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Suffering

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.

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