Hsu Yun Chan Yuen
Home : Literature : Essays by Yin Din Shakya
Rev. Yin Din Shakya


by Yin Din Shakya, OHY

I must, by misquoting Joyce, make a small confession. I, like Mr. Duffy, have lived my life a short distance from my Self. That distance, short as it is, is both dangerous and tedious to traverse. I wish I could relate magnificent adventures - along the lines of the great Alexander - where all my journeys were well defined and I could be seen pursuing my own Darius right through the Persian Gates. But they are not grand; and they go but that short distance, from here to here. My anecdotes are not those of the Great Macedonian’s.

Yet, few as the experiences are, I tend to forget the relevant names of people and places, and even the lessons of life I learned from these events. In the absence of specifics, I slip into that most dangerous of contrivances and generalize. My life is lived only in details, yet sitting here I somehow believe that my generalizations will lay like a soft blanket on my shoulders, covering and comforting me should the journey into the subject of Duhkha become too long and chilling. Prepared, then, I can hear, in the back of my mind, Alexander shout to his army, “C’mon, boys, it is but a short days hike from here to Persepolis.”

In these days of turmoil, people who are in any way associated with religion are having interesting discussions. Is religion, as they always thought, a civilizing force or has it become a de-civilizing institution? To most, the fact that spirituality has very little to do with religion and therefore has nothing much to do with civilization at all, is incidental to the discussion. It is to the few who do appreciate the spiritual facts that this clumsy essay is intended, to those few and to that one who lives a short distance away.

Many of us are come to Buddhism after a brief tussle with a sutra or two, some general researches and perhaps a handful of greater or lesser Zen books. No matter how immersed we’ve been, a couple of questions always remain. There’s that obvious one - “What the hell is Zen?” but that one I won’t touch (except of course in a general way). The questions that are so tenacious are those regarding the grand formulation of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. These Truths confront us with the strange term, Duhkha, and with one of its disturbing corollaries, the concept of no-self.

If approached from a strictly western point of view these Truths conflict with existing philosophical traditions. We concede that they contain a hint of truth; but we fear that they also contain more than a hint of error. That the error has had such a long life is disquieting. That it seems to lie so close to the truth is the reason that we find it so hard to remove.

Part of the problem is that we tend to think of the Buddha as a philosopher or theorist - a false impression to which we easily succumb because of his logical formulations. We fail to recognize the spiritual nuances of his message. The Buddha was concerned with man’s salvation; and he was eminently practical not theoretical - in his presentation. Let’s take a closer look at Duhkha and what is meant by the concept of no-self.

The Four Noble Truths

1.  This is the Noble Truth of Duhkha. Birth is duhkha, aging is duhkha, death is duhkha; sorrow, anguish, pain, grief, and despair are duhkha; association with the unbeloved is duhkha; separation from the loved is duhkha; not getting what is wanted is duhkha. Getting what one wants is duhkha. In short, the process of conscious life and our wandering attachment to it is duhkha.

Everything we gather from what are called the six internal sense media is duhkha, the six being defined as the medium of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and the intellect.

Being enslaved by the ego-self is duhkha. The attempted conditioning of Self by the self is duhkha. That state of non-liberation, of attachment to conditioned things - and all things are conditioned things - this is duhkha.

Given that all of this and more is Duhkha, from where does duhkha specifically arise?

2.   And this is the noble truth of the origination of duhkha: the craving that makes for further becoming, accompanied by passion and delight, relishing now here and now there (i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming).

Here, then, is the source of the problem: desire for impermanent things to satisfy the impermanent ego. More significantly, desire, itself, is an ephemeral thing. And when we attach ourselves, when we identify with or otherwise seek to possess impermanent things, we often make commitments that extend far beyond the desire’s longevity.

If we can see how Duhkha has arisen we can arrive at a question of a third truth: what can we do to end this?

3.  This is the noble truth of the cessation of duhkha: the remainderless fading and cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, and letting go of that very craving and attachment.

So we can put an end to Duhkha but oh, how we begin to feel uneasy with the kind of dispassion, the indifference that it seems to mandate.

In the west we feel more at ease defining duhkha as suffering. We all want to put an end to suffering but not, of course, desire or attachment. We live to desire. Our desires define us. We work and scheme to gain all that we desire and usually we do this in order that we may put the adjective “my” before it.

We tend to think of things that we possess or apprehend with our senses. The first problem we have with the Buddha’s definitions is that the intellect is equated with the senses. Surely, we say, a thought is not the same thing as a touch. And this makes some of us want to declare the Buddha a materialist who, further, wants us to annihilate sensory data and thinking, too. Desire to do this is also, he reminds us, a form of duhkha. For him the mind was not some fortuitous by-product of the physical realm. Mind, as he saw it, was more than intellect. It existed prior to intellectual processes and therefore did not result from them. He clarifies the concept in The Dhammapada:

1. All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with an impure mind one speaks or acts, suffering follows him in the same way as the wheel follows the foot of the drawer (of the chariot).

2. All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with a pure mind one speaks or acts, happiness follows him like his shadow that never leaves him.

So not only does our own mind desire material things, but it creates these things by giving form to them. It determines the boundaries of material phenomena, and assigns qualities to them, and by this differentiation, establishes their form and value and gives them their names.

The pure mind is one that makes no such judgments. It neither creates nor desires impermanent and conditional things. It is not governed by the senses or by any thoughts’ subjective appraisals.

In the end we cannot see our way to God, we cannot hear, smell, touch, taste or even think our way to God. We are left with becoming. All of us, must become ...real. The practice is one of almost falling back into the real. The truth is that for all our thought, nothing will be added to nor subtracted from this reality. It is before all things and after all things. That does not mean we cannot talk about such things or even that we should not. It only means that we should know we never really say anything about it. The mind of the speaker forms an opinion about cars and the mouth of the speaker speaks. The ear of the hearer hears the opinion and the mind of the hearer judges the value of the opinion. And neither car nor mouth nor ear exists outside of time. They are all conditioned things and being subject to time they must change.

But what really sets the wheels in motion is the establishment of the Fourth Truth in which Duhkha may be overcome, as a practical method.

4.  This is the Noble Truth of the Eightfold Path The practice, the heart of spirituality, is the core of Buddha’s message and is delineated and explained in a most understandable manner with great detail in the Seventh World of Chan Buddhism (by Ming Zhen). It can be found in Chapters 10 through 18.

Control and discipline of the mind is the esoteric work set out before us. And control and discipline is a far cry from mind blanking. It is an active process, a daily habituating process of development. To simply block all inputs would not allow us to reach Nirvana, perhaps we could reach something like Oblivion but not his active brother, Nirvana.

The Void is stunningly active in its stillness. It is vibrantly quiet. It is almost any noun and its opposite descriptor seen at once, all in one. It is a beautifully clear madness. The fullest emptiness we can imagine for it is devoid of desire and attachment.

But, who would care what we call duhkha if we did not have the inner voice whispering of Nirvana. The Buddha understood that it was essentially meaningless to argue about the indescribable but that it was the very essence of life itself to experience it. So he taught, not dogma, but a disciplined practice to bring the experience to light.

So, all in all, what is Duhkha? It is our sense of self-importance, our emotional responses to people and things, our clinging to the shifting forms of energy that constitute the impermanent and conditional world of Samsara. It is our normal consciousness, our erroneous conclusion that we are an entirely separate and permanent individual self. For so long as we persist in this delusion, we are enslaved by Duhkha which causes our life to be bitter and painful.

The Eightfold Path helps us to take ourselves out of the spotlight of our own historical drama and to see the world through the eyes of others. It is this empathy that reduces our sense of self-importance, that lessens our habit of trying to concretize things that by their nature must change, that renders all our judgments foolish, that frees us from our ego’s desires and attachments. It is as if we know that until we lose ourselves in the needs of the many, we cannot become One with God.

No, we are not Alexanders, and we do not need to be. The Buddha said, “One man may conquer ten thousand men in battle and another man may conquer only himself but this man is the greater victor.”

The Macedonian died before he could conquer himself. The rest of us have a little time left.

May all beings experience this enlightenment. 


back   Back 
Last modified: November 22, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts