Notes on the 4th Dhamma Talk in the 2010 Series
LIFE: in the Frame of Mindfulness
Originally this talk was called ‘There’s Suffering, and There’s Noble Suffering’, but the way things worked out the topic changed slightly. ‘Suffering’ was still the theme, but the focus was on the ‘knowing’ of suffering – or ‘The Name of the Helper’.
The ‘helper’ is an archetype in faerie tales.
Each year in the Dhamma talk series the intention is to bring in new ideas and comparisons for those who really know dhamma well – so they don’t get bored going over the same old things; and also to use illustrations to make the abstract concepts of Dhamma more easily understandable and reachable, for those who do not know all the technical terms and concepts. That’s the plan anyway….
There is usually a talk based on comparison to some aspect of psychology, one on Dukkha, one on Mindfulness or direct practise, and one on another favourite topic – faerie tales. This year’s faerie tale is Rumpelstiltskin.
Back to basics first. The Pali word ‘Dukkha’ is almost universally translated as ‘suffering’. Other translations may in fact be better – but ‘suffering’ is the legacy we have been handed so for the sake of conformity, so that everyone knows what is being talked about, it is good to stick to this original translation. Other translations might be ‘conflict’, ‘dis-ease’, ‘unsatisfactoriness’ or one of the newer words ‘stress’.
This last option is probably technically correct, but in the engineering sense, of a load bearing structure that is under stress. But it does not mean stress as in ‘stressed out’ after a bad day. Many online translations of suttas by Thanissaro Bhikkhu use the word ‘stress’ to mean Dukkha – but no other scholars/schools are using this translation.
‘Uneasy’, ‘unsteady’, ‘anxiety’, ‘disquiet’ and other terms are also quite good at capturing the meaning of the word.
The original meaning by the way, carries something of the meaning of ‘eccentric’. Not in the sense of an Englishman, but of a wheel that is not quite centred on the axle. Hence it shakes. Enlightenment is often refered to as ‘steady’, ‘unshakable’ etc.. by contrast.
The concept of Dukkha is central to Buddhism. Arguable it is the first teaching that the Buddha gave, and the one that he kept returning to in various ways. At one point he said
I only teach one thing, Dukkha and the end of Dukkha
He also said that there are many things he could teach, like there are many leaves in the forest. But he would teach only a few things, equivalent to just a handful of leaves. He would teach only those things that pertain to Enlightenment, which is the end of dukkha.
Whatever school of Buddhism you approach, the idea of Dukkha is central. You must understand about Dukkha if you want to know anything about Buddhism.
But bear in mind that Buddhists are not supposed to be pessimistic. It is just as much a teaching about happiness. The more you practise, the happier you should become. There is no negativity in the way of practise.
And perhaps more importantly, Buddhism does not teach that ‘Everything is suffering’. You are not being encouraged to look for or create suffering. You are being asked to look at the Dukkha that is already in your own experience. Dukkha is the problem.
Be a Lion
Narrowing in on Dukkha itself, instead of the proximate causes, is the idea of the practise. Proximate causes might be ill-health, bad luck, loss, pain, being blamed … and all the rest of the things that people suffer over. As a meditator you are not so interested in the proximate causes, so much as the feeling of Dukkha itself. The analogy is of a lion and a dog.
When a dog is shot with an arrow, it will bite at the arrow.
When a lion is shot with an arrow, it will attack the hunter
The idea then, is clear. You have to go inwards, to take a look at Dukkha itself.
Most people do not do this. They hide, or cover Dukkha with sense pleasures. And while enjoying yourself is important (and meditators hopefully do enjoy life!) there is a different way to view your experience. Keeping an eye on the Dukkha aspect is a vital tool of liberation – and it is the practise of mindfulness (the topic of this talk series) that illuminates this.
For example, if you sit for 30 minutes, and then you stretch – the stretching feels good right? That is one way of looking at it. Another way would be to see the inherent discomfort of the body. You can’t leave it alone for very long before it makes you move, makes you eat, sends you to the bathroom. The body is Dukkha, uncomfortable. You cover this discomfort with sense pleasure, which is the constant movement, changing of position, seeking a comfortable pose – even though it is only comfortable for a few minutes.
Mental dukkha is the same. You cover it with activity. But if you pay attention it becomes clear that the mind is not at rest. Just sit and meditate for a few minutes. Does the mind just stop still at perfect ease and happiness? Nope. It is always searching for something, reaching out for things to want, to fear, to entertain it. The mind is worse than the body for not being able to sit still or be comfortable.
Why pay attention to this? Why not just indulge sense pleasure and ignore this Dukkha aspect?
Well, it is your right to choose.
As for Buddhism :
There are two kinds of fool. One who shoulders a burden he should not. And one who does not shoulder a burden that he should
Accepting and understanding this burden of Dukkha is the job of Buddhism.
Fleas on a Dog
There is a Thai analogy of Dukkha. It is like fleas on a dog (or mange). The dog runs from place to place, trying to find somewhere comfortable, but of course the problem is carried around with it.
Just recently, on the excellent Bangkok Podcast, there was a story of an alcoholic. He ran from country to country thinking that a new start would let him get over his addiction. He wound up in Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is banned. But he found that the expats there just brew their own beer, and it was much stronger than regular kind you can buy in other countries. Gladly, he did get sober in the end, after a stint in Thailand’s famous Wat Tham Krabok Temple.
He also said that he did not feel right without several beers inside him. Why is that? If your body sends you a craving signal, you are chased around by it.
On the other hand if you just see the craving arise once in a while, as a small tickle, then you have seen the ‘name’ of the problem. Once you see it in its true light, its power weakens.
The other thing you notice quickly is that most of your life is pretty much ok. Remember Stanley Laurel? Whenever nothing bad was happening to him he’d scratch his head and put on his big goofy smile. Something bad always happened soon after …
Most of the time you are ok. When you get a space, a few moments in a traffic jam or even in the bathroom, what do you do? You bring a whole bunch of things with you to think about and suffer over. Something someone said. Money worries. Insecurities. A whole suitcase of baggage to rummage around in for some Dukkha to keep you company.
Even if you are focussing on desire, rather than bad things, if you pay attention it is also Dukkha. ‘Wanting’ is the same as ‘not having’, and is a form of stress, of dukkha. You feel things will be alright when you get what you want. If I can just pay off my house… if only that baby would stop crying… if only I was younger…
There’s a Buddhist story of a man dangling off a cliff by a vine. A black and a white mouse are gnawing at the vine above, and below three hungry tigers are waiting for him to fall. In the cliff face there is a wild strawberry growing. How sweet it tasted!
Even amidst the turmoil of life, looking in the present moment – most of the time there is no need to fill it with suffering.
You can find the full text of the Grimm version of the tale, with annotations here. There are some excellent links and notes in that version.
But even master story tellers cannot really explain the tale if they do not have Dhamma/meditation as an aid.
The ‘Name of the Helper’ is a common motif in faerie tales. Usually some creature tries to help, but the price they demand is too high – they come to collect later, and the hero/heroine has to find a way out.
The noteworthy part of the story for the purposes of this Dhamma talk, is the messenger. He goes into the forest – which represents going inwards, into the problems, into the mind and heart. It is frightening. He goes past the place where the fox and the hare go to sleep. In Christian and Judaic models, the mind is made of two components – the imagination (hare) and the intellect (fox). Both must be put to sleep if you want to go deep into the forest – meaning that these are insights that you have to know directly, and not just figure out.
The messenger finds a small cottage (your ‘self’) and Rumpelstiltskin dancing over a fire. Note that the Poppart is cooking. There the rhyme that old Rumps. is singing gives away his name.
Once the Queen has the name she has power over the Helper.
Cooking symbolises ‘cooking things up’, or making big things out of small things; stirring things up. Note the fire is actually quite small. Dukkha is usually something quite small, until you stir it up. The craving for a cigarette (as ex-smokers know) can send you out in the rain looking for an open garage to buy some more cigarettes. But if you see the ‘Dukkha’ aspect, it is not so bad.
Fasting is the same. At first you might feel hungry, but after a while you can see that the ‘hunger’ just arises once in a while, and is not so bad. It gets to feel quite good after a while.
Rumpelstiltskin, once his name is known either flies out of the window on a ladle (his instrument) or else stamps his foot and get stuck in the ground before tearing himself in two. This means that when you see Dukkha (or any of the defilements in their true form) they self destruct.
Buddhism is not saying that everything is Dukkha, or that you should try and view everything as Dukkha, but rather that Dukkha is one aspect of your experience that you never like to face. You cover it up with sense pleasures. The meditator is willing to go inwards and look directly at this aspect of experience aiming to understand it. There is plenty of Dukkha there, you do not have to go making up new dukkha for yourself with extreme practises. In the Dhammacakka Sutta (first sermon of the Buddha) it is said that ‘There is Dukkha; Dukkha is to be understood’.