Suffering: Zen and the Four Noble Truths
- By Chuan Zhi
- Aug 10
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Suffering is integral to the Zen path. It is, in fact, a prerequisite. Zen is not an easy path and we must be highly motivated in order to travel it. In physics as in Zen, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. No human being wants to suffer. All desire an end to pain. It is suffering and its end that supplies a person with the necessary impetus to get onto the path. And it is the memory of the suffering along with the desire to avoid creating more suffering that keeps a person on the path…until, of course, he receives the great reward, the enlightened peace and joy, the opposite counterpart of anguish and pain.
Some years ago I visited a Zen center and got into a discussion with a student about the necessity for suffering. He didn't see that there was a need for it. "I'm happy," he said, "and I've been into Zen for a very long time." I could see that he was young and that what he called a very long time was not a very long time by most standards. "Well," I said, trying not to sound discouraging, "you can be involved with Zen all you want but you won't really need it until you need relief from suffering."
Suffering is integral to the Zen path. It is, in fact, a prerequisite. Zen is not an easy path and we must be highly motivated in order to travel it. In physics as in Zen, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. No human being wants to suffer. We all desire an end to pain. It is suffering and its end that supplies us with the necessary impetus to get onto the path. And it's the memory of the suffering along with the desire to avoid creating more suffering that keeps a person on the path; until, of course, he receives the great reward, the enlightened peace and joy, the opposite, counterpart, of anguish and pain.
Buddhism begins with suffering. The Four Noble Truths are not footnotes in the archives of Buddhist literature: they are at the very heart of Buddhist thought and practice. We turn to religion, to a spiritual path, because we need to be free of pain. The First Truth acknowledges that we are not alone in our cause: to live in the phenomenal world is to suffer. The Second Truth tells us that it is all our desires -- our ego gratifications -- that cause us so much anguish. And the Third Truth reassures us: there is a solution to our problem.
But the young man with whom I argued that day did not agree with this. He insisted that the word "dukkha" had been improperly translated as suffering. Dukkha merely meant "discontented" or "uncomfortable" and that, he said, was a far cry from suffering.
"Discontent with your social life can bring you to a sangha," I said. "The discomfort of not having a moral guide can bring you to the precepts and scriptures. We can join religious groups and then enter a kind of moral competition with other members. We can do good deeds, better deeds, or even the best of deeds. But Zen is deeper than study or fellowship or philanthropy. Zen is salvation from suffering." But I didn't convince him.
Several years later he called me and I agreed to speak with him again. He was a changed man. He had discovered suffering. Shortly after we spoke the first time, he met a girl and got married. To accommodate her, he had changed his religion to hers. After they had a baby -- a little girl -- his wife suffered post-partum depression. She was unable to care for the baby adequately and she blamed him for everything. He needed to spend more time with her and his daughter than his employment allowed. As a result, he lost his job. His wife, strongly medicated, sought a divorce. He sought consolation from bars and barroom friends. "You cannot imagine the pain I'm in," he told me, openly crying. "I don't know what to do. Whatever I do seems to be the wrong thing. I keep wondering what I did that got me into this trouble. Can it be bad karma? Is all this because I left Zen?"
I told him that since he had never really suffered before, he had not really ever done Zen. "You can't leave what you're not inside of," I said. But he was now ready to enter Zen. He had suffered. His pride was gone. He looked to himself for the source of his problems. He looked to himself to blame and this last was very important. It is our desires that cause us pain, not the desires of other people. I told him that he should put first things first. "Don't sit passively watching your breath. Do the Healing Breath and do it with everything you've got. Sit down and examine your daily routine. Consider your habits and the things you do to try to alleviate your problems. They are part of the problem. If you smoke or drink, cry or complain to your relatives or friends, stop doing it. Become solitary. Exercise. Get yourself on a strict vegetarian diet. Focus on your health, your calmness, and your self-control. You can be of no use to anyone while you are strung-out." I told him to get another job, any honest labor, and to put himself on a tight budget. "Pare down your desires to the minimum."
He looked at me strangely. He had never heard the Zen path described like this before. "Let's see if I've got this right," he said. "You want me to stop smoking, stop drinking, stop eating fast food, stop talking to my family and friends, and to take any job I can get as long at it's legitimate." He looked at me quizzically. "And that's Zen?"
"That's life," I said. "Life according to the Eightfold Path which is the Fourth Noble Truth. Life means Life and that means it is opposed to death. If you want to live in the Spirit, first you have to survive. Zen requires that we re-invent ourselves.
I reminded him of Aesop's fable, The Hound and the Hare. Once, when a hungry hound chased a rabbit and the rabbit got away, the hound's friends laughed at him. 'Why was that rabbit able to outdistance you?' they asked. The hound replied: 'I was only running for my supper, but the rabbit was running for his life.' To begin Zen we have to be running for our life."
Of course, the rabbit's course of action is easy compared to ours. All it has to do is run fast in whatever direction is away from the single hound. It knows the hound is its death. But our course is not as obvious. When our life falls apart, we often don't know what direction to turn, especially when we're feeling the panic of needing to escape. If it were only a "one hound desire" that was chasing us, it would be a simple matter. But our desires are like many hounds that approach us from many different directions.
It is easy to sit on a cushion and dispel thoughts. It's not so easy to quit smoking, or to quit envying someone who has a better paying job, to sit by ourselves and eat vegetables and cottage cheese while our friends down hamburgers and fries, to drink soda instead of beer, to stop lusting after our brother's wife: to say No! Stop!. Hardest of all is to become honest, especially to cease lying to ourselves.
If we look at our lives objectively, we can trace our problems back to basic violations of the Precepts. When we correct these problems, one by one, we gain control of ourselves and then we can begin to transform our lives and to strive for enlightenment. This is the true Zen quest. Beginning this quest requires brutal honesty, an honesty of equal and opposite force to the lies we tell ourselves in samsara. "Suffering", Jean Charles Sismondi said, "is the surest means of making us truthful to ourselves." And truthfulness to self is the essential starting point for transformation.