The Truth of Suffering

I’m pleased to present another post from my dear friend Katy Brennan. Katy is a writer and a dharma teacher in the New Kadampa tradition, which is also known as Modern Kadampa Buddhism.

As we pass the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 in this country and over 350,000 worldwide, it now does feel most appropriate to lead with this subject line (as I was tempted to do in last week’s note on creativity.) I refer, as I did then, to the Buddha’s very first teaching, The Four Noble Truths.

What this sutra lays out for us is, essentially, the nature of our dilemma and the solution to it. We are suffering. We all are suffering, on some level. In fact, this is always true. The major difference now is the clarity of this truth. Even if beaches and businesses open, there is no “returning to normal” because, in truth, suffering is normal.

At the moment, the statistics may be numbing. But we can’t be numb. We don’t want to be, do we? If we are so inclined, the present moment offers us an opportunity to face the truth of suffering head on and with an open heart.

Dharma practice (putting Buddha’s teachings to work in our everyday lives) and meditation can help us transform the sufferings of this time and train in the beneficial  practices of peace, patience, love, and compassion. 

So, the Four Noble Truths? In essence: “You should know sufferings. You should abandon origins. You should attain cessations. You should practice paths.” 

These teachings are quite deep. A beautiful commentary is available in the book I most often recommend to students looking for a doorway to dharma: How To Solve Our Human Problems, by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. It’s relatively short, but so rich in meaning, you may find yourself re-reading it several times and picking it up often as a resource, as I have and do. 

For now, in terms of the Four Noble Truths, all I can offer is a broad overview in four very short statements: 

Basically, we should understand that suffering is the nature of samsara (our present mode of existence, our un-enlightened state.)

We should understand the nature and origins of suffering in not only what appears to our minds but how we respond to those appearances, what we experience. Because we experience appearances with the distorted, deluded minds of attachment, aversion, and confusion, we should “abandon” these minds, the origins of our suffering. 

We should experience an absence, or cessation of suffering. Ultimately, we experience this when we become fully enlightened. For now, we experience this, if only for a moment or two, in meditation.

Finally, we should practice paths. As I wrote last week, in this context, a path is a mind. Our minds take us everywhere; everywhere we go, all that we experience depends upon our minds. Our minds create our reality. 

At the moment, we are all experiencing the “conventional truth” of relatively challenging conditions. Ultimately, how we experience this time, and all times and all conditions, depends on our mind. 

When we meditate, we realize this. We close our eyes and let go of what feels “external” for us—sights, sounds, and physical sensations—and then become aware of our thoughts. We let those go, too. We choose to focus on a single “virtuous” object: a beneficial object; one that brings about a feeling of peace, well-being and happiness. 

At this moment in time, it may seem inappropriate to even mention the word happy or happiness. Yet, in truth, we need to find a way forward. The feelings that may feel front and center—anxiety, despair, anger, even rage—won’t move us to a place where we can be of any benefit to ourselves and others. Denial won’t get us there either.

What will get us there? Creating the best possible conditions in our minds to cultivate the qualities we need now: patience, generosity, kindness, joyful energy, wisdom, love, and compassion. How to we do that? Meditation and dharma practice. 

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