Did Buddha fail?
According to the most well-known traditional story of the Buddha, he grew up as a wealthy prince, cut off from the outside world, surrounded by every sensual pleasure imaginable. Yet one day he decided to travel beyond the palace walls, and encountered an unwell person, an old person and a dead person. His upbringing was so sheltered that this was the first time he'd ever encountered such things, and they shocked him to the core. He asked his charioteer if he, too, would become unwell, grow old and die, and his charioteer said yes, these things were inevitable.
The young Buddha-to-be was thrown into an existential crisis, and decided to leave home in search of an answer to these fundamental problems. In later years he would frame his teachings in terms of 'dukkha and the end of dukkha' - usually translated 'suffering and the end of suffering'. In his first formal teaching, he defines dukkha as follows:
Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha, separation from the loved is dukkha, not getting what is wanted is dukkha.
That's a pretty broad definition! And, to make matters worse - and despite his claim to teach 'dukkha and the end of dukkha' - the historical Buddha did, in fact, grow old, become unwell, and eventually die.
So did he fail in his spiritual quest?
Suffering = pain ✕ resistance
One standard answer to this most fundamental of all Buddhist problems is to redefine suffering ('dukkha'). And while this might seem like a bit of a dodge, it really works, so let's take a closer look at it.
The move here is to make a distinction between 'pain', which is the physical sensation that results when you stub your toe, and 'suffering', which is the psychological anguish that ensues when you experience pain, or more generally anything you don't like. Looked at in these terms, any situation can be broken down into two parts: the situation itself, and your relationship to it. We're often not in a position to change the situation itself, but through meditation and mindfulness we can learn to adjust our relationship to what's going on - with powerfully liberating consequences.
Modern mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young has captured this dynamic beautifully in a simple mathematical equation: suffering = pain ✕ resistance. What does this mean?
You stub your toe. Your foot now hurts. That's what happens when you have a body and you collide part of it into a solid object at speed. Sorry. It'll most likely stop hurting in a while, but for now you have pain. That's the situation.
But you don't stop there. 'Owww! That really hurts! I really wish I hadn't done that!' 'Argh, I'm so clumsy, why don't I watch where I'm going?' 'Who left that there? I've told them not to! I'm going to find them and yell at them, because this is their fault!' That's your relationship to the situation - wishing that it were different, filled with self-criticism, judgement or anger.
What we can do to counteract this is to cultivate a practice of non-judgemental awareness, where we see clearly whatever is arising moment to moment, without trying to change it, without overlaying an expectation that it should be different. In other words, a mindfulness practice.
As we begin to develop some insight into our mental activity, we can see how we create and then prop up our own mental anguish through indulging in repetitive thoughts and negative emotions. Of course, we don't generally mean to do this - but we have the habit of reacting that way, probably because we learnt it at an early age from the people around us. And as we see into our patterns, we realise how much time we spent resisting what's here.
So, instead of resisting, we learn to find an attitude of acceptance. We recognise 'Oh, I stubbed my toe, now my foot hurts. No sense wailing about it - it's too late to take it back.' And so our experience still includes the physical pain of the hurting foot, but no longer includes the additional psychological misery caused by trying to wish the pain away or find someone to blame for it. As we shift into acceptance, the resistance drops to zero, and the suffering falls away with it.
Sidebar: what acceptance is, and isn't
Acceptance can be a red flag for some people. So, what, you're telling me I have to just lie down and let life roll over me? People should stay in abusive relationships and just accept them? We should accept social injustice and environmental destruction?
I'm not saying that at all. The kind of acceptance I'm talking about is not a passive submission to other people - it's simply a recognition that this is what's here right now. It's a willingness to see this situation for what it is, without that layer of how you thought it was supposed to be. You've already lost that battle. The universe has unfolded a certain way, it didn't go the way you wanted, and there's no Undo button.
However, in each moment we have a choice about what to do next. And we can make that choice most effectively if we aren't tying up most of our mental energy in wishing for a better past leading up to this moment.
If we can see this moment utterly without resistance, then two things happen. One, the suffering vanishes. And two, we're in the best possible position to make wise choices about how to respond to the situation - which can include taking action to address injustice, escape a toxic relationship, or whatever else needs to be done right now.
Going deeper: perception is reality
Up to this point, we've been talking about standard mindfulness 101. If you're a bit more experienced, you might be tempted to dismiss this as 'beginner stuff'. But do you actually put it into practice? All day every day? In all situations, no matter how difficult? Actually developing continuous mindfulness even of this 'basic' variety is a major undertaking - and one with transformative power if it's taken far enough. I have a long way to go on this myself, but I've gone far enough to know that it isn't just talk - it really works. But it's hard!
Even so, we can go further down the Buddhist rabbit hole. The model presented above - the situation, and our reaction to the situation - is useful in its own way, but it's also misleading in an important way. At the deepest level, the situation and our reaction to it are not separate at all - in fact, they're two sides of the same coin.
What we experience, moment to moment, is not actually 'reality in itself', but a representation of reality - a fabrication, in Buddhist technical jargon. One way of looking at it is that our senses take in information about our surroundings, which is fed up to the brain, and the brain's job is to assemble it all into a coherent picture of the world, which is what we then experience consciously. Our eyes are making tiny movements all the time, but our visual field typically appears to be stable rather than jerky - this is one of the ways you can tell that we aren't seeing anything as simple as 'things as they are'. Going deeper still, even concepts like 'sense organs' and 'brain' are also part of the fabricated experience - for all we know we could be brains in jars, or a line of code running in the Matrix, or whatever.
Making a distinction between 'the situation' and 'our reaction to the situation' can help us to disentangle ourselves from identification with thought and emotion, and find relief from suffering in the process. But ultimately both the situation and the reaction to it are part of the same representational experience - changing any aspect of it changes the whole thing.
As we come to see this more clearly, we may have a sense that reality is losing its substantiality. That's because the 'realness' of our perceptions is - here it comes again - just another part of the representation. And through practice we can learn to fine-tune that representation, and consequently experience things in different ways. We can learn to colour our experience with love, contentment or beauty; we can learn to see beautiful, awakened qualities in the most severe situations. The teacher Rob Burbea, who died last year from cancer, was a master of this kind of practice, and speaks very movingly about it in his final interview with Michael Taft.
This view of things might seem a little scary at first, like the rug has been pulled out from under us. But in the long run it's good news - we aren't victims of a merciless, implacable external world, of 'things as they are, and if you don't like it, tough'. Our experiential reality is a co-creation - mysterious, constantly new and fresh, full of possibilities. We can learn to see life as beautiful, no matter what's going on. And that's true liberation from dukkha.
Two notes of caution
Sometimes people find another way to use mindfulness practice to deal with pain: through distraction. After all, we spend all this time training our minds to go where we want to go - so why not put our mind in a nice safe warm bubble where we can totally ignore the pain? In fact, if you're good at jhana practice, after a while you can fairly easily escape to states where you have no perception of your body at all - so why not just do that?
The danger here is that we become cut off from the world. We practise anaesthetising ourselves to our experience, turning away anytime anything comes up that we don't like. In the long run, we become numb, and that isn't a good thing. The point of this practice is not to take us out of life so we can sit in a peaceful grey void until it's time to die; the point is to enrich our lives and give us greater freedom to move throughout all conditions, whether pleasant or painful.
So, don't do that.
The other question that can come up, particularly for people grappling with the deeper aspects of the fabricated nature of existence, is 'Does that mean the whole world is just in my mind?' And that's a dangerous line of thought, because it can rapidly turn into 'So it doesn't matter what I do, I can do anything I like and nobody gets hurt!'
Again, don't do that. Please don't become what one of my students once memorably described as 'an ethical husk'. When dealing with other people, you should always adopt a view that they're just as real as you are and just as worthy of respect and kindness. And if that perspective seems difficult to reconcile with the 'perception is reality' view described above - yeah. Learn to hold two opposing views in mind at the same time, or at least to shift back and forth as appropriate. At some point much further down the line you may find a way to integrate the two perspectives, but when you're starting out, there's still a lot of egocentric programming in your system and it's much too dangerous to allow yourself to believe that you can do anything you like without any consequences. At some point you'll wake up and realise that what you thought was a dream was actually a nightmare.
So please practise responsibly. If in doubt, work on cultivating all-day-every-day mindfulness, and take care of your relationships and ethics. With a solid grounding in engaged, compassionate action in the world, you can then reap the benefits of freedom from suffering.
May all beings be happy.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!