It doesn't take a rocket scientist to come to the conclusion the we don't like what we don't like, and we like what we like. We don't like it when things don't change as quickly as we'd like them to, and when we want them to stay as they are, we get upset when they don't stay that way. Someone who first looks at the Buddha’s teaching and sees these as examples of the First Noble Truth might have the reaction of, “Well, obviously. Everybody knows that. I thought this Buddha guy was supposed to be smart or something.” Of course, if the Buddha's Teaching of the Dharma stopped there, I'd have to agree. Fortunately, they don't. If you don’t know there’s a way out, that’s one thing. But if you do know the teachings can help, that's another. It’s not like clinging even to suffering is unheard of. But it doesn't really stop there.
Looking deeply into the causes of our tendency to be dissatisfied and struggle, is where the teachings take off. It's not just that we don't like what we don't like, so much as the amount of stubborn struggling we do because of it, because of how attached we are to what it is that we like.
A person who doesn't like that they don't like, and then doesn’t like the fact that they don’t like it the most may be a Buddhist. We think we should know better. We know all about impermanence, no-self, and struggle. So we should just be able to accept what comes along, and when we can't, we’re Bad Buddhists. We beat ourselves back to the cushion.
With a certain amount of practice, maybe we've come across a number of situations where we've been able to apply the teachings. Flat tire? No problem, it was impermanent anyway. Maybe after having led a self-centered life, we do something selfless, and then we realize that those Immeasurables really do mean that, I'm really not different from you, self-less. And sometimes, life is just miserable. Intellectually we know why it's miserable, and that the misery is as impermanent as everything else. Sometimes we forget that when misery changes, it won't necessarily turn for the better. Intellect does nothing to ameliorate the misery. And sometimes life is great. “Misery” and “great” are just things that appear from between our ears.
What got Gautama to leave home when he and his driver went for their jaunts around town? The sight of an aging man, a sickly one, and a corpse en route to the pyre. When you haven't seen them before, it really packs a punch. They provided the impetus to figure out the aversion Gautama felt at seeing them, and the suffering that the outsiders felt when involved in old age, sickness, and death.
My discovery of these was much more gradual. My parents fought like cats and bigger cats, so I never really thought that life was, or even should be, struggle free. My grandparents were ancient--but probably no older than I am now. Mrs O’Donnell next door had been in a wheelchair for as long as I could remember. And a kid in my first grade class died of leukemia, not that I knew what that was any more than I knew what death was, other than he wouldn't be coming back to school. I still remember it now, so it left an impression.
But, the Buddha was right: old age, sickness, and death do indeed bring about suffering if we let them. And there’s nothing like some or all of them happening to a loved one to prove it. Over the course of a few decades, I've certainly seen people age, myself included. When I was young, I couldn't wait for change to come: to be an adolescent, then to be in college, then to be working. (As it turned out, “misery” of being in college has not been replaced by some glorious stint in the working class).The next manifestation of change may or may not be to my liking. Bearing that in mind, I appreciate right here, right now, because I have no clue as to what causes and conditions will rear their ugly or beautiful heads and bring what's next. “How could it be another way,” I'll sometimes say to myself. And sometimes, I even believe it. And then sometimes I have to confront the fear of losing someone close, and then “another way” looks mighty appealing.
The prominent monk Xuanjue went to see the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, Huineng. He entered the hall, and the story goes that he circumambulated Huineng three times, hit his staff on the floor, and then didn't bow. The Patriarch scolded Xuanjue for his being impertinent, and asked why he was so arrogant. Xuanjue said, “The great question of life and death is a momentous one. Death may come at any moment, I have no time to waste on ceremony.”
The Patriarch said, “Once you attain the substance of ‘no birth’, then the problem of death and its coming will not concern you anymore.”
Xuanjue replied, “Since substance has no birth, the basic problem of death and when it comes is solved.”
We don’t know what came next for Xuanjue, so how well this came to be integrated into his whole being is just conjecture. But the point is well taken--do we really have enough time to worry and procrastinate?
The problem lies not in birth, old age, sickness, and death per se. It's the aversion we have for them, and the attachment to their counterparts--no-birth, youth, health, and no-death. We struggle to keep what we like, and avoid at all cost what we don't. But how could it be another way, on all counts, including that we cling and have aversion? Bodhidharma said something to the effect of “When something unpleasant comes, don’t be angry. It only makes sense.” I’d add that anger coming makes sense also.
When my father was nearing death, the closer he was, the less he seemed to fear it. My mother is nearing 90. She's almost entirely blind, and she's still struggling with that. This suffering is one she's creating for herself, in that region behind the eyes and between the ears. She generally struggles with having gotten old, to the point where she once said to me, “I hope you never get as old as this.” My response was, “That's probably not the kind of thing you should say to somebody else.” Maybe when she actually nears death, she'll have come to terms with it and not suffer so much from the thought of it. Her method of dealing with it may change, maybe not. Maybe it will be more to my liking, maybe not. What is my discomfort from her reaction to it? Is it because I don't want her to suffer, or is it that deep down on a molecular level, that I don't want to confront my own impending sickness (maybe) and death (definitely). Good question, sounds like some more time on the cushion may supply the answer, or at least clear up my denial of the answer. Some say, “You already know.”
Zen practice tells us to accept things are they are, or more accurately as Suzuki-Roshi said, “Things as it is.” Wind blows, the willow doesn’t complain about wind, it bends, then returns to its natural state. Don’t like it? Accept not liking it. Don’t like not liking it? Accept that also. When dislike comes, accept it. “It” comes, reflect “it.” Or not. Not comes, reflect “not”. Bending all along, not breaking, and returning to the natural state, accepting it, and not-it alike.
What is the Middle Path between birth and death, between no-birth and no-death? Right now? Typing. How could it be another way? And for you? What is it? Answer quickly! How could it be another way?