Monk(ey) Business Part 10: Knowing Dukkha

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Monk(ey) Business is a blog series chronicling the joys, challenges, ups, and downs of my nine years as a Buddhist monk. Enjoy!

For me retreat life was often a paradoxical combination of simple living and psychic surgery. At times it felt like I was being pulled apart from all sides, my inner demons raging, at other times I couldn’t fathom living any other way. The utter simplicity of being alone in the wilderness and engaging in a Buddhist path of study and practice demanded a lot of energy and mindfulness, and with all of the familiar sense stimuli absent, it was easy to just feel like a rat in a cage sometimes. Though over time, and as I deepened in my meditation practice I started to have moments of surprising inner stillness. As thoughts and emotions settled, the body felt light and at ease, and the clarity of mind became as sharp as a razor. The only problem (other than that these were temporary meditation experiences) was that this is a very easy thing to get attached to and can sometimes lead one astray from the goals of the Buddhist path. I wanted more stable and profound meditation experiences, but I had so much suffering staring me right in the face and the only way I knew how to relate was to hunker down and resist.

Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is common to engage in analytical meditation. This is a process in which we use the thinking mind to generate new and more helpful ways of relating to oneself and the world. This becomes a gradual way to deepen in a Buddhist world view and to refine what we are seeking to gain from a spiritual path. One example of this is to meditate on the qualities and rarity of a perfect human rebirth. For months I sat in retreat reflecting on what this means. Through examples and reasoning I would contemplate, evoke an experience, rest on that experience single pointedly, and then repeat the process over and over again. It was tedious and seemed banal at first, but as experience deepened over time the richness of this process began to take shape. One day I realized that I really didn’t value myself very much. I had been treating my body like some sort of inanimate machine that I just happened to land in. After meditating again and again on the qualities and rarity of what makes up a perfect human rebirth, I suddenly felt like I had struck gold and that there was no amount of money in the world that could replace the human body I now have. To some this may seem obvious, but how often do we really appreciate what we have? It almost seems like we are wired to be dissatisfied with everything we come into contact with over time. The Buddha described this habit/phenomena in one word, Dukkha. 

In the traditional telling of the Buddha’s life story, after he attained awakening under the cover of a Bodhi (Ficus Religiosa) tree, he initially remained silent. Eventually the god Brahma himself came to request the Buddha to share his awakening and the path he traversed to attain it. The Buddha replied: "Profound, peaceful, beyond constructs, luminous, and unconditioned, I have found a nectar like Dharma. Whomever I teach it to will not understand, so I will stay silent here in the forest.” The Buddha’s initial reticence was not due to laziness, but was rather an expression of the profundity and abstruse nature of the awakening he attained. Upon further requests from Brahma the Buddha eventually capitulated, and went on to give his first sermon to a small group of disciples. In that first sermon, which later came to be known as the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha asked his early disciples to “Know Dukkha.” It is difficult to translate the Pali word Dukkha, but it can roughly be translated as suffering, pain, or dissatisfaction. I personally feel that this last English word sums it up best, as dissatisfaction based on limiting beliefs and judgments forms much of our human predicament. Normally we either get what we want, it changes, and we experience dissatisfaction, or we don’t get what we want, were frustrated, and we experience dissatisfaction. Of course we can have a variety of experiences, and many ups and downs within our human experience, but from a Buddhist perspective, this fundamental predicament of dissatisfaction (both gross and subtle) pervades. In certain ways, out of all of the profound teachings I have received over the years, the Buddha’s first noble truth on “knowing Dukkha” is often what I end up appreciating the most. It gives me permission to be with my human experience, to make mistakes, to relate to and experience the depths of the predicament I am actually in.

As yet another three month retreat at Land of Calm abiding wrapped up, I was off to see Tsoknyi Rinpoche once again. Lucky for me he was scheduled to teach just two hours North in the Santa Cruz mountains. Over the course of my three month retreat I had spent some time reflecting on a possible move to Crestone. I was torn, as I knew deep down that a shift to Crestone would be healthy for my development as a practitioner, but with support often lacking for Western Buddhist monastics, it was a risk, and I had an extremely fortunate setup for retreat and support at Land of Calm Abiding. I also struggled a lot with how my relationship to Lama Zopa Rinpoche might change. Up to that point I had not sought out personal practice direction from any other teachers. Through letters and an occasional personal interview, Lama Zopa had kindly guided me through years of practice. After much thought I decided that the best way I could repay his kindness was to do what I needed in order to continue to develop as a Buddhist practitioner, and at this particular juncture, this meant taking a leap in a new and unknown direction. 

Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s teachings were as profound and direct as ever. It was a joy to spend six days in retreat deepening in the practices he had previously taught in Crestone. I had an opportunity to speak with him directly and he was supportive and optimistic about my move. He also very kindly approved of me living in his home in Crestone in order to support my practice. This was a huge help and really allowed my move to happen a lot sooner than I expected. Returning to Land of Calm abiding I had some time to say goodbye. I spent my last few weeks hiking and visiting with other retreaters on the land. It was hard to part ways, but as the days passed I became more and more confident in my decision. On my final morning I jumped on the back of the retreat center’s ATV. I had the pleasure of one last epic ride up and over the mountain. So much had changed in the three short years I had spent there. A large part of that was having to really face my own pain, suffering, and habits of dissatisfaction. As we ascended the last mountain peak I looked out over the vast pacific ocean as it glistened in the sun, pregnant with possibilities. My doubt transformed into inspiration as I silently supplicated Lama Zopa to continue to guide my path. I requested him never to part from my heart, and prayed that we would meet again soon.