This is day two of this Four Day, February 2023 sesshin. Today we'll look at another chapter from Master Sheng Yen's book, "Subtle Wisdom: Understanding Suffering, Cultivating Compassion through Chan Buddhism". In other words through Zen. And we'll jump ahead to chapter three, titled "Buddhism: Pain and Suffering". Yesterday, we read from the first chapter in which he shared several stories of his childhood experiences that had triggered deep questions in him. And eventually, a resolve to investigate the great matter. And each time we sit down to do the Zen, we're doing just that, especially during session, when we have this opportunity to take a deep dive. But whether it's inside or outside of machine, or you know, no matter where we are, what we're doing, each moment, in and of itself, is an opportunity to look into our mind. We come to see our habitual thought patterns, the ways we tend to get caught up in judgments, narratives about ourselves and others. The situations in which we tense up, overreact, perhaps catastrophize. And our attempts to dodge, discomfort, both physical and emotional. Of course, working with pain is and suffering is fundamental to practice. It's the human condition. It's for many of us, it's what brought us here, it's what brought us to practice in the first place, a desire to find relief from the suffering we experience in our lives, from our anxiety or stress, our fear and anger or just from the general dissatisfaction that we experience repeatedly. When we chase after our cravings, and discover time and again, it leaves us unfulfilled.
We can chase after making gains, rising up in the ranks, achieving status, acquiring stuff all of which mainstream culture tells us that we need in order to be fulfilled. So we can get so focused on trying to get somewhere or get something that we fail to see where we are right now, which right in front of us. We don't see the abundance and the joy of just being alive.
Sheng yen begins. Buddhism grew out of Shakyamuni Buddha's search for the reasons for illness, old age and death, the universal causes of dukkha dukkha dukkha, Sanskrit, and it's often translated as suffering. It includes the idea that life is impermanent and is experienced as unsatisfactory and in Perfect. He says there are three classes of dukkha. The first is ordinary suffering, such as not getting what we desire or enduring what we do not like. The second is unsatisfactoriness caused by change, such as when a sensual pleasure or enjoyable meditation state ends. The third is dukkha caused by the conditioned or impermanent nature of all things and states, so that our very nature as ever changing beings, causes us dukkha. Pain and suffering or dukkha begin at birth and go on until we die. physical illness and injury caused pain, while the mind causes dukkha. Buddha's Dharma does not rid us of pain. It is not an anesthetic, but it can alleviate our suffering. Buddha said that we should see a doctor for physical illness and injury, but mental suffering should be treated with Buddha Dharma. Here, I think it's important to clarify that he's not talking about mental suffering in the form of clinical depression, or anxiety disorder disorders, which may require the help of medical or their therapy interventions. It's a real mistake to think that practice alone is the antidote for living with mental illness. Instead, what he's talking about is the kind of suffering that we create through our attachments.
He goes on, Buddha saw that it was more important to save the mind than the body, someone with a healthy body, but whose mind is not at peace will suffer more than someone who has only physical problems. Someone who has a peaceful mind, and a good attitude, will be less afflicted by physical difficulties when they occur than someone whose mind is disturbed. If our mental problems and illusions are cured, that is liberation. And what he's saying here, regarding practice as a way to a cure, he's not talking about no longer experiencing pain. Good luck with that. It's part of the experience of being human. What he's talking about is letting go of our constant pursuits of peace, pleasure, happiness, are escaping from pain, or whatever it is, we imagine, to be better than the conditions that we're in.
At this stage of session, we might be feeling really tired, kind of fuzzy headed. Frustrated, tense, achy joints. How do we work with that? If we reject the condition that we're in, we're just creating division. And that itself is painful. If we try to bear down on it, suck it up. There's resistance there. And that too, is division. We tend to make whatever we're feeling into a thing. And to see our conditions, especially when they're unpleasant, as an enemy that we have to battle. There's really no battle to be fought. And there's no such thing as a positive or a negative sensation. or condition
for for there to be positive or negative anything involves an intrusion of thoughts. So worth our practice our work is to bring our attention to it with care or practices not to get into all these dramas and narratives that we play over in our heads.
Sheng yen says, There are no problems that exist objectively per se. Problems have to exist in your own mind, and perception that everything is created by our minds, is not easy to grasp. In order to understand it, we must distinguish two levels of the mind. The conceptual mind, is a shallow level, it's influenced by what we've learned, how we feel, and so on, and is very conditioned, we cannot say that it is the cause of everything that happens to us or of the environment. However, fundamental mind, empty mind, the ultimate subject in all times, past, present and future truly gives rise to all phenomena, and to our problems. From the point of view of that empty mind, we can say that external problems are our own creation, we may not know that we have created those problems because they are hidden in the deeper level of mind.
So, you know, what he's getting at here is that when we encounter what we see as a problem, no sooner than we label it as such, judge it as a problem, then it becomes a problem. But if we don't assign a label or a judgment, what happens then? pain becomes just pain, not my pain. Same thing with thoughts, just thoughts. They have no substance. Not my thoughts. And this is what we need to find out for ourselves. What happens when we don't pay attention to our thoughts and instead, devotedly, pay attention to our practice in this one moment.
In this moment
our job is to practice right where we are being one with the body that we're in. Just as it is.
Sheng yen says, Everything is created by the mind, you have your heaven and I have mine. You have your hell, and I have mine. You may see me in your heaven, and I may see you in my heaven. But nonetheless, your heaven is different from mine. And it is the same with everything else. If two married people spend 24 hours a day together, sharing the same bed in the same job. Are they in the same world or in different worlds? The two of them encounter different physical matter. So even the physical worlds they inhabit are not identical. If I sit on this chair, you cannot sit on it. You have to sit somewhere else. If we eat together, even though we have the same dishes in front of us, what I eat and how much I eat is different from what you eat. You may find it delicious. And I may find it not so great. You may find the same dish good today, and not so good tomorrow. Two individuals can live in the same world only if they have exactly the same mind. In meditation, we call this having the one mind state. If a person's mind is scattered, it is impossible to experience the same world as someone else.
So put differently when our ordinary mind is operating. It's kind of like wearing a pair of colored sunglasses. My parents read yours is blue, another person's is green, and others is yellow. We can be looking at the same thing, say a tree. But we're not we're not seeing the same thing. We're not seeing the whole of it. On the other hand, when our awakened mind is functioning, that which each and every one of us is endowed with without exception, there's no filter, no lens. It's just the pure, direct experience. And it arises naturally out of the process of giving our full attention to our practice, getting intimate with it, both when sitting and inactivity.
And it's true, you know, just making that shift of attention. Each time we notice we've wandered off into thoughts and just doing it repeatedly. It makes all the difference when we keep it simple.
Next, Sheng yen goes on to discuss some some basics of Buddhist doctrine. He says there are three conditions of mind that commonly caused suffering. The first is ignorance of no beginning. Western religions talk about a beginning and Western science theorizes the beginning of the universe. But the Buddha said that there is no beginning looking for a beginning is like looking for a starting point of a circle. tries you might, you cannot find it. Thus we have no beginning. If you ask where the suffering come from, a Buddhist will answer it has no beginning. So, we cannot eliminate suffering by finding its beginning. The second cause of suffering is ignorance of the cause effect cycle, which Buddhists call cause and consequence. The effect that we suffer now is the result of previous causes. This effect in turn, becomes the cause for a future effect. As we move forward in time, we incessantly create future causes and future effects. We create our future suffering by what we do now.
Karma means action. And it refers to both cause and consequence, as they produce each other in the cycle. Buddhism does not believe in any permanent unchanging soul or spirit, but holds that some karmic seeds planted by our actions in this life will be reborn in order to bear fruit in another life. First, the last thing we want to do is to think about the nature of our current karma, my karma, you know, label seeing it as as bad or good. That's just another story we can tell about ourself. The importance of this teaching is simply to recognize that we're not static. We're not locked into anything. We're not bound by our self definition or identity. We're not bound by what happened five minutes ago, let alone yesterday. Constantly changing the nature of our being. So the effort we make now is all that matters.
He continues, vexations are the third cause of suffering. vexation is a special term in Buddhism, a translation of clay Sangha in Sanskrit. You know, we commonly associate vexation with being annoyed or irritated or agitated. And that's close to how they're understood in Zen. In Zen, they make up the three poisons, greed, anger, and delusion. And they're poisons because they pollute the clarity of our mind. Particularly if we're clinging to them. You know, take anger for example. Anger is a natural human emotion. There's nothing wrong with feeling anger. There's nothing wrong with saying to someone that you're feeling angry. And here's why. Particularly when it's done from a calm center but if we cling to that anger, we're very likely to latch on to it and just lash out at the person instead of having what could be a very constructive conversation that brings two people closer by brings two people together, not apart.
Sheng yen says vexations may arise from contact with the environment. In other words as a reaction to our environment. For instance, if we get wet in the rain, we may get sick. microbes that cause diseases and pollutants can also make us sick and cause us vexations. heat and cold may bother us. I don't think getting wet or cold alone would cause sickness. But I think that's a common myth. But upon feeling chillness or dampness in our bones, we might think we're getting sick. We might be inclined to say, Oh, I hate this weather. It's so cold so we complicated with our judgment and that that we experience cold or heat or pain. As Sheng yen says, it's really not a problem. It's just just a passing condition. The problem lies in our clinging to our likes, or dislikes.
There's a koan that's relevant to this in Mumonkan. It's called toe Zaanse. No cold or heat. I'm sure some of you have heard it before. A monk as toes on when cold and heat come, how can we avoid them? And what he's asking, How can we be free from our miserable conditions? To that toes on said, why don't you go whether there is no cold and no heat? Why don't you go where there is no cold and no heat? The monk then asked, Where is this place where there is no cold and no heat? And Tarzan said, when cold let the cold kill you when hot, let the heat kill you. Of course he doesn't mean that literally.
Sheng goes on to say vexations also arise from our relationships with other people. Most people think their enemies are responsible for most of their vexations. But this is not necessarily the case. The people with whom we quarrel most are often not our enemies, but those closest to us, our spouses or children, or co workers. Each day, we must deal not only with our crew close relations, but with many other people as well. Some we know, some we don't. Some help us, some hinder us. And people compete endlessly with one another.
Yeah, so the, you know, the people who were closest to whom we live and work with our family or friends, they're our guides, there are teachers, who anytime we find ourselves in conflict, feeling tension or annoyance with them. That's a teaching right there. It's the people whom we're closest to, that we're most likely to form strong impressions of, and allow those impressions to harden.
Naturally, each one of us has shortcomings, habits or tendencies. We all have obstructions that we're working on. We're all on the path. We're all working on ourselves. But somehow, when it comes to the people we're close to, we can develop an opinion about them and see them as static. As if they're as if they're not going to change.
If you ever find yourself saying, Oh, I can't work with that person because they're so difficult. That's a teaching shows that we're not seeing the person who's right in front of us in that moment. We're hanging on to an idea we have about that person instead.
Another source of vexation says Sheng yen, is our emotional turmoil. Our greatest enemy is not to be found on the outside. We are bothered by our own minds, our feelings constantly change. We may move from arrogance to regret or from joy to sorrow, but we never look at something in the same way as time passes. We are in conflict with ourselves. We worry about gain and loss right and wrong. And we cannot decide what to do. This is true misery. It is only when there is no grasping or rejecting that there will be neither lack nor access. What should we do about all the problems created by our minds? When we experience suffering, it helps to try to analyze its nature. Suffering can come in the form of greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance or doubt. That is self doubt. When we reflect on the nature of our suffering, we can greatly reduce its intensity. Note that Buddhism is not concerned with the causality of a person's delusion and suffering. It is concerned only with their recognition and elimination, recognition and elimination, the power to do that is within the mind of the individual. Power, we can say is a matter of where we put our attention. And when he says it's helpful to analyze the nature of our suffering, again, he's not saying we should spend time thinking about or dwelling on all the ways we cause our problems or own problems. That's just piling on thoughts upon thoughts. What good is that? Instead, what he's saying is just just the recognition, the sheer awareness of what's going on in our mind, and then in that moment, returning to the practice, moment by moment.
He then I'm going to skip ahead a few paragraphs, he then talks about our typical go to strategies or coping mechanisms for dealing with suffering. He says, people often use two ineffective methods to try to alleviate their suffering. The first is denial. I am not suffering, I have no problems. There's nothing wrong with me. As they protest, that they have no problems. They may throw tantrums and work themselves into states of extreme agitation. I once asked someone like that, why he had so many vexations. It's not me, he cried. It's these other rotten people who are making me so miserable. And then he says, Actually, he had many problems that were of his own making. Yeah, so this is a familiar narrative probably for a lot of us. It's not me, it's them. It's her or it's him in sesshin, this becomes pretty crystal clear as a habit force. Yeah, we can find ourselves blaming other people in such sheen for the difficulties we're having. If only I didn't get stuck sitting next to so and so. Or if only I didn't have this job, rather than another one, then I'd really be able to concentrate so important to own up to notice that to not make excuses and not give in to pride.
And then Sheng yen says, another way people try to alleviate their own suffering is by continually reviewing a list of their faults and problems and what they believe to be the remedies. This builds one false assumption on another. Both of these methods only make matters worse. Yeah, that's another thing to pay attention to. If you're constantly are you apologizing for your deficiencies? analyzing them? Perhaps you spend time reading, self improvement or self help books, playing and replaying in your head, this old narrative or wallowing in self pity.
Notice and then bring it back to the present drop it
and then Sheng asks, how can we alleviate suffering and bring peace to our minds the Buddhist method of healing suffering is divided, he says into two elements, one, establishing right view and to practice. He says regarding right view, and right view is the first of the Eightfold Path. Regarding right view, the first important teaching is again, cause and effect. While this concept is a religious belief, it is also a fact. Throughout our lives, no matter what we do, we observe responses to and the effects of our actions. For instance, when we speak harshly to someone, they often respond harshly. Much of what we experienced now, may seem unfair, but it is simply a consequence of actions performed in the past. To the extent that we believe this, we will be willing to accept the good and bad that befall us.
A second important teaching of right view is causes and conditions. All phenomena arise and pass away because of the accumulation and interaction of many different factors. The cause of a flower is the seed. But soil, water and sun must also be present for the plant to come into existence. Time or uprooting or lack of water or sun will cause the sea to wither and die. The same is true for everything we do, and everything that happens to us.
When we have succeeded in something, there is no need for us to be particularly excited or arrogant. Or in other words, prideful. No matter how much we have accomplished, it is not without the direct or indirect help of many others. And since we know that all that is now coming into being will one day pass away, there is no need to despair. When we encounter adverse or unfavorable conditions, they too will change.
Cultivation of compassion is the third concept of right view that will help alleviate suffering. People usually wish others to be compassionate toward them. But the idea seldom occurs to them to be compassionate toward others. There are those who demand to be forgiven when they make a mistake. Don't measure me against this standards have a st they say but then if they see someone else error or make a mistake, they'll say you're incompetent. Why can't you do anything right
Put differently, the more we can extend our compassion to others the more we can extend it to ourselves
self and other are not too.
Sheng yen concludes by saying that suffering cannot be alleviated by right view alone. Practice is necessary to manifest it in our lives and allow it to take deep root. And this includes Zen, chanting prostrations and all the other aspects of practice and training each and every moment of sesshin. And out of session
in the end, in, in making a commitment to practice, each time we return our attention to it. We're fulfilling our vow to all beings just in making that shift in attention returning to the breath, or the koan over and over hundreds and 1000s seemingly millions of times
it requires commitment and resolve. But persistence is is key.
Being present is the most compassionate thing we can do for ourselves and for others. Others that are not other