The truth of dukkha

The truth of dukkha

From December 17 to 25, 2006, at Sravasti Abbey, Geshe Jampa Tegchok taught on A Precious Garland of Advice to a King by Nagarjuna. Venerable Thubten Chodron complemented these teachings by giving commentary and background.

  • The first noble truth
  • The three types of suffering
    • 1. Gross suffering
    • 2. Suffering of change and the pervasive suffering of being in a body and mind subject to obscurations, afflictions, aging, sickness and death
    • 3. The suffering of attachment and aversion
  • The lack of control and freedom in this kind of body and mind
  • Developing equal compassion for all
  • The ignorance that gives rise to all this can be eliminated by the mental factor of wisdom that perceives things as they are.
  • Questions and answers

Precious Garland 03 (download)

Setting the motivation—appreciating our lives; expanding our Bodhicitta

So let’s cultivate our motivation and recall the advantages we have with our precious human life; this present life with just the fortune to meet the Dharma, meet teachers, have a supportive community, have books in our own language, have enough to eat so that we can do our practice. So let’s really appreciate everything we have going for us in our life and at the same let’s realize that the whole situation is very fragile because things are changing moment by moment. We know that we’re mortal and that death will come, but we don’t know when. So between now and that moment it’s important to really use our life wisely, to use our time and our energy in ways that are going to produce good for ourselves and for others. So to produce good for self and others, we have to pull ourselves out of our self-centered attitude and its narrow vision of “my happiness now” and broaden it and extend it first to all sentient beings; caring about what happens to all sentient beings.

And second, enlarging our understanding of what happiness and benefit are. So it’s not just a thing of trying to bring more people more sense pleasure in this life, but looking at the root of our discontent, uprooting it in ourselves and then helping others to do the same. So this involves a quite radical shift in how we look at things, having very much a big mind, a big heart. So let’s cultivate that right now and aspire for full Buddhahood no matter how long it takes, because we know that that’s the best way to bring about the happiness and benefit for ourselves and others. Generate that aspiration.

Dukkha: the three types of suffering

So yesterday I was just about to start talking about the three kinds of dukkha and to go into more depth about dukkha. I’m going to use the word dukkha. Sometimes we call it suffering or unsatisfactory conditions, but actually neither of those terms really give us the flavor of dukkha because in English, when we think of suffering, then we think of war and famine and illness, but we don’t think of everyday life in that way. So the word suffering is not a very good translation for dukkha, and I think it actually can impede our full Dharma understanding by using that word, because we just think of the gross suffering. Dukkha means more unsatisfactory conditions. It means everything is not hunky dory. Everything is not totally secure and well.

So there are three kinds of dukkha that we often talk about. And this comes into the teaching on the First Noble Truth, the truth of dukkha. The reason the Buddha talked about dukkha first, is that we have to face our present situation and look at its causes before we can think about a better future. Lots of people come into the Dharma, and they don’t want to look at their present situation. It’s like,” I don’t want to look at this. When I look at the state of the world, when I look at the state of my mind, I just get depressed. I want light and love and bliss.” And I’ll pay $99.99 to get it! But that kind of light and love and bliss that they’re seeking is actually something quite superficial because it’s like you want to be well, but you don’t want to get a diagnosis. So how’re you going to be well, if you don’t go to the doctor and don’t have a diagnosis? You can take all sorts of nice herbal stuff that might taste good, but it’s not really going to do much for you.

The Buddha, in talking about dukkha, was not trying to make us depressed. His purpose was not to get us all worked up about the state of the world and the state of our mind because we don’t need to listen to Dharma teachings to do that. We do it all by our self. Panic, despair, we’re champions at generating those. So Buddha didn’t need to teach us how. But instead he’s asking us to look with a very steady and clear mind, so that we can see our situation accurately. When we see it accurately, then we can decide what we want to do with it. But we have to see it for what it is. And when Geshela was talking about American Buddhism, one part that I see missing in American Buddhism is that people, in general, don’t want to look at the First Noble Truth or the Second Noble Truth. We want to go straight to the light and love and bliss and high practices, and wowie-kazowie experiences and anything that is exotic and different. As a result we often don’t get anywhere. We can spend years supposedly practicing but not a lot changes in the mind.

So, personally speaking, I’ve found doing a lot of meditation on the first two noble truths extremely helpful for my own mind and very sobering. And there’s a certain sense of relief that I experience by being able to very clearly look at my situation, even though it isn’t so wonderful, even though samsara isn’t so great. There’s a sense of relief, being able to see it for what it is, instead of always having to paint things on and pretend that we’re happy. Because you know how it is in the West, you have to always pretend you’re happy and that you are like the models in the movie magazines and everything is just wonderful! But that’s not the way we feel inside is it? And the moment you talk to somebody for more than five minutes, then you start hearing a parade of their problems.

The dukkha of pain

So in the three different kinds of dukkha, the easiest level to acknowledge is the dukkha of pain; the unsatisfactory circumstance of pain. So we talked a little bit about pain yesterday. Nobody likes it. Animals experience it just as we do. So in wanting to be free of this level dukkha, we human beings are not special, let alone we Buddhists are not special. Nobody wants to have a stomach ache. Nobody likes getting sick or aging or dying. Nobody likes getting criticized or rejected or abandoned, whether you’re an animal or any other kind of life form. This kind of very gross physical and mental suffering is real in all those life forms and none of us like it.

The dukkha of change

So that’s one level of dukkha, but that’s not the only level. And you see, if we translate dukkha as suffering we think that’s the only level of it because that’s what we commonly call suffering in English. But dukkha has much more meaning. The second level of dukkha is changeable or changing dukkha or dukkha due to change. And this is what we ordinary beings call happiness. Remember, I talked about low grade happiness, the low grade happiness that we’re attached to? So this is it. It’s the happiness that comes through changing of circumstance, but the more we live with the new circumstance, eventually, it changes back into the dukkha of pain. The standard example that they give in the teachings; and I am sure that you can identify with it, is that you’re sitting down and your knees hurt and your back hurts and all you want to do is to stand up and if you had the choice between standing up and nirvana, you know what you would choose; I want to stand up. So you stand up and initially your feeling is, “AH, this is happiness.” But if you stand up for a long time, after awhile, standing up becomes very painful and you want to sit down again. Now why does this standing up become painful, if it started out as happiness? It’s because the nature of standing up is the nature of dukkha. Standing up is not happiness by nature, it is unsatisfactory by nature. So that it changes from being what we call happiness into what we call dukkha or suffering. So we can all understand that how that works in our life, standing up and sitting down.

We can understand that when you’re hungry, that eating is really good. And you start to eat and you think that’s happiness and then if you keep eating and you overeat, that happiness becomes suffering. So what’s happening is that when you first start to eat, the suffering of hunger is going down, but the suffering of being too full has not really gone up much. As you eat more and more, you get to a point where the suffering of hunger stops. You’re not suffering from hunger anymore. You’ve kind of eaten enough. But then you continue eating, which we often do, don’t we and then the suffering of eating gets bigger. So it’s the same thing with standing up and sitting down. You know, when you first stand up, the suffering of sitting down has decreased, but the suffering of standing up hasn’t yet gotten very big. But the more you stand up then the suffering of standing up gets bigger, then when you sit down, the suffering of standing up has gone down and the suffering of sitting down has begun to increase. And so those situations are never satisfactory because we never reach kind of any state where we can just leave it as it is. Even if you eat just the right amount, which we seldom do, soon afterwards we’re going to get hungry again.

So the basic idea is that it doesn’t bring any kind of lasting happiness. It brings a temporary release. But it doesn’t bring anything that’s secure, anything that’s lasting. It’s kind of like, if we give an example from mental suffering; we suffer from loneliness. We feel very lonely. We want somebody to love us. We want somebody to understand us. So that suffering is very big and then you meet prince charming and there he is, totally wonderful and we think, “Ok, now all my suffering from loneliness and not being understood and all that is gone forever”; true or false? All it takes is falling in love one time and you realize that is false. That person is not going to end all of our suffering of loneliness forever and ever. So what it looks like at the beginning is that the suffering of loneliness has gone down, but the suffering of being with the person is still very tiny. So we’re like, “Wow, I finally got it” But then you’re with the person 25 hours a day. What happens; 25 hours a day with the same person, eight days a week; what happens? “Get me away, I want my own space!” Because you’re bickering and you’re picking at each other and that person who you thought always understood you doesn’t understand you all the time. And the person that you thought was always going to laugh at your jokes, doesn’t. And the person that you thought was always going to encourage you and love you gets in a bad mood and the person that you thought was so attractive and wonderful begins to smell What happens is the bubble bursts and the suffering of being with the person gets bigger.

So, that’s an example with mental suffering. And we see this happen again and again. That’s why the love songs on the radio start out with you’re so wonderful and your eyes are like diamonds, your teeth are like pearls and I can’t live without you and that’s one song and the next song is you walked out on me, you trashed me, and I’m sick and tired of you, I’m leaving. And so, we just go back and forth like this, because that’s the nature of dukkha. That’s the nature. It’s never going to be any different. So it’s not a question of finding the one right person. You’re sick of this one, so let’s take him to the used husband donation facility and put him there and go out and get a new husband or a new wife. It’s not that. It’s that this is the nature of it.

So that’s the second level of dukkha. Most people who are involved in some kind of religious practice recognize that the dukkha of change is unsatisfactory. I’ve had a lot of dialogues with Catholic monastics and they see that too, that’s why monastics in general try to live a simple life style because they realize or are trying to realize that no matter how much we have, no matter how much we get on the outside, it’s never going to bring total satisfaction. So the Catholics live very simple life styles. Many people involved in some kind of serious religious pursuit try to live simply because they see that the dukkha of change is unsatisfactory. They don’t see it as bliss and happiness and the only thing I have to do is get more stuff or another person or whatever; so religious people in general, and I say in general, because it doesn’t apply to all of them, try and give up this. Everybody wants to get rid of the dukkha of pain. Religious people also want to get rid of the dukkha of change.

The dukkha of all-pervasive suffering

The third level of dukkha is called pervasive, compounded dukkha. So this is the dukkha of, “the unsatisfactory condition of having a body and mind under the influence of afflictions and karma; the unsatisfactory condition of having a body and mind under the influence of afflictions and karma”. So we look at our body and mind. We can be sitting here seemingly okay, but are we free of all suffering? No, because all it takes is a slight change in condition and then the dukkha of pain comes. So just by having a body and mind under the influence of afflictions and karma means that at any moment, the gross kind of mental and physical suffering can happen. You’re fine and then whamo you have a heart attack. You’re in a good mood and wham-o someone criticizes you and you get depressed. So there’s nothing secure and stable because our body and mind are not free.

We talk a lot about freedom in America. We’re killing people in order to be free. We think that freedom means that you are free to satisfy all of your impulses. That’s what we think freedom is. Freedom means that whatever I want to do, I can go do it. Now, from a Buddhist perspective, is that freedom; freedom to act out any impulse that comes in our mind? I don’t think that’s freedom. I think that’s actually captivity, because we’re captivated, we’re imprisoned by the ignorance anger and attachment. We are free to act out all of our thoughts of attachment. We’re free to act out all of our feelings of arrogance. We’re free to be lazy. We’re free to be without conscience. We’re free to express our anger. Is that freedom? Does that bring happiness? No, it doesn’t. But you may say, “But wait a minute, when I go shopping, I get happiness. I get this new thing”. Well you get this new thing and how long does that happiness last? And then how soon does that object become something that is cluttering your house and is something you want to get rid of and so it goes back to the dukkha of change.

So what we’re getting at is that there is nothing stable in our situation. We’re not really free. When we follow our thoughts of greed or clinging, we think that satisfying those thoughts is what’s going to bring us pleasure. But what the Buddha is saying is the actual happiness comes from not having those thoughts at all. So the suffering is not because we can’t get what we want. The suffering is the attachment we have for getting what we want. That’s what causes the suffering; the attachment for getting what we want. So real freedom is not having that attachment, when we’re not attached to things, then whatever we have is good enough. When we’re not attached, then there’s some kind of peace and tranquility in the mind instead of this constant restlessness and discontent of wanting more and better.

And I know for me when I first encountered Buddhism and my teachers started talking about being dissatisfied and discontent, I went, “Oh wow, finally somebody’s talking about my experience.” Because there was no real avenue in American culture for talking about the discontent, because you’re the richest country in the world and you’re supposed to be happy. And yet everybody is dissatisfied and here’s somebody who is finally ready to admit that we’re a culture of dissatisfaction; to tell the truth about it . So I found so much relief in it because I always thought, “Well, what’s wrong with me, I’m dissatisfied and I’m supposed to be happy. This laundry soap is supposed to make me happy. This toothpaste is supposed to make me happy. This relationship is supposed to end all my problems. This position in work is supposed to give me self confidence.” And none of those things were bringing about what society told me they would bring about. They all failed, basically.

But nobody was ready to say, “Our strategy for happiness is a failure, it doesn’t work.” Instead, it was, “Get more and better. This just isn’t the right thing and if we improve our economy and we have more widgets, just make more widgets and then you’re going to be happy. Or change your circumstances, move across the country, change the people you hang out with.” But nobody’s willing to face the dissatisfaction and that kind of existential angst that we suffer from in this country more than anywhere else in the world. I’ve lived in many countries, but this kind of existential angst is so much more prominent here.

So what the Buddha was asking us to look at is our mind. When we’re miserable is the suffering because we don’t have what we want or because we are so obsessed with getting it? And we begin to notice, that it’s this mind of attachment, the mind of craving, the mind of clinging; that as soon as that mind arises, we suffer, whether we have what we want or don’t have what we want. When there’s craving, there’s pain in the mind. Because when we don’t have what we want, we suffer because we don’t have it. When we have what we want, we suffer because craving makes us afraid of losing it. And you know how it is, as soon as we get something we’re terrified it’s going to vanish. It’s going to go away. It’s going to disappear. We won’t have it anymore.

Why are we born in bodies that get old, sick and die?

So all of this comes about due to being under the influence of ignorance, anger, hostility and karma, we’re not free. Why are we born with this body that by nature gets old and sick and dies? Scientists are trying to fix the body, but nobody asks why are we born into it to start with? Why do we have this kind of body to start with? Scientists don’t ask that question. The Buddha asked it. Because we can see that once we have this body, the nature of the body is to get old and sick and die. There’s no other way to do it. No matter how much they do cryogenics, you know and try to freeze your body or freeze your head. Walt Disney is frozen somewhere, waiting until they can revive him. No matter how much you do that; there’s no freedom.

First of all it’s impossible because the mind stream is gone. Second of all even if a new mind stream came back and after 3000 years said, “Hi, I don’t know who I am.” And they said, “You’re Walt Disney.” “Oh yeah, I’m Walt Disney,” and everybody goes, “Who’s Walt Disney?” because after 3000 years, everyone has forgotten (L), Then is that going to be happiness? That new Walt Disney is still subject to aging sickness and death. It doesn’t matter what science does, you’re still subject to aging, sickness and death. And aging starts the moment after conception. So it’s not like we’re born and then we grow up and it’s all happy and then sometime later, aging starts. That’s our ordinary view.

Have you ever noticed that the definition of old changes every ten years? Do you remember when 40 was old, then 50 became old then 60 became old and 70 became old, then 80 became old, then 90. You know, 50 becomes, like, “Gee you’re still an infant; 70, you’re a teenager, 80 you’re finally becoming an adult.” Our definition of old changes every decade, but still the aging is happening isn’t it? It’s going and there’s no other way to do it. There’s no way not to age. There’s no way to avoid dying, because as soon as we are born or should we say conception is the coming together of consciousness with the sperm and the egg. Well, once things join together, the only thing they can do after that is separate. Once things are joined, the next step, somewhere along the line is separation. So the body and mind are going to separate. That’s what we call death. There’s no way around it. It’s a given in life.

We think that if we don’t talk about death, it won’t happen.

And society doesn’t like to talk about it. Because we’re afraid if we talk about it, it might happen. “If we don’t talk about death, it won’t happen.” I talked to somebody recently who worked for Forest Lawn [a cemetery]. It was incredible. She talked about all the packages you can buy when somebody dies. You know, how you have a package vacation you can buy when you go on a cruise? Well, there are also packaged death plans. So you can choose to be drawn along in a horse in carriage, to show how wealthy you are or be driven in a hearse or in a simple pine box or a more expensive package deal; how to die in America. Other cultures are more real about the thing; people are dying on the streets and you see it. They don’t shove them away; just understanding and realizing this is the nature of our life and we aren’t free from it.

So this kind of dukkha pervades our aggregates; our body and mind are pervaded with being unsatisfactory. Why are they unsatisfactory? Because there’s no freedom from ignorance, anger and hostility, there’s no freedom from our contaminated actions in the past. We’re influenced; we’re pushed by the power of our past actions. We’re completely overwhelmed by various emotions. And this is our experience isn’t it, when we stop to look at it? We think we’re in control. We think there’s an I that’s in control. How much control do we have over our body? You can’t choose not to age. You can’t choose not to get sick. How much control do we have over our mind? All we have to do is sit down for three minutes of meditation and it becomes very obvious that we don’t have much control over our mind, do we? The mind does exactly what it wants to. It roams here, it roams there. So we feel like there’s an I in control, but there’s no I that’s in control. Instead, we’re controlled by these detrimental mental factors, based on ignorance, then clinging, craving, attachment, based on that having hostility, anger, hatred.

Practice dharma now

Then all the others come after that, jealousy, arrogance, everything else. And these things, when they arise in our mind, they take over. They just take over and it’s not even like they have to assert a lot of energy to take over our mind. A small thought of anger comes in and completely takes over in the mind. It gets bigger in no time at all; it’s no struggle for anger to take over. Clinging, craving, one small thought, then wham, we’re totally obsessed, “I gotta do it this way.” We get really attached to our ideas or our beliefs. “It’s got to be done this way. Lights have to go out exactly at this time and stop breathing so loud.” And you know we get very attached to everything, to our ideas of how we think things should be. So we’re controlled by all these disturbing emotions and misconceptions. They take over and run our mind. We’re pushed by the force of our past karma, our past actions. Sometimes you get to a place, where you really want to do something different and you find you’re doing the same old thing again. Or you really want to do something different but you don’t have the external circumstances to be able to do it. And this is why the masters say practice Dharma now, instead of putting it off. Because we all say, “Ok, well I’m young now and there are all these other things I want to do, to accomplish and experience.” And remember now “young” lasts until you’re 80 or 90. So you’re always “young” and you always have new things you want to experience and do and Dharma practice is later, after you’ve done all those things.

And then let’s say you get to that point, where you’re just really ready to dive into the Dharma and then all of a sudden, you have all sorts of external obstacles. Your body fails, your mind does something. The stock market crashes and you no longer have any funds. Your relatives get sick and you have to go take care of them. You’ve put off practicing Dharma for so long, when you’re just about ready to do it, then the external situation around you becomes very adverse. Why? Because of the force of our previous karma, we created causes in the past. We did certain actions and it’s ripening and there it is. So that’s why they say it’s so important to practice right now, because we don’t know if we’re going to have another chance. So practice means changing our mind; transforming our mind. It doesn’t mean doing lots of rituals; it means transforming our mind. It’s important to work at transforming our mind; purifying, letting go of negative attitudes, developing our good qualities, meditating on love and compassion, learning the correct view and putting it into practice. That’s what practicing the Dharma means. And the importance of doing it now because we are so pushed by our past karma.

And we see it here at the Abbey all the time. It’s incredible when you live here; what you begin to understand. We see people who will travel 3, 000 miles to get to the Abbey and once they’re here, they can’t make it the extra 20 feet to get into the meditation hall. They’ll get sick, all of a sudden. Their mind will say, “Oh I have too much work, I can’t go to meditation session.” All sorts of things will come up because of the past karma. It’s just fascinating how you see it, how we’re so pushed by our past karma; so under the control of our negative attitudes; our disturbing emotions. And we’re not free. So this is the pervasive compounded suffering. Seeing all of this as suffering is something that’s unique to the Buddha’s teachings. Because we have to specifically see how being under the influence of the ignorance that grasps at true existence; how being under the influence of that, is the source of our suffering and the source of our lack of freedom.

And other religious traditions (by and large—this is a generalization here) do not identify the self-grasping ignorance as the source for suffering, as the source of dukkha. Without seeing that as the source of dukkha and seeing that we have a body and mind under the control of it; it does not seem to be dukkha. Therefore, there is no wish to abandon that kind of dukkha. This is something that is much more unique to the Buddha’s teachings; identifying what that ignorance is and how it’s a misconception and how it keeps us enslaved. And it’s really difficult to identify exactly what that ignorance is. It’s like we were talking yesterday, we’ve had it for so long that we don’t even see it. We just think that’s the way things are. We don’t question it.

Renunciation of suffering (dukkha)

So when we talk about renunciation, we’re renouncing dukkha and we’re renouncing all three levels. So remember animals and everybody renounces the dukkha of pain and wants to be free of that. The dukkha of change is particular to religious practitioners who want to be free of that, and then this pervasive compounded dukkha is unique to those who have deeply understood what the Buddha is talking about. When we really understand these three levels of dukkha, our compassion gets really, really big. When we only understand dukkha as the dukkha of pain, then we have compassion for people who are sick, who are starving. But then we hate all the people who are living on the top of society; because we feel, “Oh they’re rich and they’re not sharing anything and all these politicians and all these CEOs,” and on and on and we hate those people. But we have incredible pity for all the people who are suffering, until of course, we have to go live next to them and then we don’t like them so much.

So that’s a very partial compassion. When we have the big perspective like this, then we can look at the people who have the power in society, who have the wealth in society and have compassion for them too. Because we realize that those people have tremendous suffering, they’re not free from aging, sickness and death. They’re even under control of the dukkha of change. They haven’t attained Nirvana. They may have a lot of power and a lot of wealth, but that doesn’t mean that they have any kind of lasting security or happiness. I remember about 10 years ago, I was traveling in China with some of my mainland Chinese friends and we were in a tea stall and there was a poster of Mao Tse Tung and the Gang of Four and one of my friends looked at it and said, “I wonder what realm they are all in now?” Here were people who had the epitome of power and control, but used it to create so much incredible negative karma and where are they now? Often when we’re jealous of people for being wealthy or powerful or having relationships that we don’t have, it’s very interesting to look at what kind of karma they are creating and where they are likely to be reborn. Then compassion arises, because we see that they aren’t free. So this is the kind of equal compassion that we really need to have if we’re going to be socially active in the world. The Abbey hopes to do a program with some environmental activists, talking about this kind of thing, having a spiritual basis for social activism so you can really have compassion for everyone that you are dealing with.

So that’s the first noble truth, and this is just our experience. What I am describing here is looking at our own experience. Don’t believe it because Buddha said it, just look at our own experience. Does this describe my life experience? If we say yes, then the next question is, “How can I get out of it. Is there a way out of this? I don’t want to continue doing this.” Because the pervasive compounded suffering isn’t just this life. We’re under the influence of ignorance and karma, so we’re reborn again. This body gets old and ages and dies. It dies and then what happens under the influence of ignorance and karma? We get born again. And then we create more karma and more craving and then we die from that life and get born again. It’s like being on a merry-go-round that never stops. And you’re riding on your little horsey and sometimes the horsey goes up and you’re born in an upper realm and sometimes it goes down and you’re born in a lower realm. But the merry-go-round keeps going with that same sick song that they keep playing again and again and again. And when we talk about cyclic existence, that’s exactly what we’re meaning, this cycle of constantly recurring dukkha again and again and again and there’s no holiday from it.

In your regular life, you work for some days and then you take a rest day. It’s interesting writing to inmates, when you’re thrown into prison, they don’t give you a day break outside of prison. I am writing to some guys who have life sentences for things they did as teenagers. They don’t get one day break from prison. They can’t go home on their birthdays and be with their families. They can’t go home on Christmas and leave the prison. They’re in prison from now until their corpse gets buried. There’s not one day vacation. In the same way, in this prison of cyclic existence, we don’t get any vacation from it. It’s not like, we’re under the sway of afflictions and karma for six days a week and one day a week there’s no samsara and then we go back to samsara on Monday morning. It’s not like that, it’s continual. One rebirth right after the other, you don’t get a break between them to relax between rebirths. It’s the mind stream, due to the force of craving that goes whomp and there it is. You’re in another life.

So when we really understand this, there comes a certain kind of feeling inside of us. My experience has been that in a certain way it’s a relief to finally know exactly what my life is about. But at the same time, it’s a little bit scary, “Yikes, this has been going on from beginningless time and if I don’t do anything, it’s going to keep going on. I don’t want to keep doing this.” So that’s when we begin to look around and say, “Well, what’s the cause of all this dukkha? And can that cause be eliminated? And who’s going to lead me on the path so I can eliminate it?” That’s when those questions start coming and those questions are vitally important. So then we start to look, “Well what’s the cause of this whole thing?” And we’re able to see how hostility and anger cause us suffering. We’re able to see how they relate back to craving and clinging. We’re able to see how craving and clinging relate back to ignorance.

Craving and grasping

Actually ignorance is the root of the whole thing. But when describing the Four Noble Truths, under the truth of the origin of suffering, the cause of dukkha, the Buddha cited craving. He didn’t cite ignorance, even though it’s the root, because craving is what makes the world go around. It’s the craving, the clinging, the grasping at the moment of death that throws us into the next rebirth. And then we can see during our life, there’s all sorts of craving and grasping. We crave for sense pleasure. We crave to be free of what’s unattractive. We crave for neutral things to not stop existing and turn into great suffering. We crave just to exist.

Then we have grasping. We grasp at sense pleasure. We grasp at our view of self. We grasp at all sorts of wrong views. We grasp at wrong conduct and practices as actually being the path. So we begin to see craving and grasping as a kind of flame that’s leading everything along. And where do they come from? They come from ignorance, that ignorance, which not only doesn’t see reality, but mistakenly conceives of things existing in the opposite way from how they actually exist. Ignorance isn’t just a cloudiness of mind, but it’s an active grasping at the opposite of how things exist. It’s not just, “Oh, I’m clouded, I’m confused.” Our mind apprehends true existence; it grasps at inherent existence. It grasps at the opposite way from how things exist; things exist dependently.

Dependent existence

This book is what is merely labeled in dependence upon the pages, the cover and the binding. The book is a dependent phenomenon, but we don’t see it that way, we don’t grasp it that way. We think it has a book nature. So while things exist dependently, we see them as having their own essence, which is the exact opposite way from how they exist. When we look at the self, we see that the self is dependent; depends on the body and mind. It depends on there being the concept of person and the label, self. So the self is something that arises dependent on other factors. But when we apprehend a person, we don’t apprehend them as dependently arising, we grasp them as truly existent. “There’s a real person there and that person is really my friend and that other person is really my enemy and they have a real concrete personality. They are always like that and I’m always like this. I have my personality. I’m always like this so everybody better get used to it, because I am not going to change.” You know we create these identities and grasp them as real, but all we have to do is a little bit of investigation and we realize that the whole thing is just hallucination. It’s just made up. But we don’t investigate very often and so most of the time, we see things in the opposite way from how they exist.

Can this ignorance be eliminated?

So then the question comes, can this ignorance be eliminated? Can this ignorance, which gives rise to the craving and grasping, which gives rise to the arrogance and the jealousy and all this other stuff, can that be eliminated? Here’s where we have the good news. The answer is yes. Why? Because ignorance grasps things in the opposite way from how they actually exist, so it’s a mistaken, erroneous consciousness. If things really were truly existent, it would be impossible to remove ignorance, because ignorance would be a correct consciousness. And a valid consciousness can never be refuted because it correctly apprehends things. So if things are truly existent, then there is no hope. But the fact is that things are empty of true existence, therefore ignorance is a distorted consciousness. It’s an unreliable consciousness. Because it’s unreliable, it can be eliminated by the antidote which is the mental factor (ignorance is also a mental factor), the mental factor of wisdom, which perceives things as existing how they are.

So wisdom perceives things as existing in the opposite way from how ignorance perceives them as existing. But because the view of wisdom cannot be refuted, it cannot be contradicted, it eventually is going to prevail over the view of ignorance. Our mind is very habituated with ignorance. It’s going to take a lot in the beginning to get this view of wisdom and to understand how wisdom sees things, to see what this emptiness is, how things exist and to develop even a correct conceptual understanding of emptiness. But then by getting that correct conceptual understanding and familiarizing ourselves with it again and again and again, then we’re going to get a correct perception of emptiness. And through that wisdom that directly realizes emptiness, that’s going to begin to counteract the layers of ignorance in such a way that they won’t be able to re-emerge, until finally the seed of the ignorance is eradicated from the mind.

When the seed of the ignorance is eradicated from our mind, that’s what we call nirvana. So we’ve eradicated the mental afflictions and their seeds and the karma that causes rebirth. When those have been eradicated through the force of this wisdom directly realizing emptiness, then the cause of cyclic existence ceases. When the cause of dukkha ceases the resulting dukkha ceases. That’s what we call nirvana, liberation. It’s also called peace; another name for nirvana is peace. We always want peace, but real peace isn’t legislated. Real peace is this state of having eliminated the afflictions and karma causing rebirth and thus eliminating the dukkah. When you follow the bodhisattva path, then you want not to just attain liberation for yourself, but you want to benefit all beings. You see that even though you’ve gotten yourself out of cyclic existence and stopped the cause of your own suffering, still there’s this appearance of inherent existence to the mind. Still the mind isn’t completely purified, there’s this left-over obscuration on the mind.

So they compare the afflictions to onions. You cook onions in a pot, and they are pretty gross. You take the onions out and there are no onions, but there’s the smell of the onions. So the afflictions and their seeds are like the onions. They are purified by the wisdom, but there’s this subtle imprint that remains, that obscures the mind. That’s the cognitive obscuration and that’s the imprint of the afflictions and this dualistic appearance. By repeatedly meditating on emptiness, motivated by the force of bodhicitta, then the wisdom is able to completely cleanse these cognitive obscurations from the mind. And when they’re completely cleansed, then one attains Buddhahood.

Questions and answers

[In response to audience] So your question is when you perceive emptiness directly, that’s wisdom, but when you come out of the meditative equipoise then things still appear truly existent to your mind. That is the cognitive obscuration; that appearance of true existence. Because we are very gross beings, at our level things, appear truly existent and then we grasp at them that way. So then the ignorance becomes manifest again, or it can become manifest.

[In response to audience] So why is it so important to realize emptiness directly? Because we are befuddled by these false appearances; we think they’re true. But when you’ve seen the truth and you’ve seen emptiness, then even though the false appearances come, you know they aren’t true, so you aren’t deceived by them. You know how a little kitten will go in front of a mirror and try to play with the kitten there? They think there’s a real kitten in the mirror. They’re completely deceived by the false appearance. We and babies do the same thing. As an adult, we know that the reflection in the mirror, the face in the mirror is a false appearance. We don’t try to play with it or whatever. But it’s very interesting, sometimes you see people get do angry that they throw something at the reflection of themselves in the mirror, as if the person in the mirror is the one that is causing the problem, as if they were real. We know when we look in a mirror that it’s a false appearance. Likewise somebody who has perceived emptiness directly knows that the things that appear are appearing falsely, so they don’t get all involved and obsessed by these appearances. They don’t react to them, “Oh. I’ve got to get this one and I’ve got to get away from that one.” It’s like, I remember many years ago, when I was a kid in Disneyland, there was the haunted house ride. And you came out of the haunted house and you looked in the mirror and there’s a ghost sitting next to you. Do you remember that? Now if you think that there’s a real ghost sitting next to you, you’re going to freak out. I mean, we could sit and talk to the ghost, but it’s just because we’ve learned that we’re supposed to freak out if you see a ghost. So we freak out. But if you know that it’s just a hologram, then you don’t freak out, “Oh there’s an appearance of a ghost, that’s kind of funny, chuckle, chuckle. You don’t freak out, you don’t have to destroy the ghost, because it’s not a real ghost. Or you look in the mirror and Osama Bin Laden is sitting next to you, you don’t need to destroy him, or if it’s Marilyn Monroe or Arnold Schwarzenegger, your mind doesn’t get filled with lust, because you realize it’s just a false appearance.

[In response to audience] Even a tenth level Bodhisattva still has some very subtle, extremely subtle level of obscuration on the mind. That prevents that tenth level bodhisattva from being omniscient. So they still have some obscuration on the mind; some subtle something; some subtle false appearance and it’s when that is totally removed, then the mind is purified and then omniscient happens.

[In response to audience] When we say everything is a hallucination or like an illusion, it means, “like an hallucination” it might be clearer when we say that, because of the double meaning of hallucination; the mind perceiving or the object. But what it means is that things do not exist in the way they appear. So if you’re hallucinating and there are flowers in the sky and there’s a wonderful thing all around you, it’s a false appearance to the mind. There are no flowers in the sky. In ancient India, apparently they had magicians who could take pebbles and stones and cast a spell on it and make horses and elephants appear; so there was the appearance of horses and elephants, but all there were pebbles and stones. With the mirage, there’s the appearance of water, but all there is is asphalt and light. The face in the mirror; there’s the appearance of a real person, but all there is is a mirror and certain conditions and objects standing in front of it. These things are all examples of things that it is easy for us to identify in the world as false or illusory appearances. They don’t exist in the way they appear. But true existence is the same, it exists, it appears to exist, but things don’t exist truly or inherently, but we can’t identify what this truly existent appearance is…so we just believe everything. I think it’s like when someone criticizes us. We don’t say, oh, it’s just sound waves, do we? We don’t say, It’s just sound waves. We say, they are criticizing me, AH! We grasp at things as existing in a way that they don’t and that’s what makes all the afflicted mental states arise.

[In response to audience] No we are not denying the existence of things. But they don’t exist in the way they appear to us. So, in the case of hallucinating flowers in the sky, there’s no basis there even for the flowers. But if I am under the influence of LSD and I see this gong as an elephant, then there’s some basis upon thinking it, but my mind is really hallucinating, but there’s a gong there. But when I look at this and I think there’s a real gong there and on top of it, “It’s MINE, and nobody can take it, because it’s MINE.” That’s when serious trouble occurs.

Audience: Could you say what you mean exactly when you say meditate on emptiness; can you give me something literal?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): To meditate basically means to familiarize our mind with realistic and beneficial mental states. First you listen to the teachings, then you think about them to get a correct understanding of them. Then you meditate on them and try to integrate them into your mind. It can be very good practice to integrate it all to subdue alot of the craving that enters the mind or for helping us see the reality of this body and therefore asking ourselves what’s important to do in our lives.

Audience: If things are so solid, where are the people that were here 5 minutes ago? Everything is constantly changing. That seems helpful to my mind to kind of loosen things up.

VTC: Right, because that’s a meditation on impermanence and transience. It is very helpful. It does loosen things up a lot. Because we see that nothing exists forever. On a gross level, we see that things go out of existence. But then you get on a subtle level and we see that they change moment by moment, so that does loosen things up a lot in our mind.

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.