If you knew how to suffer

A monk asked a Zen Master, “How can I avoid the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold?” “Go where there is no heat in summer or cold in winter.” “Where is that?” asked the monk. “When it is hot, sweat; when it is cold, shiver,” replied the master.

This is a koan, a subject that students working in Rinzai Zen Buddhism use as a way of entering more deeply into the mystery of their own being.

Working on a koan is not an intellectual activity. Koans are like stories: they invite you in. They invite you to live what is being said rather than simply have an intellectual grasp of it. To see what I mean, you only have to imagine first that you are reading a novel and then that you are reading a technical treatise. In the first you live the drama of the novel, you see it from inside so to speak. You read a technical treatise from outside. Therefore to work with the koan we must ask ourselves what the master’s state of mind was when he replied, “When it is hot, sweat; when it is cold, shiver.” Why did he answer in that way. We can only answer this question by entering the same state of mind.

But, before dwelling on the master’s state on mind, we must ask about the monk’s. Again we must enter the mind state of the monk. Was he only worried about the problem of heat and cold, or was he asking how to face the pain of life and death, and simply using heat and cold as one of the many causes of our suffering?

That life is suffering is the basic teaching of Buddhism. It is the first noble truth and although many different branches and schools of Buddhism exist, all of them are based upon this first truth. This is not a different teaching to the Christian. On entering a church we first meet a man on a cross, a symbol of the truth that life is suffering.

Buddhism began with the life and teaching of Gautama Siddhartha, or Shakyamuni. He lived about 2500 years ago. He was living a comfortable life, happily married with a child. He was wealthy and had all the comforts that could be had at the time. However, he had four encounters: the first with a sick person, the second with an old person and the third with a dead person. These disturbed him terribly and suffocated him with anxiety and dread. Then he had a fourth encounter, with a monk, and the serenity of the monk persuaded him to follow a religious path.

This story of Buddha’s meeting with these four situations is a concrete way of bringing home to us the truth that suffering––in particular, sickness, old age and death––are the lot of all humankind. Like Buddha, all of us, at some time in our lives, and above all when we are sick, realize our vulnerability. At these times we know in our hearts that it is so: life is suffering

This truth is brought home poignantly by a Buddhist parable, the parable of the mustard seed. A woman went to Buddha to ask for his help. She was stricken by grief. Her young baby had been playing, a snake had come and the baby had stretched out his hand to play with it, and was bitten. Now, with her dead baby in her arms, the woman called to Buddha for help. “Yes,” said Buddha, “I can help you. But, first you must bring me a mustard seed. It must come from a house that has not known suffering” The woman searched, and eventually returned to Buddha saying, “I can find many mustard seeds, but I cannot find a single house that has not known suffering.”

What kind of help would that be, one may well ask. Is Buddha simply saying, “Cheer up! Everyone suffers!” That could hardly be so or, if it were, it would not have lasted 2500 years as a religious story. What Buddha is saying is, “I can take away your suffering, but, if I do so, I will take away your humanity.” Life is like a tapestry of which the woof is experience and the weft is suffering.

Pain and suffering

We must make a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is physical; it has a physical basis. Suffering is our reaction to the truth of sickness, old age and death, and the uncertainty and vulnerability to which these expose us. When we are in pain we also suffer, and so we suffer twice. The first is the physical pain; the second is the pain “I hurt!” “It is me that hurts!” These two pains are as though a microphone were held up to a loud speaker. The feedback increases until the pain becomes intolerable. It is then that we cry out that the pain is too much and that we cannot support it.

The monk, when asking his question, is asking the question for us all, “How can we face our suffering?” What can we do about the pain of life, and about the suffering that the pain of life causes?”

How can we face suffering?

The first step is to realize that indeed life is suffering. Suffering is not a punishment; we do not suffer because of an accident; nor can we blame others for our suffering. Suffering is not good for us; nor can we find a use or meaning for suffering. We suffer because we are human.

After we have taken this step, we must see that our suffering is indeed a twofold suffering. The first pain, the physical pain we may not be able to relieve. It is the second pain that we must face, and it is most often this pain, the pain, “I hurt!” that makes it all unbearable. “I hurt!” is often accompanied by a complaint, “How much longer must I put up with this,” or “It is unfair!” “Or why me, why should I be the one who suffers.” It is the idea “It is ‘I’ that hurts!” that causes us to suffer.

The cause of our suffering

The former Pope once said that hell is not a place but separation from God.   Furthermore, according to the Church, we all share in Adam’s curse. Adam disobeyed God’s injunction “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat.” and was cast out of the Garden of Eden. But, one might ask, “How can you say then that suffering is not a punishment? Was not Adam punished for his disobedience?” In Buddhism no such drama is played out. Instead of an original sin, Buddhism has a fundamental klesa. A klesa causes pain to oneself and to others.   The fundamental klesa is ignorance. We ignore, or turn our back on, our true nature. However, we are not punished and made to suffer because we are ignorant. Ignorance is already suffering. Ignorance is already separation; separation from our true nature. Separation, as the Pope rightly says, is hell. Saying that God cursed Adam is a dramatic and concrete way of describing the suffering that comes from separation. But, Adam’s separation is already a curse.

But, why should we turn our back on our true nature?

Desire as the cause of suffering

The second basic truth of Buddhism is that desire causes suffering. But, this is not simply the desire for a new hat, or a new house or new job. It is the desire to exist. This no doubt will seem strange. Is it not natural to want to exist? Yes, of course, and that is why it is natural to suffer. The question is not so much whether it is natural to want to exist, but whether an alternative is possible. Biologically we are made to want to exist, to want to survive, but even so, a spiritual alternative may be possible.

Before going on to this alternative however, let us say that our desire to exist is not simply a desire to live this life. It is a desire to exist absolutely, a desire for immortality; it is a desire to exist forever. Furthermore, many religions promise that this desire can be fulfilled, and that we shall live forever in a heaven, although there are not too many details about what we shall do forever in heaven.

But, let us ask ourselves, when we desire to exist, what are we desiring?

Exist is to stand outside.

The word ‘exist’ was originally two words: ex and sistere. ‘ Ex’ means outside. For example ‘exit’ and ‘exodus’ both have this meaning of ‘out.’ Sistere is a Latin word which means ‘to stand.’ Exist therefore means ‘to stand outside.’ When we desire to exist we desire to stand outside. But, outside what? We want to stand outside ourselves.

This expression “stand outside” or, more simply, “stand out” has another meaning.   ‘To stand out,’ or to be ‘outstanding,’ means to excel, to be the best, to be the only one. It means also, to be known as the best, to be known as unique. To be outstanding gives an absolute quality to the desire to exist. We could say that all people wish to exist and, in having that wish, also wish to be outstanding. Indeed, not only people have this wish. Cats and dogs, horses and elephants, insects and fish, all have this wish to exist, to survive, and to stand out. One sees this in the territorial struggles that animals engage in. Even two beetles, if they meet, will fight, one trying to turn the other onto its back.

The desire to stand outside ourselves is what Buddhism calls ignorance. We ‘ignore’ our true nature. Another way of looking at all this is idolatry. Idolatry means to take a part and claim that it is the whole. Just like the Jews who worshiped the Golden Calf, we claim that ‘this’ particular form is the whole, is God. The word ‘idol’ comes from a Greek word eidos that means form. When we wish to exist we wish to continue forever in a form. The form could be a body, or a soul or personality, most often the form is given the name ‘I.’ When we wish to exist in a form, we turn our back on our true nature; we ignore our true nature because our true nature is beyond form. In turning our back in this way we commit the sin of separation and therefore suffer.

Why do we wish to exist? Most people would think this a very strange question. The answer seems so obvious that the question is unnecessary. I want to exist because all my pleasure and joy come from existence.   But do they? And in any case is this the real reason that we want to exist? If it is why do people commit suicide? And in any case what is the ‘true nature’ that we turn our back upon?

There are two conditions that seem the same but that are quite different: not wanting to die, and being afraid of death. One does not want to die. Life is wonderful. It is full of surprises, pleasures, joys. It is true that life is suffering, but the joy of life is worth the price of suffering.

But, then there is the fear of death. What is the fear of death?

The fear of death is the fear of annihilation, the fear that ‘I’ will become nothing. But what will be annihilated? If you were sure that although your body will be annihilated ‘you’ will not die, would you be so concerned about death? The fear of death is not the fear of the loss of the body, but the fear of the loss of ‘I.’ However, what is so strange is that each night we willingly surrender this ‘I’ to oblivion. Of course, we do so because we have the faith that in the morning we shall be able again to rediscover ‘I.’ Even so, we surrender this ‘I,’ and very willingly. If we can so readily surrender ‘I’ to oblivion, is the ‘I’ after all so important? Is there not a paradox here? What we so readily put aside each night, we yet prize so much that we can fall into a panic at the mere thought of its loss.

The paradox becomes more obvious when we realize that many people commit suicide when the integrity of ‘I’ is threatened. They kill ‘I’ to protect ‘I.’ During the slump of 1929 many people killed themselves because they lost a fortune and could not bear to live without the money. Many warriors would rather commit suicide than lose their honour. But, what is honour if it is not the integrity of ‘I.’

Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Is not this grain, which must die, the ‘I’ of which I am now writing? Is not this life that we must give up for Christ’s sake, the life of ‘I?’

What we fear most… that we must do. We love this ‘I’ so much that most of our life is spent protecting, maintaining, affirming, nourishing, it. We invest it in a cause, a flag, an ideology, a country, possessions, or another person and, when we do so then that cause, flag, ideology, country becomes precious. It too becomes unique, distinct, separate, and superior. The power that comes from this investment can be seen in the fact that in 1962 we came close to destroying the planet to protect the investment of ‘I’ in ‘democracy’ on the one hand and in ‘communism’ on the other.

Who am I?

So again, why do we want to exist, or rather why are we so afraid to die?   The answer lies somewhere in the question who, or what, is “I?” Many religions use this question as a basis for spiritual practice. Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, the Upanishads have recommended it.   The last Pope in an encyclical said this question was a question that all Christians should ask themselves.   In Zen Buddhism the question is posed as a koan: “What was your face before your parents were born?”

If we investigate “I” closely we see that it is not a simple entity. On the contrary it is very complex. A Zen nun said, “I cannot pull up the weed because if I do so I will pull up the flower.” An idol is not simply a form. It is the form of God. I must know God to create an idol. ‘I’ is the idol of the Westerner. But we cannot simply pull up this weed. If we do so we shall pull up the flower. This is so because a form is ‘something.’ Modern idolatry is “I am something.” I am something is false. It is like a weed. But we cannot pull it up because we shall destroy the flower.   The flower is ‘I am.’ I am is not something: it only becomes something after I have invested it in a form. I am is knowing, and knowing is without beginning or end. Knowing is not dependent upon the body, although the forms of knowledge are.

The koan.

We said that we wanted to know the state of mind of the monk when he asked his question, “How can I avoid the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold?” How can I avoid the suffering of life? Now we see the ‘I’ that wants to be free from the suffering is the ‘I’ that causes the suffering. The monk’s mind state is confusion, pain, and darkness.   He searches to avoid suffering by searching to protect ‘I.’ And by protecting ‘I’ he protects the cause of his suffering. The only true resolution, as Christ has said, is that the ‘I’ should die. It is like having a thorn in your foot; you do not protect the thorn. But, as a Zen nun declared, “I cannot pull out the weed. If I do so, I will pull out the flower.” It is not simply a question of killing ‘I.’ Many spiritual disciplines, through asceticism, advocate killing the ‘I.’ The result is either a spiritual zombie or someone who is more proud and conceited than before.

The question. “How must I face suffering?” is put as a koan because the answer is not obvious. Since the time of Descartes we have come to believe that every question can be clear and distinct and the answer to the question must be equally clear and distinct. But, questions of life and death are neither clear nor distinct; flowers and weeds mingle. Such questions begin where science ends. To resolve a koan one must go beyond logic, beyond the clarity of yes and no. One must return through “I am” to true nature.

The master says, “Go to the place where summer is not hot, and winter is not cold.” You must go upstream of suffering, upstream of dualism. The ‘I’ which is opposed to ‘you,’ to ‘the world,’ to ‘God,’ to the body, indeed opposed to all, must be surrendered. Instead of duality, Unity reigns. But, where can we find a place where summer is not hot and winter is not cold?

As we said at the beginning, to answer this question we must enter the mind-state of the master. What is that mind-state? An answer can only come through much meditation and prayer. But let us first see whether clues exist to lead us in the right direction in the work that we must do. Someone asked a master, “What is your teaching?” The master replied, “Vast emptiness and not a thing that can be called holy.”   We must go beyond all things, all forms and idols, beyond the very idea of ‘I.’ This does not mean that we enter a blank world, a world of nothing or of annihilation. It is a world beyond separation and division. Another master said; “The gurgle of the stream and the sigh of the wind are the voices of the master. The green of the pine and the white of the snow are the colors of the master, the one who lifts the hands, moves the legs, sees hears.”

Yet another master said:

The moon is still the same old moon
The flowers are not different
But now I see
That I am the thingness of things.

It is with these clues in mind that we have to meditate on the state of mind of the master. I am not something; all somethings must die. All forms are dependent upon all other forms. All forms moreover, come into being, persist and then go out of being. They are born, exist and die. It is like a collection of puddles. They all come into being with the rain. They stay a while and then dry up. Each in its own way reflects the moon, the whole moon. But when they dry up the moon is unchanged, unaffected.

But the monk asks, “Where is it that summer that is not hot or winter that is not cold?” The master replies, “When it is hot, sweat; when it is cold, shiver.” Do we have any alternative but to sweat when it is hot, shiver when it is cold?” Yes, we can complain about it; we can protest, resist. In short we can suffer.

If you knew how to suffer

In the Apocrypha, the collection of scriptures that were rejected by the Council of Nicea that decreed on what were and what were not authentic Christian scriptures, is a Hymn of Jesus. In that hymn the following lines appear, “If you knew how to suffer, you would have the power not to suffer.” The master is not saying we should accept suffering. We only accept what we cannot reject. What the master is saying is ‘know how to suffer.’ We do not know how to suffer. We suffer unconsciously, mechanically. It is a knee-jerk response. To know how to suffer is to suffer intentionally. To suffer intentionally is to be one with the suffering, not to separate from it. By separating we suffer. Through separation ‘I’ is born, and when ‘I’ is born the world of the ten thousand things are born in its wake. Vast emptiness is shattered, and suffering becomes our lot. Our struggle to avoid suffering creates suffering.

Our true nature is One, whole, perfect. In Zen its symbol is the full moon. Love and gratitude is its expression. When we turn our back on our true nature, we suffer the torments of the exile, and we wander through heat and cold, looking here and there to find our home again. We lose touch with ourselves and love and gratitude dry up.   Love becomes liking and not liking, wanting and not wanting. Gratitude is lost in a confusion of rights and expectations, demands and needs. The world becomes sterile and dead: a wasteland. We long for the living water, we long to be redeemed from the fires of hell. “How,” we cry, “can we be free of the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold?”

But, as the poet T..S..Eliot says,

The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre,
To be redeeme’d from fire by fire.

If you knew how to suffer, you would have the power not to suffer.

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1 Response to If you knew how to suffer

  1. Macleod says:

    Really enjoy your use of the biblical tradition to explain concepts. Easier to grasp culturally and to relate to. Zen seems to encompass all traditions. Refreshing to those brought up in more rigid traditions.

    What would Zen say about the experience/worship of the more personal transcendent (godhead). Where would that experience spoken of by, say, St. Ignatius or Sai Babba, fall into in the Zen tradition? Is it that it remains somewhat silent on the subject because it sees that it is just complicating things on the conditioned level – and obscuring the more ultimate reality/unity?

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