Dharma & Meditation: Deepening Practice
October 21, 2008 IM
Class Three

Keywords: Suffering/dukkha, freedom/liberation/ pure awareness/ Four Noble Truths/ Right View

Aaron: My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. Our intention in this class is not just to intellectualize about these different basics of the dharma but truly to live them, to understand how they can support your life and your practice. Understand as you do this that these are not Buddhist teachings. By that I mean one does not have to ascribe to any religion to benefit by and live by these teachings. Rather, they are teachings of awakening.

The Four Noble Truths can offer so much inspiration. We start not with the first but with the third, the truth of liberation. It already exists. It’s not something you have to get. It’s not something you can pray for and be granted if you are perceived as good enough; it is your entitlement as a human being. It is already in place so you really don’t have to worry too much about it, just to remember it. You can remember it in this way: when you are consumed with worry, to take a deep breath and ask yourself, “In this moment, where is freedom?” When you have strong pain in the body and much aversion to the pain, to take that same deep breath and ask yourself, “In this moment, where is freedom?”

It’s often like something you put down beside you on the floor and forgot about. You have to direct your attention to it. “Oh, I’m so thirsty. There is no water anywhere near here. Oh yes, in this moment where is water? It’s right here. It’s always been here.” The liberated mind is always there. You cannot reveal this liberated mind in the state of contraction so it’s very helpful to watch contraction in the body and in the mind, to watch the mind when it’s obsessive, to watch the body when it’s tied in knots. I keep saying to you, right there with pain is that which is not in pain. Right there with contraction is that which is uncontracted. Your work is to remember it. We smear mud all over the window. Right there with the dirty window is the perfectly clear glass. I take that sheet of paper and crumple it up, a perfect smooth sheet of paper. You’ve all seen me do this. We hold it up. Right there within the wrinkled sheet is the unwrinkled sheet.

We start with liberation and remembering that you are already resting in that space of liberation; then we step back to look at the nature of the suffering. But if you look at the nature of the suffering first, you’re going to contract around it and try to fix it. As long as there is a personal self, the small ego self may say, “Oh, there’s suffering, let’s fix it.” That won’t change it. But when spacious awareness is able to observe the suffering right there beside that which is not suffering, then it can know that the suffering is both impermanent and also has some reality, and can attend to the causes of suffering. Thus, the suffering both is, and is not illusion. If it is felt, it must be attended, not denied.

If you are very, very sick, what are your first questions to me if I were the doctor going to attend to you–“What caused this illness?”, or, “Will I get better?”? I think you’d want to know first whether you would get better, and once I assure you that you would get better then you would ask, “Okay, how? What do we need to do to attend to the illness?”

We look at suffering itself. As Ajahn Sumedo has said, you can’t really say this or that or that is suffering because suffering in itself has no meaning without the causes of suffering. Heat–if I put my hand up next to the bulb, I’ll feel heat. Physical sensation. I don’t need to know the causes of the heat to know that there is heat; simply, there is heat. With suffering, it’s different. Is there anything you can think of that is suffering that doesn’t include the causes of suffering? Think about it. Can any of you think of anything that is suffering separate from the causes of suffering? (No) So we know suffering and the causes of suffering together. And often what you think of as the causes of suffering are simply mundane conditions that need not cause suffering. You only assume that they will.

I had the great gift in my final human lifetime to have a very special teacher, my first teacher in that lifetime. When I was a boy, the monks would come with their alms bowls in the morning, and my mother always had food for them. Even though we were poor she would give them the best food that we had. She taught me to come out to the road with her to give this food. There was one elderly monk who I noticed, whose hands shook when he held out his bowl. One was not supposed to look at the monk. One gave the rice to the robes and the bowl, not to the human. But I said to my mother, “His hands shake. He must be sick.” And she said, “Perhaps.”

And then a few years went by. Sometimes I saw him; sometimes I didn’t see him. The monks did not always stay in one place. But then perhaps four years later when I was about 12 years old, he came again and two other monks assisted him. He could not walk easily. When he held out his bowl, his whole body shook. I had tears in my eyes and I said to my mother, “He must be suffering terribly.” And she said to me, “Tomorrow, please look in his eyes.” And I said, “Oh no, I’m not permitted to do that.” She said, “It’s okay, in this situation you may look.”

He was not supposed to look in my eyes either, theoretically. But several days later when he next came, I looked in his eyes. The body shook; the eyes were filled with peace and joy and serenity. Not every day, because he did not come every day at that point, but at the times that he came, for six months I looked into his eyes and he looked back into my eyes, and there was a profound communication between us. Suffering is not about the outer condition of the mind and body, suffering is only about grasping, aversion, and fear.

Then in a short while, he no longer came. And then just a year after that, although I was very young, I had the opportunity to go and live in the monastery, before becoming a novice. I was given the job to be one of a number of caretakers for this monk. So for the remaining several years of his life, I helped to feed him, to bathe him, to take care of him as the body disintegrated so he could no longer move well at all. In the beginning he could talk. He talked very simply to me, not esoteric teachings, just words like Barbara has read to you today, speaking of the body just as it is and how peace is in being with things just as they are.

And then he could no longer talk but his whole energy and the look in his eyes spoke more profoundly than any words could. And thus I was granted the blessing to care for him when he passed from the earth. It was a profound teaching.

So suffering cannot be separated from grasping, fear, and aversion. When these arise, even then there does not need to be suffering, when you can greet these with an, “Ah, here is grasping. This is how grasping feels right now in this mind and body. This is how fear feels in this mind and body.” When one can be present in that way with experience, it has no more power because you are resting in intuitive awareness, in pure awareness. That which is aware of grasping is not grasping. Grasping comes because there is still some ripeness of the conditions for it. The conditions have not yet been fully purified, and they may not be fully purified within the lifetime. But you stop the power of those conditions by holding that space. Then we have freedom.

Finally, the Fourth Noble Truth, the Eightfold Path: you all know this path–sila or moral awareness, panna or wisdom, and samadhi, mindfulness and concentration. You’ve heard Barbara speak of that as a tripod, each leg growing in turn so the whole unit stays balanced. Too much samadhi and the thing topples over. Too much wisdom without sila or samadhi and it becomes a rote teaching that doesn’t have a lot of meaning. Too much sila can be an ego-centered reality. You’ve got to keep it in balance. All of the parts of the Eightfold Path are vital and yet there is one that most fully encompasses them all–that is Right View, or Right Understanding, as it may be called.

So Right View or Right Understanding encompasses them all. It cannot be intellectual so it must come from a place of deep mindfulness and presence. This Right View, it’s simply the view, the understanding, that everything is impermanent and not self. It’s not to take everything personally; what happens is not about you. When somebody comes up to you and is angry, immediately you start to defend yourself. Why do you think his anger is about you? And yet it may be a reflection of some of the ways you have held yourself. The whole world is doing this, reflecting everything back. Whatever you see out there is a reflection of yourself. So when I say it’s not about you, it’s not and it is. Don’t take it personally, don’t build stories on it, but ask yourself, “In what way am I inviting this? This is a reflection of me. What am I doing to bring forth this reflection?”

Often it’s not a reflection of you personally so much as it’s of you in the united sense, of all of you. You have a presidential election coming in a few weeks. The president that is chosen will reflect the deepest fears and aspirations of your country. It will reflect whether enough of you have transcended fear enough to live in a more centered, loving space, or whether you are still full of yourself, wanting to push this and pull that and manipulate the world rather than to co-create. This election is really about co-creation versus manipulation. Hopefully enough of you are ready to co-create. I want to make it clear that both candidates have both attributes. Each can move into a place of fear and manipulate, each has the ability at times to co-create. But one is more in one direction and the other is more in the other direction. You know I’m not going to tell you which candidate represents which side! You have to figure that out for yourself.

What are you creating in your life? Loving relationships, good health, material abundance? If it doesn’t come, you take it personally; why me? Why am I not getting what I want? It is and is not about you personally. It’s good to ask the question, “Why is what I aspire to not arising? In what ways am I not being honest with myself? In what ways am I failing to invite and co-create what I seek?” But don’t build stories about it and blame other people. I said it’s not about you but perhaps a better way to state it would be, it’s not about other people. They are just reflecting back what you are sending out.

Right View understands this. Let’s use a metaphor here. You have planted a beautiful garden but there is a drought and your garden doesn’t grow. Are you going to blame the atmosphere? The clouds? Are you going to run to the ocean and throw curses on it? Or at the Sun, which has not evaporated enough water and sent it over your garden, to invite rain on your garden? Maybe the garden didn’t grow because the soil is poor, many reasons why the soil could be poor. So you blame and you suffer.

This beautiful plant that grows, this is the soil, this is the rain, this is the sun, this is the ocean, the wind, the clouds. This is the work that you have done cultivating the soil. It’s all there together in this plant. Nothing is separate. This is Right View. Often mindfulness is considered the center of the Eightfold Path, but in my thinking, Right View is central one because unless you have this Right View–not right versus wrong but right as clear view–unless you have this clear view that knows the interrelatedness of everything, that it’s all not self, but is all arising out of conditions and passing away, then you cannot stop grasping because you haven’t understood. And if you can’t stop grasping, you’re going to suffer.

So yes, in a sense it starts with Right View. But you can’t just go to the store and say I want a gallon of it, because it doesn’t come that way. It starts sitting here on your cushion, watching the itch. Sensation. Heat. Tingling. Unpleasant. Watching the impulse, wanting to scratch the itch. Seeing that the impulse, wanting to scratch, is not the itch itself. Seeing how it’s all arisen out of conditions. Who needs to scratch the itch? Nobody. Yet the impulse has arisen. Just hold space for the impulse. And then it passes. And when you practice in this away for a long enough period of time, Right View cannot help but develop. But now it’s not a concept, it’s based on your experience.

On that central piece of the Eightfold Path you can build all the other pieces. Once you have stabilized Right View, you no longer come to sila from a place of “I should,” but from understanding you can not possibly do harm to another; everybody is you. Wisdom continues to deepen and because you become quieter and more centered in that stillness, in that Buddho, as Ajahn Sumedho calls it, you begin to see more and more deeply into Right View and deepen the ability to live it. And as it stabilizes, suffering goes.

So that is my talk for tonight. I want you to reflect on the Four Noble Truths, truly to understand how they relate your daily life. The basic practice I would suggest is, when there is suffering, first to notice, “Ah, this is suffering,” and second to ask yourself, “Right here with the suffering, where is that which is not suffering? Can I find this which is aware of suffering and is not suffering?” No denial of the suffering; you’re going to be very tender and merciful to it, but right there with the suffering, where is that which is not suffering?

You are not avoiding your experience, simply creating space for it. When you are suffering, also be aware of the causes of the suffering right there with the suffering. As you change your relationship to the cause, see what happens to the suffering. Does it get stronger? Does it diminish? What happens? It’s just a scientific experiment. So learn it about suffering in this way. It is truly the heart of your practice.

I’m going to invite your questions; then we will have a break. Then there will be some class discussion… Are there any questions about what I have said?

Q: In my practice, I’ve been noticing the skandhas as they arise and labeling them, and noticing how often one leads to another. Is that the same thing that you’re talking about, with noticing the suffering?

Aaron: Yes. It’s a more precise way of noticing. It’s very helpful sometimes to notice, is the suffering more in the body skandha or the mind skandha? Which skandha is predominant? And you’ll see that it goes back and forth. There’s sharp pain in the body, and the mind is saying, “No! No,” so you can’t pin it down. The suffering is not just in the body, the suffering is not just in the mind, but in how they’re relating to each other. So yes, this is a very helpful approach.

Q: I have always thought of the Three Poisons of aversion, grasping, and fear as all being fear. Is there a difference?

Aaron: No. They are specific expressions of fear. Certain humans have a tendency to one expression; other humans have more tendency to a different expression, but it’s all fear. And fear of course is no different than love. It’s just a distortion of love, which takes the self as center and fears that this small self will not get what it needs or will not be able to keep itself safe from that which seems to threaten; then fear arises. As soon as there is recognition, “There is no solid self here, what is there to be afraid of?” that which is innately loving can open up. Love is right there with the fear. You don’t have to get rid of the fear to find the love, just to know, “Here is fear. That which is aware of fear is not afraid but is spacious and loving.”

(recording ends)

Copyright © 2008 by Barbara Brodsky