July 30, 2014

Suffering: the Gateway to Transformation

DarkWindowsMy past essays have talked mostly about the wonders and beauties that we can behold through the practice of Zen, and how we can go about finding them for ourselves, but I have spent little time on its “flip side” – it’s “dark” side – suffering.

We cannot find Zen without the precondition of suffering.  Some people think that this is a pessimistic view, or a perverted view, of a practice (meditation) that can be done by anyone, and that suffering is in no way a precondition.   To them, I say that sitting quietly using the methods of Zen meditation can indeed benefit their lives in remarkable ways, but it will not, alone, lead them to Zen. 

So, what is Zen, then, if we have to suffer to find it?  If we aren’t in an extreme state of suffering, Zen is not something we need.  Western society seems to see Zen as a “cool thing to do”; we are encouraged to believe that if we go to a zendo and learn how to sit with our legs crossed for an hour or two and count out breaths that we are “doing Zen”.   We have a tendency to project the image of Zen onto the real thing, not knowing what the real thing actually is.  This is not a bad thing, it’s actually quite natural for us to do.   If a friend calls us up and asks us if we want to go to a performance of Iron Maiden and we’ve never been to a Heavy Metal concert before, and have never heard that kind of music before, we’ll create our own idea of what it will be like from our limited experiences with heavy metal.  If we’re totally naïve, we might imagine a group of people playing music on drive shafts and rotex gears. But whatever we imagine, it will be completely different from the actual experience of the performance.

Why does Zen require suffering for us to gain entrance to its domain? For the simple reason that it requires us to throw away our old self:  to abandon everything we have identified ourselves with – our image, our profession, our friends, our family.  They all have to go.  And the only time we’re ever going to be ready and able to do this is when we have experienced suffering to the point that we no longer care about hanging on to these things.   There is no way to arbitrarily command the Will to do it – the Will can only be commanded through the Self’s desire to be known, and at that moment when we die to ourselves, the Self (Buddha Self, True Nature, God … whatever we want to call it), shines through with enormous clarity, and that’s when we enter Zen’s domain.  That’s when we transform from being driven by our ego-passions and desires, to being driven by Dharma, Clarity of Being. 

Now, when I talk about the need to suffer to do Zen, some people have asked me if I think everyone should suffer.  I always respond that I wish that nobody would suffer, but that suffering is all around us.  If we do not suffer, it’s because our eyes are closed, our ears are deaf, and our mind is shutting it all out.  Inside we’re suffering, but we choose to not look there. We all have “dark” elements in our psyche.  They arise from the natural experiences of childhood, from engaging with the “dark” side of other people in our early years, be they our parents, our school teachers, or friends and relatives.  When we’re young, our developing brains can’t process the various forms of “dark” emotions that are projected by others upon us, and those emotional elements are part of what shapes our notion of who we are: our personal identities.  Should we choose to look into our psyches, we’ll all suffer as we uncover the repressed fear and dread and anxiety that’s lurking there.  But we have to want to do this practice … nobody can force us down this path through any method. 

During long sesshins, where sitting meditation (zazen) is done for 8 to 10 hours a day (or more ), it’s not uncommon for some attendees to suffer mental breakdowns.  I have heard of many people to whom this has happened, and have known several “victims” who have survived extended hospital stays in the psychiatric ward to tell about it.  Among many Zen groups it’s not uncommon to stress that all attendees “do the practice” for long periods so that they will all have a better chance at “enlightenment”.  The idea is that anyone who enters a sesshin (a multi-day meditation retreat) is ready for it psychologically and emotionally.  Yet when people are pushed into this intense practice without being adequately ready or prepared, all hell can break loose. 

Zen is not something we do because “it’s cool” or because a friend calls us up and asks us if we want to join her at the next sesshin.  It’s something we do because we’re desperate, we’re suffering, we’re ready to “give it all up”.  If we’re not there yet, we’re not ready for Zen.

With this said I have also been a firm advocate for people, all people, to learn the rudiments of Zen training, if, for no other reason, that they can become aware of it to know it’s there for them in the future when they may need it.  Just as we learn all sorts of math when we’re in high school in the event that we’ll need to use it someday, learning about Zen also prepares us for a future where we might need it.  While we may never need to call on it, if or when we do, we quickly discover we’re pretty lucky to have known about it. 

And we find ourselves owing our lives to it.

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  • Sai Reddy

    This is a very nice article. Suffering has always been an interesting topic since most people shy away from acknowledging or discussing it fully. My doubt is at what point can we recognize our suffering. For example if a person loses a job, loses possessions, may even become homeless at what point can the person realize that this is a form of suffering. Some people might realize its just a challenge and just try to work through it, others could become depressed unhappy and lose interest in life. Similarly losing a loved one by death or break up could cause a lot of pain, would that be considered suffering or merely a setback. Some people are born into really painful circumstances, forced to live as indentured servants abused by their bosses, underpaid, struggling to get just a little to eat. Being from India I saw many people who lost limbs and live as beggars amidst extreme filth, at the mercy of other people's kindness, treated like vermin by most people, and wondered what makes them still want to live. The we have the rich who are complaining about something or the other perhaps they did not make as much money as they wanted, perhaps the rich kid is not able to score with a beautiful girl and be very distressed about it, could that be suffering. I have seen people break down over trivial setbacks and some people seem to go on even in the most horrible circumstances. I remember reading about a billionaire from Germany who recently committed suicide because of losses in certain investments, he was still a billionaire but lost a billion or two.

    The question arises at what point would some one recognize suffering as such and decide to seek serious spiritual solutions, and not take up a practice because its hip or the in thing to do.

  • Chuan Zhi

    Great question. Often when people suffer they don't know that there is an escape from it. They see it as all consuming, never ending, etc. That's when they commit suicide, go into deep depressions, etc. That's why I think it's important to let people know about Zen at an early age, so that when/if they need it later on in their lives, they know about it and can use it ... like a tool, or a medicine. If people don't know it's there, or what to do with it, what good is it?

    On the other hand, there are many stories of people spontaneously discovering a spiritual life through their suffering with no prior knowledge of any spiritual "methods". I don't know why some people prevail and some don't.

    And you are right. There is no absolute scale to suffering -- One person's knee-banging can offer the same degree of suffering as another person's loss of a child. Suffering is all in the mind, and at the heart of it is our sense of personal self - that fictitious, illusory, manifestation of an, isolated, being. It should give solace to one who is suffering from having their car repossessed as they consider the vast number of people dieing and wounded in wars going on around the globe. But it doesn't ... because they are too consumed with themselves. It's so important to break out of this self-created prison.

  • Sai Reddy

    Thank you for the reply. Reading and rereading the article and contemplating the meaning has been quite productive. I don't want to add anymore to it since the most useful principles are already embedded in it. All that's now required is deep consideration of the issues mentioned.

  • Sean Toner

    Interesting article. I have often thought about the aspect of suffering. Although I was first introduced to Zen when I was 17 by my uncle in 1989, it wasn't until the last few years that I became 'serious' about Buddhism.

    That inflection point came during a breakup in the relationship with my ex-GF. It was only through my suffering that I remembered the first Noble Truth: Life is suffering.

    I agree that people don't like talking about suffering or death, but as you say, without being ready to throw away your attachments (Noble Truth #2), I don't know if people will advance that far across the stream. People would rather think about all the nice things that come with practice...peace, serenity, compassion. But that can easily turn into another form of attachment.

    Had I not suffered, I doubt I would have pursued Buddhism.

  • Ira

    I'm not quite comfortable with this concept of the necessity of suffering. My interpretation of what enlightenment means is the disappearance of the sense of self with its desires, selfishness, pride, jealousy and so on ; and the flowering of a great love for all people, living things, the planet, the universe. This gives birth to a state of peace and joy that are contagious. The truly enlightened woman or man has a healing presence. And equanimity in all circumstances. So for me, enlightenment is about joy and the ability to give it. Did I misunderstand the thread of your article?

  • Anonymous

    Living without a fixed or secure source of income (a job is a dream for a lot of people) in a complete messed-up and depressed country (economically, financially, etc.) can be quite an extraordinary experience. The masks fall, the purpose of one's existence is questioned.
    For me, came a time when the questions arose - "But what for I want this life that I projected? What is fixed in this life?". And then forgot about the questions and about Zen.
    Suffering is a kind of pre-requisite. When everything seems to go just fine, there is no need to seek.

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