Omnipresence of Dukkha

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Morning. Morning. It's my pleasure to introduce today's speaker, Karen Sunkheim. She started practicing at BCC in 1976, so pretty much since the dawn of time. She was ordained in 1996, and she served as our head student, or she so, in 2006. And then she received lay entrustment. couple of years ago. So she is also a librarian in one of her other lives, and a devoted aunt, and other things that she'll tell us about. So welcome, Karen. Thank you, Lori. Thank you all for coming today. It's true that I've been practicing for a long time. October will be 36 years since I... There's a hearing problem back there.


We're good. You can hear? Okay. So next month it'll be 36 years since I first came to the Berkley Zen Center. And I think it's too loud. We're just... keep talking. Okay. Yet what I want to talk about today is really the most basic teaching of the Buddha, because that's what strikes me again and again as I go through life. So the Buddha's first teaching, soon after he awakened under the Bodhi tree, he went out walking and was asked to teach, and his first teachings were about the Four Noble Truths.


And I'm curious, how many people here are new to Berkeley Zen Center or Buddhism? A couple of people. Okay. Because I know a lot of people have heard this before, but this is something that for me is renewed on a daily basis, living life So the first noble truth we often hear it as I don't particularly like this translation but it often comes across as life is suffering or in life there is suffering. Translation I like a little bit better is the omnipresence of Dukkha that is just everywhere all the time. And I don't think suffering is really quite an accurate translation of dukkha, and I'm not sure that I have really a better one, but it is a chronic dissatisfaction that can range from just not liking how things are to being in a lot of pain of all sorts, mental, physical, and just not being able to stand it.


So the Buddha taught, as many of you know, that the first thing to understand that there is this presence of dukkha everywhere, all the time. And then the second noble truth was that there is a cause. And mostly we read that the cause is desire. I like to think of the cause as being desire and aversion. Because on a really basic level, so often we want things we don't have, and we don't want things that we do have. So I want to just read a little bit. This is from Kategorii Roshi's book, Returning to Silence, Zen Practice in Daily Life. One thing he says, he talks about the four holy truths.


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. This means that it is one aspect of human life from which no one can escape. It is completely beyond what one likes and dislikes. You have to face it directly because your life is right in the midst of suffering. You cannot ignore it. If you ignore suffering, it becomes monstrous. We say also in in Buddhism that suffering is one of the three marks of existence. It's just part of life, part of being alive.


So, some of the examples, you know, the real obvious examples of a consumer life, you know, you want, you know, a car, you want wealth, you want the iPhone 5 or something like that. That's an example of desire. But then there are also other examples of less obvious things like wanting to feel better, not wanting this back pain, not wanting to be lonely, And when we try to get rid of certain aspects of ourselves or aspects of experience, we become kind of aggressive. We become angry or critical towards the experience we're having or towards other people who we may blame are causing that.


And then we have the ambition to improve ourselves. Why aren't we better? I've been practicing for 30 years and, you know, I still am not as happy as I'd like to be. I still have these faults. I still get angry. I still get depressed. But one thing that Katagiri Roshi says about this, which is something I've really found for myself, is that this is not at all a pessimistic teaching. The fact that dukkha is omnipresent is not something to be all that upset about. It's taken me a while to get to that point. But I'm happy to say that it feels different to me than it has over the years.


I mean, I've spent a lot of time hoping that, you know, with just enough zazen, with enough discipline, that somehow I would get over myself. But to understand that actually it just is comforting to me. So this summer, well, I'll start with last year. About nine months ago, I was working at the library. Now I work at the main library at Civic Center Plaza. And our primary clientele, I'd say, are the people at the Tenderloin. And so, as you know, a lot of them are very poor, there are a lot of homeless people, there are a lot of people with mental illnesses, substance abuse, all that kind of thing.


And a lot of them don't have jobs and what they do most of the day is hang out in the library, especially on my floor. And actually, I'm going to get back to that story after I tell another one. But in the nighttime, I work a couple of nights a week. So at night, it's much quieter. So I was working one night, and I decided I would write my bucket list. And I was happy to report that my bucket list is very short. But one of the things on my bucket list was I wanted to do a hiking trip, a long walking trip. It's been a dream I've had for many, many years, and I've never taken the time to do it. And so initially I imagined doing that hike through the Pyrenees, the Camino de Santiago, which is kind of a pilgrimage on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, and it goes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.


But when I tried to find people to go with me, that didn't work out. And the only person I could find interested had been to Antarctica about three times, living on an ice pack in a tent. and had lived with the grizzly bears in Alaska, and I felt like the world. So she was the only person I could get interested, so I agreed instead to do the Pyrenees on what's known as the GR10, which is a French... It's on the French side, and it's a very strenuous hike, and it also goes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. I knew I couldn't go that far in the vacation time that I could get from work because I think the whole trip takes six weeks or six to eight weeks. But we did decide to go for a partial trip.


So it was about 17 days. And I had understood, you know, that it would be very difficult physically and I did as best as I could, you know, with training, and I worried about it. And people were saying to me, you're going to be fine. And I really did do quite a bit of hiking. Some people, I hiked with some Sangha members here who helped me get in shape. So I did a fair amount of trainings, a lot of trips to REI. I read that book. You know, Cheryl Strayed's book, Wild, about her hiking 1,100 miles on the Pacific Coast Trail without ever having hiked in her life or put on a backpack.


So I thought I was ahead of that. If she could do it, I could do it. Anyway, deep down, I had this idea. The first week is going to be really, really hard. And then the second week, I'm going to be in really great shape. And the second week is just going to be a breeze. And people were saying to me, well, you know, you're going to be in such great shape when you get home. And I was kind of looking forward to that. I got there and so I'm with this person. The person who had been to Antarctica brought another friend from Antarctica. I didn't know this other person. One woman was a long-term acquaintance, not a really close friend, but a very long-term acquaintance.


I knew that the first day was supposed to be really hard. I read all the altitude, the amount of ascent and descent each day. There were several days where it was a 5,500-foot ascent. The hard part was then you descend 4,000 feet. But I had figured this first day was going to be really hard. But I got through it. The first day was beautiful there. There are all kinds of wild animals and waterfalls. I mean, it's a really beautiful area. And so I felt really good after the first day. And I thought, well, you know, I can do this. And then there was a second day, and then the third day came along, and it was another 10-mile day. Straight up, straight down.


So the Pyrenees are like this. That's how the trails go. It's not like you climb way up and then you roll along for a week-long vacation. You come right down, and it's all rock, practically. You know, it's not a lot of dirt trails. There's a lot of rock. So we're starting off on the third day, and I see in the distance these craggy peaks and fields of snow and stuff. I think it's going to be nice to have that in the background. But it started to get very, very difficult. And I ended up, well, Spoke to him. I was starting to get very worried that I couldn't make it And I was in a lot of it was physically hard, you know, I've some typical Middle-aged problems, you know hip pain and back pain and all that. So things were starting to hurt and I was really really exhausted and so I say to the


acquaintance of mine, you know, how do you do this? How have you done all these trips? I'm just worried that I'm not going to make it. And I knew that this fear of not making it was actually worse than the reality. So I said, how do you do this? Tell me something that's going to help. And so she says, Karen, I know you're a Buddhist. Everything changes. I know you talk about impermanence. Now, impermanence had never registered at that point in the three days on the trip. So, you know, what you experience one moment is going to be very different 15 minutes from now or an hour from now. You may not even remember it. So that was helpful, actually. Yet it was still really, really hard So suddenly I'm about we're approaching these snow fields and I had no idea we were ever going to cross a snow field So I end up bursting into tears Now that wasn't quite what I had imagined happening And it was so exhausting that I just You know, it's hard to


Just can't fight with your feelings when you're physically put yourself out that much. Now fortunately, I didn't... Well, I was kind of shocked by the whole thing. I didn't want to look like a wimp. Not with these Antarctica hikers. And I had this idea that everything was going to be fine and it just didn't seem fine at all. So, you know, I had a bit of a cry and then, you know, I lost energy for that fairly quickly, but I guess this one, what I'm trying to say is just that it was hard for me to accept that this wasn't how I expected it to be, or that it was so hard, not just physically, but emotionally, that it really broke me.


I lost my temper a number of times, as did the others. We had a couple big arguments. I was slower than they were, and they didn't like that. So it was painful, and I have to say when I look, it was a wonderful trip, so I don't want to sound... I'm not trying to put the trip in a negative light. I'm really just struck by my own renewed awareness about encountering situations You know, this one teaching over and over is this acceptance, the acceptance of dukkha.


This happened to me a number of times on the trip. I had three meltdowns that involved crying, just not being able to control anything, and then I was deeply struck by the beauty that I found. Even though I was worried about how hard it was going to be, and it was harder than I even thought it would be, I was not ready for some of the more beautiful aspects. I mean, not only the scenery, but the people. This was in southwest France. And we hiked from hut to hut. So very often we would hike 11 hour days and then end up in a hut where there'd be no showers, no electricity, no toilet paper, great food.


But anyway, the people were lovely. So I find myself year after year of practice just going back to the very simplest of the Buddhist teachings and learning to accept it. At the library, there's a man who comes in He comes in every couple weeks. He's an older Caucasian man, who I think lives in one of those resident hotels. And he comes in, his pants are kind of falling down.


He's got a very bad tremor. And he kind of hobbles up to the reference desk. And it's hard for him to speak, and he kind of leans on the desk, and he does drool a little bit. And he's very... You know, when I first saw him, I kind of felt sad for him. I guess I still do. But he's kind of regular, and he's very respectful. but he's got his bias really out just not within his control and he's very poor and he always asks for the same thing. It takes him a long time to say it and he wants to explain it every time even though I know what he's looking for and it's this book and he tells me in this speech that is very hard for him to get out that he wants this book and it's called


happiness. And I know which one it is. We have lots of books on happiness. He likes to explain which one it is. But I really understand. It's like a very... I mean, he's got these problems that are just hanging out all over the place. He's not... A lot of people kind of look good on the outside, it takes a while to know what's really going on, but this man, really, a lot of the suffering is just right on the surface and he just leans over like this and talks about the book on happiness. And so I get it for him and, you know, he goes and sits down and reads it. I was gone for five weeks.


I was in France hiking, and then I went to Amsterdam for a while. Part of the reason I was there was I had a conference to go to for work in Amsterdam. It was a queer archives conference. It was an international gathering of archivists from all over the world, historical societies and libraries and museums, all dealing with queer collections. So that's how I got there. But then I came back and it was painful. It was hard to go back to work because the situation there of... It's just a painful situation, you know, being in the library with so many suffering people who have some services, but I know that I can't really give them. what they really need. Now, I have a library degree.


In theory, we're supposed to be dealing with information and books, and that's not what they want where I work. So I've always thought that I was very lucky to have a work venue where it's necessary to practice the way of the Bodhisattva. I mean, there's so much you can do to ease suffering there, even just for a minute. Just because a lot of people need, you know, a smile, a kind word, they ask you for things they already know, like where's the bathroom, you know, where's this, where's that. So in that way, I've always been glad to have that opportunity. But I also felt, you know, spending 60 hours a week there was too much. And I lamented the fact that, you know, I can't spend as much time here.


I work on Saturdays, you know, that kind of thing. So I put in a proposal to start a meditation group in the library, and that was accepted. So, starting in a few weeks, once a week, we're going to have a meditation group there, and I think the clientele is already there. So, it's not like a lot of recruitment has to happen. So, before questions, I just want to read one more little piece. This is a story about the Buddha. towards the end of his life. When Shakyamuni Buddha was about to die, he talked with the people who were suffering from grief at the thought that he would soon pass away. They asked him what they should follow after his death.


The Buddha said, after my death, you should see the Dharma. People who can see the Dharma can see me. People who can see me can see the Dharma. He gave the same teaching to one of his disciples who was about to die. This disciple had practiced under the Buddha's guidance for many years, and he wanted to see his teacher before he died. When the Buddha came, the disciple said to him, I have had a cherished desire to come and see you, but unfortunately my strength is on the decline. The Buddha said, even though you have the chance to see this body, which will decompose Of what use is it? If you want to see me, see the Dharma. If you can see the Dharma, you can see me. This is the Buddhist teaching. So are there any comments or questions?


Susan? Hey, did you read that book on happiness that your friend was trying to tell you? I was trying to find it the other day, and I couldn't. I would like to. Yes? Thank you so much for sharing your life. And it's so interesting to me, this difficulty you had in the Pyrenees, and being a Buddhist, and practicing for so long. I'm just wondering about taking refuge in the Buddha. What does that mean for you? Do you often take refuge in the Buddha? And did it occur to you to do that in the Pyrenees? And what would it look like? Because I'm looking at that and comparing it against you're in the library, and you're looking at these people who are suffering, and you're offering them a meditation group. So how does that bridge?


You mean how do I do it myself? I can remember to do it, and what steps would you take? Did you offer a meditation group to the three of you and the charities? It looked different. I love your question because I love the refuges. And in this last quote that I just read, I feel that very strongly, taking refuge, because you can see Buddha in everything, in every experience. I don't always remember, of course, which is where a lot of difficulty arises. Sometimes I think that taking refuge means looking at your experience, yourself, clearly, without any ideas, being completely open, and accepting that


this experience that we all have of the suffering, say, that I experienced, that it's natural and it's okay. The Buddha is very kind. Taking refuge, of course, is not a fix. You know, when I was first studying Buddhism and I heard the Four Noble Truths, I thought, hmm, you know, that's really interesting and that's a way that, you know, I can stop suffering. You know, just stop that desire, stop the complaining, stop the aversion.


But actually, that's just a way of keeping control. That's not really living. Taking refuge is something we do moment by moment. And recognizing this truth of the omniscience of dukkha is something to experience every moment. And I think they're so related. I didn't think of it so much that way while I was hiking, but that is a way I do think of it. I did read that Zen Master Dogen, when he was dying, just chanted the refuges, or just had the refuges. That was his main practice in his very last days. So did you want to say anything?


I thought of a tapping verse to the first two truths, is the second two truths, which is the cure. The first two is the problem, and the second two is the cure. Which is like, there is a way to deal with suffering, or whatever you want to do, God. And it's called practice. I didn't want to complete the verse. No, I agree. Yes? When I heard your story, I was struck by the two sides of the suffering, the physical suffering we're experiencing and then the mental, the psychic suffering of disillusionment. This isn't what I thought it was going to be. Did you have a sense of which was worse, or just how did you deal with the two different sides of the suffering? I think my mental suffering was worse.


I had a lot of pain, but the truth is I didn't injure myself. You know, I was very tired, but a lot of it was emotional. You know, whether I could really do this. And that's the side of suffering, of living up to one's expectations about oneself. Not wanting to be busy crying as we're walking uphill in this beautiful forest. So for me, that is true. I have to say I've been pretty lucky in that, you know, so far my physical ailments have been relatively, you know, non-life threatening. I've been lucky enough to, you know, be able to do this trip, but the emotional side was hard. I think we all have our different kinds of suffering that we experience.


Mary? What else is on your bucket list? Well, that was the one event. That was the only thing that I actually had to go out and do. The other things are more ongoing things that I want to do with my life. And one thing that relates to this practice, actually, is I've wanted to do some writing. I don't have ambitions of writing a novel or a book or anything like that, but I've been trying to note my life, particularly in the library, things that happen there. Because I think with our lives, they go by so fast. It's easy to put it into one big cloud and say, I went to work, I came home. I didn't sleep well, I went back to work. And life can look that way. And then the staff and people at work are kind of demoralized because we get treated kind of badly by the public often, especially at the civic center.


And it can get kind of depressing. sometimes it almost seems like a black cloud. And what's important to me is I don't want to live in a black cloud. I want to see the details. And the fact is, with this man who comes up asking for this book on happiness, it was just such a striking moment of being completely alive and struggling That's an example of something I just want to write. Last time I gave a talk, I talked about an incident that happened on Bard, which I'm obviously not going to repeat now. There are things that just happen in the simplest ways at the grocery store, public transportation, the library, And it's just kind of that miraculous unfolding of life itself that I would like to really have to pay attention to.


And to me that's a real practice rather than hiding behind, oh here comes this guy again and I can't wait till I go home and that tired feeling that things are actually kind of routine when they're really not routine. There's no routine. You know, every time we wake up, brush our teeth, you know, every moment is unique and unfolding, so that's... Linda? I wanted to ask you about the way we use the word accept, and when you said that you keep coming to a deeper understanding of accepting Dukkha as the actual reality of your life, and that that's a kind of freedom. I understand and agree about that.


But at the same time, I wonder often about the social and political side of that. If you say something like, accept your suffering, how how to talk equally skillfully about, without losing the wisdom of acceptance, about not accepting the circumstances that are unjust and so on? Well, I think that's a great question. I think we have to remind ourselves, you know, as Sojin pointed out, with the Eightfold Path being the fourth noble truth and the aspects of right livelihood and really working for change. I think there's a way you can do that and accept that change is not going to happen overnight. The work that you're doing to make changes in the world for the better, to ease suffering in the world,


I think you can't do it without accepting the way it is, but then you don't have to say that this is how it has to be. You can work to make it better, and you come across all sorts of frustrating things. Those things don't move how we want them to go and as quickly as we want them to go, but to keep working towards that. I don't think acceptance means just accept all the kind of social ills. I don't know if I answered that. I just sometimes wonder if we should be careful about the way we use accept when we're talking about suffering. I know. I don't like the word accept either. In fact, I was trying to think of a different word because accept does come across as being a bit passive. Like, well, if I just accept it, then I'll feel better.


But then again, that's just manipulative. That's still trying to change things. If you're trying to, you know, get rid of something by accepting it, that just is a kind of denial. Mary's holding up the striker, so I think... it's time to stop. But thank you so much for being here and for asking questions and listening.