The new problem with old suffering

Two recent posts by James Ford and my teacher Dosho Port explore the question of modern vs. classic Buddhism, which seems to center on the belief in reincarnation and karma.  They cover it in much more learned detail than I could.  But it provided a jumping off point for me, about some thoughts on Buddhist practice in our times.

James’ blogpost was titled The Problem of Our Suffering: A (Modernist) Zen Buddhist Meditation.  Rather than modern vs. classic, beliefs vs. secularist, where I’d like to dig a little deeper is specifically in the question of the problem of our suffering in this modern world.

seengtheold Suffering is the reason for our practice–why Buddha set out on his path of awakening, and the reason most of us come to the practice.  It is the question that is answered by the Buddha’s teaching.  Dogen says that awareness of suffering and impermanence is the beginning of setting out on the path.

And of course the story of the Buddha begins with him as the Prince Shakyamuni, hidden away behind the palace walls by his father, attempting to shield him from seeing suffering in any form, to keep him from setting off on the spiritual path.  Seeing a sick person, an elderly person, and a dead body set him on the path that finally led him to his first noble truth, Life is marked by suffering.  He specifically asks the question, “and what is suffering?” to which he answers, “Sickness, old age, and death.”

The question that occurs to me recently, has the nature of suffering as we experience it changed?  In Buddha’s time, and for most time since, sickness, old age and death have been constants, omnipresent and have not changed.  But in recent years in much of the world several changes have taken place.  Many of the medications available to us have meant that an injury no longer means death by infection.  Pain medications lessen the suffering of those ill or dying, and all these treatments have extended life spans—though you could argue that they’ve only increased the shadow of the dying process.  Most of us experience less illness and death in our lives.

I am aware too, that this is partly a matter of privilege, still in the world.  And most of these changes have taken place in the West.  That you are likely to have this experience if you are living in the industrial world, particularly if you are affluent, white, and already healthy.  For much of the world, and for those here who are brown, or disabled, female, poor, or mentally ill, none of this has changed much.

But in the west it’s mainly those who are white and affluent who are the ones practicing Buddhism, and so our experience of pain and suffering affects our understanding and practice.  It used to be one could not avoid sickness, old age, and death.  So that Buddha could send a woman out to find a mustard seed from a house untouched by sickness and death, and it was a profound teaching moment for the woman who could find no such house.  But many of us live like Buddha did in his princely life—walled off from the real suffering that is part of human life.

That suffering seems key in anything we look at in terms of dedication to the practice.  Dogen set off on the path after walking the incense wafting up at his mother’s funeral.  More teachers than I can count were orphaned.   But I think back to my fairly lower middle class upbringing, where other than hearing of my great grandmother’s passing (who I hardly knew) death seemed to be a distant concept rather than a real experience.  And sickness was the usual childhood illnesses mixed with trips to the ER for stitches after falling off a bike.

In college when I was studying Buddhist Psychology, I remember my advisor, who was an Eastern religion prof himself, encouraged me to make study a Marxist cultural analysis and compare or combine it with the Buddha’s analysis of the human condition.  He had me read a book called The Pursuit of Loneliness, by Philip Slater, in which one of the author’s arguments is that particularly in America, we fall into the trap of what he called “the toilet syndrome.”  Anything unpleasant is flushed away, out of sight, out of mind.  Whether that be death, or the elderly, or the disabled (and one could add the poor, nuclear waste, climate change, on and on.)  So the possibility of empathy, much less even seeing this suffering of others, is nearly impossible.  Perhaps rather than viewing the cultural issue from a Marxist view, we could apply the Buddhist view to society as a being rather than an amalgamation of suffering beings, but that’s a subject for another post.

And so we modern Western Buddhists focus on suffering as discomfort, as the uneven ride in a cart with a bad wheel (the root of the word dukkha.)  Some have even begun using the term “stress” to describe suffering, which seems to me to lead to the lessening of the urgency of practice.  If I’m practicing to deal with my stress, it’s likely my practice is only focused on my own feelings of comfort and ease.   David, a friend of mine in twelve step recovery talks of going to see his sponsor with his usual problems and complaints.  “Finance or romance?” his sponsor would ask.  David would respond, “I find it upsetting that you think all my problems can be reduced to two such simple things.”  “I’m sorry,” his sponsor would say. So which is it?”  “Finance,” he’d answer begrudgingly, and then they could talk about it.  And many western Buddhists it seems are in the same boat—suffering is vague discomfort, unease with self or one’s place in the world, or at worst the loss of a job or love affair.  We get to live in this palace where we are hidden away from the true pain in the world.

What led to all this for me is the fact of my own aging.  I wound up in the ER with pains in my gut, and was diagnosed with diverticulitis.  As I laid in the bed, and they looked for a vein and took my medical history, which mostly consisted of lots of “no, no, no” I finally said, “I have a very boring medical history.  I’ve been pretty lucky.”  But getting the diagnosis, and knowing this was something that’s to a large degree age-related, I was suddenly struck by the fact of my own aging, my own body beginning to decay.  Even after having gone through the death of my mother last spring, I was surprised it took something like this to bring it to a more visceral level for me.

Of course it seems no matter how much suffering I might witness, and how much I might try to let go of cherishing my self, suffering still hits home more when it’s my own.  And more so when it’s tangible, physical pain or sickness I can’t “think away.”  Which I often think is the difficult part of really practicing this path.  Someone once said that if you travel to India you can see why the Buddha taught what he did–in the climate there, everything deteriorates, and there is so much sickness and death, and there was even more in Buddha’s time.  So for me it’s the most visceral experiences of dukkha that get my attention.  Otherwise, it’s just me whining about “finance or romance,” as my friend put it.

Yet of course, practice begins to open me up to the experience of suffering in other beings.  But  in this modern world I can be like the Prince Siddhartha, rarely seeing it in my own life.  In one Mahayana teaching, it is taught that is a stage on the Path where one begins to feel the sufferings of others as one’s own.  And beyond that, where one feels the suffering of ALL beings as one’s own.  I can’t even imagine that.  But I can see how that would blow your mind, as it did literally for Avalokiteshvara.

Even among spiritual teacher these days, there are big names who tell us that before long death will no longer be a problem, as though it isn’t a mark of existence.  And scientists and doctors who believe that one day soon illness can be overcome with proper knowledge and treatment.

So what is there to do?  Short of stopping this march of the culture towards a world where we can ignore sickness, old age, and death (and good luck with that) I come back to the Buddha’s story.  When we live behind the walls of the palace, we must open our eyes to the suffering of others.  I must go out into the world to see that suffering and not turn away.  Not only for them, but for myself.  I can work to be sure that my practice is one that helps me to see that suffering of all beings, so that i can continue to work as hard as I can to alleviate the cries of the world.


Eyes and Hands


Years ago reading of those monks

Meditating in charnel grounds

To become intimate with stages of decay of these   impermanent bodies.

Or as women danced like fire through my mind and blood

given the suggestion to imagine those objects of my lust

As corpses.

It didn’t help.


Now, the ability to hold my breath and be still finally   useful.

As I breathe in and slide into the CT machine

Ring of magnets whirling

Throat on fire with the contrast piped into my arm.


Ah sickness, old age and death!

What need to contemplate suffering or impermanence

When I can become most intimate with it in my own body

Bones harden, joints tighten, membranes thin


And I don’t have to visualize

When a quick review of the internet shows me

Photos and drawings

The exact image of    these aging entrails.


My hard won wisdom?

Learn to be still.

Eat more fiber.

Remember it’s all short.


Cells leach from skin and bones

Replaced with compassion

Like minerals entered those dinosaurs now stone

I slowly become Kannon

Eyes and hands for those who know of this

And those who avoid it.


Compassion even for this one who turns slowly

To soften the pain

Mouth stopped up like metal

Taste on the tongue.





Lunch break at work…I pull out the computer to write.  I have a drawer full of jawbreakers, and I’ll have a few of them and call it lunch.  There was food at the meeting earlier, so I’m good anyway.  The jawbreakers come from a client who always has his pockets filled with them.  Each time he comes to my office to go over some paperwork, or for help with paying bills, he reaches into his pocket.  Pulling a handful he drops them into my hand like a pile of jewels.   And I am reminded of the importance of giving and receiving, and how so often the rules of this job and this role don’t allow me to accept very often.  They also don’t allow my clients to give of themselves very often.  So I’ll savor this jawbreaker and think of the kindness of Dan, bald and big-bellied, a Buddha in a parka who always makes me smile.

 The jawbreakers remind me of being 10, how I’d get a quarter and go to the store to buy a brown paper sack of them filled with them on a Saturday.  Back when penny candies really were just a penny.  I’d stretch them out over that whole day, trying with each one to suck on it until it was completely gone, and always instead end up chomping down on it before there was nothing left.  An experiment to see it pass from form to nothingness that I was never able to wait for, but instead had to hasten along.

 Saturdays in my mind are filled with so many memories of sweetness in that way.  The penny candy.  Cartoons and cereal fresh out of bed.  Riding my bike as far as it would take me.  Going to the movie theater to see a matinee for fifty cents.  I wonder why with such sweetness already in my life that I needed that bag of candy.  Michael Pollan in “The Botany of Desire” talks about how so many people in the pioneer days in America spoke of heaven being a place of “sweetness and light” because there was so little of it in their actual lives.  There were no lights other than the that from the fireplace or stove.  Sugar and fruits were non-existent.  So they’d dream of a place where what they lacked was there in abundance.

 I don’t think my life lacked that sweetness at that time.  In the way that some people just like sweets, and some don’t, I was always on the side of those who liked it.  And I was pretty good at savoring it, even with that tendency to always bite the last of the jawbreaker.  But I could entertain myself, loved being outdoors.  Give me a good book or a pile of Boys Life magazines, and I’d read all afternoon.  There were places that were sweet to me, the beauty of the woods across the street, the little pond in the center of that woods, and farther down the path, the rotting little shed that still stood in the bottom of the hollow.  Even the air in there was sweet, filled with the smell of dirt, and rotting wood, the kind of wood that was wet and spongy, and seemed to still hold a shape and semblance of wood though magic only.  Green light slanting in the windows after filtering down through the trees overhead, a bench against one wall and only jars with rusty mason lids, or no cover at all.

 And still that urge for sweetness.  A sweet kiss.  The silence of a snowy winter night, or the brutal clarity of stars when it’s 20 below.  I was aware in times of depression how sweetness was a balm and a protection against pain, misery, and what…boredom?  A chocolate donut, provided a few minutes where the world and my life for a moment were a pleasure, a brief respite.  Life is brutal and short, some say.  Which might be true, but even when I don’t see them there are such moments, fleeting as they are, of sweetness.  And at times such as in depression it seems we can’t find them, or don’t see them.  But they are there. 

 The third noble truth the truth of joy.  Or is it sweetness.   To breathe is sweet, each breath a wonder, to have a body and senses even with pain or craving is sweet.

 There was a man walking across an open field, when suddenly a tiger appeared and began to give chase. The man began to run, but the tiger was closing in. As he approached a cliff at the edge of the field, the man grabbed a vine and jumped over the cliff. Holding on as tight as he could, he looked up and saw the angry tiger prowling out of range ten feet above him. He looked down. In the gully below, there were two tigers also angry and prowling. He had to wait it out. He looked up again and saw that two mice, one white, the other black, had come out of the bushes and had begun gnawing on the vine, his lifeline. As they chewed the vine thinner and thinner, he knew that he could break at any time. Then, he saw a single strawberry growing just an arms length away. Holding the vine with one hand, he reached out, picked the strawberry, and put it in his mouth. It was delicious.

 I loved that story the first time I read it.  Even as I was frustrated that it didn’t seem to have an ending.  “But what happens to the man?” my mind shouted out.  I wanted to know, how does it turn out.  Is he saved?

 These days I know that the story is sufficient.  Caught for this short moment between birth and death, with danger and uncertainty around me, the moral being that in any moment there is sweetness to be found.  Life gives us strawberries.  And jawbreakers.