by Zen Master D. Genpo Merzel

For much of my 40 years of Zen practice I was beyond most of the pain of this realm of suffering and loneliness. In the early days of practice I would alleviate suffering by asking myself, “who is the one suffering?” and since there was no one there, the suffering would cease. Instead of feeling the pain of loneliness, which so many people experience on a daily basis, I would go into absolute samadhi, which is to experience “I alone am, one, there’s no self separate and apart from the world, no self there to feel lonely.”

Now I feel like I can relate at a much deeper level to the suffering of all beings. What I’ve realized more clearly than ever before is what I’ve known for decades, but had not yet experienced to this depth, that the world’s suffering is really my suffering, and my suffering is the suffering of all beings. This deepening of awareness and vulnerability seems to happen, to me at least, whenever there is a fall, where the ego is flattened.

Shakyamuni Buddha’s first noble truth was that life is dukkha, or suffering. We’re stuck and we suffer. The second truth is that there’s a cause of suffering, which is our attachments, that we are stuck. The third noble truth is that of alleviating or transcending suffering, of going beyond it. The fourth noble truth, of course, is the Eightfold Path. There are three ways to appreciate these four noble truths : the Hinayanistic, or more literal way, the Buddhayana, (the one-mind vehicle), and the Mahayana (great vehicle), which I call the apex of the triangle. Then there is the Vajrayana way, which to me is the whole triangle rotating or revolving freely. That could be interpreted to mean that Vajrayana is superior, but it really means that all ways are equally important.

For example, in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path there’s the precept of Right Understanding, or Right View. The literal way of understanding this Right View says there’s a right view and a wrong view. The right view will lead us to alleviation of suffering, and the right view is that all attachments, desires and so forth lead to suffering. So the right thing to do is to distance ourselves from our attachments so that we can witness and be mindful of them (through mindfulness practice) and let them go. The more we become identified with witnessing rather than with the self, the more empty and distant we are from attachments, the more we attain freedom from suffering. From that perspective, however, it is very hard to relate to others on a genuinely intimate personal level. Taken to the extreme, you can live only in a monastery or by yourself, deep in the mountains or maybe out in the desert.

From the Buddhayana standpoint there’s no suffering, no one suffering, and no attachment to begin with, because there’s no separation between self and others. There is no suffering because there’s nothing that suffers. There’s no one to kill and no one to be killed and so forth. From the apex, the Mahayana, we hold both perspectives, the literal, Hinayanistic, being mindful and not attached, and the Buddhayana that there’s no one suffering. At this apex we embrace and transcend these two, we’re not attached to either one. We act according to the situation. For instance, I’m definitely attached to my children, my family, my students, my friends, my dog and my possessions, and so I am going to suffer. I understand that and I accept it. As long as there is attachment to something or someone I love, I’ll suffer, and I choose that. I actually choose to suffer.

So from the apex, what I call the Mahayana perspective, it’s about what’s appropriate in any given moment. Is it appropriate to be attached or not attached? Right understanding then is that there is no right understanding. There is no particular view that is right; every view is dependent on the situation and the circumstance, your position, time, place, and amount or degree. What you feel is appropriate may not look appropriate to anyone else, but you take responsibility for it. You say this is what is right for you at this moment, with the awareness that even an action that seems good can have negative consequences, which can in turn lead to positive ones. But in that moment you take full responsibility, and you are accountable for your actions, because you say “given my position, this is the best choice.” It doesn’t have to follow any standards or codes, it comes from your own wisdom, understanding and compassion.

When you rotate these three perspectives, what I call Vajrayana, you see that none of them is lower or higher than the others. They all have their place, each one is appropriate at certain times, and none is the one right way. In my opinion, Vajrayana simply means that you’re going with the conditions, the energy and the flow, that there is no fixed place and no fixed hierarchy. Sometimes Hinayana is referred to (by Mahayanists) as the lesser vehicle, Mahayana as the greater vehicle, Buddhayana as the supreme vehicle, and Vajrayana (the Diamond) as beyond all vehicles. In fact, they are all equally valuable and important. Each one is appropriate for its own situation, and there is no standard by which one can be judged greater than another. Whether we count them as three yanas or four, in truth there is only one yana, the vehicle of your life.

30 thoughts on “Suffering”

  1. Dear Genpo…I was greatly disappointed in you briefly, but since you took responsibility for what you did I saw you for the first time as only human and your willingness to suffer I admire. So many teachers have done the same things you did and didn’t ever take responsibility, do the right things, and were never willing to suffer. I can relate to you more now, and admire you more than before your fall from grace. I like your reigned in ego and admire you, you are only human and all humans make mistakes. I’m no different, its just that when I mistakes it isn’t published everywhere so I don’t suffer as much. I do take responsibility though and try to be a better person, and realize mistakes keep my ego in check…Love…Karen

  2. I think I am right with you. Enjoyed the perspective on Vajrayana… And, it seems to me that the whole thing must be well mixed with Great Doubt. Or whatever we want to call the bitter medicine that stops our tendency to use relativism to justify our fulfilling our needs, or our reactivity. Obviously responses arising from the emptiness-in-the-moment, from no-separation, have the quality of being context dependent from a certain perspective. Far too many misunderstand this transcendent relativism as opening the door to any behavior. Thus the need to respect the “right view”.

    And part of the moment is the fundamental knowing that we cannot know (“…even the Buddhas do not know it…”) and we are therefore absolutely humble.

    • I enjoyed Vajrayana definition by Genpo. My comment is at the top of the thread right now. I liked what you added about “the bitter medicine” and the so misunderstand trascendent relativism.
      I don’t know what happened regards Genpo and his group. However, I sense that disciples may find a bit disturbing to see the human side of a teacher. It happened to me with mine.
      10 years took me to accept that my teacher was as human as me and that he could also make mistakes. Lately I realized how things that helped me could have hurt other people deeper than I have never thought.
      Today, after some controversial facts around my teacher and his group, I cannot measure the humbleness of him. Since I left him 10 years ago and I don’t know his context. But I made use of his advise of being humble and never thought I arrived somewhere. When I fell in pride the life took care of me and put me back on track again.
      Still, as you quoted: “…even the Buddhas do not know it…”

  3. I just want to acknowledge how much I appreciate Genpo’s words…he is showing his humanity and his suffering in such an honest way that has helped me to become more humble and forgiving not only of myself but of others…Thank you sharing with us not only you vulnerability but your resilience and spiritual wisdom!

  4. To suffer is glorious… Zen Master George Orwell, as found in the Animal Farm Sutra.

    As usual, I’m confused :>) You seem to be saying that for most of your time in Zen, you practiced Buddhism, let go of your attachements, and allieviated your suffering. But now you are practicing anti-Buddhism, purposely choosing to increase your attachments, causing you to experience a “deeper level” of suffering. Frankly, if the result of practice and right view is to increase my level of suffering, I can do very well without it. What became of the Third Noble Truth?

    If you are really a fan of Vajrayana, consider the teaching of the Dzogchen school. My guess is you were not really transcending your suffering, you were using meditative methods to hide from it. The Dzogchen teaching is to directly experience your suffering, neither attaching to it, nor hiding from it. Looking straight into the heart of your suffering, while staying grounded in Big Mind, allows you to go thru the suffering and come out the other side, free of it.

    By the way, I give thanks every day for your teaching of Big Mind !

    • consider what GR has attained,& taught,re the 5th level of Tozan,eg,the One who decides to be a human being,which involves inevitable physical & emotional suffering,but has moved beyond the silly,un-neccesary,neurotic suffering,born of programming & the animal drives:a totally integrated,fully functioning,human being

  5. “So the right thing to do is to distance ourselves from our attachments … (through mindfulness practice) and let them go. The more we become identified with witnessing rather than with the self, the more empty and distant we are from attachments, the more we attain freedom from suffering”
    That is a very precarious proposition, because if one theoretically accepts the above because one has heard it asserted by someone or some authority,then one thinks “I must be mindful of my attachments because that is the right thing to do.” I’ve done that, where I didn’t really understand the truth of attachment and created an escape, a pattern that I followed and practiced hoping to transcend my attachments and attain freedom from suffering.That is just more attachment. What G.R. said after that makes a lot more sense. I honestly see that I am attached, merely that rather than identifying with witnessing which reinforces one’s identity. One doesn’t choose to be attached or not when it is appropriate. There is no choice. One does what one has to do.
    What the world needs may not be more Buddhists practicing to be free from attachment, but sane, responsive, responsible adults who can don’t act from the self-centered arena or the rational of choices but from a place divorced from what one thinks one knows or believes.
    Thank you Genpo for your inspiring words. The more I hear you speaking in plain English, the more it seems to be a discourse of great value. It is greatly appreciated.
    Thanks again,

    • What are sane, responsive and responsible adults? And why does the world NEED these?
      How can one (in our human form) ACT ‘from a place DIVORCED from what one thinks one knows or believes?’.What is that?
      And does the world NEED ‘sane, responsive and responsible children too?

      Thank you for stretching my mind!!

  6. I am very grateful to be able to receive more of Dennis Genpo Merzels wisdom. Speaking to us from your present situation, it is even more helpful and even deeper and even more of a great teaching than ever before. Thank you so much for sharing with us your present experiences. It´s extremely valuable.

  7. I really appreciate this article. I remeber finding a note on the alter in front of where I sit everyday that said; “Everyones heart bleeds but your yours.” I didn’t seem human, was imposible to communicate with and seemed to have left everyone and everything behind. I didn’t feel like I had abandoned anyone or anything but people in my felt abandoned. The fact that I did not get exited or disturbed about anything was disturbing to them.

  8. One time while doing big mind, I had the realization that one can have attachments and choose to suffer, not because one is attached to things but because one wants to be fully engaged in life. Putting this realization into words sounds illogical… but this post nails it! thanks!

  9. I found Genpo’s article about suffering disappointing.Given the extent to which the White Plum Sangha, and many of it’s members, have been damaged by his actions I would have hoped for a more personal and less philosophical conversation about suffering. I would like to know how has Genpo suffered.I would also like to know does he have an understanding of the suffering he has caused others? And most importantly, does he intend to make amends for that suffering?
    Offering a discussion of suffering in the context of the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path is,to me,the same as using samadhi as a way to dissociate from the actual experience of suffering.
    Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts on this issue.

  10. Most agree that ego is the stumbling block to one’s spiritual progress. Yet few are truly able to eliminate ego entirely. Ego manifests itself as emotions, greed, attachments and all the negative desires. These are in fact necessary for survival. A person bereft of ego may find it expedient to return to the astral world earlier than necessary. That will deplete his contribution to the physical world.

    Mr. Kotama Okada, the founder of Sukyo Mahikari (universal Laws / True Light
    ), teaches that the best way to eliminate ego is to become thoroughly absorbed and dedicated in doing things for the sake of God and others, such as giving Light to others. In other words, try not to put the self into the equation in whatever we do. The more one strives to devote oneself for God and others, the easier it is to get rid of one’s ego. They are mutually exclusive. In due course, one would have achieved egolessness without even attempting.

  11. I believe that the saying that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional” is true. I have lost my wife and father in recent years and I had to rebuild my life with great difficulty, but without suffering. If my house burns down there is the pain of rebuilding of filing claims arguing with the insurance company etc. Such pain is an inevitable part of life. To say that we choose suffering when we enter into a relationship means that we are inviting suffering into our lives. But bad things will happen no matter how we live our lives. There is no need to suffer.

  12. Everything in this life, pain, pleasure, sadness, joy, love and even hate and on and on are a part of this creation. Sometimes one or more of these emotions can be more pronounced than others or maybe not expressed at all and they are constantly changing. To me the key is not to eliminate the emotion but to instead be able to view the dance from that calm place inside of me where I know that all is one and all is well.

  13. You may appreciate a current, very beautiful film by Terrence Malick called “The Tree of Life” about the suffering and reconciliation of a family when one of the children dies.



  14. about suffering: in the area where I grew up (near Uithuizen), there’s a saying: you have to accept pain, but you don’t have to accept misery.

    I have caused a lot of misery on myself because I stay too long in a situation (work, relation, the neighborhood) that has had it’s time. Looking around me,I see that many people have the same trouble. As an outsider I can see easily when someone has to move on, As an insider, in my own situation, there’s no distance. The situation has been changed unnotices, because i’m in it all the time. like a child is growing. All of a sudden, you see that the shoes don’t fit anymore, the trousers are too tight and the bed is too small.
    In case of the changing size of the child, you take the right action, you go to the shop and buy new stuff. But in case of a changed situation, you don’t.You start to wish and wait and work hard (including lots of mental work: sleepless nights) to get it back to how it was. Then at last, when you are fed up with suffering, (and in many cases, caused a lot of suffering to others who are involved in the situation}, then you take the decision to take your life back in your own hand and the change takes place.

    The one thing that prevents me and others from right action is fear. How can you decide properly when your body is continuous pumped up with adrenaline and alarmbells in your head are yelling: watch out!
    What you need at that moment is distance, but you get fear.
    Thank you, almighty Nature for this present.

    When there is an opening experience, the one thing that’s absent, is fear, there’s no bravery either. Just a deep relaxation that spreads out into the whole of the universe, an unlimited amount of energy that I have never felt before, and a complete clear, loving mind.
    How I long for that when I’m in a unhappy situation. But presents come by surprise and certenly not by demand.
    So, there I am stuck whith a trembling body and chaotic thoughts. The one thing that brings some relief, is meditating,
    but strangly enough, it’s hard to get on my cushion because something in me rejects it.
    I see and do and think completely upside down. The brain has changed in the opposite mode, I remember my right vieuw but the brain overrules it with its upside-down setting.

    I feel compassion for my fellow-humans who suffer from this in-built mechanism.I’m sure that people who have studied sociology can explain all, but that does not take away that me and my fellow situation-members have a rotten time.

    I found out that Buddhism does’n lead to eternal happiness, but at least it makes me smile more.

    • Thank you for this reply to Genpo post. I can identify with what you say And your comments on pain and misery and comparing a stuck situation with a growing child gave me two ah ha moments.

  15. Dear Genpo –
    Your transformation is awesome — and humbling — to watch.
    For me, your new found vulnerability has made your facilitation of Big Mind even more powerful. That’s my experience of it/you.
    This being human is pretty good stuff. Guess that’s why we took birth. This is a precious human life indeed. Suffering comes along for the ride.

    • It is good to have the sense of a heart beat and of moving forward.
      The changes in the Kanzeon Sangha are like the fire to the steel. The heat that has the capability of shaping the sword.
      For me, all life experiences are give me the opportunity to choose. On the one hand are my old patterns, my judgments, my tendency toward anger,my disappointment in unfortunate events that in occur in my life. And on the other, there is all that I have learned, embraced, and lived in the Dharma.
      The gift of the Dharma: When face to face with those life rocking events I know… I get to choose.

  16. Dear Dennis,

    Reading these two pieces of prowse from Genpo Roshi or now, you, Dennis Merzel has thrown me into a bit of a quandary about even placing this post. I, in truth, suppose that I can’t ever really know what state of consciousness these pieces were ‘really’ written from. So, my immediate response is … Isn’t it very interesting each persons very different response reflecting their own state of mind and being (and I have my own) as I suppose none of can really know what you are experiencing even if you’ve put it into words (and the intent behind the words and whether this is just the next illusion coming from your current state of mind … It’s that thing I never understood you said that enlightenment is delusion, delusion is enlightenment, that the next more true ‘truth’ always makes the past truth seem like a delusion!) as best you can and also, for me the question, having read this, is how is this going to affect how I live, more responsibly, more compassionately, less judgementally … What does it tell me about me and how I relate to others in this world. For me, and from how you describe it, your current worldview and experience seems to have connected to you to others in ways that are enriching your experience of being human. My brief personal experiences of you were enriching to me and my life experience, so thank you, and I wish you well.


  17. Thank you Dennis, for these timely words on suffering and right view.
    Paragraph 6 helped myself and my husband make a difficult decision by basing it on the circumstances of the present moment.
    My husband particularly responds to the words in your book Big Mind.

    Warm wishes Rose.

  18. For me, as for some others who have commented, pain is a given, and suffering is an option.

    If I identify with pain and call it “mine” or if I get stuck seeing you as a victim, for instance, then I suffer – no doubt about it. But if I stay present to each moment and feel the feelings fully on the in breath and let them go on the out breath, I don’t find suffering: I find renewal and life in each cycle. Pain may appear in the next moment and the next and the next, but I find each cycle is new and different, alive, rhythmic and harmonious rather than being the continuous, prolonged, monotonous, deadening misery that it appears to be when I hold on or resist. I find that even compassion becomes suffering when I don’t allow it to arise and die in each new cycle. For instance, if I assume a static position of compassion, which is what happens when I “do” instead of “live” – then I experience it as stuckness, overwhelm, and misery, and I don’t want be there. But when I let it be fresh in each moment, I do not suffer.

    When my daughter was killed in an accident, the pain I felt was greater than any I had ever imagined, and it was more incessant than I thought I could bear. It took me awhile to catch my rhythm, yet as I learned to stay present, fully engaged, open and responsive to whatever thoughts/feelings/sensations arose in each moment ( = breath cycle) neither resisting nor clinging – I found that what I experienced was aliveness + underlying peace and love.

    When I got tired and needed a break, I prayed the most powerful of prayers, the one word prayer – “Help!” – and I invariably found myself resting in peace. That prayer was, for me, the prayer of surrender, and I came to know it as the gateway to the absolute. There is no suffering there either.

    Also, in my experience pain and pleasure become one at what I call “bittersweetness” where my mind and heart open wider and wider and wider still to the the point that opening even wider feels like being ripped asunder and annihilated … and at that point – what is, is exquisite. It is such a mingling of pain and pleasure as to make them inseparable and orgasmic. I wish I had better words to express this because I often hear folks talk about pleasure and pain as though they are opposites, but I find that when my heart opens in love unlimited to meet the feelings that arise from separation, then love brings the pleasure and separation brings the yearning/pain and they become one at a point I refer to as “bittersweetness.” To me, that is what it feels like to sit at the apex with a continuously opening heart and mind anchoring and reanchoring in both love/unity and pain/separation. Another way to say it is that pain and pleasure are like two sides of a sock. The point where the sock is opened so much that the inside becomes the outside and vice versa is like love meeting separation or pain meeting pleasure and knowing there is one.

    Thank you, Genpo and all of you. Your comments give me new windows into my world.

  19. Being an Adult-Asperger’s-Syndrome person (Aspie) I lack a “typical” degree of empathy, and do not experience deep levels of emotion. And while I have not experienced an epiphany in my spiritual life, I certainly subscribe to concept of compassion for the suffering of others. I don’t experience much suffering myself for the above reasons, but I do feel sorry for the mess many people in our over-indulgent western society get their lives in to – the obese, smokers, sex/alcohol/drug addicts, debt-bingers, and so on.

    I wonder what effect I can have on all this suffering. And conclude that I can only follow the old adage to “think globally and act locally”. I can’t save the world, but I can do what is within my resources, to relieve the suffering of those I encounter in my journey through life.

  20. Dear Genpo…

    I can feel the deep truth beneath your words.I find it extremely helpful in the life- situation I am presently in.
    And yet…isn´t it just a mental concept to regain superiority and control over what is happening?
    I feel that there is a even deeper truth beyond understanding that touches us by letting go any control.

  21. Genpo I’m touched by your words deeply. I guess that your thoughts are the expressions of your experience. I recognize myself in your conclusions though my experiences have been different.
    No matter the path you choose, experiences will lead you to the same certain points in the life of one seeking for the light.
    Love your definition of Vajrayana,there’s an image in Kabbalah which talks of God as the everywhere center. Reminded me of that.
    Thanks a lot for your honesty, it’s not very much seen in teachers of your height.

  22. What an interesting blog. Using Samadi as pain relief. a wise Physician once told me to stop taking so much aspirin for my back pain. I asked him why. He said, “it’s fine to take medication but by taking medication you can also mask the underlying problem”. “You must treat the underlying problem then the pain will go away of it’s own accord.” Life is suffering as you say. It is that suffering that can help us go in a different direction, take our hand from a hot surface, heal, wake us up and generally give us a wonderful reality check. thanks for the excellent reminder. 🙂

  23. It is the start of Spring where I live. The end of the cold and the dark and the beginning for many living things. Winter for me is a time where I become depressed. Lack of light, lack of the need for connection with others, who knows? Genpo, I thank you for the gift of sharing your thoughts about suffering. Like you I choose to be attached to certain living things and like you, I know suffering will be part of that attachment. I see that suffering as honouring how deep my feelings go for what/who I am attached to. My Father died 3 months ago…my suffering was and is great. As great as my love for him. My dog is 12 now and being a dog, his years will not match mine. Knowing this, means I know I will suffer the lack of his gentle presence some time in the future. What it also means is that each moment is all the more special and each moment is another opportunity to share life with him. Your article on suffering has helped me accept that attachment = suffering more than anything else I have read. It also says to me that suffering is not a bad thing, it is only suffering and will pass.


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