Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Sufferings of cyclic existence

Verse 4 (continued)

Part of a series of talks on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path given in various locations around the United States from 2002-2007. This talk was given in Missouri.

  • Generating the determination to be free
  • Dukka as the unsatisfactory nature of our existence
  • The eight human sufferings
  • Causes for peace of mind and happiness

Verse 4: Miseries and sufferings of cyclic existence (download)

We are still on the fourth verse but we might finish it today. Verse four says:

By contemplating the leisure and endowments so difficult to find and the fleeting nature of your life reverse the clinging to this life. By repeatedly contemplating the infallible effects of karma and the miseries of cyclic existence reverse the clinging to future lives.

This verse is about how to generate renunciation or the determination to be free from cyclic existence. The first sentence is emphasizing how to meditate in order to free ourselves from the clinging of this life and the second sentence on how to meditate to free ourselves from the clinging of all life times, of all of cyclic existence. Last time we were talking about karma as a way of when we see how karma functions we see how it arises due to our own disturbing attitudes and negative emotions; and how powerful karma is in terms of influencing what we experience; and how powerful the karma and the disturbing attitudes are for keeping us bound in the cycle of existence. Then we really feel like, “Hey, I want to be free of this.”

Why think about the sufferings of samsara?

Wheel of Life

Cyclic existence is essentially a prison because we are not free.

Then the second part was to meditate on the sufferings of cyclic existence or the miseries of cyclic existence because this also generates in us an inspiration to be free of them. The way of thinking is that unless you know you’re in prison and you are fed up with being in prison you are not going to try and get out. That’s part of our problem. We think cyclic existence, which is essentially a prison because we are not free, we see it as a pleasure grove and we think it’s great. We enjoy our samsara when it’s going well. When it’s not going well we try and fix it and make it better because we feel like our samsara should be good. “I want my life to be good. I should have all the sense pleasures I want. I should be loved and appreciated and popular and well liked. I should have everything that I deserve and want. Somehow if I only work harder, if I only do something different then I’ll be able to make the world what I want it to be so that I’m happy.” Even if we study Dharma for a long time just in the back of our mind still there’s the idea of, “If I just succeed in fixing my samsara and changing the world I’ll be okay. Dharma is nice but let’s make my samsara good too.”

That view of really looking out to the happiness of this life in particular and then striving to get a future rebirth with even more pleasure, that’s totally a dead end. This is because all of samsara is permeated by impermanence, and is in the nature of suffering. So we never quite succeed in making our samsara perfect and wind up feeling very disappointed. As long as we still have this mind of trying to improve samsara then we never really get to Dharma practice because we’re always so busy trying to fix samsara that we never really turn our mind to virtue.

We can see this so clearly when we are trying to fix samsara. What are we doing? We become so involved in personal relationships. It’s, “Who said this and who said that.” And, “Do they like me?” And, “Do they accept me?” And, “Do I feel good?” Or, “Do they talk nice about me?” We become all involved in our pleasures. “Does my room look okay?” And, “Is the temperature right here?” “It’s so hot now in Missouri, I wish it was cooler.” And a few months from now is so cold and, “I wish it was warmer.” And, “How can I make it warmer?” And, “How can I make the landscape around where I live really nice?” And, “I’ve got to take care of my cat.” And, “Make my desk look perfect—I’ve got to get the right desk, and the right computer.” Fix the car, and take care of the tractor and do all these things.

It never ends because we are always taking care of everything around us with the motivation that, “Oh, as long as this gets done then everything will function well, it will be beautiful, and I’ll be happy.” But that work never ends. It just continues on, and on, and on, and on. You finish one thing and there is another thing to do. You finish that thing and there is another thing to do.
 Isn’t it? It is like email: you write one and you get five back. There’s just never any end. We’re walking down there, and we had cut the grass—now the grass is back, got to cut it again. There is never any end to this kind of stuff.

I’m not saying don’t cut the grass and don’t respond to your email. What I’m talking about is the mind that thinks that happiness will come just from organizing the world around us and making it right. We never succeed, and in the process of doing that we ignore our spiritual potential. All the potential we have to practice and especially with the precious human body. Being able to attain not just single pointed concentration, but to understand the nature of reality, to generate impartial love and compassion and bodhicitta towards everybody—we never do that. We never meditate on those things. We don’t have time because we are too busy making things good for this lifetime, trying to get our pleasure. Then at the end of the life all we have is negative karma to show because our motivation was always with attachment. Then we just cycle round and around in cyclic existence.

Many of the things that we have to do because we have to keep up the grounds and cook and take care of things in our lives. But we have to do it with a different motivation. Our motivation can be one of offering service to sentient beings. If we do it with a Dharma motivation then the daily life actions can become an accumulation of positive potential or merit. But if we just do it with the motivation to make my samsara good, then at the most we’ll get out of it is a nice samsara—and often we don’t even get that.

The Buddha taught the truth of suffering first because he wanted us to really understand the depth of this situation that we’re in, and how horrendous it is, so that we really have the energy to get out. If we don’t recognize this, we’re like a person in a prison who sees the prison as a holiday resort. The guy is coming down the corridor to bring him to the torture session and he’s going, “Oh, what a nice beautiful prison this is. I like it here so much. It’s so pleasant.” He’s not aware at all of what he’s in for. That’s why we think about suffering and all of this. It’s not to get depressed or anything like that. It’s to see clearly our situation so that we get enough joyous effort to really get out of it, and help others get out of it as well. So that’s why today we’re going to talk about the miseries of cyclic existence.

What is dukkha?

The Buddha taught about the miseries, the sufferings of cyclic existence, the dukkha of cyclic existence in different ways. Sometimes he talked about the eight sufferings, sometimes the six sufferings, sometimes the three sufferings. If you like numbers Buddhism is for you. There are all different classifications to how much we hurt. When we talk about suffering here it doesn’t mean the ‘ouch’ kind of suffering. The word dukkha, as we were discussing before, can refer to pain or it can refer simply to the unsatisfactory nature of existence. So when we talk about suffering, don’t think that everything has to be ‘ouch’ all the time because clearly that’s not our situation.

Sometimes when you read these early books that Westerners wrote or translations they did about Buddhism they misquote the Buddha saying, “Well, the Buddha said life is all suffering.” That sounds great, doesn’t it? It is so pessimistic. Then people said, “Well, the Buddha didn’t know what he was talking about! My life is happy, you know, what’s Buddha talking about?” Well, that’s because dukkha doesn’t mean ‘ouch.’ It means unsatisfactory. It means lack of real security and to see that our existence is permeated by that.

The six sufferings of cyclic existence

I thought of talking a little bit about the six sufferings. These were taken from Mahamati’s explanation of The Friendly Letter, which was The Friendly Letter by Nagarjuna. These are thinking of the suffering of cyclic existence in general.

1. No security

The first one is that there is no certainty. This means that there is no security, there’s no stability in cyclic existence at all. If you look, this is what we are trying to get in America, isn’t it? Security. Especially after 9/11, we are trying to be secure, let’s make the country secure. Even before that we need life insurance so our family is secured. We need health insurance so we are secure. We are trying to make our property secure so we get a burglar alarm; and our relationships secure; and our country is secure. We are always trying to find security and yet there is no security, is there?

Everything is totally unreliable, everything is totally uncertain. We try and plan everything out. We try and fix everything so we control everything—to know exactly what’s happening. It never turns out that way. And then we get upset and angry instead of realizing, “Hey, this is the nature of cyclic existence,” because there is no security. There is no stability. There is no certainty. Within cyclic existence everything is changing all the time. It’s completely under the influence of the ignorance and the disturbing attitudes. How is there ever going to be any security in that?

When we’re talking about cyclic existence and our lives being insecure, sometimes we think of the phenomena around us as being uncertain, but cyclic existence actually doesn’t refer to the phenomena around us. Cyclic existence or samsara means our five aggregates. This is cyclic existence: our bodies, our feelings. It’s our discrimination. It’s our volition, our compositional factors, our consciousness. These things in dependence upon on which we label ‘I’—that is our samsara. We don’t think that. This is why we are always trying to make samsara better, because we think samsara is the external world. So I’ll fix the external world. I’ll move somewhere else. I’ll escape from samsara and go to Hawaii. And leave the computer here, leave my cell phone here, my beeper here and then I’ll go to Hawaii and I’ll be happy. That’s a total misunderstanding because samsara is our body and mind—and that goes everywhere. Where are we going to escape from our body and mind? Impossible. Then the whole thing about our body and mind? Everything is changing. Everything is uncertain.

We are always trying to count on something and find some alternate security. Like, “If I just meet Mr. Right or Miss Right. Prince Charming, he’ll finally come on his horse.” And, “If I just get the right house, and the right job, and the right this and the right that, then everything will be good.” We even carry this into the monastery. “If I get the right job in the monastery, if I find the right teacher, if I get the right monastery, if I get the right room in the monastery, if the teachings schedule becomes the teaching schedule of the hours that I want it to be.” Just this mind that’s always trying to make everything around us the way we want it—thinking that then we will find happiness. We get trapped in it all the time. This is not an easy habit to break. It’s not easy.

Thinking about uncertainty and when we meditate on this we make many examples from our own life. Go back through your life and really look and meditate, “How I was seeking for certainty and security and never found it; and that’s because the whole nature of this beast is uncertain.” So looking at our experiences and seeing how uncertain everything is. And how whenever we start a new thing we have all these expectations, and then it’s not like that. It changes.

2. No satisfaction

Then the second quality is that there is no satisfaction, so actually Mick Jagger had it right. We “can’t get no satisfaction” anywhere in samsara. It’s a nonexistent phenomenon. Again, if we look in our own lives, the way we live, what are we doing? We’re always looking for satisfaction. We’re always wanting more and better. Our whole attitude is insatiable. Whatever we have we want more of it. Whatever we have we want it better. The constant dissatisfaction—you can see as Americans we were raised to be dissatisfied. Look at the consumer culture that we live in and even how children are raised.

Children are raised to be dissatisfied. Notice how each year they come out with a new toy for children. One year it’s roller blades and the next year it’s skateboards. Then it’s a skateboard with a handle on it that they use to have when I was a kid. If you had given it to them two years ago they wouldn’t have anything to do with it because it was old from when I was a kid. But now two years later it’s the big thing so they all want it. This constant dissatisfaction occurs even in kids.

Of course the adults are similar. Always we have to upgrade our computer. We have to get a new car. We have to fix this. We have to add an addition to our house. We have to build this. We have to make a nicer barn. Whatever it is, whatever we have, we always want more and better. All we have to do is watch our mind from morning to night. How the mind is always so full of desire for this and that, “Oh, I want this. Oh, I want that.” Whatever I have is unsatisfactory.

We see this when we sit down to do mindfulness with breathing. “I’m dissatisfied. I need to get a different meditation cushion. I saw that catalog, that Dharma catalog with all fifteen varieties of meditation cushions and I really should have ordered a new one.” And then, “I need a new zabuton, too—to match my new meditation cushion.” And then, “Well, that’s not complete, my meditation cushion is still too hard with the new one. Maybe I’ll try a bench.” Then you get the bench. Then if the bench is too hard, “I need a padded bench. Well, no maybe I go back to square cushion because I had a round one before.” Never any satisfaction.

This even happens when it comes to the Dharma. You really see this with newcomers to the Dharma. Whenever the teacher they’re going to or whatever practice, “Oh, maybe I should try out this other teacher. Maybe I should try out this other practice. Maybe I should try out this other practice, and this other thing my teacher teaches.” The mind flitting from thing to thing even in the Dharma. Looking for the ideal practice that’s really going to zap me, that going to give me the big high—then I know I got it. Yes, with a real teacher that’s going to give me shivers up and down. Then it’s just the right, the very perfect Buddhist statue that I need to fully inspire me. Then I have to get different prayer beads. Then I have to have my prayer beads blessed. It’s just the mind that’s dissatisfied all the time.

Look at our relationship to our body. Do you know anybody who is satisfied with their body? Nobody is satisfied with their body. If you are young you want to be a little bit older. If you bulge in one place you don’t want to bulge there, you want bulge somewhere else. You want to be thinner, you want to be fatter, you want to be taller, or shorter. Different color skin, more freckles or less freckles. And if we have straight hair we want curly hair. If we have curly hair we want straight hair. If we have black hair we want it light. If we have light hair we want it dark. We are not even happy with our body.

So samsara—the suffering of samsara is that there’s no peace—this constant insatiability, constant dissatisfaction. Until we realize emptiness and get ourselves out of samsara, we’re going to keep on with this state of mind. Whatever we have we’re not going to be satisfied. Wherever we go we’re not going to be satisfied because it’s the state of mind that creates the dissatisfaction. So that’s why it’s so important to practice because that’s the only way to get ourselves out of this mess.

3. We die again and again

The third of the six sufferings is that we have to abandon our body repeatedly, which means that we have to die over and over and over again. This is based on thinking about multiple lifetimes. Even if you don’t think about multiple lifetimes, even this one lifetime, is death something that everybody looks forward to? Nobody wants to hear about death. We seek like mad to avoid it. We don’t want to hear anything about death. We see death as intense suffering. And physically, it is suffering. And psychologically, mentally, it’s tremendous suffering too because we’re leaving everything that we think is me or mine when we die. All the ‘security’ we have in building up our own ego structure, our own little world, it all vanishes at death.

Here we think of not only the death that we have coming from this life. Rather, when you think about rebirth and having to go through that again, and again, and again. I mean it’s horrible. It’s horrible. If it was just this one life and we died and finished, it’s bad enough. But if you think about rebirth, then it’s like really horrible; and that gives you a lot energy about, “I really have to get out!” If it all stops at death time, then okay. But if it continues on at death time and if I have to keep going through this dying again, and again, and again then I really have to do something about this situation.

4. We take rebirth repeatedly

Then the fourth one is we have to take rebirth repeatedly. So we don’t just die and finish. But then once we die we have to get born again. You die and then you get reborn, you die and then you get reborn, you die and get reborn. Just think about when babies are born, we think that’s so wonderful—and on one hand it is. But on the other hand, being pregnant isn’t any fun. Getting born isn’t any fun, going through the birth canal. We come out they whack us on the bottom and put drops in our eyes. We have no clue what in the world is going on around us. You try to tell the baby, “It’s okay. I’ll feed you,” and “Don’t worry, you’re okay.” The baby doesn’t understand. So having to be a baby again, and wail and cry, and cry and feel up in the air?

Then think of having to be an adolescent again. Someone told me once, when they thought about having to be an adolescent again then they really wanted to get out of samsara. Just think about it; think about how horrible adolescence was. Did anybody have a nice adolescence? I mean it’s hard; it’s a hard time. It’s a period of tremendous confusion. Our body, it’s just going nuts. And so thinking of having to go through all these stages of life: again, and again. Just the whole thing, it’s like on this Ferris wheel—you just keep going round, and round, and round—and it’s a drag.

For me the value of thinking of this happening over many lives is that it gives me stronger impetus to stop it. This is because I know it’s not going to stop by itself. When I think of this going on again and again, it’s like, “I’ve really got to do something because nothing is going to stop this mess, unless realizing wisdom and eliminating the cause of ignorance. Otherwise if I just keep on this way, samsara is going to keep on this way.”

5. Our status changes repeatedly

The fifth one is changing status repeatedly—so going up and down. In samsara we get reborn as many, many different things. They talk about six realms of existence: the hell beings, the hungry ghosts, the animals, the human beings, the demigods, the gods. You go up and down in all these realms repeatedly. They say we’ve been born as everything. We’ve done everything. We’ve been universal monarchs. This is supposedly the great thing. I don’t know what in our culture is the great thing that you all aspire to be? We’ve all been great political leaders. We’ve all been great religious leaders for that matter. We have had lots of fame and fortune and lots of love affairs and lots of riches and the whole thing. Then in the next rebirth you go down and lose everything and live in a horrible state. Our status is changing repeatedly.

This also happens within just this lifetime. When you look at people who start out poor and they get rich, then they get poor again. We’re always going up and down, and up and down—like it’s the stock market. Up and down, up and down. Sometimes you hear life stories, like some of the people who lived in China before the revolution, who came from aristocratic families. Then they wind up in a horrible prison and die in prison. Again, this is the change in status. People praising us and people blaming us: praise, blame, praise, blame—it’s changing constantly. Life to life changing what our rebirth is; so there’s no certainty or security in this. Then just having to go through all these changes in status—it’s quite a drag.

One of my teachers, Serkong Rinpoche, they took him to the Eiffel Tower when he was in Paris. They took him to the top of the Eiffel Tower and from the top, I mean this is like the ultimate thing in Paris, you’re at the top of the Eiffel Tower. You look at everything and you are supposed to go, “Aaahhh.” All he did was say, “Oh, the only place to go from here is down.” It’s like even if you get to the top of cyclic existence, the peak of cyclic existence, the only place you go from there is down.

We’ve all had single-pointed concentration. We all have accomplished the four concentrations of the form realms and the four formless realm absorptions. We’ve all even had incredible powers of concentration and psychic abilities and clairvoyant powers and magic powers. We’ve had all this before. Even if you get born in those realms, the karma that propels those kinds of rebirths when it ends, then negative karma ripens after that. So there’s repeated changing of status.

6. We go through suffering alone

The sixth of the sufferings is that we go through all of this without any companionship, without any friends. Nobody else, no other ordinary sentient being can help us in any way with any of this. Although we’ve been everything and done everything in samsara, we’ve done everything but practice the Dharma—and all of our suffering has been gone through alone. We get born alone. We die alone. Our tooth hurts alone. Our mental pain of separation hurts alone. I mean, all our emotional pain, it goes on inside us. Nobody else can reach inside and take it out and take our emotional pain away from us. All of our physical pain is ours. We bear it alone. Nobody can come and take it away from us.

In our samsara we always think, “If only I had a friend. If I only had this one right relationship. That person will protect me from suffering.” What can a mere sentient being do to protect us from suffering? They can’t protect us from hurting. Sometimes they become in fact one of the cooperative conditions of our hurting, don’t they? And even if we are dying, maybe they can help us think about Dharma when we are dying. But they can’t make us think about Dharma and guarantee that we are going to think about Dharma. So we have to go through all of this alone.

How to meditate on the six sufferings

When we think about these six unsatisfactory conditions of cyclic existence, we especially think about them in relationship to our own life. The whole trick of getting some experience with this meditation is really sitting there and going through these things. Really consider, “Is this my experience? How is this my experience?” Remember specific times in our lives when this has happened to us. Then think of this happening over a period of many lifetimes. And then think of how unsatisfactory this is, how there’s absolutely no happiness, no security, no peace in any of this.

When we get that strong feeling that’s when we’re fed up with cyclic existence and we’re aiming for nirvana. It’s like, “I want out!” That’s the aspiration for liberation. This is a very powerful mind because that’s the mind that’s going to get us going on the path. Of course we’re all so relatively new to the Dharma, aren’t we? Who knows how many lifetimes we’ve been in it, but still the mind is new. We’re not going to have this mind of renunciation day and night spontaneously, are we? Maybe if we do a meditation session on these sufferings then we get some experience and we have that feeling of renunciation. Maybe it lasts for a half an hour after a meditation session—and then we are back trying to fix our samsara again, and worrying about our life, and making our circumstances good. So that’s why this kind of meditation needs to be done repeatedly. We need to remember these unsatisfactory conditions again and again. We have to really see them in our lives because so easily we forget. We go back into, “Oh, it’s such a bright sunny day. Let’s take a walk, and have a good time with my friends, and play some music, and go out to a movie.” Everything is so great we forget.

We might have some intellectual renunciation. I don’t know about you, but when I look at how I live my life, my daily life: it’s basically trying to improve my samsara, and moaning and groaning because my samsara isn’t good enough. That’s why we do this meditation. Remember that meditation means familiarity. Habituation is why we need to do it again and again. So those are the six sufferings.

The eight sufferings of human beings

I want to cover the eight sufferings again. Ajahn Santikaro went through them last time. There are some things in them that really stick out for me that I thought to share. The ones about birth, aging, sickness, and death, we can think about those pretty much. Although do you notice how much we avoid even thinking about those first four of the eight. Don’t we?


Who likes to think about getting old? When we think about getting old, what do we do? Buy health insurance. Buy health insurance, get another house, make sure you have kids so that you have kids who will take care of you when you are old. Save up your money, get your 401K, get enough money in the bank account. Whenever we think of old age, that’s what we try to do, “Okay, let’s set it up so that I can be happy and secure.” We’re not even sure we will live to be that old, but we make lots of plans for it anyway.

Do we really think about what being old will be like? Do we think about what is it really going to feel like? Just how it is now, looking in the mirror and seeing so much gray hair and so many more wrinkles than you had before. How we feel when our body starts losing energy. I mean, I know distinct times in my life, like around when I went from twenty nine to thirty, I could really feel a shift in my body’s energy. Think in your life what you use to be able to do when you were twenty and what you’re able to do now. How do we feel about the prospect of aging? Having to use a walker and having to use a cane, and getting senile or getting Alzheimer’s, or having people look at us as if we’re stupid because we’re old, and tuning us out because we’re old.

Look how society treats old people. Look at sometimes our own prejudices against seniors. At family dinners, do we really include the seniors in the conversation? Or do we think, “Oh, our generation is the one that makes it all happen. They can just go watch television or something.” What’s it going to be like when we’re like that and other people treat us that way? What is it going to be like when we’re really sick and some friends desert us or some friends just won’t leave us alone. How is it going to be? What is it going to be like when it finally dawns on us that we’re dying?

I think it’s very helpful to think in our own lives, do an imaginary video. I mean we’re always imagining things anyway—usually just pleasure and pleasurable experiences. In your meditation imagine yourself aging. Imagine what you’re going to go through if you live that long. Imagine what your life is going to be when you’re sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety. Are we going to be able to age gracefully?

Think of the problems and the personalities of the people that you know who are old. Do you think that you’re going to be able to have a good personality when you’re old? Are we just going to be bitter and complaining? How are we going to be when we’re old? When we think of this and we find it very effective, then it gets us to say, “I have to get out of cyclic existence! Old age, if it’s definite this lifetime, if we live that long. Do I want to be going through this again and again in many more lifetimes? Well, no.”

How am I even going to cope with this life’s old age? Think about it. How you’re going to cope when your body is weak? How are you going to cope when your mind can’t remember things? When you hear your friends and relatives in the other room say, “He’s really getting very forgetful, I wonder if we should have him checked out for Alzheimer’s?” When they are whispering things like that—the whole thing we don’t hear yet we hear. How would you feel? “Gosh, she’s getting a bit old. Maybe we should consider an old age home. I know a good one down the street.” How would you feel? Is our Dharma practice strong enough to carry us through those times? That’s all we’re going to have when we’re old. We are not going to have our body’s strength. We’re not going to have a bright clever mind that can remember everything. It’s only going to be our Dharma practice that’s going to bring us any solace. Is our Dharma practice strong enough so that when we’re old we can have happy minds? This is really something to check out.

There’s one woman in DFF [Dharma Friendship Foundation] who’s eighty-four, Miriam. She’s wonderful and she gives so much inspiration to people at DFF. That’s the group in Seattle where I used to teach. Miriam is an extraordinary old person. Whenever you talk to her, she can’t remember things so well now. So whenever you talk to her she says, “I feel so grateful, I am so blessed.” Then she starts telling you everything wonderful in her life. How many people do you know who are eighty-four who talk life that? Or even who are twenty-four or forty-four or sixty- four who talk like that? Do we talk like that? I don’t talk like that. When I see people I start telling them all my problems and all my complaints. I never say, “I feel so blessed and so fortunate.” I just go, “This is wrong and that’s wrong,” you know? So how are we going to be as old people? That’s something to really think about and consider.

Being separated from what we like

The first four of the eight sufferings are birth, aging, sickness, and death. Then being separated from what we like. How do we feel when we’re separated from what we like? Here again really go into our own lives. The whole trick in this is really to make examples in our lives. How many times have I’ve been separated from what I’ve liked? Or when what I’ve liked has disappointed me? I work really hard to get a certain job and I’m disappointed? Or I get this great car and it crashes. Or I have this wonderful relationship and then it goes rotten. Or I have wonderful relatives and they die. Or I have a wonderful house and then I got to give it up because my income went down. How does it feel when we’re separated from the things that we like?

We can think about big things in our lives. But just even on a day-to-day basis we think we’re not attached to anything. We think, “I’m not attached to my shoes.” But you walk out of here and you’re shoes aren’t there, “Where are my shoes?” We’re really upset because we’re separated from something that we like? Yet before somebody took our shoes we go, “I’m not attached to my shoes.” Our own vision of our Dharma practice—sometimes we’re not looking realistically. Making examples of when we’re separated from what we like and how this is going to keep happening.

Not obtaining what we like

Then not getting what we want. Again our whole life is we work so hard to get what we want. We have these dreams, we have these goals, “If I only had da, da, da, da. If I only were di, di, di, di, di. Then I’d be happy.” We have all these things that we’re trying to become, “I want to be this. I want to be that.” It could be our career goal. It could be, “Oh, if only I ordained then I’d be happy. That’s going to solve all my problems.” “If only I were a spiritual teacher then I’d be happy.” “If only people recognized me—what a great practitioner I was, I would be happy.” “If only I would find the perfect monastery that would do it, if only…”

Always wanting this, always wanting that, and never getting everything we want. We work so hard to try and rearrange the world to be what we want and we never succeed. Think in our life, really do a life review: “That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life and it hasn’t worked. It’s brought about constant frustration of not getting what I want.” We look and we discover that we’re basically in many ways still like three-year-olds. I don’t get what I want. I mean three-year-olds are at least honest about it and sit and cry and scream. We’re too polite to do that so we manipulate. We complain. We backbite. We do all sorts of other things to try to get what we want. We don’t just sit and cry. This happens again and again, “If only I had a perfect friend. I really want this perfect friendship. I really want a friend who’s like this.”

We can’t get our perfect friend. Can’t get our perfect business partner; can’t even get our perfect Dharma teacher, can we? Get a Dharma teacher and they burp, “My Dharma teacher is not supposed to burp.” We start picking fault everywhere. There’s always we can’t find the perfect whatever it is. That’s the mind of samsara, isn’t it? How much suffering that is? Now, that is samsara. We try hard to get everything that we want, we can’t succeed.

Meeting with what we don’t like

We try very hard to avoid problems and they come like rainfall. All these problems; we don’t want problems. We don’t want to get sick. We don’t want to have pain. We don’t want our relationship to change—our good relationships to change. We don’t want whatever it is and yet we have no control over it.

Can’t get what we want; get what we don’t want—just constant problems. We wake up in the morning we say, “I’m going to have a real good day.” Then all of these problems happen in the middle of the day that we never expected. We think, “Okay, if they had scheduled in a problem maybe I could have handled it. Can’t samsara at least be more organized? Give me some warning that today I’m going to get the phone call that my mother died. Give me some warning that today my computer is going to break. Give me some warning that today my best friend is going to lay this big criticism trip on me. At least give me some warning,samsara, so I can prepare for this.” No warning; but instead all these problems come. This is samsara, I mean, if we don’t get out this is going to continue.

Having a body and mind under the control of afflictions

Then the eighth of the eight sufferings is just having a body and mind under the control of disturbing attitudes and karma. Just having the body and mind that we have—that is unsatisfactory, that is dukkha. As soon as we have a body and mind under the influence of ignorance and karma the rest is a given, all the other sufferings follow. That’s why it’s so important to realize emptiness. It’s only the realization of emptiness that eliminates the ignorance. When we eliminate the ignorance we stop the disturbing attitudes and negative emotions. When we stop those then the karma stops, then the rebirth stops, then all the suffering stops.

We have to eliminate the ignorance that grasps at true existence because that’s what caused the mess. But we only get the energy to really do serious meditation on emptiness, and only get enough energy to do serious meditation on bodhicitta, if we want to get out of cyclic existence. As long as we think that somehow fixing my samsara is going to make me happy, then we’re always going to get distracted by doing this, that, and the other thing. Like I was saying before, samsaric activity never ends. There’s always another email to answer, always another phone call to answer. There’s always another person to bail out of trouble. There’s always another movie to see. There’s always another way we have to prove ourselves to somebody. There’s always some other business deal to do. There’s always another road to fix. There’s always another whatever.

Samsaric work never ends and that’s why we are trying to seek nirvana. Nirvana is a state where we’re free from all of that. We have some final peace of mind and final happiness. But nirvana is not going to come on its own. We have to create the causes. One of the chief causes for nirvana enlightenment is this renunciation of cyclic existence and the determination to be free.

Okay, now some time for some questions and discussion. [End of teaching]

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.