Không thể lấy hận thù để diệt trừ thù hận. Kinh Pháp cú
Cuộc sống xem như chấm dứt vào ngày mà chúng ta bắt đầu im lặng trước những điều đáng nói. (Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. )Martin Luther King Jr.
Ngủ dậy muộn là hoang phí một ngày;tuổi trẻ không nỗ lực học tập là hoang phí một đời.Sưu tầm
Đừng làm cho người khác những gì mà bạn sẽ tức giận nếu họ làm với bạn. (Do not do to others what angers you if done to you by others. )Socrates
Hãy lặng lẽ quan sát những tư tưởng và hành xử của bạn. Bạn sâu lắng hơn cái tâm thức đang suy nghĩ, bạn là sự tĩnh lặng sâu lắng hơn những ồn náo của tâm thức ấy. Bạn là tình thương và niềm vui còn chìm khuất dưới những nỗi đau. (Be the silent watcher of your thoughts and behavior. You are beneath the thinkers. You are the stillness beneath the mental noise. You are the love and joy beneath the pain.)Eckhart Tolle
Điều quan trọng nhất bạn cần biết trong cuộc đời này là bất cứ điều gì cũng có thể học hỏi được.Rộng Mở Tâm Hồn
Học vấn của một người là những gì còn lại sau khi đã quên đi những gì được học ở trường lớp. (Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.)Albert Einstein
Người khôn ngoan chỉ nói khi có điều cần nói, kẻ ngu ngốc thì nói ra vì họ buộc phải nói. (Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something. )Plato
Thường tự xét lỗi mình, đừng nói lỗi người khác. Kinh Đại Bát Niết-bàn
Ai dùng các hạnh lành, làm xóa mờ nghiệp ác, chói sáng rực đời này, như trăng thoát mây che.Kinh Pháp cú (Kệ số 173)

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Joyful Wisdom
»» 2. The problem is the solution

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Trí tuệ hoan hỷ - 2. Vấn Ðề Cũng Chính Là Giải Pháp

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Mua bản sách in

And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.

—T.S. ELIOT, “Little Gidding”

NOT LONG AGO I visited a wax museum in Paris, where I saw a very lifelike statue of the Dalai Lama. I examined it carefully from all angles, since His Holiness is a person I know fairly well. As I stood to the side looking at the figure, a young man and woman walked up. The woman knelt down between His Holiness and me while her companion aimed his camera for a picture. Not wanting to get in the way, I started to step aside—at which point the woman screamed and the man with the camera dropped his jaw almost to the ground. Because the light in the museum was rather dim, they'd thought I was part of the display: a wax figure of a happy little monk standing beside the Dalai Lama.

Once the couple recovered from the shock of seeing what appeared to be a wax statue suddenly springing to life, we all had a nice laugh together and parted company on a very pleasant note. But as I continued on through the museum, it occurred to me how that brief encounter had exposed, on a small scale, a larger and fundamentally tragic aspect of the human condition. The young couple had approached the wax museum display with such a clear, strong set of expectations, never considering the possibility that the actual situation might be otherwise than they'd assumed. In the same way, most people, encumbered by all sorts of preconceptions and beliefs, remain ignorant of the fundamental facts of human life—what my teachers called “the basic situation.”

To understand what that situation is, we need to look at the very first teachings the Buddha gave after he attained what is often referred to as enlightenment—-a term that can sound a bit grand, beyond the capacity of most people.

Actually, enlightenment is quite simple. Think of it in terms of habitually walking through a dark room, bumping into tables, chairs, and other bits of furniture. One day, by luck or accident, we brush against a switch or button that turns on a light. Suddenly we see all the room, all the furniture in it, the walls, and the rugs, and think, “Look at all this stuff here! No wonder I kept bumping into things!” And as we look at all this stuff, perhaps with a sense of wonder at seeing it for the first time, we realize that the light switch was always there. We just didn't know it, or maybe we just didn't think about the possibility that the room could be anything but dark.

That's one way to describe enlightenment: turning on the light in a room we've spent most of our lives navigating in the dark.

Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the Buddha is his delivery of the message that we've become so used to walking in the dark that we've forgotten how to turn on the light.


We may now have a life endowed with the freedoms and advantages which are so difficult to find, but it will not last for long.

—Patrul Rinpoche, Words of My Perfect Teacher, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group

The Buddha was a somewhat unusual teacher, in that he didn't begin his career by making any grand metaphysical pronouncements. He focused instead on what would be immediately practical to the greatest number of people. To fully grasp the clarity and simplicity of his approach, it may be helpful to cut through the mythology that has grown up around his life and attempt to see the man behind the myth.

Legend holds that Siddartha Gautama—the name he was given at birth—was a prince, the son of a tribal chieftain in northern India. At the celebration honoring his birth, a Brahmin seer predicted that he would grow up to be either a powerful king or a great holy man. Fearing that his eldest son would forsake his role as a tribal leader, the Buddha's father built for him a network of pleasure palaces that would shield him from exposure to any of the troubling aspects of life that might awaken any latent spiritual inclinations. At the age of sixteen, he was urged to marry and produce an heir.

But fate intervened. At the age of twenty-nine, determined to visit his subjects, he ventured outside his palaces, and in the process encountered people who were poor, aged, ill, or dying.

Disturbed by this confrontation with the realities of suffering from which he'd been protected for so many years, he slipped away and traveled south, where he met several ascetics who encouraged him to free his mind from worldly concerns through practicing strict methods of renunciation and self-mortification. Only in doing so, they taught, could he free himself from the mental and emotional habits that entrap most people in an endless round of inner and outer conflict.

But after six years of practicing extreme austerity, he grew frustrated. Withdrawal from the world didn't provide the answers he sought. So, although he suffered the ridicule of his former companions, he gave up the practice of completely withdrawing from the world. He took a nice, long bath in the nearby Nairajana River and accepted food from a woman who was passing by. He then crossed the river to the place now called Bodhgaya, propped himself under a ficus tree, and began to examine his mind. He was determined to discover a way out of the all too human dilemma of perpetuating problems through chasing after things that provide, at best, fleeting experiences of happiness, safety, and security.

When he emerged from his examination, he realized that true freedom lay not in withdrawal from life, but in a deeper and more conscious engagement in all its processes. His first thought was that “No one will believe this.” Whether motivated, according to the legends, by pleas from the gods or by an overwhelming compassion for others, he eventually left Bodhgaya and traveled west toward the ancient city of Varanasi, where, in an open space that has come to be known as the Deer Park, he encountered his former ascetic companions. Though at first inclined to dismiss him because he'd given up the way of extreme austerity, they couldn't help but notice that he radiated a poise and contentment that surpassed anything they'd achieved. They sat down to listen to what he had to say. His message was quite compelling and so logically sound that the men who listened became his first followers, or disciples.

The principles he outlined in the Deer Park, commonly referred to as “The Four Noble Truths,” consist of a simple, direct analysis of the challenges and possibilities of the human condition. This analysis represents the first of what is often referred to in historical terms as “The Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma”: a progressive set of insights into the nature of experience, which the Buddha delivered at different stages during the forty-five years he spent traveling throughout ancient India.

Each turning, building on the principles expressed in the previous one, offers deeper and more penetrating insights into the nature of experience. The Four Noble Truths form the core of all Buddhist paths and traditions. In fact, the Buddha felt they were so important that he gave them many times, to many different audiences. Along with his later teachings, they have been handed down to us in a collection of writings known as the sutras— conversations considered to be the actual exchanges between the Buddha and his students.

For several centuries after the Buddha's death, these teachings were transmitted orally—a not uncommon practice during a period in which many people were illiterate. Eventually, some three or four hundred years after the Buddha's passing, these oral transmissions were committed to writing in Pali, a literary language believed to be closely related to the dialect spoken in central India during the Buddha's lifetime. Later they were transcribed into Sanskrit, the high literary grammar of ancient India. As Buddhism spread across Asia and later to the West, they have been translated into many different languages.

Even in translations of the sutras, it's plain to see that the Buddha didn't present the Four Noble Truths as a set of concrete practices and beliefs. Instead, he offered the Four Noble Truths as a practical guide for individuals to recognize, in terms of their own lives, their basic situation, the causes of the situation, the possibility that the situation might be transformed, and the means of transformation. With supreme skill, he structured this initial teaching in terms of the classical Indian four-point method of medical practice: diagnosing the problem, identifying the underlying causes, determining the prognosis, and prescribing a course of treatment. In a way, the Four Noble Truths can be seen as a pragmatic, step-by-step approach to healing what we might nowadays call a “dysfunctional” perspective that binds us to a reality shaped by expectations and preconceptions and blinds us to the inherently unlimited power of the mind.


As humans, we also suffer from not getting what we want and not keeping what we have.

—Kalu Rinpoche, Luminous Mind: The Way of the Buddha, translated by Maria Montenegro

The first of the Four Noble Truths is known as the Truth of Suffering. The sutras related to these teachings have been translate in many ways over the centuries. Depending on the translation you read, you might find this basic principle of experience state as “There is suffering,” or even more simply, “Suffering is".

At first glance, the first of the Four Noble Truths might seem quite depressing. Upon hearing or reading it many people are apt to dismiss Buddhism as unduly pessimistic. “Oh, those Buddhists are always complaining that life is miserable! The only way to be happy is to renounce the world and go off to a mountain somewhere and meditate all day. How boring! I'm not miserable. My life is wonderful!”

It's important, first of all, to note that Buddhist teachings don't argue that in order to find true freedom people have to give up their homes, their jobs, their cars, or any other material possessions. As his own life story shows, the Buddha himself had tried a life of extreme austerity without finding the peace he sought.

Moreover, there's no denying that, for some people, circumstances can come together for a while in such a way that life seems like it couldn't get any better. I've met a lot of people who appear quite satisfied with their lives. If I ask them how they're doing, they'll answer, “Fine,” or “Just great!” Until, of course, they get sick, lose their jobs, or their children reach adolescence and overnight are transformed from affectionate bundles of joy into moody, restless strangers who want nothing to do with their parents. Then, if I ask how things are going, the reply changes a little: “I'm fine, except . , .” or “Everything's great, but . . .”

This is, perhaps, the essential message of the First Noble Truth: Life has a way of interrupting, presenting even the most contented among us with momentous surprises. Such surprises—along with subtler, less noticeable experiences like the aches and pains that come with age, the frustration of waiting in line at the grocery store, or simply running late for an appointment—can all be understood as manifestations of suffering.

I can understand why this comprehensive perspective can be hard to grasp, however. “Suffering”—the word often used in translations of the First Noble Truth—is a loaded term. When people first read or hear it, they tend to think that it refers only to extreme pain or chronic misery.

But dukkha, the word used in the sutras, is actually closer in meaning to terms more commonly used throughout the modern world, such as “uneasiness,” “disease,” “discomfort,” and, "dissatisfaction.” Some Buddhist texts elaborate on its meaning through the use of a vivid analogy to a potter's wheel that sticks as it turns, making a sort of screeching sound. Other commentaries use an image of someone riding in a cart with a slightly broken wheel; every time the wheel rotates to the broken spot, the rider gets a jolt.

So, while suffering—or dukkha-—does refer to extreme conditions, the term as used by the Buddha and later masters of Buddhist philosophy and practice is best understood as a pervasive feeling that something isn't quite right: that life could be better if circumstances were different; that we'd be happier if we were younger, thinner, or richer, in a relationship or out of a relationship. The list of miseries goes on and on. Dukkha thus embraces the entire spectrum of conditions, ranging from something as simple as an itch to more traumatic experiences of chronic pain or mortal illness. Maybe someday in the future the word dukkha will be accepted in many different languages and cultures, in the same way that the Sanskrit word karma has—offering us a broader understanding of a word that has often been translated as “suffering".

Just as having a doctor identify the symptoms is the first step in treating a disease, understanding dukkha as the basic condition or life is the first step to becoming free from discomfort or uneasiness. In fact, for some people, just hearing the First Noble Truth can, in itself, be a liberating experience. A long-term student or mine recently admitted that throughout his childhood and adolescence he'd always felt a little alienated from everyone around him. Other people seemed to know exactly the right thing to say and do. They were smarter than he was, they dressed better, and they seemed to get along with others without any effort. It seemed to him that everyone else in the world had been handed a “Happiness Handbook” at birth and he'd somehow been overlooked.

Later, when he took a college course in Eastern philosophy, he came across the Four Noble Truths, and his whole outlook began to change. He realized that he wasn't alone in his discomfort. In fact, awkwardness and alienation were experiences that had been shared by others for centuries. He could drop the whole sad story of missing out on the Happiness Handbook and just be exactly as he was. It didn't mean there wasn't work to do—but at least he could stop pretending to the outside world that he was really more together than he actually felt. He could begin working with his basic sense of inadequacy not as a lonely outsider, but as someone who had a common bond with the rest of humanity. It also meant that he was less likely to be caught off guard when he felt the particular ways suffering manifested for him come up—just as, for me, knowing that panic was around the corner took some of the sting out of it.


You're walking down the street, on your way to meet a friend for dinner. You're already thinking about what you'd like to eat, savoring your hunger. Come around the corner and—oh no, a lion!

—Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

Simply acknowledging the fact that, at any given moment, we may face some type of uneasy or uncomfortable experience constitutes the essential lesson of the First Noble Truth. But because this basic condition has so often been translated in stark language, I wanted to find some way to communicate it in terms that would be meaningful to people living in the modern world.

An analogy came to me during a recent teaching tour of North America, while I was taking a brisk, dusk-time walk through a park near the place where I was teaching. As I went through the park, I found myself engaging in a kind of “thought experiment”—a type of exercise of the imagination used by philosophers of the ancient world as well as scientists of the modern age to assist in understanding the nature of reality.

Some people, of course, may already be familiar with a few of the more historically famous thought experiments, such as the one conducted by Albert Einstein, which resulted in his development of the Special Theory of Relativity: the proposition that time and space aren't uniform aspects of reality, but are, instead, experiences that differ relative to the direction and speed in which a person is moving. Though the technological equipment necessary wasn't available at the time for Einstein to demonstrate his theory, more recent developments have shown his insights to be correct.

My own thought experiment wasn't concerned with the physical laws of motion but rather with the psychological aspects of emotion. I imagined what it would be like to pass through a wooded area like a park or a forest, engaged in thought or maybe listening to a portable music player and singing to myself. What might I experience if someone, deciding to play a joke, put on a very realistic bear costume and suddenly jumped out from behind a tree or building? My heart would begin to race, my skin would erupt in goose bumps, and my hair would stand on end. I'd probably scream in fright.

However, if someone had warned me about the joke, I wouldn't be quite as startled. I might even have an opportunity to give the joker a good scare in return—leaping out and screaming before he had a chance to jump out at me!

In the same way, if we understand dukkha or suffering as the basic condition of life, we're better prepared for the various discomforts we're likely to encounter along the way. Cultivating understanding of this sort is a bit like mapping the route of a journey. If we have a map, we have a better idea of where we are. If we don't have a map, we're likely to get lost.


When this is born, that appears.

—Salistubhasutra, translated by Maria Montenegro

As mentioned earlier, suffering operates on many different levels. Very early on, I was taught that in order to work with various kinds of suffering, it's essential to draw some distinctions among them.

One of the first, and most crucial, distinctions we can make is between what is often referred to as “natural” suffering and what I was taught to see as suffering of a “self-created” kind.

Natural suffering includes all the things we can't avoid in life. In classical Buddhist texts, these unavoidable experiences are often referred to as “The Four Great Rivers of Suffering.” Categorized as Birth, Aging, Illness, and Death, they are experiences that define the most common transitions in people's lives.

People have sometimes questioned me privately and in group teaching sessions as to why birth might be considered a form of suffering. “Surely,” they say, “the beginning of a new life ought to be regarded as a moment of great joy.” And in many respects, of course, it is: A new beginning is always an opportunity.

Birth, however, is considered an aspect of suffering for a couple of reasons. First of all, the transition from the protected environment of the womb (or an egg) into the wider world of sensory experience is considered—not only by Buddhist philosophers, but by many experts in the psychological, scientific, and health care fields—as something of a traumatic shift in experience. Many of us don't consciously recall the drama of this initial transition, but the experience of expulsion from an enclosed, protective environment apparently leaves a dramatic impression on the brain and body of a newborn.

Second, from the moment we're born, we become vulnerable to the other three Great Rivers of Suffering. The moment we're born, our “body clocks” start ticking. We grow older by the moment. As children, of course, most of us welcome this aspect of experience. I know I couldn't wait to grow up, I hated being bossed around by adults and couldn't wait to be able to make my own decisions. Now, of course, I realize that so many of the decisions I make have to be weighed quite carefully, because of their effects on others around me. And with every passing year, 1 start to feel more acutely the physical effects of aging. My joints have grown a little bit more stiff now and I'm more susceptible to fatigue and colds. 1 have to pay more attention to physical exercise.

As we proceed through life, too, we become susceptible to all sorts of diseases—the third Great River of Suffering. Some people are predisposed to allergies and other persistent ailments. Some succumb to severe illnesses such as cancer or AIDS. Others have spent years dealing with chronic physical pain. Many people I've met over the past several years suffer themselves or are dealing with friends or loved ones who are coping with catastrophic psycho-physiological diseases such as depression, bipolar disorder, addiction, and dementia.

The final of the Four Great Rivers of Suffering is death, the process through which the aspect of experience commonly referred to as consciousness becomes separated from the physical body. Tibetan texts such as Bardo Thödol—often referred to as “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” but more accurately translated as “Liberation Through Hearing”—describe this experience in extraordinary detail.

In many ways, death is a reversal of the birth process, a severing of the connections between physical, mental, and emotional aspects of experience. While birth is a process of becoming in a certain way “clothed” in physical, mental, and emotional swaddling, death is a process of being stripped of all the physical and psychological elements with which we have grown familiar. For this reason, the Bardo Thödol is often read aloud by a trained Buddhist master to a dying person, much in the way that last rites are administered by an ordained priest in Christian traditions as an aid to providing the dying with comfort through this often frightening transition.

As I've grown older and traveled more widely, I've begun to see that natural suffering includes far more categories than the ones listed in classical Buddhist texts. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and tidal waves wreak havoc on people's lives with increasing frequency. Over the past decade, I've heard and read about the tragic increase in murders perpetrated by children in high school and college classrooms. More recently, people have begun to speak much more openly to me about the devastation in their lives that has occurred through unexpectedly losing their jobs, their homes, or their relationships.

We don't have much choice in terms of our susceptibility to the experiences over which we have no control. But there is another category of pain, discomfort, dukkha, or whatever you want to call it: a virtually infinite variety of psychological tributaries that our minds spin around the people, events, and situations we encounter.

My father and other teachers helped me to think of this type of pain as “self-created”: experiences that evolve from our interpretation of situations and events, such as impulsive anger or lingering resentment aroused by others who behave in ways we don't like, jealousy toward people who have more than we do, and paralyzing anxiety that occurs when there's no reason to be afraid.

Self-created suffering can take the form of the stories we tell ourselves, often deeply embedded in our unconsciousness, about not being good enough, rich enough, attractive enough, or secure in other ways. One of the more surprising forms of self-created suffering I've encountered over the past several years of teaching around the world involves physical appearance. People tell me how they just don't feel comfortable because their noses are too big, for instance, or their chins are too small. They feel self-conscious in the extreme, certain that everyone is looking at their big nose or their small chin. Even if they resort to plastic surgery to fix what they see as a problem, they still wonder if the surgeon did a good enough job; they're constantly checking out the results in a mirror and through other people's reactions.

One woman I met recently was convinced that one of her cheekbones was bigger than the other. I couldn't see it, but she was certain that this difference was real, and that it made her ugly—”deformed” is the way she put it, I think—in her own eyes and in the eyes of others. Every time she looked in the mirror, the “deformity” seemed more pronounced, and she was sure that everyone else noticed it, too. She monitored the way other people responded to her and became convinced that they were treating her as some sort of monster because of the difference in her cheekbones. As a result, she became very shy around other people and withdrew from contact, and her performance at work declined because she felt so hideous and insecure. It wasn't until she actually measured her cheekbones in a mirror and saw that that there was less than an eighth of an inch difference between them that she began to understand that the “deformity,” and years of despair, fear, and self-hatred she'd experienced, were creations of her own mind.

So although self-created suffering is essentially a creation of the mind—as my own experience of anxiety showed me—it is no less intense than natural suffering. In fact, it can actually be quite a bit more painful. I remember quite vividly a monk I knew in India, whose friend, after being diagnosed with cancer in his leg, underwent an operation to amputate the affected limb. Shortly afterward, this monk began to feel such severe pains in his own leg that he couldn't move. He was taken to a hospital where a variety of scans and other tests were performed, none of which revealed any organic problem. Even after being presented with the results, the monk still felt intense pain in his leg, so the doctor began probing in another direction, asking about events in the monk's life that preceded the onset of the pain in his leg. Finally it came to light that the pain had started almost immediately after his friend's operation.

The doctor nodded thoughtfully and then began asking the monk about his reaction to seeing his friend. Gradually, the monk began to admit to feeling a great deal of fear, imagining what it would be like to feel the pain of having a leg removed and the difficulties he would have to face in learning how to walk with crutches and perform all sorts of other tasks that he used to take for granted. Without ever mentioning hypochondria, the doctor very gently led the monk through all the different scenarios he'd created in his own mind, until the monk realized how deeply the fear of pain—and the fear of fear—had affected him. Even as he was speaking, he felt the symptoms in his leg begin to fade, and the next day, he was able to walk out of the hospital, free of pain, and, most importantly, free of the fear that underlay the pain.


Be the chief, but never the lord.

—Lao Tzu, The Way of Life, translated by R. B. Blakney

The doctors method of investigating the nature of the monk's pain echoed, in many ways, the skillfulness with which the Buddha presented the First Noble Truth. The Buddha didn't say to his listeners, “You are suffering;' or “People suffer,” or even “All creatures suffer.” He merely said, “There is suffering”—offering it up as a general observation to be contemplated or reflected upon, rather than as some sort of final statement about the human condition that people might latch on to and identify with as a defining characteristic of their own lives. As if he were saying, “There is air” or “There are clouds,” he presented suffering as a simple fact, undeniable, but not to be taken personally.

Psychologists I've talked to have suggested that introducing the First Noble Truth in this emotionally unthreatening fashion was an exceptionally perceptive means of acquainting us with the basic condition of suffering, in that it allows us to look at the ways in which it manifests in our experience a little bit more objectively. Instead of getting caught up in thinking, for example, “Why am I so lonely? It's not fair! I don't want to feel this. What can I do to get rid of it?”—trains of thought that lead us in the direction of judging ourselves or our circumstances or trying to reject or suppress our experience—we can take a step back and observe, “There is loneliness” or “There is anxiety” or “There is fear.”

Approaching an uncomfortable experience with this type of impartial attitude is actually quite similar to the way in which my father taught me to just look at the distractions that came up for me every time I tried to meditate. “Don't judge them,” he'd say. “Don't try to get rid of them. Just look.” Of course, when I tried to do that, whatever was distracting me would vanish almost immediately. When I went back to my father to tell him about this problem, he smiled and said, “Oh, very good. Now you see.”

I didn't—at least not then. I still had a few things to learn about the nature of suffering.


The pain of disease, malicious gossip etc.... constitutes the misery of misery itself.

—Jamgon Kongtrul, The Torch of Certainty, translated by Judith Hanson

Because suffering is such a broad term, many of the great masters who followed in the Buddha's footsteps expanded on his teachings of the First Noble Truth, dividing the variety of painful experiences into three basic categories.

The first is known as “The Suffering of Suffering,” which can be described very briefly as the immediate and direct experience of any sort of pain or discomfort. A very simple example might be the pain you experience if you accidentally cut your finger. Included within this category, as well, would be the various aches and pains associated with illness, which can vary in intensity from headaches, stuffy noses, and sore throats to the more intense kinds of pain experienced by people who suffer from chronic or fatal diseases. The discomforts that come with aging, like arthritis, rheumatism, weakening limbs, and heart and respiratory distress, would also be regarded as manifestations of the Suffering of Suffering. So would the pain one experiences as the victim of an accident or a natural disaster—broken bones, severe burns, or trauma to internal organs.

Most of the examples described above relate to what was defined earlier as natural suffering. But the pain and discomfort associated with the Suffering of Suffering extends, as well, to the psychological and emotional dimensions of self-created suffering.

The terror and anxiety that welled up in me throughout my childhood, though they didn't necessarily have an organic cause, were certainly immediate and direct. Other intense emotions like anger, jealousy, embarrassment, the hurt that follows when someone says or does something unkind, and the grief that follows the loss of a loved one are equally vivid experiences of this sort of suffering, as are more persistent psychological disturbances like depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem.

The emotional manifestations of the Suffering of Suffering aren't necessarily extreme or persistent. They can be quite simple. For example, I was speaking not long ago with someone who'd run from her office to the bank on her lunch hour, only to find a long line at the teller window. “I wanted to scream,” she told me, “because I knew I had to get back for an important meeting, so I only had a limited amount of time. I didn't scream, of course; I'm not that type of person. Instead, I just pulled out the presentation for the meeting and started going over it, glancing between the pages, my watch, and the line that just didn't seem to move. I couldn't believe the amount of resentment I felt at all the people ahead of me, and at the bank teller—who appeared, to give her credit, to be trying to remain patient while dealing with an apparently difficult customer. I can laugh at the situation now, but I was still resentful when I got back to the office, without having time for lunch, and the feeling didn't lift until the meeting was over, and I dashed out for a sandwich to bring back to my desk.”


Cast aside concerns for worldly activities.

—The Ninth Gyalwa Karmapa,

Mahamudra. The Ocean of Definitive Meaning, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan

The second category of suffering, as it was explained to me, is much more subtle. Referred to as “The Suffering of Change,” this kind of suffering is often described in terms of deriving satisfaction, comfort, security, or pleasure from objects or situations that are bound to change. Suppose, for example, you get a new car, a television set, or a shiny new computer with all the latest components. For a while, you're ecstatic. You love how smoothly the car rides, how fast you can pull away when the traffic light turns green, how easily the press of a button automatically warms the seats on a cold winter morning. The picture on your new, flat-screen TV is so clear and bright, with definition so amazing that you can pick out details you never saw before. That new computer lets you run ten different programs with incredible speed. But after a while, the novelty of whatever it is you bought wears off. Maybe the car breaks down; somebody you know gets a TV with a bigger, clearer screen; the computer crashes—or a new model comes out that has even more features and more power. You might think, “I wish I'd waited.”

Or perhaps it's not a thing that makes you happy, but a situation. You fall in love and the world is filled with rainbows; every time you think of the other person, you can't keep from smiling. Or you get a new job or promotion, and oh, everyone you're working with now is so great, and the money you're making—finally you can pay off your debts, maybe buy a new house, or really start saving. After a while the glow wears off, though, doesn't it? You start to see flaws in the person who seemed so perfect just a few months ago. That new job demands more time and energy than you imagined and the salary, well, it's not as great as you imagined. There isn't really much left over for savings after taxes are taken out and once you've started paying off your debts.

This explanation of the Suffering of Change is close, but it misses the point. The dissatisfaction or disenchantment experienced when the novelty wears off or the situation starts to fall apart is actually the Suffering of Suffering. The Suffering of Change stems, more accurately, from the attachment to the pleasure derived from getting what we want: be it a relationship, a job, a good grade on an exam, or a shiny new car.

Unfortunately, the pleasure derived from external sources is, by nature, temporary. Once it wears off, the return to our “normal” state seems less bearable by comparison. So we seek it again, maybe in another relationship, another job, or another object. Again and' again, we seek pleasure, comfort, or relief in objects and situations that can't possibly fulfill our high hopes and expectations.

The Suffering of Change, then, could be understood as a type of addiction, a never-ending search for a lasting “high” that is just out of reach. In fact, according to neuroscientists I've spoken with, the high we feel simply from the anticipation of getting what we want is linked to the production of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that generates, among other things, sensations of pleasure. Over time, our brains and our bodies are motivated to repeat the activities that stimulate the production of dopamine. We literally get hooked on anticipation.

Tibetan Buddhist texts liken this type of addictive behavior to “licking honey off a razor.” The initial sensation may be sweet, but the underlying effect is quite damaging. Seeking satisfaction in others or in external objects or events reinforces a deep and often unacknowledged belief that we, as we are, are not entirely complete; that we need something beyond ourselves in order to experience a sense of wholeness or security or stability. The Suffering of Change is perhaps best summed up as a conditional view of ourselves. I'm fine as long as I have this or that going for me. My job is demanding, but at least I have a great relationship (or my health or my looks or a wonderful family).


A single hair lying on the palm of the hand causes discomfort and suffering if it gets into the eye.

—-Rajaputra Yashomitra, Commentary on the “Treasury of Abhidharma,” translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan

The foundation of the first two categories of suffering—as well as the kinds of suffering that can be described as natural and self-created—is known as Pervasive Suffering. Of itself, this type or suffering is not overtly painful nor does it involve the sort or addictive pleasure-seeking associated with the Suffering of Change. It might best be described as a fundamental restlessness, a kind or itch persisting just below the level of conscious awareness.

Think of it this way: you're sitting in a very comfortable chair during a meeting or lecture, or just watching TV. But no matter how comfortable the chair is, at some point you feel the urge to move, to rearrange your backside, or to stretch your legs. That's Pervasive Suffering. You could find yourself in the most wonderful circumstances, but eventually a twinge of discomfort plucks at you and whispers, “Mmm, not quite right. Things could be better if . . .”

Where does that itch, that subtle twinge of dissatisfaction, come from?

Very simply put, everything in our experience is always changing. The world around us, our bodies, our thoughts and feelings-even our thoughts about our thoughts and feelings—are in constant flux, a progressive and ceaseless interplay of causes and conditions that create certain effects, which themselves become the causes and conditions that give rise to still other effects. In Buddhist terms, this constant change is known as impermanence. In many of his teachings the Buddha compared this movement to the tiny changes that occur in the flow of a river. Viewed from a distance, the moment by moment changes are difficult to perceive. It's only when we step up to the riverbank and take a really close look that we can see the tiny changes in wave patterns—the shifts of sand, silt, and debris, and the movement of fish and other creatures who inhabit the water—and begin to appreciate the incredible variety of changes going on moment by moment.

Impermanence occurs on many levels, some of which are clear to see. For example, we wake up one morning to discover that the empty lot down the road has become a busy construction site, full of the noise and bustle of digging the foundation, pouring concrete, erecting steel beams for the structure, and so on. Before long the skeleton of a building has been raised, and another team of people are busy laying water pipes and gas lines and running electrical wires throughout the structure. Later still, other teams come to put the walls and windows in, and maybe do a bit of landscaping, planting trees, grass, and gardens. Finally, instead of an empty lot, there's a whole building full of people coming and going.

This obvious level of change is referred to in Buddhist teachings as gross continuous impermanence. We can see the transformation of the empty lot, and though we may not like the new building maybe it blocks our view, or if it's a big commercial building, we might be disturbed by the increase in the amount of traffic in front of the building—the change doesn't take us by surprise.

Gross continuous impermanence can also be observed in the change of seasons, at least in certain parts of the world. For a few months, it's very cold and snow covers the ground. A few months later there are buds on trees and early flowers start springing from the ground. After a time, the buds turn into leaves and fields and gardens burst with many different plants and flowers. When autumn comes, the flowers wither and the leaves on the trees may start turning red, yellow, or orange. Then winter returns, and the leaves and flowers disappear and the air turns cold; sometimes there's snow and sometimes ice covers trees like a coating of pure glass.

While the effects of gross continuous impermanence are readily apparent, they actually arise from another type of continuous change, which the Buddha described as subtle impermanence, a shifting of conditions that occurs “behind the scenes” as it were, on such a deep level that it barely, if ever, approaches our awareness.

One way to understand the workings of subtle impermanence is to consider the way we think of time.

In general, we tend to conceive of time in terms of three categories: past, present, and future. If we look at these three categories in terms of years, we can say that there is last year, this year, and next year. But last year has already faded and next year hasn't arrived yet: essentially, they're concepts, ideas we have about time.

That leaves us with this year.

But a year is made up of months, isn't it? This can get a little confusing for me because most Western calendars are made up of twelve months, while the Tibetan calendar sometimes includes an extra, thirteenth month! But let's use the Western calendar as an example, and agree, for the moment, that we're in the middle of the sixth month. Nearly six months of the year have already passed and six lie ahead. So now what we call the present has been reduced in scope from this year to this month. But a month is made up of a fixed number of days—in the Western calendar, usually thirty or thirty-one. So if it's June 15, half of June has passed and the other half has yet to be. Now the present is only this day. But this day is composed of twenty-four hours; and if it's noon, half of the day has passed while the other half hasn't arrived.

We can keep breaking down the passage of time further and further—into the sixty minutes that make up an hour; the sixty seconds that make up a minute; the milliseconds that make up a second; the nanoseconds that make up each millisecond; on and on as far as scientists can measure. Those tiny bits of time are always moving, flying away from us. The future becomes the present and the present becomes the past before we're even consciously aware of what's happening. Neuroscientists I've spoken with have measured a half-second gap—called the “attentional blink”— between the moment our sensory organs register a visual stimulus and pass on the signals to the brain and the moment in which we consciously identify those signals and consolidate them in short-term memory. By the time we even register the idea now, it's already “then.”

No matter how much we'd like to, we can't stop time or the changes it brings. We can't “rewind” our lives to an earlier point or “fast forward” to some future place. But we can learn to accept impermanence, make friends with it, and even begin to consider the possibility of change as a type of mental and emotional bodyguard.


Breath is life.

—Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying edited by Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey

Some people can understand impermanence just by contemplating the teachings on the First Noble Truth. For others, understanding doesn't come so easily—or it remains a concept, somewhat mysterious and abstract. Fortunately, the Buddha and the great masters who followed in his footsteps provided a number of simple exercises that can help us get in touch with the subtle level of change in a direct and nonthreatening way. The simplest of all, which can be practiced anytime, anywhere, involves bringing attention to the changes that happen to the body as we breathe.

Begin by sitting with your spine straight and body relaxed. If its more comfortable, you can lie down. You can keep your eyes open or closed (although I wouldn't recommend closing your eyes if you're driving or walking down the street). Just breathe in and out naturally through your nose. And as you do, gently bring your attention to the changes in your body as you breathe, especially the expansion and contraction of your lungs and the rising and falling of the muscles in the abdominal region. Don't worry about concentrating too hard, thinking “I've got to watch my breath . . . I've got to watch my breath.” Just let your mind rest in bare awareness of the changes occurring as you breathe in and out. Don't worry, either, if you find your mind wandering as you continue the exercise—that is simply another lesson in impermanence. If you find yourself thinking about something that happened yesterday or daydreaming about tomorrow, gently bring your attention back to the changes in the body as you breathe. Continue this exercise for about a minute.

When the minute is up, review what you noticed about the changes in your body. Don't judge the experience or try to explain it. Just review what you noticed. You may have felt other things aside from the rising and falling of your abdomen or the expansion and contraction of your lungs. You may have been more aware of the breath flowing in and out of your nostrils. That's okay. You may have become aware of hundreds of different thoughts, feelings, and sensations, or of being carried away by distractions. That's great. Why? Because you're taking the time to observe the constant changes occurring on a subtle level without resisting them.

If you continue this practice once a day or a few times a day, you'll find yourself becoming aware of more changes, on subtler and subtler levels. Gradually, impermanence will become like an old friend, nothing to get upset about, nothing to resist. Over time, you may discover that you can carry this awareness into other situations-at work perhaps, or while waiting at the grocery store, or at the bank, or even while eating lunch or dinner. Just bringing yourself back to your breath is an effective way of “tuning in” to the fullness of the present moment and orienting yourself to the subtle changes going on inside and around you. This in turn will provide you with the opportunity to see things more clearly and act from a psychological state of greater openness and balance. Whenever disturbing thoughts or sensations arise—or if you happen to be caught off guard by a wax figure suddenly coming to life—the situation will act as a kind of reminder of the basic fact that impermanence simply is.

So why does it seem so personal?

To answer this question, we need to look at the Second of the Four Noble Truths.

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