dukkha, the pervasive unsatisfactoriness of existence

Excerpts from a talk by Ajahn Chah. My brother gave me a book written by this Buddhist teacher before he (my brother) died. My brother and I shared an interest in Buddhism and things spiritual. It is what made us close in a way I am not with anyone else in my family. Today I post excerpts from this talk by Ajahn Chah. The whole website is worth looking at and the book is too. I am not a Buddhist, but I have practiced meditation and attended retreats intermittently for years. So in memory of my brother the words of Ajahn Chah for the purposes of contemplation during this time of great dukkha:

Understanding Dukkha

It sticks on the skin and goes into the flesh; from the flesh, it gets into the bones. It’s like an insect on a tree that eats through the bark, into the wood, and then into the core, until finally the tree dies.

We’ve grown up like that. It gets buried deep inside. Our parents taught us grasping and attachment, giving meaning to things, believing firmly that we exist as a self-entity and that things belong to us. From our birth that’s what we are taught. We hear this over and over again, and it penetrates our hearts and stays there as our habitual feeling. We’re taught to get things, to accumulate and hold on to them, to see them as important and as ours. This is what our parents know, and this is what they teach us. So it gets into our minds, into our bones.

When we take an interest in meditation and hear the teaching of a spiritual guide, it’s not easy to understand. It doesn’t really grab us. We’re taught not to see and do things the old way, but when we hear it, it doesn’t penetrate the mind; we only hear it with our ears. People just don’t know themselves.

So we sit and listen to teachings, but it’s just sound entering the ears. It doesn’t get inside and affect us. It’s like we’re boxing, and we keep hitting the other guy but he doesn’t go down. We remain stuck in our self-conceit. The wise have said that moving a mountain from one place to another is easier than moving the self-conceit of people…..

…..There is difficulty in practice, but in anything we undertake, we have to pass through difficulty to reach ease. In Dharma practice, we begin with the truth of dukkha, the pervasive unsatisfactoriness of existence. But as soon as we experience this, we lose heart. We don’t want to look at it. Dukkha is really the truth, but we want to get around it somehow. It’s similar to the way we don’t like to look at old people, but prefer to look at those who are young.

If we don’t want to look at dukkha, we will never understand dukkha, no matter how many births we go through. Dukkha is noble truth. If we allow ourselves to face it, then we will start to seek a way out of it. If we are trying to go somewhere and the road is blocked, we will think about how to make a pathway. Working at it day after day, we can get through. When we encounter problems, we develop wisdom like this. Without seeing dukkha, we don’t really look into and resolve our problems; we just pass them by indifferently.

My way of training people involves some suffering, because suffering is the Buddha’s path to enlightenment. He wanted us to see suffering, and to see origination, cessation, and the path. This is the way out for all the aryas, the awakened ones. If you don’t go this way, there is no way out. The only way is knowing suffering, knowing the cause of suffering, knowing the cessation of suffering, and knowing the path of practice leading to the cessation of suffering. This is the way that the aryas, beginning with stream entry, were able to escape. It’s necessary to know suffering.

If we know, we will see it in everything we experience. Some people feel that they don’t really suffer much. But practice in Buddhism is for the purpose of freeing ourselves from suffering. What should we do not to suffer anymore? When dukkha arises, we should investigate to see the causes of its arising. Then once we know that, we can practice to remove those causes. Suffering, origination, cessation—in order to bring it to cessation, we have to understand the path of practice. Then once we travel the path to fulfillment, dukkha will no longer arise. In Buddhism, this is the way out.

Opposing our habits creates some suffering. But generally we are afraid of suffering, and if something will make us suffer, we don’t want to do it. We are interested in what appears to be good and beautiful, but we feel that anything involving suffering is bad. It’s not like that. Suffering is saccadhamma, truth. If there is suffering in the heart, it becomes the cause that makes you think about escaping. It leads you to contemplate. You won’t sleep so soundly, because you will be intent on investigating to find out what is really going on, trying to see causes and their results.

Happy people don’t develop wisdom. They are asleep. It’s like a dog that eats its fill. After that it doesn’t want to do anything. It can sleep all day. It won’t bark if a burglar comes–it’s too full, too tired. But if you only give it a little food, it will be alert and awake. If someone tries to come sneaking around, it will jump up and start barking. Have you seen that?

We humans are trapped and imprisoned in this world and have troubles in such abundance, and we are always full of doubts, confusion, and worry. This is no game. It’s really something difficult and troublesome. So there’s something we need to get rid of. According to the way of spiritual cultivation, we should give up our bodies, give up ourselves. We have to resolve to give our lives…..

….If we speak the subtle Dharma, most people will be frightened by it. They won’t dare to enter it. Even saying, “Don’t do evil,” most people can’t follow this. That’s how it is. So I’ve sought all kinds of means to get this across, and one thing I often say is, no matter we are delighted or upset, happy or suffering, shedding tears or singing songs, never mind—living in this world, we are living in a cage. We don’t get beyond this condition of being in a cage. Even if you are rich, you are living in a cage. If you are poor, you are living in a cage. If you sing and dance, you’re singing and dancing in a cage. If you watch a movie, you’re watching it in a cage.
What is this cage? It is the cage of birth, the cage of aging, the cage of illness, the cage of death. In this way, we are imprisoned in the world. “This is mine.” “That belongs to me.” We don’t know what we really are or what we’re doing. Actually all we are doing is accumulating suffering for ourselves. It’s not something far away that causes our suffering, but we don’t look at ourselves. However much happiness and comfort we may have, having been born we cannot avoid aging, we must fall ill, and we must die. This is dukkha itself, here and now…..

….When the eyes see something displeasing, dukkha is born. The ears hear something that you really like, and dukkha is also born. There is only suffering.

The Buddha summed it up by saying that there is only a mass of suffering. Suffering is born and suffering ceases. That’s all there is. We pounce on and grab at it again and again, pouncing on arising, pouncing on cessation, never really understanding it.

When dukkha arises, we call that suffering. When it ceases, we call that happiness. It’s all old stuff, arising and ceasing. We are taught to watch body and mind arising and ceasing. There’s nothing else outside of this. To sum it up, there is no happiness–there’s only dukkha. We recognize suffering as suffering when it arises. Then when it ceases, we consider that to be happiness. We see it and designate it as such, but it isn’t. It’s just dukkha ceasing. Dukkha arises and ceases, arises and ceases, and we pounce on it and catch hold of it. Happiness appears and we are pleased. Unhappiness appears and we are distraught. It’s really all the same, mere arising and ceasing. When there is arising, there’s something, and when there is ceasing, it’s gone. This is where we doubt. Thus it’s taught that dukkha arises and ceases, and outside of that, there is nothing. When you come down to it, there is only suffering. But we don’t see clearly.

We don’t recognize clearly that there is only suffering because when it stops, we see happiness there. We seize on it and get stuck there. We don’t really know what’s going on, which is just arising and ceasing.

The Buddha summed things up by saying that there are only arising and ceasing, and there’s nothing outside of that. This is difficult to listen to. But one who truly has a feel for the Dharma doesn’t need to take hold of anything and dwells in ease. That’s the truth….

….There is nothing to be anxious about. There’s nothing worth crying over, nothing to laugh at. Nothing is inherently tragic or delightful. But such is what’s ordinary for people.

Our speech can be ordinary, relating to others according to the ordinary way of seeing things. That’s OK. But if we are thinking in the ordinary way, that leads to tears.

In truth, if we really know the Dharma and see it continuously, nothing is anything at all; there are only arising and passing away. There’s no real happiness or suffering. The heart is at peace then, when there is no happiness or suffering. When there is happiness and suffering, there is becoming and birth.

We usually create one kind of karma, which is trying to stop suffering to give rise to happiness. That’s what we want. But what we want is not real peace; it’s happiness and suffering. The aim of the Buddha’s teaching is to practice to create a type of karma that is beyond happiness and suffering and that will bring peace. But we aren’t able to think like that. We can only think that having happiness will bring us peace. If we have happiness, we think that’s good enough.

Thus we humans wish for things in abundance. If we get a lot, that’s good. Generally that’s how we think. Doing good is supposed to bring good results, and if we get that, we’re happy. We think that’s all we need to do, and we stop there. But where does good come to conclusion? It doesn’t remain. We keep going back and forth, experiencing good and bad, trying day and night to seize on what we feel is good.

The truth is that in this world of ours, there is nothing that does anything to anybody. The Buddha’s teaching is that first we should give up evil, and then we practice what is good. Second, he said that we should give up evil and give up the good as well, not having attachment to it, because that is also one kind of fuel. When there is something that is fuel, it will eventually burst into flame. Good is fuel. Bad is fuel.

Speaking on this level kills people. People aren’t able to follow it. So we have to turn back to the beginning and teach morality. Don’t harm each other. Be responsible in your work, and don’t harm or exploit others. The Buddha taught this, but just this much isn’t enough to stop…..

….The Buddha taught about impermanence. What is permanent? Only that this is the way things are; they don’t follow anyone’s wishes. That is noble truth. Impermanence rules the world, and that is something permanent. This is the point we are deluded at, so this is where you should be looking. Whatever occurs, recognize it as right. Everything is right in its own nature, which is ceaseless motion and change. Our bodies exist thus. All sankhara, conditioned phenomena, exist thus. We can’t stop them; they can’t be stilled. Not being stilled means their nature of impermanence. If we don’t struggle with this reality, then wherever we are, we will be happy. Wherever we sit, we are happy. Wherever we sleep, we are happy. Even when we get old, we won’t make a big deal out of it. You stand up and your back hurts, and you think, “Yeah, that’s about right.” It’s right, so don’t fight it. When the pain stops, you might think, “Ah, that’s better.” But it’s not better. You’re not yet dead, so it will hurt again. This is the way it is, so you have to keep turning your mind to this contemplation and not let it back away from the practice. Keep steadily at it, and don’t trust in things too much; trust the Dhamma instead, that life is like this. Don’t believe in happiness. Don’t believe in suffering. Don’t get stuck in following after anything.

14 thoughts on “dukkha, the pervasive unsatisfactoriness of existence

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  1. Gianna, I just wanted to give another positive affirmation for you, that we have been “blog buddies” for quite some time now, and remember when we started writing them, and yours is excellent, it has evolved beyond anything imaginable;with information and your self-determination explodes onto these pages. Talk about a revolution to take back your life!

  2. Thanks you, that was very touching. I like the buddists teachings. They explain life in such a divine light. Its brings me down to the grass roots of life. Its very inspiring, just what I needed at this moment in time. It has calmed me down.

    I hope life is being good to you, all the best.

  3. What a beautiful post, Gianna, in memory of your brother….I have read some Buddhist teachings, and some touched me deeply, others didn’t. I really like the way this teacher makes things clear, at least as much as I could understand in my present not so present state.

    Thank you so very much for posting this. I needed to read this today! I’ve been suffering inside with my own inner turmoil as well as suffering from the woes of the world. How nice to think that there is a way out of this “cage” of a world we are stuck in….for the time being anyway.

    Best to you, and thank you so much for your wonderful blog!

  4. Duane,
    If you liked reading this go to the Ajahn Chah website I linked to at the beginning of the post. There are a whole bunch of talks he’s given on that site.

    Also there are lots of good Buddhist teachers who write books that I have enjoyed.

    Off the top of my head, one I loved, by an American teacher is “Radical Acceptance” but Tara Brach.

    Doesn’t the title just make you want to read it??

  5. ‘Easier to move a mountain than self-conceipt’ – wow, that’s a powerful statement – and I believe, a true one…..

    I am not Buddhist, but had the opportunity to get to know a priest named Father Heaney – (Irish, Catholic – obviously, with a name like Heany)…..

    Fr. Heaney spent some time in many different countries – and worked with Buddhist monks – he developed a great appreciation for this ‘meditation’ you speak of an practice…..

    He taught us young people how to meditate – to the sound of an air conditioning unit – tuning into the hum of the motor – becoming centered – balanced – at peace inside…..

    I’ll be posting an entry on Fr. Heaney on my blog soon – he was quite an amazing priest – I think he had reached a level of spirituality that few are able to obtain – he was, by all counts a truly ‘holy’ man……

    I think we can all reach this level –

    This was a wonderful article – I have read it several times – it will take a half-dozen more to begin to understand the depth of this message –

    Thanks for posting –

  6. thanks for your input robaroot, you clearly have been studying these teachings for a long time. I have too, but I don’t think I would have articulated anything as nicely as you did! I don’t think I’ve truly internalized any of it….but I love thinking about it and reading this sort of thing.

    I do have to say I think I need to find my center (of which you seem to suggest there is none)—-but perhaps that’s speaking from a different paradigm and doesn’t conflict with what you’re saying really.

    I like looking at things spiritual from many vantage points one being Buddhism.

  7. For me – simply put: Life is suffering. Don’t look away from this suffering. Understand it. Where does the suffering come from? The ceaseless desire for pleasure and self-centered gratification. To end suffering, end desire. The self is an illusion made up of emotions, memories, and thoughts that have no center – no abiding core. To rely on this illusion is to live in delusion, to mistake the movie of our minds for the Truth. The fight we wage in life is called aversion. Buddhism, and living the Dharma, gives us a way to surrender. It’s great stuff.

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