The Buddha, 2500 years ago, pointed out that three conditions are common to all beings: impermanence, lack of any lasting ego-self, and suffering. Dukkha (suffering) means more than pain as the opposite of pleasure, and the Buddha said that such suffering is the inevitable result of greed, anger, and delusion – delusion meaning mistaking the unreal for the Real.
I intend one day write a book on the causes of suffering, examining these causes on both an existential everyday psychological level and from a deeper, more meaningful spiritual basis. There is no other single subject so applicable to men – for who has not suffered?
When visiting Palo Alto, California, I received a phone call from my friends at the Tenrikyo America West Church in nearby San Francisco. They had a new automobile but nobody to drive it. Would I be kind enough to play chauffeur for one day so that a group of ministers and church members could go to Sacramento for a special ceremony, hear two important sermons by visitors from the main church in Japan, and return the same night to San Francisco?
I was delighted to help, and after spending Saturday night at the church in San Francisco, called for the elders on Sunday morning and headed east in the new car.
The two sermons lasted four and one-half hours. Since it is impossible to concentrate in a foreign language that long, about halfway through the afternoon I borrowed some paper and scribbled some thoughts on the human condition and the meaning of suffering. These had very strongly been in my mind because of the plight of people I had just left on the Monterey peninsula and because of the predicament of the family I was visiting in Palo Alto.
These notes formed themselves into two essays: one on the human condition (suffering), and the other, more hopeful, speaking of the joy that awaits man if he wants it. They follow just as I scribbled them that Sunday afternoon while listening to the talks in Japanese.
The Human Condition
The undisciplined mind can only lead to misery. When we are guided by our desires, and when we play the game within the pleasure-pain syndrome (seeking one and avoiding the other), the resultant suffering is inevitable. The great tragedy comes if we do not learn from the experience but lead joyless life after life without discernible meaning. To want what we cannot have, to ask that we sustain what is unsustainable, and to demand that the law of continuous change be somehow annulled is to invite unhappiness. Not to look within and introspect about what has caused the misery is tantamount to suicide.
Of course, there is a type of natural mind that has almost disappeared from our busy world. One rainy day in northern India, I had persuaded a Sikh taxi driver to drive me from New Delhi to the famous town of Haridwar. As we drove through the lightly falling rain, in deepest country, we passed some stacks of hay piled beside the thin highway. A beautiful boy of about twelve years, almost naked, danced on top of one as the rain beat down on his head. It was like watching Krishna come to life. Ecstatic in the movements, elbows bent this way and that, he shouted with joy as he moved in response to some universal guidance. It was a sight I will never forget, like Shiva and Shakti dancing the great cosmic joyous overflowing, the play (lila) of the Lord. Such an uncluttered, joyous mind is sometimes found among Whirling Dervishes, but it is rare in our cramped society.
When we pursue status or look for pleasurable endless diversion, we have empty lives with hollow hearts. On the outside we pretend to impress others, while inside we feel disturbed and robbed of our just fruits. If we do not belong to an oppressed minority, and if we have enough means to remain solvent, we place our identity in our living quarters, our cars, our children (all possessions). We often live without an inner ethic or something greater than ourselves. Although it can’t be done success- fully, we can aimlessly divert ourselves if we have the means. (I have known wealthy men who amused themselves endlessly with prostitutes and gambling, shutting out any need for looking within. Their family relationships were never very good, however.)
We have a duty to find meaning in this very life, this present existential situation. And this requires a disciplined mind. Discontent can be a good starting point if we are willing to recognize it and accept the responsibility for our own lives, both past and future. Discontent and doubt are the first catalysts leading to Enlightenment.
In western culture, this great ennui and discontent manifests in our forties and fifties. Long since having abandoned youthful ideals, we feel unfulfilled and bored with ourselves; we transfer the blame to our mates. Rupture of the family serves no purpose (and sometimes leads to suicide) unless we are willing to become true home-leavers and give up both our desires and our habits. Remaking habitual thought patterns is terribly painful. And usually, by the age of forty or fifty, we have lost the ability to pursue change. We rest in the comfortable, and what is comfortable is the habitual that has led to our present condition. “I want to change things,” we say, but we are unwilling to change ourselves. It is because we are what we are that we have the displeasing conditions. Without changing ourselves (our way of thinking, our desire-patterns, and our unreasonable self-demands), we are doomed to continue writhing in the quicksand of our own endeavors.
How we love our suffering. We are willing to give up anything but the comfortable habit patterns causing our misery. We will not throw away our crutch. Assuming we are the “good guys,” that we are looking from the highest possible peak, we rationalize and see our present situation as other than what it is. We want the rose without the thorn and the joy of autumn without the cold of winter.
Look in the mirror closely. What do you see in the face? Be honest. Is there compassion, joy, energy, and good health, and a picture of fulfillment? If not, something is wrong, isn’t it? Perhaps we do not have the intelligence to ingest the teachings of the greatest sages. If not, we must introspect on our own levels to comprehend what is wrong and what must be done. Being undisciplined, we postpone such a step indefinitely. This is suicide – literally, self-death. We take heart attacks, strokes, and ulcers as the natural consequences of living. By then it may be too late. Paying huge doctor bills as ransom avails nothing.
Without self-culture (physical, mental, and spiritual) we begin to die early in life, and our existence becomes one long death progression. Pretending we are immortal, we ignore the present symptoms and insist that our usual way (which led us to the present predicament) is best. If we can truly believe, as the Soto Zen Genjokoan states, that this world is – just as it is – our ideal state, that’s all well and good. Then, of course, there will be no complaining. If we pretend to “surrender” to a spiritual teacher, then he or she carries the load and we abandon all concerns, no matter how things go. If our prayers remain unanswered, we cannot complain because we have “surrendered” to God. But how many actually do so? We depend upon ourselves – not in the best sense as the Buddha advised but in the worst way. Dissatisfied with our self-made lot, we depend upon our limited being.
When we hate someone, we cannot love at all. If we place ourselves above others, we cannot see the absolute value of all. If we do not realize that we exist in total relationship, we are separated from others. And so we grasp only what appears favorable, hoping everything else will disappear. In so doing, we divide the Joyous Mountain into plots and subdivide it into yours and mine, good and bad. We live with hypocrisy and find we are unwilling and not ready to die. Dying each day, we pretend that death will pass us by. If we cannot appraise our present situation and determine how we got here (to a very concrete here and now), how can we face anything as nebulous as death? And yet we will die, and only by tasting death beforehand, can we live life. Only that which we do not grasp and that which can be dispensed with can be enjoyed. We cannot enjoy the absolutely necessary. Such attachment causes the suffering that attends the possibility of losing it: jealousy, envy, the inevitable bitterness inherent in a grasping way of life. And yet, to face death squarely, we need a disciplined mind.
The Fasting Mind discards as it grows. Wanting to possess nothing, we have everything, as St. John of the Cross pointed out. Retrogressing from habitual to spontaneous and from artificial to natural, we eventually arrive at our place of origin: the spiritual heart. “Losing a little each day,” we stand firm in an inner relationship with sky and earth, relinquishing all and gaining nothing. This is not a prospect that lures the fool. Meditation is hard work and promises no material reward. Introspection is painful, so why do we do it? Because without finding out who and what we are (manifestly “ourselves”) we do not have a chance. We are like the animal that eats poisonous herbs and throws up, only to eat them again and again. Face the fact that we cause our own suffering and the rest is comparatively easy: we change ourselves. We think thoughts and perform actions that will reflect what we want in the future. Emptying ourselves, we find a quiet joy within. We make every effort not to make any effort. Basking in the sun, breathing in the wind, we lose sight of gain and loss.
Can we do it? Eventually we must do it. If we want an apple tree, we must plant the apple seed. We cannot expect effect with- out suitable cause. If we want the serenity of untroubled mind, we do not do away with death or trouble. That is impossible. To live is to have worries, and eventually, to die. We change our attitude toward things, empty ourselves of our previous habitual responses, and, cultivating a new soil ground, find it empty and ready for the new seed. This spiritual seed then makes it possible for us to Climb the Joyous Mountain.
Joy is Man’s Heritage
Pleasure is a reaction. You have just fulfilled some desire, experienced a sensory or psychological gratification, or had some suffering lifted from your shoulders. In each case the pleasure is temporary, and must be renewed again and again if we are to pursue the familiar pleasure-pain syndrome throughout our lives. Where the pleasure has been achieved in an illicit manner, it is an invitation to future pain. Pleasure and pain are the two sides of the same coin, and we cannot eliminate one while we endlessly experience the other. Besides, just as the Chinese yang eventually turns to yin, pleasure indefinitely extended becomes pain. To want something and not get it is painful; to acquire it and then worry about losing it, as in jealousy, is even more painful. There is no up without down, and there is no pleasure without pain.
Joy is your natural state, although it is usually clouded over. When the Mind returns to its natural condition, you are joyful. Such Bliss is not the result of anything. “To the Mind that is still the Universe surrenders.” The Life Force itself is joyous. All we have to do is get ourselves out of the way and enjoy it. This is not difficult for animals and plants, but few humans achieve the natural and the spontaneous. As our lives become more and more artificial, we depart from our natural state of mind and become devious, seeking to manipulate what really cannot be manipulated. The search is for ease, and endless inventions lead us in the mistaken search for such ease. We cease to make effort and become totally undisciplined. Granted untold leisure, we make the search for diversion our total goal, hoping thereby to affect a state of continuous gratification where we do not have the pain of facing ourselves.
We search for such gratification in objects and status, just as we search for knowledge by always looking outward. The scientist, with the aid of modern telescopes, pushes the frontiers of the universe back, totally neglecting to ascertain who it is that is looking through the telescope. So in the search for outer knowledge, the mind is clouded over and we lose our natural heritage of joy. The worship of words and facts goes on to the point where we have the radio, television, and computers talking to us twenty-four hours a day, stunting our sensibilities with an outpouring of inane language about so-called news. (Any act of the human condition becomes “news.”) Education is envisaged as a storing up of great masses of words, as though life experience only exists in terminology. If we cannot define it, if we cannot isolate it in words, it does not exist. Most scholars have reached the point where they seriously believe anything can be achieved with words. Philosophers play intramural games with each other, and theologians seek to pinpoint that which has not become part of their own existence. God is drowned in a sea of words, often by Christian clergymen speaking of the poverty of the son of man while being careful to keep their expensive custom-made suits immaculate. A Sufi teacher wears a rough, mended cotton costume over his Parisian clothes, elegant buckled shoes sticking out incongruously from under the hybrid costume.
All are full of words, although they cannot teach their listeners to have the electric experience of entering the crucible. We take away words from sermons and classes and are lost as to how to implement the experiences we have heard about. Rare is the teacher who leads his pupils to their own experience, giving them the tools whereby they can achieve the disciplined state necessary to allow the mind to return to its natural condition. We repeat the mantra of knowing, as we read it in a weekly magazine, but we do not become the mantra. Today we are drowning in words. It would be a blessing to destroy all televisions and computers and do away with freeways, and to once more turn back to the heart of the universe for our guidance. How many allow themselves the pleasure of hearing rustling leaves and honking wild fowl? We pay homage to Thoreau, but we follow the example of Babel.
We usually employ the excuse that we have no time. But we have made our lives. We can be joyous if we are worthy of it. We must always remember the lesson: without changing the causes, we cannot expect a different result.