by Mark Knickelbine
In The Goal of Practice and elsewhere, I have argued along with Stephen Batchelor that the goal of secular dharma practice is not a final cessation of suffering (regardless of how many thousands of times the Pali canon says otherwise). As Batchelor points out, the word commonly translated as “suffering” in English is dukkha; and as Gotama defines the term in the First Sermon, it encompasses aging, sickness, death, and our entire psychophysical makeup, things that we cannot escape as long as we are embodied beings. (That “unbinding” is principally a deliverance from rebirth as an embodied being is the metaphysical concept that runs throughout the Pali texts). Rather, a secular understanding of the Four Truths is that the goal of practice is to develop equanimity through the cultivation of mindfulness. This equanimity is the liberation from grasping and aversion, a freedom that permits us to drop our deluded habits and respond to the world with wisdom and compassion.
Several respondents to my earlier posts disagreed vociferously, to the point of suggesting that I was willfully misrepresenting Gotama’s teachings. I was pleased, therefore, to read a really wonderful article in the latest issue of Buddhadharma by Zoketsu Norman Fischer entitled “The Real Path” (you can read an excerpt here). Fischer’s Mahayana cred could not be more impeccable: he is a second-generation dharma heir of Shunryu Suzuki, and a former co-abbot and current senior dharma teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center.
He begins by remembering his lifelong friend Alan Lew, who died suddenly and unexpectedly several years ago. After recalling details of Alan’s life, he makes this rather startling statement:
We think we’re trying to get rid of suffering. I want more suffering. I want to feel more of the suffering of people who are suffering everywhere. I want to feel that suffering more, care about it more, and do something about it more. That’s my commitment to Alan and to myself.
As I read that paragraph, it connected with a thought I’ve had often before. Who would really want the final cessation of suffering? Would I want to be in so rarified a spiritual state that I would not grieve the loss of my loved ones? How would it be possible to feel true compassion toward others if one could not vicariously experience their suffering? What I want, scripture or no scripture, is to be able to face suffering without aversion. I want to feel the grief of a friend without the impulse to run from it or try to fix it. I want to face my own fears and sorrows without needing to medicate or distract myself. I want, in the words of the old 12-step prayer, to accept the things I cannot change.
Which leads directly to the subhead of Fischer’s next section: “Do We Have to Suffer?”
The most astonishing fact of human life is that most of us think it’s possible to minimize and even eliminate suffering. We actually think this, which is one reason why it’s so difficult for us when we’re suffering. We think, “This shouldn’t be this way,” or ‘I’m going to get rid of this somehow’ . . .
Even if we try to ignore it, we really don’t escape the suffering. It registers in our psyche and becomes a conditioning factor in our lives. We may find that we’re living in reaction to the suffering that we’re unwilling to see and think about. So the idea that suffering is some sort of mistake and a minor problem that we could overcome with a little bit of meditation and a positive attitude is the towering pinnacle of self-deception.
Fischer isn’t pulling his punches here. A pursuit of some final cessation of suffering not only isn’t enlightenment, he says, it’s an extreme example of delusion. Why? It should be no surprise to readers of this blog that Fischer next addresses the concept of “dukkha”:
Dukkha refers to the psychological experience — sometimes conscious, sometimes not conscious — of the profound fact that everything is impermanent, ungraspable, and not really knowable . . . The gap between the reality and the basic human approach to life is dukkha, an experience of basic anxiety and frustration. Seen in this way, dukkha could actually be another name for human consciousness. Dukkha is not a mistake. It is not a correctible situation; it is human consciousness.
This is the heart of the human predicament, and the key to Gotama’s prescribed approach to that predicament. If we live in reaction to dukkha, pretending there is some way to get away from it and spending all our energy in pursuit of that escape, we are doomed to failure, because there is no way while we live to escape the fundamental nature of our own phenomenal reality. The only freedom available to us is to develop the capacity not to react, but to be with the reality of our lives, to allow it, to embrace it.
As Fischer puts it:
The great and beautiful secret of meditation practice is this: you can experience dukkha with equanimity. Isn’t equanimity the secret of happiness? If you tried to eliminate dukkha, it would be like trying to eliminate life. But if you can receive dukkha with equanimity, then, in a way, it’s no longer dukkha. Impermanence could be the most devastating fact of life, and often it is. But impermanence could also be incredibly beautiful, if you receive it with equanimity. It could be peace itself.
So if there is an “end” to dukkha, it lies in no longer seeking the end. It lies in accepting impermanence, “seeing it as it actually arises,” as Gotama puts it. “We need to learn how to turn toward suffering, really take it in, find the meaning of it, and let it open a path for us to a new life,” Fischer writes.
I smiled when I read that. I have no idea if Fischer has ever heard Batchelor’s talks — I kind of hope he hasn’t. It’s neat to think this Zen master would independently voice Batchelor’s main point: The “real path” does not lead to the cessation of dukkha; it is the embrace of dukkha results in the freedom to walk the path. Because it would be another indication that this truth is not Fischer’s, or Batchelor’s, or even Gotama’s. It’s the dharma, manifesting itself in the glossy magazine in front of me, as it manifests everywhere we make the effort to look for it.