Practitioners also encounter suffering and happiness. How to transform happiness and, in particular, suffering into favorable conditions in our practice is extremely important. Without the right method, suffering and happiness become obstacles to the path. This not only impedes our practice, it also affects the normal course of our life.
Buddha-dharma is not a philosophy to be appreciated from afar. Its wisdom is directly accessible and relevant to our problems in life. Unfortunately, most followers do not progress beyond an intellectual understanding of the Dharma, even those who have studied the five major treatises – Middle Way, logic, prajnaparamita, and other profound and significant texts. When confronted with life’s unexpected difficulties, they are lost and unable to put the teachings into practice. This is like a soldier who is armed with very sophisticated weapons; when confronted by the enemy, he is caught by surprise and does not know which weapon to use. How regrettable!
Thus, in this section, we will discuss — how to utilize the teachings and develop the right way to face both suffering and happiness in life.
There is suffering everywhere in the six realms of rebirth: if not suffering of suffering, it is suffering of change; if not suffering of change, it is all-pervasive suffering. This is especially so in this degenerate time. Even if we are unwilling to accept suffering, all of us have to confront it; we cannot ignore it.
Human beings do not have methods for facing suffering, thus they hope for happiness and are afraid of suffering. Animals are the same way – they hope bad things go away and that good things come quickly. A whole life is hence wasted in this expectation.
Practitioners also encounter suffering and happiness. How we transform happiness and, in particular, suffering into favorable conditions in our practice is very important. Without the right method, suffering and happiness become obstacles to the path. This not only impedes our practice, it also affects the normal course of our life.
In facing suffering, if we have the right view and understanding, suffering may not be harmful; otherwise, suffering will cause anxiety, mental disturbance, even self-destruction.
In Mipham Rinpoche’s How to Use Sickness as the Path, there is a practice which I spoke about at one time (refer to Wisdom Light Series). However, what we are facing is not just sickness, but all kinds of suffering in everyday life. How should we confront suffering?
The guidelines that follow are based not on my own experience, but on the teachings and realization of highly accomplished masters.
The practice of facing suffering can be divided into four stages: understand what suffering is, know the origin of suffering, defeat suffering, and methods for overcoming suffering.
FIRST STAGE: UNDERSTAND WHAT SUFFERING IS
In the Buddhist view, suffering is neither a material thing nor physical motion; it is a special feeling.
Feeling is a specific aspect of the mind. Objects like steel, cement, brick, glass, etc. do not have feeling – they do not feel either suffering or happiness. After we die, the body is just like a stone or brick. When it comes in contact with earth, water, fire, wind or anything on the outside, it does not react. It is no longer conscious and thus cannot feel suffering or happiness.
The mind has two aspects: one is discriminating mind, or “discriminating thought”; the other is non-discriminating mind, or “non-discriminating thought.”
The eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body have feeling, but they do not reflect or contemplate; so these feelings are called non-discriminating thought. When we are sick, regardless of what we are thinking, our body experiences a great deal of suffering; this is non-discriminating thought.
When we see and hear something, the sixth consciousness reflects and distinguishes between the good and the bad; this is called “discriminating thought.” The suffering experienced by the sixth consciousness is called the suffering of discriminating thought.
SECOND STAGE: KNOW THE ORIGIN OF SUFFERING
When suffering or happiness arises, changes in brain wave activity in certain parts of the brain are detected. Thus some people believe suffering and happiness are produced by the brain. Actually, the brain is only a tool. Consciousness is dependent on the brain to discern and experience external phenomena, but suffering and happiness are not produced by the brain.
The sutras have often discussed and demonstrated that suffering comes from self-attachment, that is, attachment to the existence of a self. Here, the conclusion is set forth from a different standpoint. Suffering and happiness are not produced by external circumstances, but are closely related to our views and habitual tendencies. All suffering is created by our own attachment to things.
Although the suffering of non-discriminating thought is generally not connected with our consciousness, it can be transformed when our practice reaches a certain stage. However, our goal now is to transform suffering of the sixth consciousness, i.e., the suffering of discriminating thought.
For instance, when we are driving a luxury car, there is a sense of pride and giddy excitement. This happy feeling comes from the sixth consciousness. From the standpoint of non-discriminating consciousness, there is very little difference between driving an expensive car and a nice ordinary car; but from the standpoint of the sixth consciousness, it is very different. Similarly, when we are wearing clothes with an exclusive label, we feel contented, happy, and special; this feeling does not come from the clothing, it comes from our consciousness. From the standpoint of non-discriminating consciousness, fine apparel and clothing with an expensive label feel the same. Suppose a person is given an ordinary dress to wear and is told it is a Chanel; if she cannot distinguish between an imitation and the real product, she will feel just as happy and contented.
If one day we lose possession of our luxury car and cannot afford to buy expensive clothing, or if we discover that our neighbor has a better house and car, we will begin to suffer. Even though we still have clothes to wear and do not lack for food or shelter, and even though our non-discriminating consciousness is contented, our discriminating consciousness feels ashamed and inferior to others. It’s obvious that this feeling is entirely created by the sixth consciousness.
The Buddha did not deny that material comfort can bring happiness to an extent. The external world affects our happiness and suffering but is not the primary cause of our well-being. Happiness itself does not come from outside, but from the mind. We can find happiness only from within the mind and overcome suffering only by working with the mind. Thus, we should not be deluded into thinking money is the answer to happiness, because it cannot bring total happiness.
The French Enlightenment writer Voltaire, the mechanistic materialist La Mettrie, and many other philosophers in the West believed suffering and happiness come from the world outside and that happiness cannot be produced by the mind. Thus, for a very long time, the Western world encouraged people to look outside for happiness.
This encouragement reinforced the natural tendency of people to seek happiness outside. In the few hundred years after the Industrial Revolution, people relentlessly pursued material wealth and comfort. However, in recent years, despite the steady increase in income levels in the West, the index on happiness has continued to decline. More and more people are now beginning to feel this kind of pursuit is wrong; one can argue that all their effort has failed.
Buddhist teachers have repeatedly pointed out the importance of being mentally strong. People who are mentally weak are more likely to suffer.
What is mental weakness? What kind of person is prone to mental weakness?
Strength and weakness may be hereditary to an extent; some people are naturally strong, others are naturally weak. But the more important factors are environment, educational background, and habitual dispositions. Relatively speaking, a person who is born into a wealthy family and educated in a prestigious institution is more likely to be mentally weak. As a result of this weakness, the person is fussy and difficult to work with. When this disposition develops into a habit, it becomes increasingly serious, to a point where all things are repulsive and unsatisfactory. In the end, such a person will find no meaning or happiness in life, and may even take drastic measures.
Thus, we have to be strong mentally; we must not let suffering take root in our mind easily.
To conclude, the origin of suffering is primarily our own attachment.
THIRD STAGE: DEFEAT SUFFERING
At this stage, to defeat suffering is not to cut through the root of the suffering, which would eliminate any possibility of it arising again. This goal can only be achieved at the end when we attain liberation. For now, we should use meditation practice to turn suffering into the path, to prevent suffering from affecting our practice and life. In this way, we can “defeat suffering.”
The suffering we encounter in real life may be connected with money, relationships, marriage, etc. Without meditation practice, an ordinary person will have difficulty defeating suffering. Most people look outside for the source of their suffering; they also resolve their suffering by changing the condition outside. For instance, if a person is unhappy with another person, he will suffer if he cannot get over this negative emotion. To resolve the problem, he may try to injure and kill the other person. But he has not really defeated suffering this way. Only genuine practitioners can be freed from the pain of suffering and truly defeat it.
FOURTH STAGE: METHODS FOR OVERCOMING SUFFERING
There are some therapeutic methods in psychology which I have some knowledge of. I personally feel that these methods are helpful to some people by allowing them to relax, but these are only temporary solutions and cannot cure the problem conclusively.
According to one psychiatrist, when a patient is suffering from marital problems, he tells the patient to imagine putting the spouse in a chest or bag, locking it up, and throwing it out of the window of a tenth-floor apartment; then imagine the spouse no longer exists and has disappeared from this world as well as from his or her life. This makes it easier psychologically for the patient to leave the spouse and let go. The method may also be repeated when problems arise again. Although this method sounds quite funny, it does help alleviate stress for some people. But it cannot get to the root of the problem.
When ordinary people encounter suffering, their first reaction is always to eliminate or uproot suffering presumed to come from the world outside. However, for ordinary people, some things cannot be overturned and uprooted; all they can do is to find whatever measures are available to deal with the problem at hand, to varying degree of success depending on the situation.
The Buddhist methods for overcoming suffering are essentially of two kinds: one is from the viewpoint of relative truth; the other is that of ultimate truth.
Methods of Relative Truth
When we come upon suffering -- for instance, when we have committed wrongdoing or have lost an object we are attached to -- we should consider it from two aspects: first, through practice, we can relieve suffering; second, more importantly, we can transform suffering into the path.
First: Eradicate or Moderate Aversion to Accepting Suffering
We should contemplate: this suffering does not help my situation; it also brings harm to my body and mind.
In samsara, a lot of suffering awaits us. As ordinary people, our lives are not all that different – we all experience birth, aging, illness, and death; we all die in the end. No one can tell us exactly how we are going to die. Our parents may leave us; there will also be problems in our marriage, family, relationships, financial status, and work. If we always reject, resist, ignore, or dare not confront and accept suffering, our ability to withstand pressure is evidently very poor. If due to our weakness, we cannot face and accept suffering, and instinctively make it a habit of running away from it, in time we become even weaker mentally. We dispute and fuss over everything. However perfect the environment is, everything is less than satisfactory.
If things go on like this, the mind will become increasingly vulnerable to pain; nothing can make us happy. This brings us even greater harm; in the end we surrender to suffering and become its biggest victim. Thus, we should be fully prepared now – we must train our mind before problems arise. Otherwise, even if conceptually we understand suffering and happiness come from the mind, this knowledge alone cannot make a difference for us when we really need help.
People look at the same problem differently largely because of the state of their mind. Generally speaking, the mind of ordinary people is more fragile while that of the sages is strong. For instance, when the Buddha was about to enter parinirvana, he was surrounded by many arhats and practitioners. Although everyone knew the Buddha was dying and that they would lose not just a great but extraordinary teacher, all the arhats there were very calm. The exception was Ananda, who, having yet attained realization, was still an ordinary person. He stood crying by the side of the Buddha’s bed and could not contain his sorrow. The arhats were not disrespectful. Because they had already realized emptiness, they could pass beyond suffering.
To sum up, suffering may not be suffering; happiness may not be happiness either. It’s all about how you look at it.
When contemplating, it is best to do so when sitting in meditation, not while working or walking.
Take as an example, when we lose a person or an object that we are attached to, and feel unbearable pain, we should meditate and reflect: can I get back what I lost? If so, there is nothing to worry or feel sad about, I just need to get it back; if I can never get back what I lost, I can only face and accept the reality.
This meditation may not be effective at the beginning; we may prefer to suffer than contemplate in this way. However, if we persist, we will gradually be able to think through the problem. In samsara, losing a person or thing we love is a natural law we cannot ignore. Without exception, all of us will come upon that day; it is only a matter of when. Suffering afflicts us and has a strong negative impact on our life, work, and practice. With repetitive contemplation, we will gain certainty in this view. Although this method appears to be relatively simple, we will benefit greatly if it is truly applied to real life. Everyone should try it!
If we can rely on this simple method to face suffering, we can overcome one problem after another. In time, we will find we can handle any problem however difficult, and that suffering is no longer suffering. Actually, there are advantages in suffering; the positive side far outweighs the negative side in its usefulness. Just as certain treatments are difficult for patients to bear, they are surprisingly effective in curing the illness. Hence, we should not make a habit of resisting suffering; we should learn to face it.
However, when it comes to practicing the Four Opponent Powers to purify karma, we should be more serious. That is, we must repent deeply our past transgressions and feel truly alarmed and terrified of our karmic retribution. The more penitent we are, the greater the power of purification is.
People in this world may not understand why they need to accept suffering. This is precisely the attitude that prevents them from attaining true happiness.
There is a story in the sutras about a king who lived a life of luxury. He never had to experience any discomfort; hence, if a pea were placed beneath eighteen layers of silk bed sheets, he would notice it and find it intolerable. Later in life, he not only lost his throne but also became a pauper. His only recourse was to retreat to the mountains where he chopped wood to make a living. Since he had no clothes to wear, he would carry the wood on his bare shoulders. Over time, he no longer felt the suffering and considered this way of life very normal.
Although this is just a story, there are many such examples in real life.
When we come upon suffering, we should face it courageously rather than passively resist it. Once this hurdle is overcome, we can calmly accept a similar kind of suffering the next time and defeat it. In this way, we become the victor. If we persist, we can increase our mental strength and defeat all suffering.
Second: Transform Suffering into Positive Conditions for the Practice
If we know the mind, we can face suffering with fortitude and accept it with ease; we can even develop joy in knowing that suffering and happiness are rare opportunities for mind practice. We often hear the saying: Turn grief into strength – transform sadness, sorrow, and pain into a driving force that propels us along the path.
How does the transformation take place? There are seven methods:
1. Transform Suffering into Renunciation
The rationale is to practice suffering and renunciation together; in so doing, suffering can be effectively transformed into renunciation with excellent results. There are two kinds of practice: visualization during meditation practice; contemplation after meditation practice.
Visualization during Meditation Practice:
First sit on the meditation cushion in the sevenfold posture of Vairochana, then take refuge and the bodhicitta vow, expel negative chi, and pray that the guru and the Three Jewels dissolve into oneself in the form of light. Next contemplate:
Samsara is filled with suffering and no one is spared from it. From the leader of a country, high government officials, and the rich to common people, thieves, beggars, and even mosquitos and ants, etc. – they all have suffering. When confronted with suffering, wealth and power are useless. The only way is to transform suffering into the path.
The cause of my suffering is my own attachment. Once attachment to an object or a person is developed, it will definitely bring suffering. Thus the sutras are replete with the exhortation: Let go!
To let go is to be free of attachment; without attachment, there is no suffering.
The Buddha taught that all worldly phenomena arise from causes and conditions. The conditions for suffering and happiness are objective factors; the cause is our own attachment.
To give an example, good and bad karma created in our previous life or the life before are the causes and conditions for our cyclic existence. Even an arhat is still burdened with past unfinished karma in this life. If we can eliminate attachment, the past cause cannot ripen. Just as in cultivating a field, the seeds will not grow without moisture, the right temperature, and sunlight. Good and bad karma in our past are like seeds; without attachment, they cannot mature.
The Buddha taught that all phenomena are impermanent, imperfect, of the nature of suffering, and empty; it’s not worth fixing any attachment on them. If by way of practice we gain this basic understanding, we can be free of attachment and suffering, and attain liberation.
In samsara, everything is illusory; we have no freedom or control over things, including our own mind. Greed, anger, ignorance, jealousy, and arrogance disturb and imprison us. As our mind is not free, we follow wherever external circumstances take us; this is normal, nothing to be alarmed about.
If only I can be like the Buddha, bodhisattvas and arhats who always abide in a state of great equanimity, free from external influences!
This kind of suffering is not new to me. Since time immemorial, I have most certainly experienced similar, if not greater, suffering innumerable times. Until the first bodhisattva ground is reached, all ordinary people will encounter even worse suffering in the future than the suffering they have already endured. Yet I have not grown tired of this world and samsara, nor developed renunciation, and still hope to find happiness in samsara. I am truly ignorant!
Although my suffering is unbearable this time, it cannot compare with suffering in the hell, animal, and hungry ghost realms. If I cannot even accept this pain, how can I face suffering in the three lower realms? Hence, apart from my practice and liberation, all mundane things – money, reputation, status, marriage, family, relationships, etc. -- are temporary and meaningless. I must practice with diligence and seek liberation; if not, the outcome is really unthinkable. This is renunciation.
Contemplation after Meditation Practice:
When we encounter suffering, we can contemplate the above at any time or any place, e.g., when walking or riding in a car.
This practice transforms our suffering into a force that drives us forward along the path; it is also known as transforming suffering into the path.
Two effects are produced from this practice: first, through contemplation, we can calmly accept suffering; second, we can turn suffering into an impetus for cultivating renunciation.
Cultivating renunciation and bodhicitta are effective ways of eradicating attachment.
A practice must be specific to the problem at hand -- we need to point all the spearheads at attachment and cut through it. Burning incense, prostrating to the Buddha, and reciting sutras are good practices in general, but they are not directed at attachment and cannot eradicate it. This is a very crucial point.
The practitioners of kusali chod① are an example. To cut through their attachment to the body, they intentionally go to remote areas where mundane spirits inhabit, cut down trees, and destroy the mountainside to incur the spirits’ wrath. When thunder, strong winds, and other terrifying signs appear as a result, the practitioners become aware of the presence of the spirits and have a heightened sense of self. Even the fearless are petrified and think -- I have come to the end of the road this time and have nowhere to go, what do I do? When this thought arises, they immediately practice “cutting through the ego” which is based on the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, with exceptional results.
In the same way, if we practice renunciation when we are in the midst of great suffering, the outcome is distinctly better than when we are not suffering.
We often hear people ponder why they are the ones suffering. Without a doubt, suffering will come to us when our minds are so far from being free!
People who are non-practitioners do not believe in rebirth or cause and effect; they think all things come to an end with death, and often resort to taking drastic steps with their own lives.
Buddhist practitioners, on the other hand, can apprehend the basic nature of samsara, face suffering courageously, and cultivate a strong sense of renunciation. This is the goal we want to accomplish.
2. Transform Suffering into Taking Refuge
Because we have experienced great suffering, we truly understand samsara is filled with suffering; regardless of wealth or status, no one is spared.
For instance, in a harmonious and loving family where husband and wife, brothers and sisters all get along very well, everyone hopes the family can stay happy together indefinitely. Eventually, however, one member of the family will die; if the family is not prepared mentally, it will incur a great deal of suffering.
This is the same with wealth and reputation; the greater our attachment, the more we suffer. As long as we remain in samsara, we cannot overcome suffering.
We cannot rely on others to help us, not scientists, philosophers, nor our parents, friends, classmates, or colleagues; the only way to relieve suffering is to take refuge in the Three Jewels – with help of the Buddha and the Sangha, practice the Dharma according to the Buddha’s teachings to eliminate afflictions and attachment. When attachment is gone, all of our suffering will disappear in that instant.
Unfortunately, the conventional thinking is just the opposite. When we encounter suffering, our first reaction is not to subdue the mind and let go of attachment, but to create external circumstances to keep suffering out. This is a common practice of all ordinary people. However, we have failed time and time again in this strategy and have remained until this day ordinary people who have not attained liberation.
Due to merit accumulated in past lives, we are human beings in this lifetime. We must seize this opportunity as humans to break away from samsara; the first step is to take refuge. As we begin to appreciate deeply the great qualities and the power of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we will develop faith and eagerly seek refuge in the Three Jewels.
It’s like when we are sick, we realize deeply how important and necessary doctors and medicine are to us; when we are not sick, this feeling is not as strong. It is the same with taking refuge. When suffering is imminent, there is greater imperative to seek refuge than in normal times. This can help us transform suffering into a cause and condition for taking refuge as well as develop a genuine devotion to the Three Jewels. Thus, not only is suffering not an obstacle, it is a force that advances us along the path.
If we follow this reasoning, we can moderate our attachment; with less attachment, suffering will diminish accordingly; with less suffering, our practice will also progress.
3. Eliminate Arrogance
Ordinarily, when people have money, power, talent, education or other qualities that are worth boasting about, they become very arrogant; they think they are superior to others and belong to the social elite. Some Buddhists, not being studious practitioners, may also feel disdainful of other people after having acquired just a slight understanding of the teachings and upheld certain precepts. However, when suffering strikes, everything falls apart. Only then do they realize they have nothing to be arrogant about – after years of practice, they are no more able to withstand even a small amount of suffering. With this realization, their arrogance dissipates; they also become many times more diligent at listening, contemplating, and practicing the teachings.
Without personally experiencing suffering, it is very difficult to eliminate arrogance by simply relying on visualization practice. Therefore, we should take joy in suffering since it helps us strengthen our mind. With a strong mind, we can withstand any suffering or negative affinities; difficulties not only do not obstruct our practice, they help us progress along the path.
4. Purify Negative Karma
Faced with suffering, those of us who believe in cause and effect and samsara will think: although I have not committed any wrongdoing in this lifetime, suffering cannot possibly descend on me without a reason. All suffering is dependent on objective and subjective factors. Because of bad actions I committed in the past, I now suffer the consequences. Even a small amount of suffering can cause me so much pain. If I come upon even greater suffering in the future, how will I be able to face it? If I continue to create bad karma and do not repent now, I will have to bear even harsher retributions in the future. I will never be freed from samsara if this cycle is not broken. Just like getting to the root of the illness in order to be cured, if we do not want suffering, we must purify bad karma created in the past.
There are two ways to purify karma: one is to repent past actions before karmic retributions manifest to eliminate karmic obstacles and the likelihood of future retributions; the other is to accept karmic retributions to settle past karmic debts.
Suffering inherently sends us a message: in undergoing suffering, we repay or exhaust our karmic retribution. This is likened to crops; when they ripen, their seeds no longer exist. After bearing the brunt of suffering, a great deal of bad karma is thus purified. To bear hardship is to eradicate bad karma. How fortunate I am to undergo this hardship in the human realm, and not in the hell, animal, or hungry ghost realms. This is a good thing and I should be joyous. If I know how to act properly, I can make use of this suffering to engage in deeds which are useful for this life and the next, and moreover, to appreciate how important it is to purify negative karma. I will then strive to apply the Four Opponent Powers to perfect the Vajrasattva practice, and transform suffering into a positive condition for liberation.
In addition I should think: this karmic retribution is truly harsh and difficult to bear. Although it has a positive side, I still hope this kind of suffering does not reoccur. Sentient beings do not wish this kind of suffering upon themselves either. I should still cultivate bodhicitta to free them from pain and hardship.
The reason we engage in listening, contemplating, and practicing the Dharma over a long period of time is to confront all suffering in samsara. Although studying the five major topics of treatises is good and praiseworthy, how useful are these teachings to us in real life? We should reflect on this point. Without realizing emptiness, they cannot help us. When we encounter suffering, however learned we are in the doctrine, we are still confused and frantic with frustration. The method introduced here is instead a basic practice which is very helpful in real life; it can be used anytime and anywhere. I hope we can all use this method which allows us to face difficulties in life without fear.
We can choose to practice one method or several methods. However, it is best to practice just one method in one session of meditation.
5. Transform Suffering into an Impetus to Practice Virtue
When undergoing suffering, we can also think: how fortunate I am experiencing just human suffering. If one day I must take rebirth in the hell, animal, or hungry ghost realm, how will I manage then? Thus I should be happy to bear the suffering before me.
To avoid suffering, we must accumulate merit and create the cause for not suffering by practicing virtue. This is the natural law of cause and effect.
Although we normally understand these concepts, it is only when experiencing suffering that we profoundly realize samsara is not as perfect as we imagine but is instead filled with hardship. With this we turn suffering into an impetus for practicing virtue. Buddhists are generally diligent in practicing virtue and refraining from doing evil. Through suffering, they exert even greater effort in the practice.
6. Transform Suffering into Compassion
The essence of Mahayana Buddhism is bodhicitta; the basis of bodhicitta is compassion. Without compassion, there can be no bodhicitta.
What allows us to develop compassion? It is precisely suffering. When we truly understand all sentient beings have to undergo great suffering in samsara, we can be comforted in knowing there is a law of cause and effect. We know that all of our suffering is created by negative deeds we committed in past lives and that we must bear the consequences. But other sentient beings may not understand these concepts; they perpetuate in hatred and resentment which bind them further in suffering. Seeing this, we easily develop empathy and compassion, sincerely hope all sentient beings can be freed from suffering, and willingly trade our happiness for their suffering – this is compassion.
The most important thing at this time is to cultivate compassion. In cultivating compassion, there are two kinds of outcome and benefit: first, since we understand the workings of cause and effect, we are able to relieve our suffering; second, having developed great compassion because of our own hardship, we can be unperturbed when we confront suffering again.
Judging from the current situation most people are in, what we need to learn the most is neither the advanced tantric practice like Dzogchen nor the profound theories of Middle Way and logic, but how to manage our problems in real life – illness, aging, difficulties at work, disharmony in the family, etc.
We should be serious about practicing these methods on a regular basis; otherwise, they cannot be of use to us when we come upon suffering.
7. Transform Suffering into Helping Others
The source of suffering has always been attachment to self-love since time immemorial. In any situation, we place our own needs above everything else; we only think of ourselves – for our own happiness, we destroy the happiness of others; for our own health, we ruin the health of other beings, even take their lives. There is no thought whatsoever of helping or caring for other sentient beings. Because of attachment to self-love, substantial negative karma is committed. The suffering we now feel is just a drop in the ocean of karmic retributions, yet it is already insufferable and difficult to face.
We should know all suffering comes from attachment to self-love. Because of this attachment, we create negative karma for self-interest and suffer painful retributions. When we come upon suffering, we do not understand it is of our own doing; we place the blame on others and develop hatred; with hatred, more bad karma is created. The result of this perpetual cycle of enmity is that we cannot extricate ourselves from samsara. If we want to be free of suffering, we must change our ways. From now on, we should help, love, and support all sentient beings with no ego attached.
There are two bodhicitta practices in The Way of the Bodhisattva, “exchanging oneself and others” and “considering others more important than oneself,” that we must do. The underlying concept is firstly, when facing suffering, look for the source of suffering. There are objective factors but they are not the main reason, just auxiliary conditions. The fundamental reason is the negative karma we have created. All ordinary people have greed; when this converges with causes created in the past, karma comes to fruition. Greed is the attachment to self-love; like fertilizer to crops, it feeds karma and brings it to maturity. Highly-accomplished masters like the arhats also have karmic seeds which have not been completely purified, but because they have cut through greed, their karma does not bind them to samsara.
We often speak of cultivating bodhicitta, of giving happiness and taking suffering; however, when actually faced with problems, we only think of ourselves, and in so doing, suffer the consequences over many lifetimes. This is all due to attachment to self-love. Although ordinary people cannot cut through this attachment right away, it can be gradually reduced with bodhicitta practice.
Whatever suffering we come upon in the future, we should follow the method of exchanging the self for others: as we breathe out, imagine sending out to all sentient beings our positive karma created in the past, present and future, as well as our present physical and mental well-being; then visualize all sentient beings receiving our happiness in its entirety; as we breathe in, imagine the mental and physical suffering of all sentient beings transformed into a black gaseous substance which enters our body, dissolves the attachment to self-love in our heart, and destroys it. We alone take responsibility for the suffering of all sentient beings, so that they may be far removed from pain. Lastly, meditate on the emptiness of self. This is a basic practice of “exchanging oneself and others.”
In addition, when encountering suffering each time, we should sincerely wish: may I suffer in the place of all sentient beings; may no one else experience the same kind of hardship. It is best if we can generate this aspiration without pretension; if not, there is still substantial merit in generating a contrived aspiration. In many sutras it is stated this practice has infinite merit. When suffering descends on us, we should always take up this practice with true sincerity. Then suffering becomes a positive condition for our practice, and we are also less likely than in the past to reject adversity. By accepting suffering, we are hence in the position to take suffering for all sentient beings and to make the vow. Although misfortune is hard on us, if it can assist our practice, we are willing to bear it. Over time we will develop a habit of visualizing in this way even in our dreams at night. To experience suffering under these circumstances is certainly worth it.
From beginningless time, we have undergone immeasurable suffering, yet we have never made use of adversity to relieve the suffering of others, to accumulate merit, or to cultivate bodhicitta; we have simply allowed suffering to take its course with nothing to show for it. We should all rejoice in knowing that we are now able to help others by way of our suffering!
The seven methods above are very important practices which are easy, convenient, and effective. They should be practiced not only when sitting in meditation but at all times. We must persist in our effort and proceed in stages. When we start with relatively minor difficulties in our life, we can in time handle great suffering by transforming it into the path. If we follow this pattern over a long period, the results will be extremely evident; whenever suffering strikes, we can be mentally strong.
Our motivation for taking up these practices cannot be too selfish. If we do so just to alleviate our own suffering, the practices – although useful to a degree -- will not be very meaningful, because it is out of selfish intent, not bodhicitta and compassion.
After coming out of meditation, we should dedicate the merit: To my guru and the Three Jewels, I pray that I may successfully confront suffering this time, and transform the pain into renunciation, bodhicitta, and compassion.
Many Buddhists pray daily to the Dharma protectors in the hope of avoiding obstacles in life. This is because they are mentally weak and are afraid to confront any form of suffering. When we make progress along the path and develop greater fortitude, we can even pray to our guru and the Three Jewels to grant us suffering and obstacles, and to the Dharma protectors for negative conditions, to deepen our inner strength as well as our practice.
This dedication, which is practiced after meditation, is also a method of the relative truth for overcoming suffering.
Many people think burning incense, prostrating to the buddhas, and giving to charity are the ways in which the Dharma teachings are applied to life. Actually they represent only a portion of Buddhist practices in life, and a very superficial one at that. The essence of the teachings is in taking refuge, developing renunciation, compassion, bodhicitta, and the view of emptiness. Through these methods, we can face and surmount difficulties we encounter in everyday life with ease.
Methods of Ultimate Truth
Realistically, only when realization of emptiness is attained can suffering be overcome with the methods of ultimate truth. Those who have gained this realization can appreciate deeply that life is just like a dream. In a dream we may experience the death of our parents or loved ones and feel devastated. If we can suddenly wake up from the dream, no treatment or sympathy is necessary as suffering disappears instantly. If we do not know we are living in a dream, or know in theory but not from direct experience, then suffering is harder to resolve. However, before realizing emptiness, we can still practice somewhat by using the reasoning given in the Middle Way to ascertain the external phenomena which cause us suffering or the mind which experiences suffering is emptiness. More importantly, we should know suffering and happiness are basically just a feeling, a manifestation of the mind; they are not caused simply by external factors such as an enemy or natural disaster. Suffering does not exist in the world outside – the mountains, rivers, sun, moon, or stars; it exists within our mind. Without feeling, there can be no suffering. Everything is illusory, merely a manifestation of the mind.
The wise look inward to find happiness and the source of suffering. They know the seed of happiness and suffering is in the mind, external things lend only temporary support. Because they have the right view, they can eventually eradicate suffering, and attain absolute happiness and freedom – liberation. In contrast, ordinary people look outward for the source of their problems. Because their direction is wrong, they can never eradicate suffering and fail every lifetime to achieve liberation. This is the difference between an ordinary person and a sage.
However, we cannot simply count on reason or theory to gain certainty in this view; we need to let the mind rest and examine it during meditation. Free the mind from discursive thoughts; neither review the past nor invite the future. The past no longer exists, the future has yet to come; if there is a mind, it can only be the mind at the present moment. Let us then check to see if the present mind exists. If we have been diligent in our practice of the preliminaries, we would know, in the instant we examine the mind, that the mind at this very moment is none other than clarity and emptiness. In Beacon of Certainty, the original face of suffering is said to be pure like the sky above the high plateau in Tibet, just emptiness. The great sage Atisha also said in his commentaries on the Middle Way that the nature of mind is clear and unobstructed like the autumn sky. What is perceived as suffering has long since dissolved into clouds of smoke; there are no traces of it left.
It is not difficult to realize emptiness. Unfortunately, because we do not practice the preliminaries, have not developed renunciation or bodhicitta, and have neither accumulated merit nor repented our wrongdoing, we only experience dullness or anxiety during meditation.
If our realization is not stable, our mind will return to mundane concerns and experience anxiety and suffering again. Until we have subdued the mind, it will traverse back and forth between illusion and reality, between relative truth and ultimate truth.
If we wish to eradicate our suffering immediately, we must practice the preliminaries. We cannot bypass the preliminaries and think we can take up a different practice to achieve the same result.
The final outcome of all the practices is to transform suffering into a positive condition and force in our practice. If this target is met, it means we have successfully cultivated bodhicitta and renunciation. Regrettably, I have not reached this target either; however, that is not a problem, as we can practice and grow together. No one can succeed right from the start; nor can anyone fail indefinitely. It all depends on our effort.
When ordinary people are together, friction is certain to arise and cause all kinds of suffering. Apart from the buddhas and bodhisattvas, even the arhats cannot consistently bring happiness and avoid causing suffering to others. This is all the more so with ordinary people.
Although suffering is hard on us, if we know the method, it will strengthen our practice, cultivate the mind, and fill our hearts with joy. When this joyous feeling develops to a certain stage, our physical pain becomes less acute, our mind more open; we can face suffering with ease, and relate better with people; hence, we should embrace, even welcome, suffering when we encounter it. Just as in acupuncture, patients are willing to bear the pain of the treatment and pay for it, because they know they can attain good health in exchange. In the same way, our suffering can bring us mental well-being, happiness, even liberation. We do not have to pay for suffering, only confront it directly and transform it into the path.
However, people who lack wisdom and courage are usually afraid of suffering and try to run away from it -- their entire effort in life is to avoid misery; they have never thought of seeking liberation. The basic problem lies in not knowing suffering is a manifestation of mental weakness. This results in further restricting the mind, occupying it with fear of problems that relate to livelihood, family, and old age. Due to ignorance and fear, we unwittingly create bad karma. With the practices mentioned above, we can cut through our delusion, confront suffering with courage, open our hearts to others, and find joy in life.
Although the most effective practice for confronting suffering is Dzogchen, the method of the ultimate truth mentioned above -- that is, the logic given in the Middle Way, especially realization obtained from practicing the Middle Way -- is not unlike Dzogchen at times. We do not necessarily need a very advanced practice at this point. For most people, this method is easy and substantive, and is actually more important than the practice of Dzogchen and the development and completion stages.
The era of declining Dharma alluded to in the sutras refers precisely to the society at present. In this degenerate time, we must practice this way in order to progress. However deep our understanding of the Dharma may be, we cannot get past suffering and pressure in life because our practice lacks strength and stability. If we know how to apply these pith instructions, the force of suffering and obstacles can help us advance along the path. Then, even suffering can be transformed into a driving force in our practice.
We must all place great importance on this practice and undertake the practice according to the Dharma. By way of these methods, suffering will not afflict us for long, nor will it be an impediment to our practice.
1. Kusali chod: in Practical Instructions on the Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen by Karma Chagme Rinpoche, “Kusali are practitioners of meditative concentration who have purged all worldly desires except for the desire to eat, release body waste, and sleep.” By abandoning all thoughts of self-grasping and attachment to the body, they cut through the four demonic forces and accumulate merit.
Kusali, meaning “beggar,” are yogis who leave behind all mundane concerns and retreat to the mountains, or those who don’t have the means to make offering to accumulate merit. They instead engage in a visualization practice which entails giving one’s body as offering.