The ways to speak about the Buddha’s teachings are countless. Naturally, we teachers tend to teach what has helped us the most throughout our own lives. The path that the Buddha laid out is often described as a shift out of confusion and into clarity, or from uneasiness to peace, or from inner bondage to inner freedom. I see the path of liberation as a movement out of loss and into inner wholeness.
The Buddha said:
What is born will die,
what has been gathered will be dispersed,
what has been accumulated will be exhausted,
and what has been built up will collapse.
Yes, I know, this view sounds dismal. Fortunately, it isn’t the whole picture. It is a partial description of how things are. Nevertheless, hearing what we all know is true, spelled out so starkly, can bring a kind of relief even as, at the same time, it feels daunting. Although on some level we know it is true, our emotions are not always aligned with our intellect. The Buddha began his teaching with this clear understanding of the human condition. Although there is great beauty in this world, there is also suffering, sometimes great suffering. This suffering is called dukkha in Pali, the language in which the Buddha’s teachings were first written down (around two hundred years after his death, by the way). What is dukkha? It can be translated as “unsatisfactoriness,” “fragility,” and “uncertainty.” Often, dukkha is translated as “suffering.” Whatever the translation, it points to the truth that life is, at times, tremendously difficult and painful. Moreover, circumstances arise and pass away because of causes and conditions, largely out of our control. In 1985, I traveled to Thailand to practice in a forest monastery called Wat Pa Baan Taad. The teacher there, a powerful master of meditation named Ajahn Maha Boowa, defined dukkha as “a constant squeeze.” This is the best definition of dukkha I have ever heard. It makes the concept so palpable. This squeeze of life is constant, although we can ignore it for limited periods of time. The problem is that our awareness of it always returns.
The constant squeeze on the heart is because of the inevitability of loss; all beings experience loss. Present loss and the sense of impending loss: both are painful and confining. When we are overtly suffering, we may know this truth clearly. At other times, when things are going well, we may temporarily forget. When the mind becomes quieter, as it does in meditation, this squeeze on the heart becomes apparent. The good news is that we can work with this in our practice. Although loss always feels utterly personal when we are experiencing it, and in one sense it is, it is also not personal at all. The particularities are different for each of us, but loss is a given for all of us. When we acknowledge this universality, the sense of loneliness and isolation, of alienation and separateness, can ease a bit. Our challenge as contemplative practitioners is to open into the largest perspective possible, without negating, ignoring, or undermining the personal aspects of our own situation in life.
When I first heard this teaching, I experienced deep relief. I realized that I was not alone in my awareness that life is not always so wonderful. The possibility that this was a sign of my connectedness to others was already a cause for ease, even before I began a formal meditation practice.