Monday, December 27, 2010

Confronting and Ending Our Biggest Dukkha

When something big and awful happens to us, what do we do?
When we don’t get, or are about to not get, something we think is very important, what do we do?

The Buddhadharma suggests, and today’s neuroscience agrees, that if we want to end our dukkha, we must liberate ourselves from our addiction to preferences.  Currently, we look at new situations and pick and choose what to do based on the habits we inherited from our hunter-gather, agrarian, and industrial ancestors. Instead of synthesizing new information, we just confirm what we already know.

Here’s what I mean: Say you want to know the best way to live. You go to an imam, a rabbi, a pastor, and a Buddhist monk. You ask each to tell you the how to live the best life, and each does. All four tell you something quite different. You go home, think about it, and decide which to follow. Question is, which do you follow?

Our ancestral mind, our living-in-distinction mind, our picking-and-choosing mind, in other words–our karmic habit energy, leads us to pick the way that is right, the way that confirms what we already know. The bigger question is, why did we even bother to ask if all we were going to do with the information was to pick the way we already knew was right, if all we were going to do was confirm what we already knew?

Confirming what we already know rather than synthesizing new knowledge may have been a useful “habit” 25,000 years ago when we were hunter-gatherers, or even 2500 years ago in the time of the Buddha and the upheavals of the axial age, or even 250 years ago at the start of the industrial age, but in our lives today, it is binding us more tightly than ever before to lives of unending dukkha. Lives where we can’t even see how to end our suffering…even when we are told the way.

To unbind our self so that we can deal effectively with big dukkha, with the loss of something we greatly value, we must shift our paradigm. We must change our karmic heading. We must respond to the dukkha without dual-mind. We must stop defining the situation as awful or terrible or unfair. We must let go of that false and faulty evaluating, let go of our picking and choosing and labeling energy. And then we must learn to consider every situation in the same way, with an open heart and faith in mind. We must learn that no situation is more weighty than any other.

[I say this from personal experience, not abstractly and in no way meaning to be insensitive to anyone else’s suffering. The big dukkha that led me directly to the Great Way was being told by my oncologist–in 1984–that I had less than a year to live.]

To realize that no situation is weightier than any other, that there are no situations, that there are no problem, we must stop confirming what we already know and learn to synthesize new knowledge. We must learn to see that there are only conditions. Understanding these is a big step in the right direction. It is, after all, what right view is teachings us.

We learn how to do this with grace and profundity in the third patriarch’s enlightenment poem, the Xinxinming.

Cutting to the chase, the answer is: we must train our minds to look at each new situation in life as simply a new set of conditions to which we must respond with a peaceful heart. As the Buddhadharma has been telling us for 2500 years, we simply need to abide in conditions instead of labeling things based on past information. There are only conditions, after all, not problems or difficulties or terrible things. Those are labels. And in any situation, regardless of the conditions, what do we do? We look clearly at what we are facing and we do what is most beneficial to making us and our families and our friends and the universe a more peaceful place.

The Buddha tells us to do this and this alone so that our big and small dukkha will dissolve. So that we can live lives of peace and happiness. So that we can to move from moment to moment toward liberation instead of toward more suffering.

So why don’t we listen, why don’t we train ourselves to live in conditions? The most important reason is that we think we think we already know the right way. That’s why we can’t see the Great Way.

Today is a good day to stomp our feet, become a knowledge synthesizer and commit to the Great Way. And what better place to learn it than from the Xinxinming.

Here’s an online version of the Xinxinming and a commentary.