Emrich Retreat
Aaron's Dharma Talk
June 23, 2007

[Topics: suffering and freedom/ distinction between pain and suffering/ liberation in this moment]

Aaron: My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron? I hope you've had a good first day of your retreat. It was a beautiful day, the weather supporting your practice—not too warm, not too cold. Many conditions supporting your practice—good food, a comfortable place to meditate. It's wonderful to have all these conditions together to support you and your sangha and your teachers.

And yet, some of you were suffering today. Anybody here who didn't suffer at all today? It's interesting isn't it, such perfect conditions and yet there's still suffering.

What is the meaning of suffering? What causes suffering? We spoke about coming home. Coming home to me means the release of suffering. It is that place where when I am there, conditions may still arise and pass away but I don't suffer because of it.

I think all of you know the Buddha's story, but it's a beautiful story, so we'll review it quickly. It is something valuable to revisit at the start of your retreat.

He was born into a noble family. At his birth, a wise man said that this baby would either become a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps so he took care not to expose him much to spiritual things and not to expose him to suffering or to the causes of suffering.

Of course, no one can protect anyone from those causes. There is birth and there is death. There is gain and there is loss. There is joy and there is sorrow. Things come and go; everything changes.

As the story goes, he went out of his palace one day with his driver, who drove his carriage. He saw a sick person and he asked, 'What is that?' Now, you can't imagine that anybody could have grown up into adulthood without seeing sickness, without experiencing sickness, but for the sake of the story, we'll go along with this. He had never seen sickness. The carriage driver said, 'This is sickness.' 'Will that happen to me?' 'Yes, that happens to everyone.' And then he saw a very old person. 'What is that?' 'That is old age.' 'Will that happen to me?' 'Yes, it happens to everyone.' Finally, he saw people with a corpse on the street. He had never seen a corpse before. Again, it's impossible to imagine that someone can become an adult without ever seeing or hearing of death, even the death of a small animal in the household. But again, suspending that disbelief, 'What is that?' 'That is death.' 'Will that happen to me? Will it happen to my loved ones?' 'It happens to everyone.'

What he saw that night was that sickness, old age, and death, were the human condition and because these arose, there was suffering. Because nobody wants to be sick, become old, or die. You can't stop it. You all grow old.

The problem is not that you grow old so much as you are afraid of growing old, that you don't want to grow old. The problem is not so much that you will become sick and your loved ones sick as you don't want it. There's so much aversion to it and fear of it, especially in this country, where old age is put in an institution, death is hidden, and even sickness to some degree is hidden. In some countries, like India, people die on the streets every day and sometimes the corpse lies there for a few hours before somebody picks it up and carries it off. There are constantly cremations going on. And in many countries, the very old live right there with their families. They're not hidden away, so it's seen as part of life. But in your country, there's such holding it at arm's length.

So then—he was not called the Buddha then, but his name was Siddhartha Gautama—Prince Siddhartha saw a holy man wrapped in a loincloth and with a long beard, and he asked the carriage driver, 'What is that?' 'This is a man committed to the sacred life, committed to liberation.' So for the first time, Siddhartha understood not only was there suffering, sickness, old age, and death, and the inevitability of them which caused suffering, but there were people actually searching for an answer to this.

He could have gone home, spent his lifetime with his wife and his son, his loving parents, perhaps had more children, and turned his back to the dilemma, but he said, 'No, I cannot rest until I find the answer.' Now, of course, he had the karma to do this. He had been building up that karma through endless lifetimes. You might say he was ripe to do this work, it's what he came for. But it still took courage.

So he went off into the forest. He found a man working there in common working clothes and he said, 'Will you trade? You take my fine clothes and I'll take your poorer clothing. 'Of course.' replied the man. Eventually he shed even that poor clothing, just wore a loincloth, a simple robe, just the bare basics, living a very austere life. He actually practiced tremendous austerity, eating almost nothing, almost dying in that practice because he so starved himself. And he realized he did not have energy to practice.

So he began to eat again. He chose a course of more moderation. His effort shifted, not coming from a place of fear and grasping but from a place of kindness that was deeply intended to find the answers and to focus on his work, but also to respect the body in which the mind dwelt. Not to forsake the body, for you must take care of your bodies and your minds.

Then there was the famous night when he sat down under the Bodhi tree. He said, 'I will not arise from this spot until I find enlightenment.' All the forces of negativity, Mara is the Pali language word, came trying to tempt him away from his intention, offering him the inducements of fantasy, of beautiful women and wine, power, to go back to his kingdom to be not only a king but a great spiritual leader. And use that power to foster himself. He said no to it all.

There's a beautiful story that he held his hand down and said, 'The earth is my witness. I have a rightful claim to this inheritance of enlightenment.' My dear ones, you all have rightful claim to it. Perhaps you're not as ready today as he was, but if I did not believe that this liberation was possible for you and in this lifetime, I would not be here teaching. That's how deeply I trust this fact: you all have the potential to awaken. It takes deep commitment. You do not have to leave your families as he did; your practice may be more in the world. Though of course, some times of seclusion like this week are very helpful, even longer periods, long retreats for those who are able. But basically you have to take what you are learning back into the world and practice it there. He laid a path for you, giving you instructions about how to practice. The opportunity to practice the teachings that he offered are right there in your daily life.

When he came out of that night's meditation in which he deeply understood the nature of the Unconditioned and the relationship of conditioned and unconditioned, and in which he saw that he was no longer ensnared, that the karmic flow was broken and he was free, he thought about how to teach it. The teaching offered is what we call the Four Noble Truths. This is at the top of the handout that you've received, and through the week we'll be looking at various parts of this handout.

The first, dukkha, suffering. The simple fact that suffering exists. Many of you have heard me define the work dukkha. The word 'ka' means the hub of a wheel; the prefix 'du' means off-center, so this is the wheel that's off-center. Because it's off-center, the cart lurches. It's uncomfortable when it lurches especially when you expect it to run true. If you ride on a rollercoaster and it doesn't lurch, you'd be disappointed. But for most of your life, you don't want a rollercoaster, you want a smooth ride.

Dukkha is the uncentered wheel, that which comes up in your daily experience that is not the way you wanted it to be, and jostles you. The translation 'suffering' is adequate but not exactly precise. So think of dukkha as that bumpy ride, and right there with the bumpy ride, the preference for it not to be bumpy.

So we have suffering, the meaning of suffering, and the causes of suffering. This is simply the grasping for things to be different. Grasping and aversion are two faces of the same hand. Once the road is bumpy and you want it to be smooth, there's aversion to it to the way it is and there's grasping, wanting it to be different. This road just now is like corrugated tin, bump bump bump bump! As Barbara drove over it, the car shook, her whole body contracted for a moment, and I asked her, which is predominant, aversion or grasping? As she thought about it for a moment, she said, 'They're both equal. They're both there together. Neither one is predominant.'

I think this is the way it is most of the time. Often attention goes more to one or the other, but they come together. Grasping for it to be different, aversion to it as it is. So many of you have asked me, 'How can there not be aversion and grasping?' This is the heart of your practice, to come to that place where aversion is just aversion and grasping is just grasping. Liking is just liking; disliking is just disliking. Pain is just pain. Sadness is just sadness. They arise but there is no story about them, and no contraction.

When you go to the ocean and watch the waves roll in, do you label them as good waves and bad waves? Maybe big or small. Maybe stormy, maybe quiet. But not good and bad. Everything in your mundane experience rises out of conditions. I won't go deeply into dependent arising here, but simply, there is mind-body contact, with the object, and sense or mind consciousness arises. A thought arises, a body sensation arises. Seeing, hearing, thinking, remembering, these are all kinds of consciousness. They're either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. When they're pleasant, liking may arise. When they're unpleasant, disliking may arise. When they're neutral, sometimes boredom arises. With like and dislike, states of greed and hatred may arise.

You've passed through this cycle of experience not only for 30,50 or 70 years but for 30, 50, 70 or 300, 500 or 700 lifetimes. Have you had enough? These states of grasping and aversion just keep arising, along with the self-identification with them, and suffering that results. When the conditions change, they pass away. You cannot change the conditions through force. You can take care of the conditions. For example, if you cut your foot, you can wash it and put a bandage on it. If you have a headache, you can lie down with a cold cloth on your head. These are acts of kindness, not fear. There's no grasping here. It's paying loving attention.

But the habit energy that most of you carry is that when a condition arises that's unpleasant, strong aversion comes, and the grasping for it to be different. When an experience arises that's pleasant, some grasping comes, and aversion if the experience changes. Upon this grasping and aversion is built the whole story of the self. I am not saying you don't exist. I bless you, I love you, each unique and beautiful individual one of you. You certainly exist. But all the stories about who you are, are simply stories.

Many of you carry the story that you're unworthy. I think if I asked for a show of hands, every hand would go up. Some of you would raise two hands. (Laughter) You carry the story that you're unworthy; it's a story. If I ask you to reflect on it, you might think about the kind and generous things you do and say, 'Sometimes I'm worthy.' Worthy and unworthy are myths. Sometimes you're more generous, sometimes there's more fear and you're more stingy. But not worthy or unworthy.

Even with something like generosity, some of you might say, 'Yes, I'm a generous person,' and then think about it and say, 'But, today when there was just one cookie left on the table, I saw other people walking toward it and I wanted to take it. I had not had one. I stepped back and let somebody else take it, but I wanted it so I'm not generous.' Are you generous or are you not generous? It's all a myth. Sometimes you're able to enact that natural generosity more easily than other times.

You keep creating these pictures of yourself that solidify into a belief, this is who or what I am, good or bad. For those of you who see a good and helpful self, sometimes you suffer even more than anyone else because it's so hard to maintain that, always to be the giving one, the helpful one, the kind one.

When are you going to release this whole idea of who you are in order to find out what you truly are? You are radiant spirit. You have a personality. You have certain traits, certain habit energies. But the innate being is simply divine radiance. Love.

So many things that come in your life that are difficult: body pain, loss, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, times of confusion, times of doubt, fear, these all will come in their time. The practice is to note that they have arisen and stay present with the direct experience without the stories. What is the experience of doubt, without any stories? How does doubt feel in the mind and body? Can you be present and know doubt without stories around it?

How about body pain? Some of you may experience different kinds of chronic pain. When it comes, what sorts of stories start? When that particular pain experience arises or any difficult physical body sensation, does mind have you rushed off to the ER? How often does this happen? If not to that extreme, at least the fear 'Oh no. The headache is coming, the stomachache is coming. It's going to ruin my retreat.' It's a story.

What is the experience of loneliness without stories? Can there be loneliness without stories or is loneliness itself a story? I'll leave that to you to think about. From my experience, there can be aloneness. But loneliness is a kind of story. And yet, you can experience that feeling of being cut off, feeling separate, yearning for contact. And these experiences can come as direct experience without stories.

In my final human lifetime in Thailand in the 1500's, when the monks came into town to ask for alms, my mother always knew when they would be coming and would prepare food and bring it out to the road. She considered this part of her devotion, something that was very precious to her to do, and my father also when he was at home; more often he was working the fields at the time the monks came. But I would go with my mother and watch her put whatever we had, sometimes just the simplest rice and a tiny bit of flavoring for it. Sometimes a richer meal. She would give them the best of what we had.

I remember at about age 8 taking notice of a monk that came every day whose body trembled. He had what I suppose today you would call Parkinson's disease, perhaps early on in that disease, but he would hold his bowl out and his hands would shake. And when he walked, his body shook a bit. I had seen him come before without the trembling so it seemed that the illness had just taken grip of his body to the point that trembling had begun. And I thought to myself how much he must be suffering.

The custom, when one gives alms to the monks, one does not look in their eyes. It's not me giving it to you, but one is giving to the monks, to the whole monastic sangha as expression of the Enlightened One. So it is not meant to elicit the typical human emotion of, 'I'm going to give you this; now I feel proud of myself, that you're going to eat.' That's set aside and there's just a very deep, generous giving that transcends giver and recipient. The food and medicines and robes are offered to the monks, and in return the monks offer the teaching and their practice to support the community where they live.

So I never looked in this monk's face, just could see his trembling. Years went by. He must have had a sudden decline because I noticed, perhaps the next time I noticed him carefully was about at age 12. He was assisted as he walked by two other monks; he no longer came every day but only once or twice a week. The others, I suppose, brought food to him on the other days. He held out his bowl and he was very shaky.

I went back in that day after seeing him and said to my mother, 'He must be suffering terribly.' And my mother said to me, 'Tomorrow, or next time he comes, look in his eyes.' And I said, 'No, I can't do that.' She said, 'You have my permission. Look in his eyes.'

So when he came again, perhaps the next week, and I put rice in his bowl, and I dared to look up into his eyes. Therein was such love, such peace, such spaciousness and joy; it was totally the opposite of what I expected to see. Here was a man who was totally at peace. This confused me—how could he be at peace with this decaying body? So for about 6 months, every time he came, I looked into his eyes. I swam in those eyes. Those eyes enthralled me and I certainly understood that I was learning something so I valued this experience. He also was not supposed to be looking in my eyes, but he would look back and smile at me. For those 6 months, we never spoke, but it was very clear to me, here is a man who is at peace. Here is a man who is not caught up in his decaying body. How is this possible? It's at that point that I determined to become a monk.

He was still alive at the time that I moved to the monastery, not old enough yet to ordain. I was given the great blessing to be one of his caretakers. He could no longer walk. He could no longer feed himself. But he taught me so much about peace. He said to me, 'This body is impermanent. There have been many bodies; now there is this one. The body arises and passes away.'

He was in great pain and I asked him, 'How can you stay openhearted and peaceful with that pain?' H replied, 'The pain is just pain. The unpleasantness of the pain--yes it's unpleasant. It's just unpleasant feeling. This is the way conditions are right now.' He was so clear that in essence this pain and the way the body was, was part of the balancing of old karma. He was unafraid of it. He wore his pain and his limitation as a gift and a blessing, giving it to everyone he met to show them there's nothing to be afraid of. The body will decay. Don't live only in the body. And yet he did live very much in his body, he was a very earthy kind of monk. By that I mean that he took delight in small things, would see a butterfly or a flower and would stop and look, and it would bring joy. So he did not disdain the body, but he was not self-identified with the body. He was at peace. He was my first teacher in that lifetime and I owe him a lot.

Through perhaps 2 years until he died, I had the blessing to feed him, to clean and bathe his body. When he reached a point where he could no longer talk, I would simply bask in the radiance of his eyes, in his peacefulness. And when it was time, I learned to release him without attachment.

I was speaking about suffering. Clearly, this man with a seriously decaying body was not suffering, and yet all of you here today, most of you with relatively healthy bodies, certainly well-fed today, with pleasant weather, you're all suffering. What are you going to do about it?

I wish I could bring this teacher to you. I can only bring you his story.

Watch what arises. Know if it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Watch the stories that arise based on it, starting with like and dislike. Watch the body and the way it contracts. Liking can stop with liking, it doesn't have to go any further. Disliking, also. That which is aware of dislike is not caught up in it, is not caught in aversion. That which is aware of liking is not necessarily caught in grasping. Watch when it shifts into aversion and grasping, which you can tell immediately from the contraction in the body. Use the simple note, 'contracting' or, 'tension.'

Remember these specific words: that which is aware of contraction is not contracted. Right there with that impulse energy contraction, knee-jerk kind of contraction, that's so deeply habituated, can you find that which is not contracted? How do you find that?

This is not like a treasure hunt where you have to go and dig. It's rather like having dropped your keys and they're lying right there glittering on the ground. All you have to do is retrace your steps. Where did I misplace this? Where did I misplace my peace, my ease, my spaciousness? It's not hidden from you in the conventional way of hidden things, only you've forgotten how to look for it.

How many of you, when you experienced a moment of deep ease, joy, and spaciousness today, took note of that and said, 'Ah, here is ease. Here is spaciousness. Here is joy.'? And how many of you let that moment go past, maybe noting it with half of your attention? 'Oh, that was a bit of ease. Good.' Stop, it's precious. Don't let it go past. Stop and rest there with it. Here is ease, here is joy.

You see it glittering there and you say, 'That's not the ease and joy I'm looking for. I need to look further. What else is there?' Right there, that's it. Ease, joy, spaciousness, gratitude. Look at your list, of the 10 Perfections. These will give you some help.

  • Feelings of generosity.
  • Feelings of, when it says morality, clarity about what is right and good, the intention to enact that good.
  • Energy—not just physical energy but connection to the energy of the world around you and to other people. Feeling yourself in the flow of universal energy.
  • Wisdom—the wisdom that arises, that's constantly arising. You should pay attention.
  • Renunciation—letting go, surrender.
  • Lovingkindness.
  • Truthfulness.
  • Resolution—it's a bit different than wisdom; it's insight, let's call it.
  • Equanimity
  • Patience

Of course, these are only a few of the qualities that you can nurture and pay attention to. I put gratitude high on that list. Also, joy. In the Theravadin tradition, there are so many lists. They each list different qualities. You don't need to keep records of the lists and try to figure out how they relate to one another. Simply put, these are the beautiful qualities that come up during the course of the day. Are you paying attention to them? Are you nurturing them? Not holding them, not grasping, just resting in this experience of joy, of connection, of gratitude, of ease, and giving thanks for the ability to feel it.

So your practice must not be trying to avoid negative emotions and searching for this hidden pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The rainbow is spread out across the sky; are you going to spend your life looking for the pot of gold or are you going to sit back, enjoy the rainbow, and realize the pot of gold is right here; it comes with the rainbow? It's not somewhere out there, but right here. While I see the rainbow, I have the pot of gold.

You already are enlightened. Your divine radiance and beauty is right here. Your open heart is right here. Your freedom from suffering is right here. Right here in this moment.

For some of you, the issue is one of effort. You have the feeling that, if only you try hard enough, you'll get it. And the harder you try, the more self you bring up. 'I'm going to get this right,' with emphasis on 'I.' Of course, one must work at it. You can't just go to the beach, lie back and say, 'I'm going to sleep and when I wake up, I'll be enlightened.' It does take focus, it does take work, because there are so many habit energies that you've spent your life either trying to fix or trying to dodge, and which need attention. So you do have to focus.

Right effort is classically defined in four parts:

the effort to give rise to wholesome mind states not yet arisen;
to nurture wholesome mind states already arisen;
to release unwholesome mind states that have arisen;
and to prevent the arising of unwholesome mind states that have not yet arisen.

You get the picture. But that can be a lot of doing. Just pay attention. When unwholesome mind states come up, know, 'Here is fear, here is anger.' Nothing to fix. Just note, and know the intention not to act it out in the world. When wholesome mind states arise or are on the border of arising, pay attention. This could become gratitude, or this could become joy, or here it is full-blown. 'I open to it. I honor it. It is a blessing. I share it with those around me, just by my peacefulness and being.'

In this way you start to discover that which is beautiful, which is really the expression of the divine pouring through you, and you start to see the habit energies that have so deeply taken hold and created such suffering for you. Then you can make the decision, as I asked Barbara the other day on the boat. Her computer had failed completely. For an hour, there she sat, agitated, thinking, 'What am I going to do?' It was 6 in the morning, a beautiful sunrise coming up over the lake. Very peaceful, with a heron wading on the shore, the lake like glass, reflecting the shoreline. And there she sat agitated, churning, 'What am I going to do about my computer?'

After an hour I asked her, 'Have you had enough suffering?' You need to ask this to yourself. You have a choice. The habit energy goes deep, but when you notice how it's arising with suffering, you also know, 'I have a choice here. I can perpetuate this story or I can make the decision to let it go.'

One of my favorite sutras begins, 'Abandon the unwholesome. One can abandon the unwholesome.' This is the Buddha talking. 'One can abandon the unwholesome. If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do it. If such abandonment led to suffering and pain, I would not ask you to abandon it, but it leads to good, to happiness. Therefore I ask you, abandon the unwholesome. Cultivate the wholesome. You can cultivate the wholesome. If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do it. If such cultivation led to suffering, to pain, I would not ask you to cultivate it, but it leads to good, to happiness. So I ask you, cultivate the wholesome.'

I leave you with that. I would ask that it be written on a sheet of paper and hung up here on the wall. 'If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do it.' Please take that with you into your practice.

My blessings unto you all, and thank you for spending this evening with me and letting me talk with you.

Copyright © 2006