This is the end of suffering. Nirvana. The present moment stripped of psychosis. Mindfulness. The second coming of Christ through you. You’re another Buddha walking the earth when you’ve died to yourself like this. It’s that good!

Preamble.

Below is roughly the main body of the talk as I gave it Tuesday 19 March 2013. There may be inaccuracies.

If I’ve encouraged you to meditate regularly by the end of tonight, or give it a go, find out more, I’ll measure my success on that.

Meditation helps us reach an inner peace, see what’s coming from ego, become more compassionate, more loving to others and ourselves, reduce stress, and helps us deal with suffering. It’s very practical stuff. Unfortunately I don’t have time to give practical advice about meditating tonight but you can always read a book or go to a group or something. The ancient masters are the best teachers for aspects of posture and so on.

 Specifically, I was invited here to talk about using meditation in preparation for lent…as a Buddhist! So I haven’t got the wrong building tonight; I’m meant to be here. I looked at all that in the last session and said you can’t use meditation to prepare for lent because lent is lent and meditation is meditation. If you use any subject of study during meditation, it’s not meditation; it becomes something else – contemplation, reflective study. Instead, meditation is about quietening the mind, emptying of ourselves, so the idea is to have no object of study at all.

But I also said that something profound happens through the practice of meditating – and you could call it, I coined a phrase, ‘a Lenten journey of the heart’ because like all those stations in the Passion story, someone ends up dying and after death there is the promise of freedom, of something better. So in that sense there is a relationship between meditation and Lent. The organisers suggested I expand on that concept a bit with a second session looking at how to approach suffering. This tied in with advice from a senior to prepare something on the four noble truths. So that’s how we ended up with this title, ‘Beyond Pain and Suffering’, and here goes!

Early on in the Gospel of Luke (9:24), is a record of Jesus saying: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will save it. Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

It’s very profound, and it comes immediately after Jesus predicting his own death. It’s also hard to understand. So we skip past it for these reasons. And doing so, we put the focus back on him: it’s him who is to die, it’s him who is to be crucified. After all, he’s the Christ; it’s his job to save. But he’s not saying that at all. Not here at least. What he’s really saying here is yes, I’m going to die horribly. But really if you’re into following me you must (no choice about it) crucify yourself every day, because only that way will you save your own life for yourself; by losing it.

He can’t mean literally. Last time I checked, it was only possible to kill yourself once and no more times than that. He also can’t mean ‘die with me when I die’ – again that word ‘daily’ is critical in the meaning. So does he mean humility? Humility is just a behaviouristic.

To me it’s a Zen koan. It’s dense in the meaning.

Here’s a mind-bender for you (in my own words):

To prevent all pain, God would have to stop time. Life is in constant flow in all directions simultaneously outside of time. So life does just fine. But space only exists because there’s movement, and movement requires time, so that’s why birth and death have to happen. Without them there’s no movement, and without movement there’s no space, and all reality ceases to exist. Animals and plants have to die so that we can eat and give birth. Stars are born, but they have to die. So God is stuck. Such a shame! I always thought He was omniscient. Maybe there’s stuff that He doesn’t know!

I’m not here to discuss free will….

We’re the ones who are stuck. We want to be immortal. But we’re not. And this is the root of all suffering on an individual and shared level.

We don’t accept that pain can’t be prevented, that death is inevitable: we don’t accept that it’s how reality is. So we try to make certain things, things we attach to, static in time (which only the source of life can be), and that’s when suffering starts. I want to make things prevailing and timeless for me, so I manipulate things, and other beings, to fit my own pictures and ideas, and this increases the pain level for me and for them. Why do I do it? I don’t want to die. I’m afraid of my death. So is everyone. So we inhabit a sort of matrix of suffering that we make for each other because we are all experiencing movement, birth, death, and spacetime on the one hand, and feeling life (which is not the same as being alive) – life beyond time in the other. On one plane of existence we don’t want to die, but on another plane, this life stuff over here we sense is really cool, and never dying. How confusing! Can we make mortal living eternal like the source of life is? We can’t. But we’re trying all the time. We suffer.

In Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and other Dharmic faiths this birth, death, suffering matrix is called karma. In Christianity it’s called, at least in part, fallen nature. But the matrix doesn’t exist anywhere in reality outside of ourselves. It always starts as just an idea. All that’s real, outside of us, is what Jesus dubs the “kingdom of heaven”.

Paradise.

So what can we do?

Pain is inevitable. We can’t stop it. “god” can’t stop it. But we can overcome our fear of death and break out of the matrix. If we can come to terms with the fact that we will die, and if we can live in a way that we are constantly (daily) ready to be dead, then our actions won’t be determined by our fear of death (which is also our drive to persist, our ego), and this means we won’t inflict suffering on others but it also means we won’t suffer so much – even when there’s pain. Awareness changes, and in that instant of dying to ourselves, we will have denied ourselves and saved our own lives. That’s what Jesus is on about here.

There’s no magic to it, and God doesn’t enter the equation. A daily self-denial in order to discover life, to reconcile our existence is what he’s pointing to… Jesus is instructing us to go beyond suffering for ourselves and each other, and in that way rise again in what he lovingly dubs “the kingdom of heaven” today, accepting things just as they are in this present moment.

This stuff is subtle, profound, hard to get. So if you don’t mind, I’ll repeat the same message using different words. (Again my own.)

The ego evolved in us to protect our primary objective to persist – to survive. And it’s our ego that wants to live forever.

It’s misunderstood our existential situation. It tries to reconcile life, birth, and death by making death stop instead of by accepting or even seeing any distinction between the temporary nature of living and the eternal nature of life to which there is no death.

Why does it do that? Because it’s very good at its evolutionary purpose – keeping us going – but it’s become too powerful.

So you could rephrase all this again by saying, do what Jesus said to do, and what you’re really doing is stepping out of your own self-involvement and waking up to life’s sparkle by denying your ego.

Do that, and you’ve let things settle back into paradise for you and those around you a little more.

Isn’t it fascinating that Jesus is saying save our own lives immediately after the miracle of predicting his crucifixion. Especially if it’s meant to be his resurrection that saves us, his resurrection that’s the good news?

All Jesus says we must do, and he says it in several different ways, is deny ourselves.

Dying to ourselves doesn’t sound very nice. Not something you might choose to do on a Sunday afternoon! So why would we want to go and do a thing like that? Jesus said we had to. But even if you want to follow him, which not all of us here tonight are saying we do, How can we do something if we don’t really understand what it means? It’s difficult because if we don’t understand, then we have no motivation and no goal. That’s why we get confused.

Remember the TV ad. With the “la, la, la I’m not listening musical fingers” {in the UK}? Our egos can be like that. Ego fights to reach immortality, even if it means fabrication, which is what it has to resort to because immortality on this plane is not possible. So it fabricates lies to support other lies we make ourselves.

We end up making bubbles of unreality to inhabit for ourselves, but because these bubbles are subconscious, we mistake the bubble for reality itself. This is like where our delusion starts. And our clinging. Our greed. Subconsciously.

So in another sense it’s not so much that we don’t understand what Jesus’s saying – silly Jesus for being so cryptic – as that we don’t want to hear it so we block it out with those la la musical fingers.

Our egos prefer to think the good news means Jesus saves us, rather than we save ourselves by following his instruction, his example.

And this is a classic example to me at least of the ego deflecting any sense of threat to itself by shifting the emphasis on to something else: in this case from us to Jesus.

Why’s it doing that? To do its job in protecting us from any hint of death. Creating more delusion so that we can persist with the delusions we’ve already made for ourselves in our attempts to cheat on death.

It is a grim illustration Jesus is using. Carrying the cross oneself was what Romans made their convicted do in their crucifixion ceremony so that the convicted would face the ultimate mental humiliation walking themselves to their own death – and face all this before the ultimate physical humiliation of being pinned to a roughshod public wall. This stuff is barely beaten in its brutality by what happened to people at Auschwitz.

So Jesus is saying humiliate yourself as much as humanly possible! Walk yourself to your own death! Then you’ll get it! You’ll be free. He has to be stern about it, and brutally illustrative, because if he wasn’t he wouldn’t get the message past our musical fingers. And still often doesn’t despite trying.

There’s nothing selfish about desiring freedom from pain and suffering: my suffering is tied up with yours, because of this matrix we live in. My freedom is tied up with your freedom. If you are not free, neither am I. How can I free you? By freeing myself.

Is the world fallen? Is that why there is pain and suffering?

I don’t see any change happening to this present world planet Earth in the Eden story.

I only see a change in perception happening to human beings. 

A new perception that the self is separate (without which there’s no awareness of being naked).

So it’s caused by an emerging idea of individuality; the point in our evolution that was the birth of the ego and the end of community with all creation.

 

The ego is where it all begins, so the ego is where it all has to stop if planet Earth is to become paradise again.

This, incidentally, and it will be no surprise to you if I say this now, is also what Buddha said. In his first sermon called the four noble truths he says:

Life is dukkha: a sense of dissatisfaction because reality is different from how we would like it to be. The world never lives up to our ideas. And this includes our ideas of ourselves – our self image. How we believe we are. We want to hold on to these ideas forever.

He says the source of this dissatisfaction is thirst. Insatiability. Always chasing for more, for something else, or when we do have what we want but become bored from it, for something better instead. Pleasure itself is no problem, but thirst creates anger. We struggle with ourselves and each other because we try to impose our schemes and ideas onto reality instead of really seeing reality just for what it is outside of ourselves. He says the source of this thirst is ignorance of the impermanent nature of life. We believe most of the time that the schemes we create will last forever, and that’s the ignorance. Nothing lasts, and it’s not meant to.

He says there’s a way beyond this suffering. If we want to extinguish suffering, we have to extinguish our thirst. Our insatiability.

Finally he says this way beyond is a path with certain qualities. While being qualities to have ambition for, they are also qualities that describe someone who is on the spiritual path. Our character, our quality changes naturally over time as we walk the spiritual Way. This natural way is a way to live without being possessed with ourselves. A way to live in communion with all nature. Once this opens out for us, we can see our thirst and it starts to have less effect. When it has less effect, we get less angry. With less thirst and anger, we are less dissatisfied. So, by simply following the Way, everything follows, we open out to the universe, and we become peace.

Buddha sees a sickness, demonstrates its symptoms, says there’s a cure, and makes a proscription: a life of self discipline as a route to stepping past our ego, our small self, and coming alive to everything outside of ourselves – including freedom, peace, and joy. Extinguishing our illusions, greed, anger, so that what’s going on in this present moment becomes vivid and alive for us as it should be without our own designs on the world fuzzying the picture, and without all those favourite kinds of negative drama that create our suffering for each other.

We have to decide for ourselves if Buddha’s diagnosis is correct. In fact, Buddha said this. He said, I can’t teach you this. But try it out and tell me I’m wrong.

This is Jesus’ instruction too, and it’s practical guidance.

Why do I need to die? Because if I don’t, then I’ll never taste freedom – and neither will you because I’ll keep snatching it from you. I don’t know that this is what I’m doing when I do it. It’s subconscious. But it’s still true, even if I can’t see it at the time because I’m deluded or possessed with myself – my own demons and designs on the world.

Later on in the Passion story, when Jesus is dying, he cries out  “forgive them Father” (He means for crucifying me) “They don’t know what they do!”

He really means it. The Roman soldiers he’s talking about can’t see their own psychosis!

If they weren’t deluded and suffering, the soldiers would not have wanted to kill another man. They didn’t get it, so they killed what they didn’t understand. They are we. Killing what we don’t understand – and not seeing our own psychosis.

It starts in our heads, just as an idea. Then we make it real for ourselves and others as much as possible. Our bubbles influence reality as much as they can. But it all starts personally.

If you don’t get what I mean, here are some examples for you to consider:

We want to be more holy but we don’t manage it so we suffer. We want things that make our health poorer – drink, chocolate, cigarettes – but we also want to be fit, so we suffer. We want a relative to still be alive, but they died, so we suffer. We were given a country to run, but we’re afraid of losing our inheritance, so we build nuclear warheads to stop death and we create much suffering a thousand fold. We are insatiable. This is our psychosis.

But we can’t fight the ego and win. It’s too strong, and too clever: fabricating delusions all the time to out-fox our conscious minds. It’s not a demon, it has a use, it is after all a good idea to stay alive and this is what the ego is designed to ensure.

So we have to let it be, and step to one side so that it’s not all that we are. That’s why it takes self-discipline. Call it spiritual if you want.

This is the path to our own Calvary that Jesus says is mandatory to walk every day. Without ego bothering us, we can step past our own desperate attempts to preserve the world the way we want it to be, our attempts to freeze time or exist beyond the effect of time – acting like a God outside of time and living forever in mortal reality – and see more clearly how and when we add layers of our own pain and suffering onto everybody else’s. Then we are humble (there’s the humility bit), because we do see our own psychosis and know what we do. If we see it, we can change our response, walk a different walk.

Well why should I have to die first? The world’s a mess because of everyone else’s doo dah! Not mine! Well, that’s the ego talking. That’s my ego.

When I was preparing this, I decided it might be a good idea [because Jesus’ spin on the message is so brutal and stark] to point out some mistakes people commonly make to watch out for when it comes to a path of self-denial. [Pema Chodron is good on this, by the way, and I’ve probably paraphrased her material in the making of this bit.]

Nihilism, suicide, death fixation, self hatred, false humility, trying to be nice for everyone else.

Life from the point of view of someone who has already died has nothing to do with any of those! If you find yourself favouring any one of them then you haven’t grasped it yet!

It’s simple stuff. It involves letting go; stopping doing things rather than doing more things. But it’s subtle. Simple but subtle. So we practice daily. Then we see.

Here’s another classic question:

If God is love why is there pain and suffering?

Pain there has to be. Life there always is, and was, and will be. There’s some solace in knowing that life is indeed eternal. But the suffering part we make, and in that suffering, to use a line from a song, we pave paradise and put up a parking lot in its place.

Not all of us need to hear this message in equal measure, unfortunately.

The kingdom of heaven is available right now in the present moment. Easter came! When you deny yourself, all of creation fills your core, and the resources you need to handle an ever-changing universe in your everyday life are never far away.

Everything the Universe knows, you will know.

This is being peace. This good news is really good for everyone. This is the path to your own Calvary. This is the Way that Jesus talked about.

I would even stick my neck out and say that this is the same way that Buddha talked about. That Lao Tsu talked about. And feeling really brave, I’d stretch it even to this: This is the very inner surrender of Mohammed to Al’Lah.

This is the curtain torn down to the holy of holies.

This is entering the kingdom of heaven like a crucified thief, like the birds who don’t worry about tomorrow, like children at play – alive only to the present moment.  This is the end of suffering. Nirvana. The present moment stripped of psychosis. Mindfulness. The second coming of Christ through you. You’re another Buddha walking the earth when you’ve died to yourself like this. It’s that good!

To me, these are all illustrations pointing to the same thing.

There is only one Easter path. One Calvary road.

Not because there is only one true religion. But because there’s only one problem to solve: my ego. For an hour today. For a day tomorrow. For a lifetime with practice.

We robbed ourselves of knowing this. For Power. For Control. For Domination. You can blame the church. But we should blame ourselves too, every day that we don’t deny ourselves. Every day we fear death, and prefer to believe we don’t have to die – only Jesus does. Only somebody else that’s not me. Only God. But God can cope and trick death so everyone wins. Nobody got hurt really!

Jesus gave us this teaching and said do it “daily”. He ducked under crowds to go and be alone as much as possible. When people asked him “how should we pray?”, his answer was tantamount to “use as few words as possible”, and if you don’t believe me read the Lord’s prayer again – what does it really say, in sum? Not much!

He suggested that paradise is the giving of our last penny: the sort of behavior we can only afford if we’ve already accepted life from the real inevitability of dying. It’s not somber, but it does take work. Why should I do what Jesus said? Because I want to be free from suffering.

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Questions

Some questions were asked and answered. I don’t remember enough to accurately record them. But I did say that what I thought about whether Jesus was the Christ or not was off topic for me tonight, and was largely irrelevant. What I said I was getting at was this: Whether you think he was who people said he was, or wasn’t, you have to acknowledge that he gave this teaching, and it’s very profound, and it points to something we have to do, which we don’t generally accept because we want to carry on with our own delusions. We want a quiet life, but it’s never quiet that way – we create trouble for ourselves and each other if we ignore what he’s saying.

Foot notes

If that’s true – what about “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father but by me”? John 14:6.

Some doubt the accuracy of John’s record of what Jesus said. I don’t think you have to doubt the accuracy of John at all. I just think that even taken phrase by phrase this statement of Jesus’ is very deep. So it’s another one of those misunderstood passages because our egos don’t want to accept what it’s really telling us: to me it’s so similar to the quote studied above. It’s almost an identical message in different words. We make it something it’s not so as to deflect Jesus’ instruction to die to ourselves.

According to web sources because I don’t know Greek or Aaramaic:

I AM – this part is apparently the same as the I AM statement made by God.

Way – John’s written in Greek so Hodos here means road or, metaphorically, course of conduct.

And truth (alētheia, knowledge accessing reality)

and life (zōē– fulfillment).

There are no definitive articles in Aramaic, so we don’t know that he said “The” Way, “The” Truth, “The” Life, just ‘way and truth and life’. Then that’s immediately followed by oudeis erchetai: ‘No-one comes to the Father but by me” – two distinct beings – him and Father. He steps from non-dualism into a dualistic way of speaking, so within this quote itself is a marrying of the two planes of existence: of divine and present.

CK Barrett’s 1978 commentary understands this second part as “the way which he himself is now about to take is the road which his followers must also tread. He himself goes to the Father by way of crucifixion and resurrection; his followers do the same thing and that’s what the way is.”

So if you felt bold you could offer a translation more like “I Am God without separation – not distinctly two parts. We are One. I am course of conduct, knowledge accessing reality, fulfillment. You have to come to the Father the same way that I have to: go die yourself so that you rise again because that’s The Way.”

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Good Buddhist. Bad Buddhist.

In Soto Zen, which is on the mahayana “branch” of the Buddhist “tree”, the only object of zazen is zazen. Doing Zazen, one is not trying to get anywhere or get any thing. In the same way, regulars at Soto school of Zazen do not have as their objective good emulation of ideas about how a Buddhist should or should not behave.

Buddhism expressed in this form is not ‘social’ in the sense of an exchange of ideas about good and bad behaviour towards one another. People are not trying to be good Buddhists with each other in Soto Zen. Well, sometimes they are, but they’ll soon get slapped down!

It’s the ego that wants to fit in. It’s the ego that wants to be esteemed above others. It’s the ego that wants to control and manipulate others. It takes time to see clearly when one is acting for personal gain and when one is simply being one’s self. It takes spiritual practice and discipline.

There are other schools of Buddhism who disagree with this approach, even though the objective (freedom from suffering and delusion for the sake of all) is the same. In other schools, the object is to emulate the behaviours of Buddhist elders, and in that way cultivate a mindful approach to the world.

Soto Zen concurs with the objectives shared by all Buddhist schools, but pooh pooh’s the emulating part. It is a form of practice designed to wake one up. That’s it. Once you have suddenly awoken and seen that it is possible as a human being to experience things non-dualistically, from a place beyond the small idea of the inner self, then it’s your job (and no-one else’s) to realize that understanding of reality into every sphere of life and to its fullest miraculous extent.

Forget what you know about Buddhists. You can’t learn the Buddha’s message for yourself by making discriminatory conclusions about the behaviour of Buddhists. Of course this goes for all religions. But in the West, Buddhism is still quite new. It’s also the smallest of the major world faiths. And it has a reputation. Those Buddhists. They’re always nice. They never started any wars.

True. But then in World War 2, Buddhism was contorted to train soldiers how to fight. What do you think about the Buddha’s dharma now?

I have been horrendously upset by Zen Nuns before. Went home. Cried. Then realised my response was entirely connected with not being able to manipulate the other person in the habitual ways we all have. Laughing about it. Seeing more clearly.

Growing to love that Nun.

The dharma has to be written on the heart. Once written there, it’s all change. Authentic change happens inside-out, and is only delayed by anxiety over what others might think, or trying to fit in with what others might want. So in the style of thirteenth-century Zen popstar Dogen, forget them and keep practising like your hair is on fire. Keep going. Awaken to the Oneness.

There’s no time to waste pretending.

Atoning for evil karma

“The river laughed. Yes, that was how it was. Everything that was not suffered to the end and finally concluded, recurred, and the same sorrows were undergone.”
Hermann Hesse, ‘Siddhartha’ (1922)

“It’s a long, long Way,
‘Cause I’ve been there before,
And I ain’t goin’ back there no more”
Seasick Steve, ‘Long Long Way’ (2011)

Atoning for past karma, in Buddhism, is for me at least a process of having to be awake to the grim process of the desires of old karma, while also being awake to what these desires result in, and being awake to a better way.

Old formulations are easy and automatic no matter how dysfunctional they are. Wanting to live in anxiety of the presumed expectations of others (‘never good enough’), in earnest of myself (‘is this right’), in low self-esteem (‘of course not good enough’), in expecting punishment for the sake of punishment (‘hell is where I belong’). These are all automatic patterns. But they are all also harmful, and dysfunctional.

There is no other way to a better way, than to go through this process of change. And ‘going through it’ is the same thing as atoning. Having distance from the old dysfunctional patterns, recognising them when they arise, being aware of a different response, learning to take that new response.

I misunderstood ‘to atone’ before because that is a word used in Christianity; often to mean saying sorry to God. Truly atoning is not saying sorry to anybody or anything, but simply committing to the process of change from negative karma. Saying sorry makes no difference at all, whether it is to God, or to an ant!

Buddha confirms that attaining Enlightenment is a very difficult thing to achieve. Persistence is required, and it is easy to lose nerve. He is also very clear. When we lose nerve and go back to the automatic and comfortable ways, they do not stay comfortable. So it is that we trap ourselves in a karmic cycle. Ever repeating itself because we are afraid to move on.

There is much less pain, and much more freedom, to be had with just a little persistance. Not persistance at doing ‘right’, but persistance through the grim challenge of re-living our own karmic causes and effects whilst also being awake to them and realizing a different manner altogether.

But I’ve read many people say this, and not understood it until now. Only now is this a lived reality. And that’s the funny thing about the Way.

Just so many words on a blog. There’s a sunset outside, and small birds are singing.

Keeping costs

Last year I sold my upright piano. It was six months old, but I had owned a piano before that – one which I had known since I was seven.

There was only some financial pressure in this decision. The rest of the decision was a conscious choice to consolidate my areas of focus and skill; concentrating on fewer things but doing them better, and in some cases exploring new territories. In other words, growing.

I kept a list of what the money from the sold piano went on. One year later, and the money is almost all gone. But it is amazing to me just how much that fund permitted me to do. Purchasing my very own kimono. Attending a week-long sesshin. Buying a brand new guitar. Recording an album in a professional music studio.

I have realised that this list echoes something of the dharma. To paraphrase John Daido Loori’s way of putting it – unless we are engaged in the natural state of always giving, we are walking against our own nature. (I’m sure he puts it much better than that.)

I realise now that keeping hold of things bears a cost. A picture on my wall is not simply something that I have purchased for myself. It is something that I have not given to someone else to enjoy, or sold in order to be free to do something with the money.

I guess that’s only half the message. What’s really the illusion is the very idea of a constant unchanging self which needs to ‘own’ ‘things’ in the first place. To be a self that owns is to live in dualism. Me. It.

Hmm. Dharma unfolding. I guess it takes time!