We should all be grateful that we have been able to discover the Buddha’s teaching, and I think it is also a good practice to feel grateful for the Buddha. One meditation that people in some traditional Buddhist countries practise is to reflect on the Buddha’s good qualities. Sometimes this can be a very powerful and inspiring experience: to reflect on the depth and the wisdom and the loving-kindness of the Buddha, and how these come through in the teaching.
It is O.K. to have expectations because it is quite natural to have such expectations, but realise that having expectations is one thing, reality is another thing.
When a bad thing happens, learn not to be surprised. Because we have to deal with human beings who can be forgetful and we have also to deal with human beings who are not so responsible. We should be surprised only if we find someone who is perfect! But there are no people who never forget and are always responsible. We should remember that we are living in a world of imperfect human beings.
Another suggestion, which is very important, is that you must show that you are a cobra. But you must learn to play it like a game. You must say to yourself: Now I’m going to call this man who has forgotten to attend to this very important letter and I am going to speak to him very firmly, in a very tough way. You should know very well you only pretending; you are consciously doing it but inside you have no hatred towards him. Some people only understand such language. So you can state really firmly that next time you do such a thing I will reduce your salary!
Another interesting suggestion is to try to have a dialogue with that person. It’s a very interesting exercise just to raise questions in such a situation. Now tell me: What happened to you? Why did you forget? Is it because you were not really interested, or you had other more important things to remember? Are you normally forgetful? Just get him to reflect on what has happened. So it enables that person to reflect on his own actions. This can sometimes be extremely helpful and it can reveal to him something that he might not have looked at before.
It is interesting that one meaning of sati, mindfulness, is recollecting and remembering. So we have to remember. If you are sick and if the medicine bottle is there but you have forgotten to take the medicine, you can’t be healed. So you have to remember to take the medicine at the right time. And I must say, sometimes the medicine in this practice is not very sweet. The medicine is not always pleasant, as you know. There are some medicines which are not sweet at all, not tasty at all, but sometimes such medicines can be very powerful. Like an injection: it is very unpleasant but it can work very quickly.
The Buddha said: Mindfulness or awareness is the only way. So with mindfulness we can investigate, we can explore. And this is how one can use mindfulness for exploration. There is a very interesting text which brings out the connection between mindfulness or awareness and wisdom. So awareness is compared to the surgeon’s probe, probing the wound or area the surgeon has to operate on. And the surgeon’s scalpel which is used to remove that wound or whatever the surgeon wants removed is compared to insight or wisdom. So with awareness you can probe, and with insight or wisdom, you can cut it out. To take a simple example, when you are angry you can try to explore why you are angry. Then you’ll realise: I’m angry because I am demanding how things should be. Then when you see the problem is with you, wisdom or insight arises immediately. This sounds very simple but really this is the teaching.
How does this feeling of Somebody cause fear to arise? What is the connection? So here, when Somebody is threatened, when this Somebody feels that something might happen to me, that I am in danger, that is how fear comes.
How does this feeling of Somebody generate anxiety about the future? So with this feeling of Somebody, you feel that in the future everything should go according to the idea this Somebody has. And if you are uncertain about that, then this is how anxieties arise.
So these are some simple, practical examples, how this idea of Somebody is related to self, and how suffering and these negative emotions arise. No-self or emptiness is when Somebody becomes a Nobody!
Because of this sense of self we have images, models, of how things should be according to my way. It is always my way. Naturally in everyday life things don’t always happen according to my way. That is how suffering is created in everyday life, with this idea of my way. So whenever you are suffering in everyday life, you can try to find out: what has been my idea, what has been my view of how things should be? Then you’ll realise how this sense of self is directly related to the suffering that you are experiencing. So in this simple, practical way you can work with this idea of my way and then when that my way is not there, when there is emptiness, notice how there is an absence of suffering.
Another way of saying the same thing is that with this sense of self that we have we feel that we are Somebody. Here again suffering and unpleasant emotions arise with this idea, with this concept that you are Somebody. So with this feeling of Somebody we would like others to behave according to the idea this Somebody has. And then naturally when others don’t behave in this way this is why we get angry. So you see the direct connection between this idea of Somebody, this sense of self, and getting angry.
We need to be open to any change that may arise physically and mentally and even externally. If we insist that change should only take place according to our own idea, then when there is change which does not correspond to that idea it leads to suffering. But by realising that this is the nature of existence, that it changes and that we have no control over change, then we can be open to change in whatever form it arises, internally or externally, and this will result in freedom.
And according to the Buddha, this fact of change and impermanence and this idea of no-self are very well inter-connected, inter-related. He has a very interesting argument. If we own things, if there really is an ego, a self, then we should be able to order things: Now things should happen in this way, according to my ideas. But as there is no self, no ego, we cannot do that. So therefore we have to see from the fact of change that there is no self-identity, no agent, only the process of change itself.
It is interesting that whenever there is suffering, there is suffering because you want things your way, and this your way or my way is the result of the feeling that you are Somebody. So whenever we are suffering, just find out what is the idea, what is the model that you are holding onto which is now being challenged. It is always some idea of how it should be, how it must be according to the ideas the self has.
When there is physical pain, accepting it, working with it as a sensation and so on, you’ll realise the physical pain is there but it is not a source of suffering. You can have mental suffering, certain defilements like maybe greed, maybe anger, maybe fear, and all these things. So as with physical pain, if you can learn not to identify yourself with that mental pain, if you can really use the idea of no-self, that there is no-one really owning that state of mind, then those defilements or those negative things will be there but you’ll be relating to them in an entirely different way.
In the Buddhist tradition normally it is understood that it is only when these things are completely absent that we can be truly free from suffering. That seems to be a goal that is not easy to reach, but if you can see mental pain and physical pain in this way then it is within the reach of all of us. So this again shows it is not what is happening but how we relate to it that makes all the difference. Maybe that is why in the same tradition it is said the ordinary mind is the enlightened mind.
So I hope that in everyday life when you have physical pain and mental pain, if you have discovered the tools, if you have discovered the medicine, to a great extent you may be experiencing the pain but not suffering as much.
And what is important is that when you have such experiences you develop self-confidence. It also means having trust and confidence in the medicine and the Buddha who discovered the medicine. So when you have this self-confidence, when you have this trust, when you have this self-reliance, then anything can arise but you know what to do about it.
A friend of mine was a Professor in a University. He said: I’m always happy, I don’t have to practise anything. He had money; he had good health; he had a good family. So in a way he was very happy and contented. Suddenly he had a heart attack and he fell sick. What a difference it made to him! He became so sad, so depressed. He had lots of fear of death and dying. It was so sad, tragic to see that man in that condition. So it’s only when one encounters such suffering that one can really see suffering and all its implications.
In such a situation if someone were to go to him and say: Would you like to find a way out of your suffering? naturally he would say: Please, please tell me. So we can be living in a world that we have created which does not correspond to reality, a kind of dream world, and then in real life when that world is shattered, that is when you see reality. And when that happens, sometimes it is too late. So this is the importance of the practice. When we start practising, one aspect of the practice is that we are preparing our minds for any situation in life. Then we will never be taken unawares. So this is my response to people who follow that philosophy.
Why do we find it difficult to bear suffering? Why aren’t we more open to suffering? A simple response is that we are surprised when there is suffering. But we should not be surprised, because we are still not enlightened, and naturally as we are not enlightened we are bound to suffer. We should be surprised if there was no suffering! And when we are surprised what happens? We give it a big minus. Only I suffer. No one else suffers in the way that I am suffering, and I know in my life I will continue to suffer. So we can create a big story out of the suffering that we are having. In this situation how can we be open, how can we not be affected when there is suffering? So this is the beauty of the Buddha’s teaching if you can see suffering as a Noble Truth.
I’d like to offer a very interesting tool. You should wait with an open mind thinking: Let me experience the First NobleTruth of the Buddha. So unlike in the past, not being closed to suffering, but waiting for suffering to arise. One thing is, as we found out, that when we are really open to suffering it doesn’t arise!
The second point is: when we are being open to suffering, waiting for it to arise, then we are not surprised by it. And when suffering does arise if you can say: Very interesting; I’m very grateful because now that it has come I can work with it. Please try this tool and see what a difference it makes when suffering comes. To put it in another way, now we see it as something extremely negative, but in the way that I am suggesting it is something very positive. And if you can, at that moment ask yourself the question: What can I learn from this suffering? In what way can I use the Buddha’s tools? In what way can I use the Buddha’s medicine in working with this situation?
And this brings up, as I said, the Second NobleTruth. Here you will see very clearly that suffering is due to this idea you have that something that is happening should not happen. So if you can develop this positive attitude you will be really open to suffering. And then you can really make use of suffering to find a way out of suffering. So it is simply changing your attitude towards suffering. When you change the attitude you see suffering in an entirely different way.