The Noble Truth of Suffering

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As a senior student here, I give a talk about every seven to 12 months. So it's something I never really get used to. And every time I do give a talk, I want to be sure to say something meaningful. And then I also keep saying to myself, well, I don't want to talk about exactly what I talked about last time. But after all this time of practice, I find I'm still talking about the same thing. So I am going to talk about, a little bit about what I talked about last time. Probably no one remembers. That's funny. That's the reason why we wait so long between talks. That's helpful. So I'm going to start off by reading just a little bit from Katagiri Roshi's book, Returning to Silence, Zen Practice and Daily Life.


The teaching is based on the four holy truths. And the first holy truth is suffering. This is a very important point. Suffering is not merely suffering as opposed to pleasure. Suffering is a holy truth. That means that it is one aspect of human life from which no one can escape. It is completely beyond what one likes or dislikes. You have to face it directly because your life is right in the middle of suffering. You cannot ignore it. If you ignore suffering, it becomes monstrous. Most of us seek pleasure and seek happiness. Generally, we're unhappy when we don't have what we want.


We're not with who we want or we're with who we don't want. They're all, you know, it's a wide spectrum of suffering that we experience. It can be just little day-to-day things and it can be very, you know, life-changing things. I think we all study the Four Noble Truths when we start to practice or when we start to study. And so the first Noble Truth which was the very beginning of the Buddha's teaching, the very first talk he ever gave was that in life there is suffering. And then the second noble truth is that the cause of suffering is clinging or desire.


But that's kind of misleading. Usually it's Wanting things are not wanting things. Liking and disliking. And in fact, so we try to practice that. There's a Chinese poem called the Xin Xin Ming, Faith and Mind. And it starts off by saying, The way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. Liking and disliking is the disease of the mind. But it's hard, you know, we can't really try to not like or dislike. It's not something we can, we really have control over. trying not to have preferences or telling yourself, you know, not to like or dislike.


It's just disliking, liking and disliking. And I think that some of us during Zazen, I'd say I'm one of those who tries to control the mind or to talk oneself out of either suffering or escaping from it, and then that can just drive one crazy. It's just an endless circle. So, Kadagiri Roshi has something interesting to say about the fact that you really can't do anything about suffering. If you study the Four Noble Truths, you can realize that the extinction of desire or human suffering is not to cut off or to destroy human suffering.


You cannot do this. Therefore, Buddha has to say that human suffering is a holy truth beyond what you like or dislike. So practically, what should you do? Just focus on actual human life and put the four holy truths into practice. And I find this particularly interesting, put the holy truths into practice. Zazen is the perfect practice. When we sit Zazen, we are experiencing and letting go of liking and disliking. I'm sure we've all had the experience where say you're sitting and you have a very peaceful sitting. You may think you finally did it right or that all these years of something has come to fruition, but actually we tend to cling to that and get disappointed that


Unpleasant thoughts or experiences just come they come back But this is the human condition. This is What it is to be human So when it was time to give this talk I was I was feeling a bit overrun with my personal life and I kept saying to myself, well, I've got to dig myself out of this mire to give a talk and come across, you know, to be clear and rational and, you know. So around March 1st, I got a call from my mother.


She lives in Philadelphia and she's going to be 87 and she told me she was in the hospital and she's living on her own and kind of weak and frail and refusing to get any help and all that. So she went into the hospital with abdominal pains And she said it was no big deal. So I waited a couple of days. And then I got a call from her saying, get me out of here. You know, I hate the hospital. I want to go home. And nobody, I don't have anyone to help me. So get me out of here. So I, in less than 12 hours, I got on a plane. and I flew to Philadelphia and went to the hospital and there she was arguing with the nurses and the doctors and all that stuff.


But it seemed kind of okay at first and I'd only planned to stay a few days and they said she had a urinary tract infection, you know, the 10th one in several months. I took her home, but she wouldn't eat or drink, and she complained she wouldn't eat because she couldn't go to the bathroom. So it turned out, I had to help her with every single little thing there. I mean, she couldn't walk, she could barely swallow. I would bring her something to drink and beg her to eat, but she said, I won't eat because I can't go to the bathroom. And so then she got very bad abdominal pains again, and they wanted to do an emergency CAT scan. So we did that, and then they found this big mass in her colon, and they said, well, this is a probable carcinoma.


And then they found spots on her liver, and her lung, and so they wanted to do an emergency colonoscopy, so she was admitted to the hospital. And meanwhile, they have to clean you out to do a colonoscopy. I don't know how many of you have been through this. I've been through it a few times, because I have a family history of colon cancer. You know, you drink this really gross stuff, you drink like a gallon of something called Golightly. And it's very, it's this viscous, nasty tasting stuff, and you have to, you know, they want you to drink it quickly, and then you wait, and shortly after that, you know what happens.


Anyway, so here's this woman who really cannot walk, cannot swallow, cannot eat. And I'm in the hospital with her. And, you know, the nurses have all these people to take care of. It's not like you have a private nurse or even your own room to do this incredibly embarrassing and difficult procedure. of preparing. So anyway, so I was really the one. And so very slowly, she drank, you know, this whole gallon of go lightly. And needless to say, you know, we were changing the sheets, you know, every 45 minutes. And I hope you don't mind me being graphic, but It's all part of this conversation about suffering.


You know, she couldn't hold down the Golightly either. So, you know, I was dealing with both ends of my mother. And the nurses, they were good, but they tried to help. But after the full gallon of Golightly, since she hadn't gone to the bathroom in two weeks, It wasn't clear, you know, you have to be completely clear. So then they come in, they say, OK, she has to do another gallon. So she does another gallon of Golightly and like four enemas. And then they decided they had to just keep her on the commode because it was she couldn't walk. So this woman, she's, you know, almost 87. Just holding her up there was really, really painful. But, so finally, it was time for the colonoscopy.


They gave her four enemas, and then they say, okay, it's time to go. We just gotta do this. So, then she says, I need my lipstick. And meanwhile, I was frantic because I had this list. It was six pages long of all the things I had to do to take care of this situation, not just her and her health and the doctors and the nurses and everything else, her apartment, her bills, you know, just complete maintenance. So she's there angry about her lipstick for the colonoscopy. And I was kind of annoyed. I've learned that arguing with my mother just goes so far, that we're not going to win, even no matter what condition she's in. So I find her lipstick, and we go for the colonoscopy, a few flights of stairs, and everybody's very direct, all the doctors about, you know, we're looking for colon cancer, the palliative,


care team had been there to talk about what she was going to do. Was she going to get treated? And she says, no, no treatment. I want to go. And she right before the colonoscopy, she told the doctor, I don't care if I have cancer. I'm ready to go right now. So, you know, that was kind of what it was like. But then the really surprising thing was, They didn't find cancer in her colon. It seemed like the Golightly had purged everything there was. I mean, they had mistaken, obviously, this mass of accumulated, not eliminated stuff. That was really the problem. So she was constipated. And what was really also disturbing, of course, I was incredibly relieved that she did not have cancer, you know, because losing my mother is not something I look forward to.


So I was relieved she didn't have cancer, but what's really disturbing was she was malnourished. You know, she hadn't been taking care of herself. So she was in the hospital about 10 days. We went home, and then we came back. So it was probably about a total of 10 days. And then they sent her to rehab so she could start walking again. I think there was something I wanted to read about this. So Katagiri Roshi says, If you want to learn life, you must simultaneously learn death. If you try to learn only life and ignore death, your life becomes very dry. You have to learn both life and death. This is the Buddhist way.


So my mother went into rehab. And as I said, she's very, very volatile. In fact, when she exited the hospital, the discharge papers, you know, said not only the abdominal obstruction she had and this and that, but they also wrote down generalized anxiety disorder because they kept focusing on her mental health. And her mental health is not that different from when it was, you know, 45 years ago. She's more stressed because of losing control of her life, but it's not like this is new. So, I was running back and forth doing things for her. Like, she wanted me to get her her clothes to bring to rehab. And of course, she was very fussy. I said, okay, I'm going to get you a nightgown. I'm going to get you this and that. And she says, well, nothing yellow.


I don't want anything that's yellow, not that yellow nightgown. And I would say, well, which nightgown do you want? It had to be blue and it had to be a print. And she has a lot of nightgowns for some reason. Trying to get her to accept any help whatsoever has been an ongoing issue. I mean, I spent a lot of time, so I was back east, you know, two and a half weeks and, you know, arranging for some home care, looking into assisted living, but she's adamant about being independent. I know that isn't unusual, but what concerned me was, you know, the malnutrition She was living on crackers and she wasn't drinking enough because she didn't want to have to go to the bathroom. So I was left with the sense that I can't solve anything.


This aspect of suffering, aging, getting old, getting weak, there's no solution to it. And with my mother, I can't convince her of very much. And so it's just continual, you know, lipstick, nightgowns, you know, what are you going to eat now? So it's a constant process. I mean, I can't get out of it and I can't solve anything. I just checked off, you know, there were some obvious things I could check off my list, but I couldn't really solved the problem. I did find her somebody whose cooking she likes, who comes in twice a week to make some food and help her take a shower. But anyway, one thing that Katagiri Roshi talks about that I really like is, he talks about Zen master Gutei, who


Some of you know the whole story about how his whole teaching was his one finger. He would raise his finger to give his teaching. I'm not going to go into the whole story about him and his disciple. A lot of people here know that story about how he taught somebody with his one finger. But the point of it, the way Katagiri Roshi talks about it, he says, Zen Master Gutei always presented one finger in answer to any question. To show one finger is Buddha's world. So we can't separate ourselves from suffering and delusion.


We just have to live in it and with it and practice it and struggle with it and accept it. We have some time for questions Comments. Tell me what about 10 o'clock. Sue. Karen, while you were there, while this was going on, what was your day-to-day practice? Well, I sat in Salsa most days if I could.


I didn't get much sleep. I mean, it was mostly around the clock, but it was very important for me to sit. Because that actually helped me just to connect with my mother. You know, it's all about connecting with her. And that's one thing about suffering that I appreciate. There's a way where we can connect with other people. I had to have patience. Generally, I'm not so patient and Zazen really is helpful with that. And also to accept the fact that taking care of my mother involved a lot of things. It was lipstick and nightgowns. It was the emesis basin and the bedpan. It was arguing over help.


It was just whatever it was. And actually, as I said, I was very frustrated in the beginning. I was there with a mission. I was going to just get all these things accomplished. And then I had to give that up. And I actually enjoyed it after a while, especially when I saw how happy she was for that stick of lipstick. I was struck by the words of Katagiri Roshi, if you ignore suffering, it becomes monstrous. And I wonder if you have some examples or interpretation. I have some, but I don't know. One form of suffering was I was having my mother yelling and screaming for what seemed endless about things she wanted.


And I thought I knew better some of the things that she should want or need. But that pushing away just made matters worse. So that's... The pushing away? The pushing... You know, by not really listening to her carefully, and kind of dismissing the lipstick and the nightgown stuff really caused a much bigger problem. Then, of course, there's examples in Zazen where we often have experiences sitting that we don't really want to have. We're restless. We're angry. So there's that kind of pushing away that causes more pain. And then of course, physical pain usually gets worse when you really fight it.


And often that involves a narrative. I've noticed in situations of having physical pain, if I can let go of the narrative, this is so awful, it's just going to get worse and worse, I might die. That's a way of making it monstrous, rather than just experiencing the sensations of it. So there are different ways, it applies to everything, I think. Ed? change it, I especially want to fix it, or do something about it.


Because I noticed that in your list, when you were talking about that, you didn't mention any of those things. You didn't mention changing it, or do something about it. It seems like a different kind of mindset that you're talking about. Well, I was in that mindset that you just described. Right. It's just that I had to give some of it up. But then we had quite a deep connection. What you gave it up? Well, first, just starting to listen. That was step one. I was kind of not really engaging. You know, I'm thinking, lipstick? Come on, you know, we've just spent 48 hours trying to you know, you've been on the toilet that long, and now it's lipstick. But then, like really listening, it was really important, very important.


But also, you know, I lead this meditation group at San Francisco Public Library, I get all kinds of people, you know, city employees come, homeless people come, just There's just quite a variety and people just talk about all sorts of things and just listening to whatever they have to say is a real practice, I think. Even if it makes no sense whatsoever. It seems to me like, you know, when someone is suffering like your mother. In fact, these points of sort of anchoring oneself, like the lipstick or the yellow nightgown, are really very good ways of knowing that something is real.


Because the suffering does become very unreal at some point. That's a great point. And I think You know, it shows great compassion that you could see that. Well, you know. Well, I think that when I just saw what she was going through, I felt a lot of pain just watching and being there for the whole thing. It was just so terrible. But also there was a way, well, where she wasn't herself to me. And this lipstick just brought her completely alive, the mother that I have known since I was born. In fact, she talks about her lipstick fairly often. She says, my lipstick makes me. It doesn't help.


It doesn't work. It does. She was a lot more pleasant once she had the lipstick on. That's why they call it makeup. Jake. Thanks, Karen. This resonates with me because I through similar things with my mother, but one of the things that touches me is that you allow your mother to have agency and to make her own life to the extent that she can. That's really hard to do as you see them becoming more and more incapacitated. So I admire you for doing that with her. I'm sure there must be a real bond of trust between you two, because she must see that in you. Well, I've always been proud of my mother because she's not only been very independent, but she made a lot out of herself without encouragement.


Her family never believed in college, especially for women, but you know, nobody went to college. you know, got a job at age 15, working in a drugstore, you know, just she made her way herself. And she's very proud of that. So I don't want to take that away. And then also, you know, I've had this fear, I think this is my oldest fear from childhood. about losing control of my bodily fluids. I remember when I was in elementary school, you know, and other children did it, you know. Somebody wet the floor or threw up or something. That's something that has always scared me.


And so here it was. So, Jen? Thank you very much, Karen. I have a question about the suffering and how you think about it. There's your mother's suffering. There's your own suffering. I mean, is it helpful to talk about them separately? Or is it all one thing? Because then you have a choice in these coming months, years, of how close you're going to be interacted with your mother. How do you negotiate that in terms of suffering and practice? Well, I'm trying not to... I'm trying to think about what's best for her and what she wants. She wants to be independent, but truthfully, she's not going to last long without much help. So, I know she's suffering and I know she doesn't want certain things,


but I'm pushing her. But is your question more, you know, me identifying with her suffering? Well, my question to you is actually a question that I have for myself because I have two elders next door and it's a similar situation. And it's causing me great suffering, or I could say I am suffering with it, whether I get close or whether I get far away. So I'm looking for advice. Should you move toward it? Should you move away from it? Because there's a way where someone else's suffering can also kind of swamp your boat if you're not careful. Right. That's right. Well, because it's my mother, you know, I go further than I might say with somebody else, but I am trying to maintain my own sanity and health, because I think that's the best way to help her.


If I got sucked into absolutely everything, it wouldn't be helpful for either of us. I mean, she wants me to move back there, which I'm not going to do. So, you know, there are limits to what I'm going to do, but I'm going back and forth now. You know, I'm going next month. I'm probably going to go, you know, I am going back a lot. I've been calling her every day. So there, you know, but there are limits. I mean, I am actually maintaining my own life. You know, I have a job, a relationship, things that are really important that I don't want to, you know, let go of, but I just do what I can. I guess that's, you know, do what you can and make sure that you can be helpful by maintaining as much stillness in yourself as you can. Linda?


You started out with the way is not difficult for those who have no preferences and you seem to be right there with that teaching of not having likes and dislikes. And that's a very, you know, sort of deep and dangerous and upsetting teaching sometimes. So I'll put it into a question. Two parts. One is, say I see somebody, you know, beating up a child. I would very strongly like that to stop. And who is telling me that I shouldn't? Or if you go to the Four Noble Truths, the third truth said there is a way to end suffering. Is that a preference for ending suffering? I think that compassion, which is the desire to end suffering, is a natural


development when one gives up personal preferences. In fact, Katagiri Roshi tells this story here, right in this section of the book, about a Zen master who planted trees. He loved trees. So yes, there was a personal preference, but he also wanted to nourish future generations, which is not really about his personal self in this moment. Does that make sense? That, you know, that's why we talk so much about wisdom and compassion being two sides of the same coin when you really understand, you know, giving up preferences isn't a choice, really. You know, you can't decide, I'm not gonna not like this, or I'm, you know, it just doesn't work. But there is a mind without preferences.


Would you like to say something? We have to understand the meaning of the word preferences in this context. So in this context it means self-indulgence, which causes suffering. The cause of suffering is self-indulgence. But we think that it's for happiness. There's a website called Toxiture Review. So when it says preference, it doesn't mean that you don't like chocolate. If you can't have chocolate, take vanilla. But don't cry. So it's not a blanket. that covers everything. It's picking and choosing on the basis of self-centeredness, is what it's talking about. Not picking and choosing on the basis of what's necessary or what's correct.


So it's all about, since in me, it's all about how you not get out of suffering, but how you fix suffering. The more we try to escape from suffering, the more we suffer. That's the lesson of Zazen. The more you try to escape, the more you suffer. So what is the name of that stuff that your brother drank? Total Lightning. Total Lightning. That's the answer. Sweetheart. That's not good. We'll serve that at the next session.