Every religious tradition I now talks about waking up to the truth. Every path I know promises that the direct experience of the truth sets us free, brings us peace, compels us to compassionate action in the world. Knowing the truth brings happiness.
Practicing mindfulness and metta (lovingkindness) is not religiously challenging. This makes them accessible tools for meditators in all traditions. Awareness, clarity, compassion, generosity, understanding - these are in the middle of everyone's spiritual road.
In my early retreat experience, I was part of a large group, perhaps a hundred people, doing intensive mindfulness practice in a monastery in Massachusetts. Retreats are held in silence, so apart from costume differences, you can't tell who anyone is.
Days passed as we lived and practiced together in silence. I saw Theravadan monks in orange robes, Zen people in traditional Zen clothing, and Tibetan monks and nuns. there were women in rose-colored, sari-styled robes, and I guessed they were part of a Hindu traditional practice. Some people wore red clothes and beads, which meant they were followers of a certain Hindu teacher. One man wore a Franciscan monk habit. I liked passing near him because the long beads and crucifix that hung from his belt made a pleasant clicking sound as he walked.
On Friday evening, I entered the dining room and saw that someone had lit tow candles on a small table in the corner of this communal room. Next to the candles was a sign that said, "These are Sabbath candles. Please do not blow them out. They will burn down by themselves, and I'll remove them tomorrow after sunset."
I looked around and thought, "Here we all are! Our vegetarian diet presents no religious challenges, so everyone can be here. we have liturgy of silence, so everyone can be here. Each of us, in whatever religious context we live our lives, is trying to wake up. Practicing mindfulness - we can do it together."
The maps in this article and in my book are definitely Buddhist maps. They are clear and useful and nonparochial. Truth is truth. Mind-tangles and suffering are universal, and the desire for happiness and the end of suffering is also universal.
FIRST NOBLE TRUTH
The principal map of the Buddha used for teaching about the journey to happiness is called the Four Noble Truths. In t he First noble Truth, the Buddha explains that in life "pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." The Buddha didn't say it in those exact words; he spoke in his vernacular.
Life is difficult. Life is mysterious. Regardless of our planning, it is essentially unpredictable. For years, I had a sign on my bathroom mirror to remind me, daily, that "Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans." All the same, I keep spending time trying to fix up now so I'll be happier in the mythical future.
I was in my mid-thirties when I realized with somewhat dramatic alarm that I was totally ill- equipped to deal with how awesome life is. I had somehow managed to keep hidden from myself the tenuous balance in which our happiness hangs from moment to moment. I had grown up and I had done all the things meant to guarantee happiness. I had learned a profession that I was practicing and feeling gratified with; I had gotten married and I had four splendid children whom I loved very much. Somehow, I never thought about how vulnerable it all was, and so I had never thought about any questions of ultimate significance.
One day, down the street form where I lived, two little girls on their way to school were run over and killed by an out-of-control car. They were six and seven years old, and they were sisters. I didn't know them, but I knew about them because they were classmates of my daughter Elizabeth. Suddenly, I woke up to the fact that being alive is very dangerous and every moment of life is very precious. Perhaps if I had woken up to that fact in a balanced way, or at least in a more mature way, I would have experienced one of those transformative moments one reads about, after which one is totally changed forever and the rest of life is lived in abiding clarity. That didn't happen to me. I was plunged into gloom and despair. I couldn't imagine why people continued living if life is terminal at the very best and unpredictable throughout. I realized all relationships end in loss, and loss is so painful. I couldn't figure out why we do it.
The fact that I can write about this period of my life with some lightness now doesn't mean it wasn't a terrible time for me. It was! I read existential philosophers, Camus and Sarte, and I wondered how I managed to keep this terrible truth hidden from myself all these years. I wondered why everybody else didn't see it. How could people live their lives as if everything were all right, when I absolutely knew it wasn't ? I recall teaching psychology students about "existential angst," and i would tell them the Kierkegaard joke: Someone said to Kierkegaard, "I'll see you next Tuesday," and he supposedly responded, "Ha, I'll see you next Tuesday if, as you leave my house, a tile does not fall off the roof and hit you on the head and if, as you cross the street, you are not run over by a carriage out of control," and so forth. It's not a funny joke. I could not say "I'll see you later" to my children as they left for school or even "I hope you have a good time" to anyone without hearing ominous overtones ringing in my ears.
Part of my despair was thinking I was the only person who felt that way. All around me, were people who seemed to feel that life was really fine and not worrisome. What a relief it was to me to go to my first meditation retreat and hear people speak the truth so clearly - the First Noble Truth that life is difficult and painful, just by its very nature, not because we're doing it wrong. I was so relieved to meet people who were willing to say life is difficult, often painful, and who still looked fine about admitting it. Most important, they looked happy. That was tremendously reassuring to me. I thought to myself, "Here are people who are just like me, who have lives just like mine, who know the truth and are willing to name it and are all right with it."
SECOND NOBLE TRUTH
The First Noble Truth declares unflinchingly, straight out, that pain is inherent in life itself just because everything is changing. The Second Noble Truth explains that suffering is what happens when we struggle with whatever our life experience is rather than accepting and opening to our experience with wise and compassionate response. From this point of view, there's a big difference between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable; lives come with pain. Suffering is not inevitable. If suffering is what happens when we struggle with our experience because of our inability to accept it, then suffering is an optional extra.
I misunderstood this when I started my practice and believed if I meditated hard enough I would be finished with all pain. That turned out to be a big mistake. I was disappointed when I discovered the error and embarrassed that I had been so naive. It's obvious we are not going to finish with pain in this life.
The Buddha said, "Everything dear to us causes pain." I think that's true. I usually don't quote this to beginning students because I don't want them to think of Buddhism as gloomy. But it is true. Because things change, our relationship to anything we care about or its relationship to us who have chosen relational life have made the choice that the pain is worth it.
It is a constant challenge to me to negotiate the fine line between indifference-to-life-experience and passionate-appreciation-of -life-experience without attachment. I'm depending on that being possible, but since every moment has the balance of "pleasant" or "unpleasant," it's hard not to want "pleasant." Fundamentally, it's hard not to want.
St. John of the Cross is said to have prayed, "Lord, spare me visions!" When I began my meditation practice, I wanted visions. It was the late sixties, the Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi were popularizing meditation, and the culture was "psychedelic." I wanted something dramatic to happen to me.
Some years later, dramatic things did happen. During a period of intensive meditation practice, I experienced myself as a being filled with light, even radiating light. It was amazing! (In the realm of intensive meditation practice, it's not that big of a deal, but for me, it was amazing.) Quite soon, I began to think it wasn't amazing enough. I began to think about Paul, blinded by the light on the road to Damascus, and since I wasn't blinded, I started to wish for more light. I would not have admitted that to anyone, though, because it isn't cool in meditation circles, at least not in mine, to want more rapture-but I did.
The Second Noble Truth of Buddha is that craving anything is suffering. Often it is translated as "the cause of suffering is craving," but I think that misses the point. Cause sounds like something happens first and produces a particular result. It could be construed as "crave now, suffer later." I believe it is, "crave now, suffer now."
I once heard someone say that a sign of enlightenment was the ability to say (and mean it) in any moment, "Well, this isn't what I want, but it's what I got, so okay."
My son Peter's mother-in-law not only tolerates unpleasantness with grace, she often can appreciate it. She is the only person I have ever driven with on Los Angeles freeways, with cars whizzing in and out of lanes arbitrarily, in snarly, congested, smoggy traffic tie-ups, who says, with genuine awe, "Wow! Look at all these people going places!"
It's a big step, of course, from freeways to famines to wars, but it's the wonderful confirmation that spacious acceptance is humanly possible. Spiritual practice might be discovering that potential in ourselves and enlarging it. The Third Noble Truth says it is indeed possible.
THIRD NOBLE TRUTH
A key element of Buddhist spiritual practice is called Right Understanding. One aspect of Right Understanding is clarity about the purpose of mindfulness practice. My entrance into mindfulness practice was totally inspired by Wrong Understanding. I thought if I mediated hard enough I would no longer experience pain. That's wrong, of course. there is no way to be in a body, in a life without pain.
When I discovered the error of my thinking, I overcame my dismay by inspiring myself with the idea that I could come to the end of suffering. That's what the Third Noble Truth is about. It says liberation is possible, peace of mind and happiness - in this very life. It's such an exciting idea!
For some years, I taught Eastern religion at a nearby Catholic college. The students were mainly teenagers, graduates of the local Catholic high school. They had, for the most part, lived sheltered and comfortable lives with intact, devout families, in an era between wars. They seemed bewildered when I started to teach Buddhism and introduced, immediately, the idea of suffering. There was no way for me not to do that. The notion of suffering and the possible end of suffering is the central teaching of Buddhism. The Buddha himself said this to one particular student. The student, according to the legend, challenged the Buddha. He complained the Buddha had not taught him the cosmology or the philosophy he had hoped he would. The Buddha is said to have replied, "I come to teach only one thing-suffering and the end of suffering."
My young students looked worried when I talked about how, even if things are pleasant, everything is ultimately disappointing because it doesn't last. When I tried the approach of "So often we want things we can't get," they didn't agree. they mostly got the things they wanted. They offered the opinion that Buddhism seemed joyless and then asked, "Do Buddhists have birthday parties?"
I would try hard to find situations of suffering they could relate to. "Did you ever have a girlfriend or boyfriend who stopped liking you? Before you got over it, did it hurt you?"
"Oh," they would say "if that's what suffering is, I can relate to that!" Even so, I felt a bit dismayed to be the bringer of what seemed to be bad tidings to these young people. I hoped I didn't seem like the Wicked Witch of the West.
I sometimes felt I rushed through the first two Noble Truths to get to the Third Noble Truth, so I could say the glad tidings. It is possible to live happily. It is possible to cultivate a mind so spacious that it can be passionate and awake and responsive and involved and care about things, and not struggle. It is more than good news: it's terrific news.
THE THIRD-AND-A-HALF NOBLE TRUTH
The Buddha taught that the end of suffering was possible. We could, he taught, condition the mind to each spacious clarity that our experience would come and go in a great sea of wise and spacious mind. Pain and joy would come and go, being pleased and being disappointed would come and go, and the mind would remain essentially tranquil. It's incredibly feeing to know you don't need to be pleased in order to be happy.
However, the end of suffering hasn't happened for me yet. It's not from lack of right aspiration. I aspire! Nor is it from not understanding. I believe with all my heart that freedom is possible. I know the tendency to struggle in the mind comes from taking one's own story personally rather than seeing it as a part of the great unfolding cosmic drama. I know for sure everything is conditioned, and I more or less believe in karma. Nevertheless, I struggle and I suffer less than I used to, though, and I'm not as distraught about the suffering as I used to be.
So, I have added an extra half Noble Truth. The half-extra truth is: "Suffering is manageable." Short of coming to the very end of suffering, which I absolutely have faith in as a possibility, I am content with managing my suffering better. Since I know suffering is manageable, I am not as frightened of pain as I used to be. These days I often tell new students right away that although the Buddha taught the end of suffering was possible, I myself am not there yet. They are not dismayed. Nor do I seem to lose any credibility. It's great news for them to hear that suffering is manageable.
That extra half of a Noble Truth also keeps me more compassionate toward myself and toward others. I can see how I get trapped in my stories, how I struggle, how I suffer, how I wish I didn't, and how ultimately things change and resolve. I am kinder to myself when I see how much pain I storm up in my mind through its own conditioned clingings. Acknowledging my own suffering, in spite of the years of practice and whatever wisdom or understanding I might have, makes me sensitive to what must be the enormous pain of all the people I'm sharing this planet with.
FOURTH NOBLE TRUTH
Suppose we use a traveling metaphor for the universal spiritual quest. The main map the Buddha offered for the trip to happiness and contentment is called the Eightfold Path, but I have often thought it should be called the Eightfold Circle. A path goes from here to there, and the nearer you are to there, the farther you are from here. A path is progressive, like a ladder, and, just as you cannot suddenly leap onto the fifth rung of a ladder and start climbing, on a genuine path you would need to start at the beginning and proceed in a linear way until the end. With a circle, you can join in anywhere, and it's the same circle.
When Buddha taught his path, he said it had a specific number of constituent parts; people could be sure they were going the right way if they saw any one of eight special markers. These signposts are: Right Understanding, Right Aspiration, Right Action, Right Speech, Right livelihood, Right Effort, Right Concentration, and Right Mindfulness. Travelers seeing any of the signposts will know they are headed in the direction of happiness.
The order in which the traveler sees the signs doesn't matter. If we look at any sign closely, it becomes apparent that each one has all of the others hidden inside it. Even a tiny bit of Right Understanding, the suspicion that it is possible to be contented even with we aren't pleased, arouses Right Aspiration to make a lot of Right Effort to develop more Right Understanding. Anyone who decides to practice the Right Speech, making sure every single thing she says is both truthful and helpful, discovers it cannot be done without Right Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness means paying attention in every moment, and those who do that soon discover they have Right Concentration as well. Even if a person said "Eightfold is too complicated. I just want to do a onefold practice," it wouldn't work. It's all connected.
On the journey to happiness, you start anywhere. You start wherever you are. I have only one hesitation about calling the practice a circle. Even a small circle takes up space, and space creates the idea of a here and a there. There isn't any there. When we wake up to happiness, we get to be more here than we ever were before. But, since waking up does happen and practice does work, we need to call it something. I guess it's more like an Eightfold Dot."
Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.