Suffering: the Gateway to Transformation
- By Chuan Zhi
- Jun 25
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My 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.