The path of meditation isn’t necessarily about becoming a Buddhist.
It’s about awakening to who we already are: buddha—“awakened one” in Sanskrit. Through the practice of meditation, the Buddha overcame bewilderment and suffering and awoke to the truth of reality, which is that we are all inherently awake.
He then laid out a path through which each of us can emerge from our discursiveness and discover this truth for ourselves. Because of his realization, we look to him for inspiration and teaching.
One of the first truths the Buddha saw is that we spend our whole lives in search of some kind of basic happiness. Since I travel a lot, I often sit in airports and notice how busy everybody is going from one place to another. Where are we all going? We’re trying to find the place where we’ll be happy. We’re thinking, “If I just make my flight, if I just get to the next place on my itinerary, I’ll be happy.”
From the Buddha’s perspective, this traveling in search of happiness has been going on for lifetime after lifetime, because we’re conducting it from a very small point of view. We’re looking for happiness in material things. We’re seeking it outside ourselves. We’re putting our money on situations that are bound to be temporary. In other words, we’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places. That’s samsara—khorwa in Tibetan—an endless cycle of bewilderment and suffering.
We don’t have to believe in many lifetimes to see how samsara works. In sitting meditation we can begin to see this pattern in the experience that we’re having right now. Practicing shamatha—peacefully abiding—is an opportunity to slow down and take a vacation from acting on the speed and vibration of the mind. The mind’s movement is always seducing us into thoughts and actions. Its discursive busyness can keep us from ever seeing its true nature, which is stable, calm, and clear. By eliminating all other activities and sitting down to meditate—even for a few minutes—we can begin to take a bigger view.
Sitting on the cushion, we see how we keep investing our time and energy in the same situation again and again because somehow we think we’ll find happiness there. We see how this pattern manifests in thoughts and emotions. We also begin to see how it works in our lives. For example, when a relationship falls apart, perhaps our immediate response is to look for another one. In meditation we begin to see what the Buddha saw: as long as we engage in life with this particular kind of approach, the end result will be suffering.
There are three particular kinds of suffering. First, there’s the suffering of suffering. Life is a continual process of aging—being born, growing up, getting sick, getting old, dying. For example, I’m about to turn 40. Until recently it seemed that everyone was always telling me, “Oh, you’re so young!” Now they’re saying, “You’re getting old, aren’t you?” What happened to the middle? I thought there’d be some cruising space for a while. But the perfect age doesn’t exist. Suffering is the nature of our experience. Some days this seems more true than others, but if we deny the suffering of suffering, we’re hallucinating.
The next kind of suffering is the suffering of change. Even if we somehow think we’re in a special category where we’re unaffected by the suffering of suffering, it’s hard to ignore the suffering of change. Our pleasure is always disintegrating into pain. Eating delicious food becomes painful when we keep having one more bite. A relationship is good in the beginning and by the end, we’re completely at odds with each other. The little baby we rock and cuddle will someday walk out the door. Where does it all go? That’s the suffering of change.
Then there’s all-pervasive suffering. We could call it meditative suffering. The world we perceive and how we perceive it is constantly changing. Consciousness itself comes in and out of existence hundreds of times in the snap of a finger. This level of instability brings mental agitation. Those of us who meditate know how hard it is just to sit there, because the mind is perpetually creating itself.
The Buddha observed these kinds of suffering and asked, “What’s behind it all?” As he kept meditating, he saw that we suffer because we’re holding on to the notion of a self. We suffer because we think we exist. He contemplated this insight by looking for a self, asking, “Who is this individual who’s looking for happiness? Who is this individual who’s suffering?” And he realized that there’s nothing there. The notion of a solid self is an illusion, a dream we’re living, and to awaken from it is to stop suffering. In meditation we can see this for ourselves: the basis of the ongoing dilemma known as suffering is that it takes a lot of energy to create and protect what isn’t here in the first place.
In searching for happiness in all the wrong places we continually perpetuate the basic misunderstanding that we exist. Our illusion of a self invades whatever we encounter—“my” family, “my” house, “my” country, “my” world. Day and night we feed and fortify “me.” It’s stressful and exhausting. When we begin to meditate—recognizing and acknowledging our thoughts and relaxing with our breath—we begin to realize that we have a body, we have a mind, and we have different kinds of consciousness—sight consciousness, sound consciousness, smell consciousness. We realize that some days we feel like ourselves and some days we don’t. We see that the self we considered solid is continuously changing. After a while this “me” is not so hard and real. Meditation shows us the nature of this dream as well as the possibility of awakening from it. We begin to see where true happiness might lie.
By meditating consistently and regularly we develop mindfulness and awareness. The inherent stability, clarity, and strength of our mind begin to override bewilderment. We know when we’re solidifying our sense of “me,” because we recognize the suffering that results. To recognize the root of suffering is to align ourselves with the truth. We gain more strength, because we start to conduct our lives according to reality. Now instead of resisting suffering by saying, “That’s not the way it is supposed to be,” we can accept that suffering is occurring. We can relax with the truth, which means loosening our grip on ourselves. This is how we internalize and personalize the realization of the Buddha.
Recognizing, acknowledging, and accepting our own level of fear, anxiety, and pain isn’t always pleasant. But we don’t have to take it personally. We’re not the only ones suffering, and we’re not the only ones with the potential to wake up. Once we’ve seen suffering and the root of suffering, we see the suffering of others and feel compassion because we know there’s a way to work with it. Our motivation expands. We want to help others. Our heart and mind keep getting bigger.
When we have the skill and motivation to engage authentically with our whole life, whatever we encounter becomes the Buddha saying, “Just wake up!”
© 2002 by Sakyong Mipham. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in Shambhala Sun magazine.
Author: Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
Editor: Travis May
Photo: elephant journal