The practice of seeing contaminated phenomena as unsatisfactory is the same as that taught in The Words of My Perfect Teacher. In general, it is divided into two stages. First, contemplate the three types of suffering in samsara – suffering of suffering, suffering of change, and all pervasive suffering; then examine the suffering in each of the six realms – the suffering in hell, the suffering in the hungry ghost realm, the suffering in the animal realm, etc. Reflecting in this way, we will come to a profound realization that the six realms of samsara are filled with suffering and that no place is spared.
At that point, our mind itself becomes the experience of all things as suffering. Abide in this state of mind for as long as possible. If the feeling can be maintained for five minutes, this five-minute duration is called the practice of seeing contaminated phenomena as unsatisfactory.
If our mind starts to wander, we should try to dispel the discursive thoughts. If after letting go of the thoughts, we can still return to the state of mind prior to distraction, we do not need to resume the investigation; if the feeling of suffering disappears altogether, we will have to start the investigation over again.
Although the practice of impermanence and suffering is an ordinary and very basic practice, it is a prerequisite to succeeding in all other practices.
People who do not understand Buddhism think it is pessimistic and passive, since the doctrine teaches all is suffering, samsara is suffering, life is filled with suffering, etc. Actually, Buddhist followers are not pessimistic at all; instead, ordinary people are the most pessimistic.
A lot of people are optimistic and hopeful when they are young, especially when their career or business is successful. However, once difficulties arise, they quickly fall into despair and become very pessimistic, to the point of taking their own lives. That is true pessimism. Many people today have an extremely passive and negative outlook on life, thinking they have only a few decades remaining in their lives, following which they will turn to stone, dirt, etc. Buddhism does not see it this way.
The precepts Sakyamuni Buddha put in place were very conservative, but allowances were also made: If a monastic is not burdened by attachments and can easily, without much effort, come into ownership of five hundred homes, the Buddha would allow the monastic to keep the homes. This rule applied only to the sangha. Even less would then be expected of lay people. Let us imagine the implication of such an idea – how many people today have five hundred homes?
Sakyamuni Buddha also indicated: If a monastic does not have greed and can easily, without much effort, come into ownership of a lavish piece of clothing worth 100,000 Kārshāpanas (the ancient Indian coin, about 8.8 grams of silver in weight, roughly 30 RMB in current value), the Buddha would also allow the monastic to wear the apparel. Can you imagine what kind of clothing it is?
In other words, a Buddhist practitioner need not necessarily eat poorly and dress poorly, or think he or she must refrain from using the good things in life. This would also be a form of attachment. The main point is not to develop greed for these things.
The whole purpose of bringing this up is to say Buddhism is not pessimistic. Although the Buddha exhorted his followers to be content with few desires, it does not mean one must live a life of austerity. Most importantly, one should seek meaning in life through liberation, not through the pursuit of worldly pleasures.
With this understanding, we will not be overcome by setbacks at work, in our career or business, since these are just means of livelihood and not its essence. The true significance of our existence is in attaining liberation, purifying the mind, overcoming selfishness, and elevating our lives.
All aspects of our lives will then be filled with the wisdom of the Dharma. In the midst of happiness, know that even though we are in possession of worldly goods today, we may not possess them tomorrow; thus arrogance will not arise. In the midst of misfortune, know also that even though we are suffering now, this is but a means of existence; we will be able to bear it. Because our hearts are filled with energy, power, and courage.
To be sure, since we are still ordinary people, it is hard to accept setbacks, in the first day or two, the first hour or two; this is only because we are not yet accomplished in our practice. Upon reflection, it will become clear although we have lost status and wealth, we have not lost the prospect of liberation and can still continue to practice on the path to liberation. In so doing, we will be relieved. Although this notion is common knowledge, not the practice itself, it must nevertheless be reaffirmed.