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How to See Suffering in a New Way


Excerpt from The Art of Disappearing by Ajahn Brahm.

Wherever you live — in a monastery, in a city, or on a quiet tree-lined street — you will always experience problems and difficulties from time to time. This is just the nature of life. So when you have problems with your health you shouldn’t say, “Doctor, there is something wrong with me — I’m sick”; rather you should say, “There is something right with me — I’m sick today.” It’s the nature of the human body to be sick now and again. It’s also the nature of the septic system to need pumping out when you don’t expect it, and it’s the nature of the water heater to sometimes break down. It’s the nature of life to be this way. Even though we struggle as human beings to try to make life go smoothly for ourselves and others, nevertheless it’s impossible to ensure that happens.

Whenever you experience any pain or difficulty, always remember one of the deep meanings of the word suffering: asking the world for something it can never give you. We expect and ask impossible things from the world. We ask for the perfect home and job and that all the things we work hard to build and arrange run perfectly at the right time and place. Of course, that is asking for something that can never be given. We ask for profound meditation and enlightenment, right here and now. But that’s not the way this universe works. If you ask for something that the world can’t supply, you should understand that you’re asking for suffering.

So whether you work or meditate, please accept that things will go wrong from time to time. Your job is not to ask for things the world can’t give you; your job is to observe. Your job is not to try to prod and push this world to make it just the way you would like it to be. Your job is to understand, accept, and let it go. The more you fight your body, your mind, your family, and the world, the more collateral damage you’ll cause and the more pain you’ll experience.

Sometimes, when we understand and stand back from our daily lives, we see the big picture.We see there’s nothing wrong with the monastery, nothing wrong with us, nothing wrong with life.We understand that it’s just the nature of the world to go “wrong” — that’s what the Buddha meant by the first noble truth of suffering. you work, struggle, and strive so hard tomake your life just right — to make your home, your body, and your mind just right — and it all goes wrong anyway.

Understanding Suffering Is the Motivation for Practice

The contemplation of suffering, or dukkha, is an important part of true Buddhist practice. We don’t try to control suffering; rather, we try to understand it by investigating its causes. It’s an important point in our practice, because when most human beings experience suffering, they make the mistake of either running away from it or trying to change it. They blame the machinery for failing, but of course that’s just the nature of machinery. Things go wrong and we suffer. So we should change our attitude and stop fighting. When we stop fighting the world and start to understand the suffering, we get another response. It’s the response called nibbidā.

The response called nibbidā comes from understanding the nature of the body, the mind, and the world. you understand the nature of Buddhism, of setting up a monastery or a household, and of living together in a group. you know it’s going to be unsatisfactory and that there are going to be problems. you are wise enough to stop running away from those problems or trying to change them. you understand that problems are inherent in the fabric of saṃsāra. This was one of the great insights of the Buddha that prompted him to give his first teaching, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56:11).

When you realize that suffering is inherent in the fabric of saṃsāra, it changes your reaction. It’s like having a rotten apple and trying to cut out the rotten parts so you can eat the rest. When you have wisdom, you see that the whole of the apple is rotten and that the only possible response is nibbidā the rejection of the whole apple, revulsion toward it, turning away from it, and just throwing it away. you see that you don’t need that apple; you can let it go. It’s important to understand the suffering in this world, and it’s important to see how absolute that suffering and unsatisfactoriness is. It will never be under your control or within your power to sort it out and get it right.

When we contemplate and understand this, it gives us the motivation and incentive for practicing the path. According to the suttas, when the Buddha saw people getting old, getting sick, and dying, that was enough to prompt him to seek a solution to suffering (MN 26.13). He realized that it was also his own nature to get old, get sick, and die, that he had not gone beyond these things. That gave him the motivation to set out in search of an end to these problems.

Each of these three problems is your inheritance too. This is what awaits you in the future. This is something that’s certain: you will get old, get sick, and die. There’s nothing you can do about that. These are the facts of your existence, your human body, and also all other things. Everything will get old, disintegrate, and die — everything goes wrong and breaks down.The Buddha-to-be was wise enough to know that even with all his spiritual qualities and accumulated merit, he could not avoid that suffering. A different response was needed: to fully understand it.




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