Dukkha (Suffering) as Human Experience

by Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi

In Buddhist philosophy there are three types of suffering (dukkha) recognized in the human experience. In our contemporary experience there is another to be recognized. There are physical phenomena that arise as the result from injury or disease, psycho-emotional phenomena that arise from unrealistic views and perceptions, and conscious phenomena that arise as a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the causal Universe. Contemporarily a practitioner must also accept that suffering that arises from social and economic factors. The Four Ennobling Truths offer the realities of suffering and the Eightfold Path as the way to alleviate suffering; it is up to each of us to learn to recognize the unique situations that bring about the arising of suffering and the skillful methods needed to alleviate it.

One of the Four Ennobling Truths is that human beings suffer. Another is that suffering arises as a result of craving or unnatural desire. Experiential verification can open hearts and minds to these truths when mindfulness and awareness are present in the bodymind. The opportunity to alleviate suffering by applying the ideal guide of the Eightfold Path to how one responds can only arise when one understands and accepts the reality of suffering. One must overcome ignorance before one can become wise.

Suffering is the subject of the Dukkhata Sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya. The Buddha teaches that there are three kinds of suffering. Suffering caused by pain, suffering caused by the formations (or causal conditioning), suffering due to change. It is for the full and clear understanding, ceasing and alleviation of these three forms of suffering that a practitioner engages the Eightfold Path.

Dukkha-dukkha is obvious suffering. It is physical pain that arises from injury or disease.

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Pure Buddhism. No Such Thing.

Wayne Ren-Cheng

Pure Buddhism. No such thing. Pure words of the Buddha. No such thing. How can we be certain of this? Well, if all phenomena are impermanent, changing with each moment and, Buddhism is a phenomena then its components must undergo similar transformation. A overview of the Buddhist councils that have convened since the Buddha’s death is one example of impermanence.

FIRST BUDDHIST COUNCIL

The Buddha, at age 80, died in the village of Kusinara. His passing into parinirvana left his disciples with a legacy to continue and decisions to make.

Shortly after the Buddha’s death a lay-disciple named Subhadra, a barber by trade began speaking lowly of the departed Awakened One. He told others he was angry at the Buddha because he had refused without explanation a meal prepared by Subhadra. He tells all who will listen that they should be happy and content that the “ascetic” is gone. Now they can do whatever they want without the Buddha telling them not to. The causal effects of Subhadra’s intent and action were wide-ranging.

Mayakasyapa overheard the words of Subhadra. It alarmed him that such divisive language might rend apart the already fragile sangha. Mayakasyapa showed the depth of his practice. He applied wisdom and skillful means rather than succumb to fear and anger. His response was to convene a Buddhist council of 500 arhats in Sati-apanni cave near the city of Rajagrha three months after the death of the Buddha.

This is the First Buddhist Council. 500 arhats gathered to recite and codify the rules of discipline (vinaya) and the discourses (sutras) before they were forgotten or ignored. A monk named Upali was chosen to answer questions concerning the rules of discipline. Mayakasyapa knew only one monk, Ananda, who could recite in full the many discourses given by the Buddha. However, Ananda had not yet achieved the status of arhat and so was prohibited from attending the council.

Ananda had been a loyal and devoted personal attendant to the Buddha for over thirty years. There is a tale the recounts Ananda was not happy that the Buddha had not shown him the way to enlightenment before his death. This made Ananda envious of Mayakasyapa in whom the Buddha had recognized an enlightened being upon first meeting.

It was Mayakasyapa who experienced enlightenment when the Buddha, without uttering a word held up a beautiful white lotus flower. It is said that out of the thousands of disciples gathered at Vulture Mountain only Mayakasyapa understood.

Ananda committed himself to achieving enlightenment before the convening of the council. Tradition tells that on the very night before he eliminated the final hindrance in his bodymind. Was envy that final hindrance? Given how the sutras say Ananda felt about Mayakasyapa it may have been. With his new status as arhat Ananda was able to attend the council.

Ananda is said to have possessed an extraordinary memory. He must have because he was able to recite sixty thousand words of the Buddha and fifteen thousand of his stanzas. Ananda told the council the Buddha told him that the sangha could discard the minor rules after his parinirvana. Ananda admitted that he had failed to ask the Buddha which rules those were. The 500 arhats decided then to keep all the rules.

After his recitation the gathered monks chastised Ananda for some of his past actions like not asking the Buddha what the minor rules were that could be discarded – stepping on the Buddha’s robe while Ananda was sewing it – allowing tears of women to fall on the Buddha’s corpse – not asking the Buddha to live for an eon or until the end of the eon – urging the Buddha to allow women to enter the order.

Some accounts tell that a group of 500 monks, lead by Purana returned from the south. When asked to approve of the pitakas he declined. He only wanted to rely on what he had heard directly from the Buddha, not what he thought of as second-hand information. Purana also disputed the value of eight rules in the vinaya.

Whether or not this happened it does reveal that disagreements about the Buddha’s teachings began arising shortly after his death.

For the next seven months assemblies of monks recited the Vinayapitaka and Sutrapitaka.

2nd COUNCIL

The second council was held in Vaisali about 100 years after the Buddha’s death.

Yasas a monk, was in Vaisali and saw monks from that city taking alms of gold and silver from the laity. The Vinaya expressly forbid any monk from handling those precious metals in any form. Yasa, questioning the monks found that these monks had found ten rules in the vinaya they felt were so minor as to be ignored. With this action the monks had defied the results of the first council where full adherence to the rules was agreed on.

The violations Yasas was concerned about were: carrying salt in an animal horn – eating when the shadow of the sundial is two finger widths past noon – gathering food alms from two villages in order to have two meals – holding two many assemblies during the same observance period – making decisions for the sangha without all members present and then getting approval from them later – drinking milk after mealtime – drinking unfermented wine – citing “someone did it before me” as justification for not performing appropriate duties – using mats with fringe – accepting gold and silver. Yasas told the monks that they were, in fact violating the vinaya. Then the monks offered Yasas a share of the gold and silver which he refused and was banished from the order.

Yasas gathered the support of respected monks such as San-a-kava-sin and Revata, and along with a retinue of other monks returned to Vaisali. Revata went to the Master of the order and questioned him about the vinaya. The Master refused to speak in private about the matter, preferring an open forum. The debate would center on how each group interpreted the vinaya, one of whom was much stricter than the other.

A panel of eight monks was appointed, four from each group. Agreement between the two groups failed and the monks who did not accept the decision of the first council held their own session called the Great Assembly.

The second council is accepted as a historical event. It has come to be called the The Great Schism, a cause of Buddhism’s split into the Theravada and Mahayana sects.

3rd COUNCIL

The third council is thought to have been held approximately 200 years after the death of the Buddha. It was in Pataliputra with the patronage of King Asoka, the Mauryan Emperor.

Asoka, who came to Buddhism after coming to terms with his own violent past, was known to be very generous to the sanghas. This had prompted many non-Buddhist gurus to don Buddhist robes and go around taking alms from the laity and gifts from the king. The uposadha ritual, the monthly ritual of purification was suspended because the false monks could not be forcibly removed from the gathering. This was important because of the list of 21 persons whose very presence delegitimized the process; one of which is “false monks who wear the attire without being ordained”.

King Asoka decreed that the uposadha continue and the monks refused. Asoka had some monks beheaded until the next to be punished was the king’s own brother. Instead, Asoka decided that under the guidance of a monk named Moggali-putta-tissa, the king would intervene and defrock those found to be false monks. Purified of their corrupting influence a group of 1000 monks was chosen to hold a Buddhist council. There the tipitaka and commentaries were recited. Moggali-putta-tissa wrote the Kathavatthu, seventh and final book of the Abidharmapitaka. In it he declared the view of the dharma as practiced by the Theravada schools to be the orthodox, the mainstream of Buddhism and refuted what he saw as heretical Buddhist views and practices. Missionaries were sent out to nine lands to spread the “purified teachings”.

Accounts of this council only appear in Pali Theravada sources so the historicity is questioned by modern scholars of Asia and Buddhism.

4th COUNCIL

There are two different events that are called the 4th council.

400 years after the Buddha’s death King Kiniska of Gandhara called for an assembly for the purpose of compiling the Buddhist canon again. Theravadan monks complied the Vinaya and composed a commentary on the Ahbidharmapitaka. Current scholarship is that this was not a historical event.

In Sri Lanka, 25 BCE, King Abhaya ruled a country undergoing social unrest and famine. He feared that the canon, until then maintained as an oral tradition would be lost with the deaths of monastic families entrusted with their memorization. In response he convened a council at Mahavira. There the canon was recited by 500 monks and inscribed on palm leaves. Tradition tells us that this was the first time the canon was written down. There is historical evidence of this council taking place.

5th COUNCIL

Burmese Buddhism recounts a 5th council convened in 1868 by King Mindon Min. 2400 monks revised and recited the Pali tipitaka. In 1871 a revised canon was inscribed onto stone slabs and erected in concentric rings at the Pagoda of Great Merit.

6th COUNCIL

The 6th council named by the Theravada school took place in Rangoon from 1954 – 1956 to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s passage into parinirvana. 2500 monks from eight Theravada countries recited the canon and edited out discrepancies among various versions of texts.

PERFECT WORDS OF THE BUDDHA

This history lesson is offered as a response to a statement made by a sangha member, and because history offers clear lessons in impermanence and causal conditioning. After reciting a sutra I said that some of the language, specifically words were changed in order to covey a clearer meaning to a Western audience. In Pragmatic Buddhism we call this creative re-description. The response was that the perfect words of the Buddha must not be changed. They are pure and complete.

The only perfect or pure words of the Buddha were spoken by the Buddha. Bold statement but a factual one. After that came impermanence, came causal conditioning, and came the perceptions of human beings; each of which certainly brought about changes to those words.

Great respect must be shown to Ananda for his prodigious memory. He is said to have recited word-for-word sixty thousand words of the Buddha and fifteen thousand of his stanzas. Without Ananda’s, and generations of monks after him ability to memorize vast amounts of text Buddhism would have faded away. The monk Purana had the luxury of living during the Buddha’s lifetime and of hearing the sutras firsthand. Within a generation there was no one left who had heard the words directly. For the next 400 years Buddhism was an oral tradition.

Remember though that no matter how great a memory Ananda had for words, he did forget to ask the Buddha what minor rules he was talking about. This error of omission can be viewed as the first moment the Buddha’s words underwent change.

100 years passed before monks gathered again to recite the Buddha’s words. In Vaisali the monks had decided that some of the rules didn’t work for them so they changed them. While the monk Yasas made quite a big deal about the rules the truth is that those monks were following what the Buddha said. The Buddha made clear that the dharma was impermanent and dynamic in that it should transform according to time, culture and experience.

Disagreement concerning the Buddha’s words led to one group of monks dividing into two, Theravada and Mahayana.

200 years after the Buddha’s death his words “false monks who wear the attire without being ordained” were used to justify King Ashoka’s beheading of monks because they wouldn’t heed his declaration and continue with the uposadha. A monk, Moggaliputtatissa using the Buddha’s words and skillful means caused the king to change his thoughts and actions resulting in the convocation of the 3rd council. It was then that Moggaliputtatissa used his own interpretation of the Buddha’s words to write the Kathavatthu. He told the gathered that the Theravada schools were the orthodox, Buddhism truer to the Buddha’s words and missionaries spread to nine lands speaking the words of the purified teachings. Purification requires change.

The 4th council held in Sri Lanka is most noteworthy because it was then that the Buddha’s words were first written down. The oral tradition became a written tradition in that moment. The words written were influenced by over 200 years of Theravada tradition and practice. This would have had a tremendous effect on the language of the texts.

In 1868, around 2200 years after the Buddha’s death Burmese (Myanmar) monks held what is accepted as the 5th Buddhist council. Then they recited and revised the canon. No doubt that part of their revision included changing the wording according to their time and culture.

At the 6th council in 1954 monks from the Theravada school recited and edited their own texts of the Buddha’s words in order to remove what they experienced as discrepancies or errors. From the 2nd council to that moment the Buddha’s words underwent change within their tradition.

Since the Buddha’s death there have been no “true or pure” words of the Buddha. Each time the words are spoken or written down the time, culture, perceptions and wants of the group or individual have altered the language, the words. And that is okay. It is what the Buddha expected and wanted to happen.

What is clear is that Buddhist sects from India to South Asia to China to Tibet to Japan, and now to the rest of the world might use different words and phrases dependent on their culture, what hasn’t changed is the intent of the Buddha’s words, as Buddhists to be wholesome transformative forces in the world. The intent to alleviate suffering with compassion, generosity, acceptance and wisdom is the foundation of all Buddhist traditions.

SIDEBAR: The history of the Buddhist councils reveals a truth about Buddhists. Buddhists can be petty, malicious, angry and entitled, we just try harder than most to NOT be.

Buddhists Wear Clothes

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There is a long running post titled “Buddhists Eat Meat” on this site. It has been read by hundreds and commented on by some. The comments are generally directed toward defending the commenter’s point of view and lots of talk is about compassion, specifically compassion for animals. The need to defend is not helpful; the talk about compassion is. In fact the comments present cogent defenses of a variety of views on the subject. There are also moments of critically judging the views, knowledge and decisions of others.

Two statements are made often, seemingly with the intent to shame an omnivorous Buddhist. One is that in this contemporary society it is easier to be a vegan or vegetarian because there are more choices and access to information. The other that animals suffer greatly on factory farms with the subtext being that one who is omnivorous is less compassionate. Neither is a ‘truth’ in all situations.

The intent of the lesson “Buddhists Eat Meat” was not so readers would question the choices of other Buddhists. It was offered so that readers would question their own practice, their own choices, and their own reactions to difficult subjects. There is a need to engage rigorous self-honesty rather than engage in judging the views and actions of others.

There are other aspects of human existence that require the same level of scrutiny given to dietary choices. Choosing what clothes to buy and wear for example. Others include what car to drive and how much to drive it, limiting carbon footprint, and what livelihood to engage in. Every choice made has cause and effect, wholesome and unwholesome. Every Buddhist practitioner must apply rigorous self-honesty in order to make pragmatic choices.

BUDDHISTS WEAR CLOTHES

How aware are you of the clothes you wear? From the underwear to the hat there are choices to be made. Ask yourself these questions.

Where were my clothes manufactured?

How were the raw materials sourced?

Who are the people and other sentient beings involved in the manufacturing, delivery and selling process?

What are the conditions those people live and work in?

What are they being paid?

What impact does the purchasing of your clothes have on the suffering of others?

How much energy, effort and awareness do you apply to your choice of clothes?

How compassionate is your choice?

My intent is not to single out omnivores or herbivores in the Buddhist community. The intent is to use the issue to offer that wholesome intentions and acts of compassion arise in different ways and that equanimity or balance should always be in favor of promoting compassion and human flourishing.

Every item we purchase and consume has its wholesome and unwholesome aspects. Many American companies out-source their manufacturing to places where wages can be well below subsistence level, where working conditions can be way below American standards, and child labor is legal. The items are sold by companies that engage in dubious personnel, pricing and social activities here in America. Not to focus on only the unwholesome, there are many American companies that strive to do what is right to the extent they are able. There are choices between low cost products manufactured under conditions of suffering and higher cost products that meet certain “standards” like a Made in the USA tag or are imported through organizations that promote fair trade.

A Buddhist practitioner has flaws and strengths like any other human being. The goal for a Buddhist is to have equanimity in practice; a balance that is always tipped more to the wholesome than the unwholesome. No matter the choice a practitioner must always honor life in some way.

A Squirrel and the Dharma: Pragmatism in Buddhism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Pragmatism is not a modern phenomena. It is a multi-layered philosophical concept with Charles Sandford Pierce and William James as its roots, and the growth of the Neo-pragmatist ideas of Richard Rorty as its branch into contemporary thought and action. There is thee realization that pragmatism did not begin with Pierce’s labeling it, that other philosophers and teachers practiced it before it was named. Big names like Socrates, Aristotle and Hume . . . and Siddhartha engaged the pragmatic method. It was a method of thought without a label.

William James, an early American pragmatic philosopher used an anecdote to explain the pragmatic method. Some years before he had been on a camping trip with a group of friends. Returning from a solitary hike in the surrounding woods he found a hot dispute going on among the men gathered around the camp fire. At the center of the argument was a squirrel – a live squirrel clinging to a nearby tree trunk. A human trying to get a glimpse of the squirrel would move around the tree in a clockwise direction. With each step around the squirrel would also move keeping the trunk between it and its pursuer. No matter how fast the man moved, the squirrel moved in the same direction always keeping the trunk between them. The dispute involved this question, “Does the man go round the squirrel or not?”

It was agreed by all that the man does go round the tree. The squirrel is on the tree. Does the man go round the squirrel, or only around the tree? Opinions were equally split. His friends looked to him to break the tie.

James’ response began with, “Which party is right depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel.” He went on to illustrate. One view is of the man moving north to east to south to west, and then north again as the squirrel circles the tree south to west to north to east, and then south again. In this the man is going around. A view that going around the squirrel means to first be in front of, to the right of, behind, to the left of, and finally in front again means that the man did not go round the animal because as it circles the tree it’s belly is always toward the man. The answer lies in the practical perception of the concept of going around.

This is James’ example of the pragmatic method. The pragmatic method, when applied to Buddhist philosophy and practice is to view each purposed thought through a lens of its probably causal consequences. James’ focus for the pragmatic method was its application to philosophical disputes. He experienced that those disputes became insignificant the moment they were subjected to the simple act of tracing the possible concrete consequences.

Siddhartha engaged the pragmatic method whenever he remained silent regarding metaphysical questions. The realization that any answer would be theoretical meant it would have no practical value in moment-to-moment engagement with the world.

Siddhartha practiced pragmatism. He set aside the habitual reactivities of the Hindu faith and beliefs of his culture. He set aside any metaphysical questions, dogmatic principles, the closed caste system, the concept of absolutes, and the search for how it all began. Instead he turned toward what thoughts and actions could make a positive concrete difference in how human beings engaged themselves and the world around them. He applied the pragmatic method to action, not only to thought.

The pragmatic method arises in the traditional parable of the “The Monks at the River”.

The Monks at the River”

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her.

The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing.

They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”

The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The senior monk was silent.

They continued on and soon the junior monk said, “But what will you tell the Master?”

The senior monk was silent.

It was against the rules.”

The senior monk said, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.” He engaged the pragmatic method. The senior monk set aside the dogma that declared “no touching women” and I can imagine the sequences of thoughts he processed. ‘The rule says no touching women’ but the Three Pure Precepts tell me to do good. Leaving the woman in fear on the bank of the river, with the possibility she might drown trying to cross on her own would do nothing to alleviate suffering. Assisting her in crossing will have the consequence of alleviating some of her suffering and will become a lesson for the younger monk. Considering the possible karmic consequences I choose to carry her across. I choose an appropriate view of the situation, a view that reveals the probable concrete consequences. I choose practical application of the ‘rule’ rather than a dogmatic one.

The aspect of pragmatism that arises in the parable is making practical decisions and taking practical actions in a unique situation. This requires a practitioner to set aside any dogma that declares “there is only one way” and respond to each unique situation in whatever manner will result in positive karmic consequences. To put it simply acting pragmatically is doing what is useful and productive in each moment.

Buddhist philosophy and American Pragmatic philosophy places a high degree of importance on direct experience (experiential verification) rather than on theory, and it focuses is “what we can do right now to make things better”. In the West it is important that prevalent worldviews such as pragmatism be brought to the foreground of Buddhist philosophy so that parallels in approach can be recognized. At the core of the American psyche is the drive to “do what is best”. In Buddhism the same is true. The American psyche readily applies this to the self, “do what is best” . . . for me”. Most Americans, either through family, school or friends, arrive at the worldview that all things they do must benefit themselves in some way . . . even those actions taken to help others. This is why donors get their names in the paper, and gold medals for outstanding non-profit work are given out. In Buddhism this idea of positive self-development is the first steps on the Noble Path, later to become selfless acts performed for the benefit of all beings. This is pragmatism in action and thought.

 

The story of the Buddha, and the teachings that followed his Awakening shows that the Buddha was pragmatist, he used skillful means, whatever practical method a situation called for to present the dharma and guide others on the Middle Path.

The Eightfold Path is an example of the Buddha’s use of pragmatism. The Eightfold Path isn’t a dogmatic blueprint of what we must do in given situations, instead each of the eight are guidelines that we must engage as part of how we are, be mindful of our experiences when doing so, and then use that knowledge to determine if those actions were useful and practically valuable. What works in one situation may not work in a similar situation. Each time this is done a practitioner comes closer and closer to the arising of wisdom. Such is the challenge that a Universe of co-dependent arising presents us with.

 

Whether a Buddhist practitioner looks to View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration . . . it is the responsibility of the individual to make an honest assessment of the situation and determine the most practical response. We want to take the most useful and productive course that leads to human flourishing. This is skillful pragmatism.

 

Does this mean we always make the right decision? Being human beings, no! And here is where pragmatism in the form of skillful means arises again. We shouldn’t berate ourselves for making the wrong choice . . . there is no sin, gilt or shame involved . . . instead we make another honest assessment of our actions and thoughts and DO BETTER NEXT TIME.

 

The pragmatic method, both in thought or action requires a practitioner to be situational. There is practical value in developing an appropriate view of each situation and taking actions appropriate to the promotion of human flourishing. Whether one is ‘going around a squirrel’ or ‘carrying a woman across a river’ a Buddhist practitioner must always strive to take whatever action will have the most practical value, whatever action leads to the most positive causal consequences.