Understanding that life is suffering

“Just like the one who dowses himself with water again and again but must each time re-enter the fire again, so they consider themselves fortunate, though they are also extremely wretched. As people live like this, pretending they will not grow old or die, horrific misfortunes approach, with death the foremost of them” (132)

One of the central teachings which have gained from this class is that life is filled with immense suffering due to the impermanence of all things and the fact that people try to cling onto that which they think is permanent which ends up hurting them in the end.

In the wake of the drastic changes in routine and life which I find myself in now, I have begun to realize my own attachment to the normality which my life had just a few months prior, and I find that wishing to go back to that time is what is causing me the most suffering.

Only by beginning the process of acceptance and embracing the idea that life is full of change and that horrific misfortunes will happen to me as well as understanding that the current way I live my life is dooming me to a type of inevitable suffering does it seem that I can begin to take the first steps into truly leaving the fire and understanding the teachings on emptiness and no self.

The Fool Inside Me

“Someone who associates with fools invariably goes to a bad rebirth, and someone who dissociates himself is not liked. What is gained from contact with fools? They are friends in the moment, enemies the next. At an occasion for being pleased they get angry. The multitude of people are impossible to satisfy. When given good advice they get angry, and they prevent me from taking good advice. If they are not listened to they get angry and go to a bad rebirth. Superiority causes jealously. Equality causes rivalry. Inferiority causes arrogance. Praises causes intoxication and criticism causes enmity. When could there be any benefit from a fool?” (88-89)

As I read this, I thought to myself what fools exist in my own life, and where have I seen examples of this type of behavior. Who are the types of people who change their disposition at a whim, are impossible to satisfy, reject good advice and prevent the taking of good advice from others, is never content with their position, gets intoxicated with praise, and hates criticism. While I contemplated the plenty of examples of this in my own life which have frustrated me, I came to two realizations.

First, people seem to be neither simply foolish nor not foolish. All of the people who I would consider “foolish” with examples of their behavior are only foolish in the specific moments when they carry out one of these actions. On the whole, however, they could be considered fairly intelligent and wise people who seem to have a unique insight into reality and life as a whole, but they are simply flawed in the way they responded in a certain situation.

Second, I myself seem to demonstrate a lot of qualities of someone who is “foolish”. I tend to change my disposition, reject good advice, feel those negative emotions when I am placed relative to other people, hate criticism, and get full of myself with praise. This is a troubling insight because while I acknowledge and dislike these qualities when I see them in others, I never truly reflect on my own behavior and how I can change those qualities about myself.

This is not altogether true – in the sense that like my friends, I would not consider myself a “fool” but someone who acts foolish in certain situations, but if I truly wish to improve myself as a person than this is a fact of life which I certainly need to pay more attention to. How, when I feel myself acting foolishly, can I know to really reflect and fix my actions in that moment? How can I teach myself to not act foolishly at all in the first place?

These are the questions which fill my mind as I continue to carry out the readings and rid myself of attachments that are detrimental to me (which I guess is all attachments according to Buddhism).

Hatred as a Conditioned Reaction

The title of this post itself might come off as rather strange given the nature of the class and the content of the curriculum and the readings thus far. I thought, however, it would be interesting to really examine in myself why hatred arises, and what was the central cause of that.

There are a few interesting quotes which frame this section and analysis which I would like to lay out below.

“If there is a solution, then what is the point of dejection? What is the point of dejection if there is no solution? (50)

“There is nothing which remains difficult if it is practised. So, through practice with minor discomforts, even major discomforts become bearable” (51)

“Therefore, even if one sees an enemy or a friend behaving badly, one can reflect that there are specific conditioning factors that determine this, and thereby remain happy” (53)

I think this can act as a good starting point for my reflection, and it can provide an interesting frame of reference for truly understanding hatred. One of the arguments which is made in the reading appears to be this notion of control in the sense of understanding what you have control over and what you don’t. If there is something which you have control over, you can change it, and if you don’t then there is simply no use in worrying about it. This idea makes a lot of intuitive sense, but, for me, it does not seem to strike at or really seek to unveil the root of the problem.

The quote on pg. 53 and the analysis on the fact that there are different conditioning factors which leads someone to behave angry appears to act as a refutation to the above that there are things which one can have control over. This analysis almost seems to suggest that the way we act is predetermined because of the fact that there is No Self, and we are a part of a causal stream. What confuses me is that if we can justify the actions of an enemy or a friend through this, then why can’t we justify the actions of ourself.

In a way, that’s where the last quote on page 51 comes in. There does seem to be a path of training, but because everything is dependent on everything else, it seems to be confusing what can make one participate in this practice in the first place. Does it not seem fated that either one will train or not train as that is how the interconnectedness of the universe finds itself to be?

Thus, it seems that hatred is an inevitable result of other dependent factors, and in a way it removes the responsibility and onus from individuals for their feelings and actions as the causes of it were inevitable. I might be misunderstanding this, but as of what I do understand, this seems to be extremely hard to reconcile with the fact that one can have the ability to choose to strive to remove these conditions.

Examining the Central Question of “Why”

As I did the reading for this week, one of the things which surprised me about the reading took place in “Vigilance Regarding the Awakened Mind” where Santideva examines a few of his motivations for choosing to uphold his promise to liberate all beings in the universe.

In my blog post last week, I talked about how it must require such great strength and compassion for a Bodhisattva to affirm that they will continue to undergo seemingly endless cycles of reincarnation in order to help alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings in the universe. This reading, however, while not necessarily contradicting that idea, appeared to bring about some particularly negative reasons for why Santideva is choosing to carry through with his promise. For example, the idea that if he were to break his promise, he would attain bad rebirths and be sent to the lower levels of hell. To me, this does not appear to be an honorable motivation for continuing to uphold a vow as serious as the one he took, and it seems to reveal the ways in which the idea of multiple rebirths with higher/lower stages can corrupt the principles of Buddhist teachings. Rather than acting out of a mode of compassion and appreciation for all sentient beings, it seems like Santideva is at least partly carrying out his task out of the fear of the consequences in not doing it.

This makes me reflect on myself and my own motivations for acting in a non-Buddhist context. Is the reason that I go to school truly for the sake of knowledge and to work towards something I am truly passionate about or is it because I fear the consequences of not getting a formal education and not having a good job in the future? Do I volunteer in order to genuinely help others or is it a way for me to make myself feel good? Do I love the people around me because I genuinely enjoy their presence or is it because I am afraid that if they leave me then I will be left completely alone?

Obviously these issues are not so black and white as to allow for a yes/no response, as it is probably a combination of both motivations which hit at the real reason that I act in certain ways, but maybe one of the most refreshing parts about this reading is that Santideva comes off as a little more “human” than the writings in the other Buddhist texts that we have read. I can identify with what Santideva is saying and recognize these things as real motivations for acting rather than someone speaking from a perspective of pure nobility, compassion, and understanding.

Compassion in a time of crisis

In this time of crisis, one of the messages in the Bodhicaryāvatāra which had a resounding impact on me was the quote in the introduction that:

“All those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others.” (8.129)

One of the crucial aspect of the Mahayana tradition is this idea of the boddhisattva, a figure who chooses to continue to undergo the cycle of reincarnation and the suffering inherent in samsara in order to help completely alleviate the suffering of others. There appears to be, as Paul Williams the writer of the introduction phrases it, “no higher human sentiment” (ix).

Given that we are in a period where a lot of people are experiencing a great deal of suffering due to this virus, this made me start thinking about the type of person that I am and the type of person who I want to be. If I chose to accept all of the tenets of Buddhism as correct, and I had the opportunity to either escape suffering myself or have the dedication to commit myself to the task of alleviating the suffering of all other beings in the infinite cosmos, what would I choose? If I am being completely honest, it would be hard for me to say that I would choose the latter option. Does that make me a bad person? Maybe, but at the very least it speaks to the endless compassion which those who choose this path must feel towards all beings in the universe.

This has made me begin to think about how I could show more compassion to those in my own life who are suffering in this moment. Even if I would not be ready yet to make the ultimate sacrifice of myself to others, maybe I can start small with helping those around me, and that seems to be its own victory. For me, this has taken the form of spending more time with my family, messaging and talking to friends who have had a hard time with the adjustment, and even volunteering to talk to other people who are going through moments of crisis at this time. As a result, I have even found myself to be happier as a result (confirming the saying above)!

As we go through this together, self-care is extremely important, but it also seems like the reading encourages us to think about how we can help those around us as well. That is a thought which I will continue to ponder as the weeks go by, and maybe one day, as I develop my compassion, I will find myself willing to devote my life and entire existence to alleviating the suffering of others. Until that day, I will do what I can and be content that I have tried my best within the confines of my own experience.