Awareness of Suffering
Some of you may be aware that Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suffered a serious stroke last November. He is now recovering at his home in the south of France. He has dedicated his life to spreading the Buddha’s teaching of compassion and love to relieve human suffering. His sangha is named the Order of Inter Being. He teaches that if we are willing to experience things as they actually are, we will realize that we ‘inter are’ with all beings and all phenomena. Our living presence is alive, and our aliveness is the spirit of inter being. Thich Nhat Hanh is referred to as Thay by our sangha. Thay means teacher in Vietnamese Buddhism. Thay offered us a song that we sometimes sing together as the sangha body:
No coming, no going, no after, no before
I hold you close to me, and I release you to be so free
Because I am in you, and you are in me,
Because I am in you, and you are in me
Buddha’s first noble truth is that life is suffering. The way we inter are with all beings involves suffering. He didn’t mean that life is always the experience of suffering for everyone. He meant that life is suffering under certain conditions. And those conditions according to Buddha are caused by our clinging. Suffering is caused by clinging to thoughts, clinging to sensations, clinging to sights and sounds. And it naturally follows that the experience of clinging is based on the strong sense of a someone who is clinging to something separate from what they imagine that they are.
The bedrock of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness practice is the practice of being aware of present experience, with the attitude of acceptance. This includes awareness of the experience of being something separate, and clinging to something else that seems separate from what we are. The experience of being separate is really just that simple, it’s not conceptual, it’s not some theory about the experience of separation. It’s just the experience of saying ‘there is that chair over there, and here I am, separate from that chair.’
The spirit of inter being is also just that simple. It’s not some theory of being. The reality of inter being is realizing that what appears separate isn’t really separate from the awareness that is observing it. The awareness looking out from our eyes right now reading this page isn’t separate from the words and the page itself. The same holds true for all of our experience. Awareness isn’t separate from the experience of seeing, hearing, feeling, or thinking. Whatever we see, hear, feel, and think is one with the awareness that we actually are.
Thay says that we free ourselves from suffering by learning to cultivate insight into the deep roots of our suffering. As Buddha said the deep roots of our self clinging is what keeps us bound to the seemingly endless wheel of samsara, the seemingly endless round of suffering of the world of birth and death. If we want to remove the weeds from our yard, we need to pull them out by the roots. Otherwise they just quickly grow back. When we are lazy, and don’t want to make the effort to get down to the roots of our mind weeds, we just push them away or indulge them without awareness of their roots. They not only grow back quickly, but we actually reinforce their hold on us; if we feed the energy of clinging to them, that clinging energy grows stronger. As Buddha said, the clinging to our experience is made possible by our clinging to this sense of being a separate self. The two arise together, and reinforce each other.
What is different about mind weeds and weeds in our yard, is that our yard weeds are removed by pulling them out by the roots. With mind weeds, we shine the light of awareness on them, and let spirit dissolve and transform them, rather than just trying to DO something with them. The spirit of inter being is always dissolving the roots of our self clinging, we only need to be willing to be aware of this, and stop our self conscious efforts to resist the process.
The fixed belief in the separate entity we call ‘me’ is the necessary mind weed by which we experience and cling to all of sensory experience as ours. So mindfulness practice is shining the light of awareness or spirit onto that sense of being a separate self. And it is the awareness of sensing a separate self with the attitude of acceptance. What is actually witnessing our experience is always just allowing it full expression. There is no attempt to manipulate any object of experience. Allowing the full expression of our experience is one with spirit’s continual dissolving and transforming it. Whatever we think, feel, see, or hear are not fixed entities. They are continually changing and transforming. We project the solidity of our fixation on being a separate self onto the world we imagine to be separate, and thereby fool ourselves into believing that it is solid. This is not something to try to believe. We will actually experience it through surrendering to the spirit of inter being showing us how things really are. The experience of ‘me’ witnessing, or ‘me’ attempting to manipulate the process is completely irrelevant to the process itself.
If we learn to be willing to join this witnessing, we will also learn to allow all experience its full expression. Witnessing consciousness can just allow every experience to just be as it is because there is no sense of a separate self to cling to the experience and try to hold onto it, or push it away. When we join this witnessing of our sense of a separate self with the attitude of acceptance, we begin to experience that sense of being separate as an expression of the witnessing awareness itself. That sense of being separate is beginning to be seen as it really is, free of separation from the witnessing awareness of all experience. This witnessing is always seeing through the separate nature of all experience. It is always dissolving the root of separation appearing as real to the clinging consciousness of a separate self. So clinging to a sense of separation to relieve suffering is like pulling off the top of the weeds in our yard, and hoping they won’t grow back. Self conscious effort, MY effort is the deepest root of our suffering. Just allow the light of awareness to shine on the sense of separation, where is the actual thingness of it?
For suffering to be real, there needs to be an actual painful sensation with the accompanying fixation on this sensation as being something bad. If we join spirit’s witnessing of our painful experience, we will begin to see that our fixation on something bad itself isn’t fixed. It changes and transforms along with the subtle variations of the flavor of the painful sensations themselves. This seeing, this sensing, is the seeing and sensing of the spirit of inter being’s continual dissolving and transforming of all of our experience. Just being aware of this with the attitude of acceptance is offering all of our experience to spirit itself. And it is the realization that all of our experience is a wonderful gift from the universal heart of inter being.
What if it is really really true that awareness itself is always already seeing through the separate nature of sensations? What if it is really true that the spirit of inter being is always deeply sensing, transforming, and loving all of our experience as a free gift to us? Can we be willing to trust this gift? Can we be willing to trust this gift on its own terms, not on our terms? Can we be willing to give up our bargaining with and for truth? Are we willing to receive this free gift unconditionally, just as it is being offered to us, free of any and all conditions? What else besides our living presence is actually truth worthy? What else is trust worthy?
Stay with the path for long enough, and finally we’ll begin to realize we’ve spent aeons trying to flee from this truth. We’ve spent aeons clinging to trusting what we think is real and true. And the whole time we have been enslaved by the suffering of clinging to our desires and fears, vainly attempting to make them the truth, vainly attempting to make them real. Clinging to vanity is always in vain, because the self that is separate and proud isn’t the truth, it isn’t real. Stay with the path long enough, maybe we can finally realize that this free gift really is free.
Seeing through the separate nature of sensation, seeing through the separate nature of all experience of being a separate self, is seeing from the viewpoint of unity, seeing from the viewpoint of the spirit of inter being. Spirit transforms the sense of separation from our experience, but this doesn’t mean we cease to feel the pain of sensations. The pain can actually hurt more, but bother us less. It bothers us less because we are learning to embody our inter being with the joy and hurt of all beings.