard. This moment is beautiful, and the future, whatever it will bring, is also beautiful.
Wouldn’t we want, all of us, to be able to feel that way at the end?