There are some very special methods in Buddhism for overcoming suffering. By practicing the methods, we purify our mind and attain a higher state of realization. In the short run we can reduce our stress; ultimately we can be free of the suffering of birth, aging, illness, and death.

Human suffering can come from many different sources. The methods for working with suffering are also quite varied.

Buddhism has a number of very special methods for overcoming suffering. With practice, the methods help us purify our mind and reach a higher state of attainment. In the short run, we can alleviate our stress; ultimately we can be free of the suffering of birth, aging, illness, and death.

In the past, people used to think Buddhism denotes pessimism and passivity, and teaches escape from the real world. Actually, that is not the case. The Buddhist understanding of human suffering goes well beyond this view. Buddhism is not passive; on the contrary, the Buddhist view on life, suffering, and happiness is intimately connected with the real world. We can all benefit greatly if we understand some of its concepts.


How does human suffering arise?

Without thorough investigation, many people instinctively think suffering arises from not having money, not having enough to eat, not having warm clothing, etc. Actually, these are only some of the reasons why we suffer; they are not the main reason.

Original Source of Suffering – Clarity and Ocean of Stillness

Buddhism occasionally uses the ocean to describe our state of mind, and sometimes the sky and clouds to explain the essence or activities of the mind. Here we draw a parallel between the ocean and our mind.

The clarity of the mind is likened to an ocean surface which is completely still -- without sound, waves or ripples, it is calm and peaceful and seemingly empty of time and space.

In our lifetime, we have never experienced our innate clarity, even though all our suffering, happiness, and emotions come from deep within the mind. Buddhism often uses the term “clarity” to describe the most fundamental level of the mind (luminosity and clear light are other terms also used). This kind of “clarity” is neither visible light, nor non-visible light; it cannot be found in any electromagnetic spectrum in physics. It is a state of purity totally free of defilements. There is no happiness or joy, suffering or anxiety in this state of great equanimity.

Buddha Sakyamuni realized this clarity when he became enlightened. All Buddhist practitioners aspire to achieve the same realization. In the sutras, it is also called Buddha nature. Buddha nature or the innate clarity of mind can be directly realized and experienced. There is a saying in Ch’an Buddhism: One who drinks the water knows if it is cold or warm. The emphasis in Ch’an on knowing the nature of mind is none other than realization of this innate clarity.

Ignorance – Ripples

Ignorance is translated in Chinese as “wu ming.” The word “ming” refers to wisdom that comes from realization; “wu” is a negation. Thus, wu ming means the absence of wisdom and the absence of realization. Although the innate clarity of the mind is always there, we have never recognized or experienced it because we have not attained realization. This is why it is called ignorance.

When fundamental ignorance arises, our mind has already moved away from clarity to its second level. What is fundamental ignorance? At this level or state, the mind, prior to entering clarity, is very calm and relaxed and totally free of thought – correct, incorrect, good, bad, painful, happy ….

To be more specific, the origin of mind is clarity; subsequently, within clarity, slight undulations begin to form; when these undulations appear, the first moment of fundamental ignorance is produced. Although the innate clarity of the mind remains unchanged at this time, fundamental ignorance has already separated from clear light to form our consciousness. Here fundamental ignorance is likened to a ripple in the ocean. Although the ripple is not yet a wave, the calm ocean surface is not quite the same and is showing signs of undercurrent.

Within Buddhism, the question of how ignorance is produced from clarity is a difficult one. How can ignorance arise from a state of luminosity? Actually, we can say the source of samsara is as far away as the sky’s limit, because we have perpetuated in samsara since beginningless time; but from another perspective, we can also say it is right in front of us, since clarity at the present moment is the source of samsara. For those interested, there are writings on this topic in Vajrayana scriptures.

All celestial bodies in the universe, including the Milky Way and the solar system, have their path and cycle. Human life also has its cycle; it continues indefinitely, due to its ever-present power or life force, until such time Buddhahood is attained. This life force is inconceivable, and perpetuates in a cycle from beginning to end.

What is the beginning? It is clarity. What is the end? It is still clarity. Clarity is the beginning as well as the end of samsara. There is no religious component in this principle. We can all experience and gain this realization regardless of who we are. That is because the structure of the mind is the same for everyone.

Happiness, unhappiness, realism, idealism, theism, atheism, etc. are all very superficial phenomena that are not at all on the level of clarity and ignorance. The source of consciousness is clarity. There is no time and space in clarity or clear light; all concepts of time and space arise from ignorance. However, in the brief moment when ignorance is first produced from clarity, there is no concept of time and space either. Just as in the Big Bang, there is no physical matter in the instant following the explosion, only later is energy produced from empty space; when the energy reaches a certain density, a fundamental particle is produced. From this fundamental particle, all kinds of matter are then formed. In the same way, from clarity, fundamental ignorance is produced, that is, consciousness -- which is something undulating and capable of thinking and discriminating between events -- is formed. After that, a fundamental particle is instantly produced; all kinds of matter are then formed, followed by the formation of the earth and celestial bodies. Ignorance is just like energy; how things are formed from energy that is unobstructed by matter and how the world is created from ignorance are astonishingly similar.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Kalacakra Tantra describes three different worlds – external, internal, and secret – and their connection to one another. The external is the universe, including the solar system, Milky Way, etc.; the internal is the physiology of the human body; the secret is the mind. It is explained that our spiritual world is a universe; the structure of our body is a universe; the universe outside is also a universe. All three are closely connected. To a certain degree, they affect one another.

In our present culture, research studies on the mind tend to be overlooked; the studies which are available usually do not treat the subject in depth. Yet, many of the problems human beings encounter come from the mind. What we feel inside is often unrelated to external circumstances.

We all have our own view on life; relatively speaking, different ways of looking at things may be correct at certain levels; however, there is only one truth at the ultimate level. Hence, we should get to know the more profound view.

We should know our inner world is truly very miraculous. To visit this world, we rely neither on data nor examination by instruments, but rather on the practices unique to Buddhism. This is not blind faith; it is very real, just as food can satisfy hunger, water can change to ice under freezing temperature.

The undulations of fundamental ignorance are very similar to the discovery in string theory in physics. In the past, we used to think particles such as protons and neutrons are specks of matter. String theory tells us that the basic structure of matter is a vibrating string; with different patterns of vibration, a different particle appears. Although the particle appears like a speck of matter, it is actually a vibration. We only see the illusion due to our biased vision.

When fundamental ignorance or consciousness is not vibrating, it is calm like the surface of the ocean, always tranquil. This is the state of the Buddha. When consciousness starts to move, even if it turns back, it cannot perceive its own basic nature. This is why it is called ignorance.

The mind is a complex thing -- its continuum, annihilation, basic nature, and development are all governed by special rules. Apart from the Buddha, no one has mastered the way it works. A lot of people have substantial knowledge of the world, but they do not know who they are, what their basic nature is, and where they come from. Perhaps, when science reaches a certain stage of development, it will be able to validate the existence of these rules; until now, it cannot. Only in Buddhism are we able to do so. By way of practice, we can attain this knowledge since our mind is self-knowing. The Ch’an emphasis on knowing the nature of mind is none other than this self-knowing.

Self-Attachment – Waves

Self-attachment is the same as attachment. All of us have a natural attachment to the self or ego. Regardless of our education background and social status, we all believe we exist. Yet we have never questioned how we exist; we have never undergone scientific tests or used other methods and logic to validate our existence.

This inherent attachment is truly a misapprehension. Actually, the self does not exist. From a conventional standpoint, we exist; no one would argue with that. However, if we examine more closely what a person is, we do not know what it is.

Similarly, people accept the existence of a material world and the idea that the world is solely a material world; no one has thought of overturning this obvious conclusion. However, on closer inspection, we find the so-called matter, molecules, atoms, etc. are all illusory. The fact is we have never been able to perceive the true reality of things with the eye.

Science can explain the history of mankind; it can project into the future and tell us what the world will be like a hundred years from now; it can explain the physiology of the human body, bacteria, cells, etc.; it can bring us a wealth of knowledge. But regrettably, it cannot tell us what the self is.

Buddhism discusses the self from two levels: one is relative truth; the other is ultimate truth. Our five sensory perceptions are called relative truth. Without rigorous examination, we consider the perceptions of our physical sense faculties to be true – if the eye sees the color red, we believe it is red; if the eye sees the color white, we believe it is white. All the values and the view of the world formed on this basis are very superficial.

Surpassing the perceptions of the sense faculties is ultimate truth. The true reality of the world and of the self is ultimate truth.

Are the appearances in the world the true reality? Is there nothing beyond what we perceive with the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body?

We may not believe in the existence of God, a creator of all things, but we must believe in the existence of something profound and mysterious. The world is not what we see and think. The information we receive from the five sense faculties is incorrect; what we get is merely sets of illusion. Nevertheless, we still cling to our perceptions and believe they exist. In Buddhism, the term we use is attachment.

Fundamental ignorance, which is produced from clarity, begins to develop and at some stage takes on its own view. This view is self-attachment. The process by which ignorance turns into self-attachment is likened to ripples becoming waves. In Buddhism, the source of all suffering is this attachment.

The Buddha taught that birth, aging, illness, and death are a natural part of life from which no one can escape. When faced with this suffering, attachment is the biggest problem. Attachment clearly leads to suffering; how to face suffering is life’s most important task. To better handle this task, the Buddha said we must learn to let go.

Ch’an Buddhism advocates letting go. Some people think this view is passive, pessimistic, and evasive. If we choose to enter monastic life because we can no longer make it in the real world, we are not letting go; we are just running away or giving up.

If we are successful in life and can let go at the same time, it is truly letting go. We can take responsibility for managing and developing a business so that hundreds or thousands of people, even ten thousand employees can make a living; concurrently, to attain personal liberation, we can also let go -- let go of our anger, resentment, excessive desire, etc. In so doing, we can be even more effective at work because there is no contradiction between taking responsibility and letting go of attachment.

Buddhism places emphasis on going with the flow and living in the moment. We should not become overly attached to the past and future but live perfectly in the present. Our suffering is unrelated to spirits or the Creator; it is only the result of our ego-clinging. If we let go of attachment to the self, we will instantly feel relaxed and at ease, free of suffering.

The sutras also state that many bodhisattvas in the past manifested as rulers in order to enlighten beings while staying free from attachment at the same time. Mainly, by letting go of attachment, they became selfless and worked completely for the benefit of all living beings.

Can ordinary people learn to let go? With special practice, it is definitely possible.

Afflictions – Billows

We usually think all suffering results from the lack of material goods. Undoubtedly, when we are poor, we suffer from not having basic things; however, even more suffering arises from spiritual emptiness, dissatisfaction, and unlimited desire.

As soon as there is a concept of “self,” there is differentiation between you, me, and him. When we become individual entities, what follows is resentment and competition amongst each other. In this process, greed and anger are like billows that engulf our spirit and prevent us from knowing what to do.

Excessive desire is mankind’s leading killer. Desire can destroy, under certain circumstances, even a person of good character and high moral standing. If ignorance is a ripple and attachment is likened to a wave, our afflictions are like billows. Unrestrained anger and desire push us away from our basic nature, make us forget who we are and what we should do, and lead us step-by-step toward the edge of destruction.

Buddhism categorizes afflictions into three kinds:

The first is greed. Buddha Sakyamuni did not ask us to forgo greed or desire at the beginning, since it is actually not possible. The sutras state very clearly that certain kinds of desire are helpful to us in our development. For instance, the wish to improve the quality of our life is, to a certain extent, a form of desire; the wish to make more money in our work or business in order to help others is also a form of desire. The Buddha explained we need not cut off this kind of desire for now; we should first let go of the excessive desire which serves only self-interest.

The second is anger. In the sutras, anger is divided into many levels. When anger reaches a point where we no longer want to let go of it, it becomes hatred.

The third is delusion. The source of all afflictions is delusion, ignorance, and not knowing the true reality.

Buddha Sakyamuni said he could teach us the way to Buddhahood, but no more than that; ultimate realization must still come from within ourselves. The Buddha was not all-powerful. When he discovered this natural law, he could only hand us the instructions. If we do not put his teachings to practice, we cannot attain liberation.

Karma – Tidal Wave

The biggest problem that comes next is that of good versus bad. From afflictions to good and bad, the billows are now like a tidal wave. If we have hatred in our heart, we live in discord and commit wrong-doing; we use harsh language, physically harm others, and even kill. If we practice virtue with attachment, the good karma we create is imperfect. Although good and bad are clearly different, from the standpoint of clarity, both are already far removed from clear light. Whether good or bad, they are equally distant from the basic nature; hence they come under the same category and are known in the sutras as “karma.”

Our circumstances in this lifetime, whether favorable or not, happy or not, are all the result of the good and bad karma we created in the past. Just as the tidal wave brings great destruction to mankind, karma locks us in the endless suffering of samsara.


Returning to Clarity

Firstly, Buddha Sakyamuni did not deny that material things can resolve a lot of suffering. When we do not have food to eat or clothes to wear, material goods are of primary importance. However they cannot solve all our problems. I believe all of us in the twenty-first century are increasingly clear on this point. Hence, in the end we still need to return to the tranquil surface of the ocean; we need enlightenment. With enlightenment, we can eradicate all our suffering.

What is enlightenment? It is returning to clarity. Starting out from clarity, we experience ignorance, attachment, afflictions, karmic creation, and suffering. In the end when ultimate realization is attained, we return to the original clarity and complete a full circle.

Ch’an Buddhism calls this our original face as the nature of mind has always been this way, whether we are angry, greedy, happy, or worried; it never changes.

How do we realize the innate clarity of our mind?

We gain this realization by way of meditative practice. Once realization is attained, we will suddenly see there is actually no suffering, happiness, anger, desire, or discursive thoughts in clarity. This clarity or Buddha nature is also called Tathāgatagarbha.

Within clarity are compassion and wisdom. A true Buddhist practitioner should seek neither rebirth in heaven nor supernatural power but realization of the true nature of mind wherein unlimited compassion and wisdom are already included.

When can we experience this state of clarity? There are three different times when we can enter this state of clarity:

The first is when we have gained realization of the nature of mind.

The second is during the time of death. No one understands death. Many people are unwilling to talk about, listen to, let alone confront death. Actually, death is not the conclusion of life, just one of the processes of cyclic existence. The beginning point of this cycle is clarity. From clarity, all kinds of thought are produced; at the end when we die, we return to clarity. Again from this clarity or state of clear light, our next life is produced. Hence, the origin of all of our consciousness is clarity.

The third is during the evening when we enter into deep sleep. However, without training, we can never know the various transitions for going into deep sleep, dream state, and back to reality after waking up. This training can only be found in Tibetan Buddhism in a special tantric practice.

In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an introduction is given on how we can enter the state of clarity during these three times.

Tibetan Buddhism places great emphasis on transforming dreams into spiritual practice. The rationale is that there is an opportunity for entering clear light and attaining realization in the moment between the dream state and deep sleep.

At the same time, Tibetan Buddhism also places great importance on the after-death practice. Ordinarily, a person would not be interested in what happens after he or she dies; in fact, a lot of people are fearful and repulsed by death. Actually, death is neither terrifying nor mysterious. Death is only the total non-functioning of the physical body; the mind continues on. After we die, the mind can enter into clarity once again. With hypnosis which is currently popular, a person who is troubled by fear can locate the source of that fear and overcome the fear at its source. Similarly, with Buddhist techniques, a person can develop an ability that, upon entering clarity after he or she dies, will completely eradicate all the birth-to-death problems as well as afflictions such as greed, anger, arrogance, and envy.

The goal in Buddhism is to enter into clarity. In everyday life, the longer we can abide in clarity, the more quickly compassion, love, and faith will grow; afflictions will also diminish gradually until finally Buddhahood is attained.

Normally in life, when we are troubled and worried, we should stop immediately to examine why we are unhappy. The body itself has no thoughts of happiness and suffering. Afflictions only arise in our consciousness. What exactly is consciousness? Reflecting in this way, we might just be able to enter into a state of total awakening.

For us to reach this ideal situation, a lot of pre-conditions must be present beforehand. However, it would not be a problem at all if we only want to return to the state of fundamental ignorance which, in our present situation, is the simplest, easiest, as well as most effective method for overcoming problems such as anxiety and the likes.

Some people think that problems of the mind can be solved temporarily with this method, but once we emerge from meditative concentration, we still have to deal with reality and the problems before us -- hence meditation is useless.

Yes, reality does exist, but how to face it is up to us. Our attitude is what separates suffering from not suffering. If we are calm, relaxed, and open in the way we face reality, we will never be hurt. Although the problem remains to be solved, as long as we have tried our best, we can accept the result. If a problem cannot be solved temporarily due to our own limitations, we can, by maintaining a positive attitude, still accept the outcome with ease and not be forced into a dead end.

From the state of clear light, which is timeless and without space, to the formation of consciousness and life; from the union of our parents to the formation of a physical body and finally back to dust again – this is a life cycle. When we attain realization in the end, we will discover life is like a dream – ignorance, afflictions, and suffering never happened at all; it’s always just clarity. There is something very profound here!

After gaining realization, we no longer have selfishness, suffering, and afflictions, but we can still have compassion and wisdom. With compassion and wisdom, we can benefit more people in this world; we can share what we have realized with others so that they may be relaxed, free, and happy in their lives. This is how the Buddha’s teachings can lead sentient beings out of suffering.

Meditative Concentration

Our mind can be trained. Even without religious belief, a person can meditate every day. By letting go of all thoughts of the past, present, and future, we enter a state of great tranquility. This state is not clear light, although it is very similar. To abide in this tranquility for a period of time is meditation or meditative practice.

Meditation can reduce stress; at the same time, it can increase intelligence, eliminate fatigue, and control our anger. Although this type of meditation cannot take us to the state of clarity nor eliminate the obstruction of ignorance, it is quite good already. Apart from Buddhism, many ancient religions in India, as well as the meditation taught in psychology, all deal with this aspect of mind in its state of fundamental ignorance. Of course, this is just ordinary meditative concentration.

During meditation, although our consciousness is likened to a ripple with slight undulations, ignorance itself is unaware of it. It’s like when we suddenly come upon peace and quiet after a long day’s work, we feel very relaxed, free from worry. So the more agitated the mind, the greater the sense of suffering and unhappiness that follows, the more likely a happy feeling will naturally emerge once calm sets in; this feeling is called meditative bliss. Many people become addicted to this state of bliss and want to meditate all the time.

A Buddhist practitioner must transcend both ignorance and the joy of meditation, and strive to realize clear light; a non-Buddhist practitioner only needs to enter the state of fundamental ignorance. In Buddhism, this state of mind is also known as store-consciousness, or alaya-vijnana in Sanskrit.

Why is it called “store”? For instance, we assume that actions we have committed in the past such as killing and stealing are done and over with, and that no traces are left behind. That is not the case. Instead, a certain energy is stored in the most fundamental level of our consciousness. Within this base consciousness are all sorts of energy -- good and bad actions, good and bad thoughts, etc., just like a storage. Hence, it is called “store.”

From the Buddhist perspective, a person is reborn after death. Although the physical body no longer exists, consciousness at the most basic level never ends but transmigrates instead. This is similar to moving computer software from one hardware to another. Thus, our temperament and personality are often tied to our previous life through information held in the store-consciousness.

This fundamental ignorance is a necessary condition for our practice. We can develop our innate potential if we stay longer and deeper in this state. The mind has great power and we have used no more than five percent of its potential. This is true even with the most intelligent people in the world, like Einstein and many scientists. The very core of this potential has not been touched.

Through meditation we can develop our innate potential. Firstly, we can develop clairvoyant power. For instance, the so-called heaven eye is the result of a change to the structure of the eye brought about by meditative concentration. This transformation is not a physical one; it is not a structure we can see but a kind of functional add-on to the eye structure. With this change, a person will have the ability to see what ordinary people cannot see, not only things far out at a distance but also the microscopic details of things -- even perceive the past and the future.

Additionally, meditation can change our temperament for the better and correct certain physiological conditions. For instance, eighty percent of patients who have depression are inclined to take their own lives. Most of these people do not lack for food or clothing; their problems are created by the mind. We know that our body has a self-healing ability and that it can, with medication, recover from illness. Without the ability to heal itself, the body cannot recover even with medication. In the same way, we have to work with the mind to treat our mental problems. People who feel despondent and empty inside can, through meditative practice, become happier and more open. Meditation also reduces afflictions. However, we should know it only keeps afflictions in check; it does not cut through or eradicate them, as there is no element of realization in this kind of meditation, only a quiet mind.

The Specific Techniques for Meditative Concentration

1. Meditation Posture

When we meditate, we must watch our posture. The seven essential points of the posture are explained in the sutras. To a beginner, the mind is very closely related to breath and physical posture; thus the correct posture is very important.

2. Counting the Breath

After sitting down quietly, we should focus completely on our breath. Breathe normally, neither too quickly nor too slowly; then proceed to count the breath. Refer to the discussion in the previous chapter “The Significance of Buddhist Philosophy Today.”

When we focus fully on the breath, do not stir up thoughts of family, work, and life. Do not review the past nor guess the future; let go of all discursive thoughts and bring the mind to a state of tranquility as calm as the surface of the ocean. If this is difficult, bring the mind at least to a state of relative tranquility like the ocean before waves appear.

In the West, many psychologists and meditators like to use the Buddhist method of counting the breath. Although this method is also a form of contemplation in itself, it accomplishes the goal of meditative absorption -- by using thought to drive out thought.

3. One-Pointed Concentration

In this practice, we place an object in front of us -- a pen, a bottle of water, a grain of rice, or any other thing -- and focus both the eyes and the mind completely on the object. Then cease all thoughts and just rest the mind. Maintain this state of non-distraction for a few minutes.

Initially, we may only be able to stay in this state for five minutes; once we become familiar with the practice, we can stretch it out to ten or twenty minutes.


Normally, when we go into meditation, the mind is calm at the beginning; however, within a few seconds, subtle thoughts begin to surface, like the slight undulations of a ripple. We must watch the arising of each thought and cut through it at the very moment of its arising. We may not be able to eliminate all the movement in our mind at this juncture, but we should keep the disruption down to a minimum.

When the mind is in a state of calm, we feel very alert and sharp. By meditating every evening for ten or twenty minutes, people who are overworked mentally or under a great deal of stress can fully dissolve their fatigue from a day’s work and maintain a relaxed and happy state of mind. Many corporate executives have found that they discovered solutions to difficult problems during meditation.

If in meditation, we feel the world has disappeared, including ourselves, and that nothing exists, that is a very carefree and happy sensation. When we experience such a positive state of mind, we should stop meditating instantly. Why shouldn’t we continue? If we allow this feeling to continue, scattered thoughts will be produced within two to three seconds to disrupt this state of mind. Hence, before the discursive thoughts arise, we should consciously stop, and then resume meditation again.

On this basis, some of the Buddhist practices and other techniques for meditative concentration will be easier to manage.

It’s easy to talk about returning to clarity. However, to actually realize the state of clear light, we must invest both time and effort. Apart from the buddhas and bodhisattvas who can choose their own manifestations, all of us who are here in this world have neither the right nor freedom to choose where we want to go. When causes and conditions mature, we follow wherever they take us. Nevertheless, we are already here in this world and have learned how to return to clarity, the direction we take in life is in our own hands. We must appreciate and seize this truly unique opportunity!