Birds transforming Shamatha Transformed into a flower
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"Transformation of Suffering"
Transcript of a talk delivered by Br. ChiSing
Breath of Life (Interfaith Mindfulness Fellowship)
April 1, 2007 - Dallas, Texas

So, the Buddha taught four noble truths. The first of which is the fact of suffering, the causes of suffering, the possibility of the end of suffering, and the path to the end of suffering. Actually I prefer to use the word transformation of suffering. And the path to the transformation of suffering.

When I was at a retreat recently — actually not recently, it was a few years ago — with the young adults retreat. And I remember I had a friend there named Tim who explained to me things about compost. And so that was sort of on my mind as I was doing walking meditation with all the young adults in the hills, at Deer Park Monastery, near San Diego. And as I began to walk I was being very mindful of everything, and in the back of my mind I was thinking about the process of composting. And then all of a sudden, as we were walking, I noticed something I had never noticed before: there was bird shit everywhere. [laughter]

I had never noticed it before. But it really is true. Everywhere you walk, there is bird shit. Because birds fly all over the place. And they don't really care where they drop their droppings. And it's just everywhere.

And I just started to notice because through the practice of mindfulness you become aware of things that are already there but you just never noticed them before. And I was really aware of how much bird shit there was everywhere. And I kept thinking, "Well, goodness…" You know I heard somewhere that, you know, this stuff is toxic to humans, and if it gets in your eye it could be very harmful. And I thought, "But this has been going on for hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of years. And yet things are still alive. Animals are abundant on the planet. There are trees, there are humans. The oceans and rivers are still going on…"

So then I thought, "Ahhh. My friend told me about composting. And he told me about this process where microorganisms take the waste products from other animals. And then they digest that, because they can't eat the bigger stuff that bigger humans and animals eat. So that's what they eat, is the waste product from the animals and humans. But they have to do it under certain conditions…" and I won't get into all of that.

Order of Interbeing walking meditation at Blue Cliff Monastery And then, when they just break that stuff down, and then it can go into the soil and become fertilizer to nourish plants, which of course then feed the animals and the humans, and so forth. So everything in life is composted naturally. Of course, again, humans are destructing that cycle a little bit with the way we do our whole system of getting rid of waste. But that's something we can be mindful of, breathe with and maybe find a solution for.

But anyway…

So as I was walking, I began to think about how my teacher, our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh likes to reword the ancient teachings in a way that's more relevant for today, using our creative mind and practice to reword things. So, I reworded the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha taught. And I renamed it. "Shit happens" for the first one. All because of my walking meditation with the young adults and really observing all that's really there around me. So shit happens. But the thing is, the second noble truth: "Shit comes from things that are non-shit elements." Shit is made of non-shit elements. That's kind of like the Buddhist teaching you know our self is made of non-self elements and things like that. So shit is made of non-shit elements. And because of that, "shit can be transformed." The possibility of transformation: all things are malleable. All things are impermanent. All things change. So, by looking at the elements that create shit and knowing how it works, we can transform it with the proper conditions into fertilizer. The possibility of transformation.

And then the Buddha taught the Eightfold Path, which in general can be broken down to wisdom, ethics and meditation.

Right Understanding
Right Thinking
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration

So, suffering is made of non-suffering elements. Anger is made of non-anger elements. Depression is made of non-depression elements. Everything can be transformed. But, we need to know how to do it. We have to be skillful in how to transform it because not everything is compostable if we don't know how to do it. So, we have to be very wise and smart about how we deal with our suffering. That's why we have the practice of mindfulness, of meditation, of coming back to the here and now.

If someone were to return to their house and all of a sudden started to see a fire, in their house. And off in the distance they saw someone running away with a gasoline tank. And that person probably was the arsonist. As their house is starting to… The fire is getting bigger and bigger… What is the wise thing to do?

Audience member: "Put the fire out and let the person escape."

Right. If you really care about your house and it's still salvageable because the fire only just started, the smart thing to do is not to chase after the arsonist and let your house burn down. But first, put out the fire in your own house. That's the very wisest thing to do, according to the teachings of the Buddha. So many times when we have fire of emotion in our heart, the first thing we usually want to do is find someone else to blame and make them know how much they are to blame and all the different reasons why they are to blame. All the while, our emotions just continue to escalate. And even if we don't get very, very angry, some of it can be suppressed. And later on, we still will not be able to handle this… another situation where we might get angry at someone and it's completely out of proportion to the situation. Why? Because we never handled the first situation… the previous situations. And it just keeps building up.

So the smart thing to do is to put out the fire. Come back to yourself. Instead of trying to blame someone else, come back to yourself. Breath in. Breath out.

And Thich Nhat Hanh outlines some simple steps in this process

[board writing]

Two aspects of meditation…
  • Shamatha — stopping, calming, concentrating
  • Vipassana — looking deeply, insight, understanding
In practice…
  • Stopping — stop whatever we're doing and just breathe
  • Calming — calm our emotions in five steps:
    1. Recognizing — recognize our emotion
    2. Accepting — accept that the emotion is there; don't suppress it
    3. Embracing — embrace the emotion as a good part of you
    4. Looking deeply — after calming, meditate on the situation
    5. Gaining insight — allow solution to come naturally, effortlessly
  • Resting
  • Healing
In meditation, there are two aspects. One is called Shamatha. And the other's Vipassana.

Shamatha means stopping, calming, concentrating. And Vipassana means looking deeply, insight, understanding. But we can't really jump to Vipassana until we develop some capacity of Shamatha — of calming, quieting, stilling, concentrating — because, most of the time, we try to find a solution to something and think about it with our rational, small intellectual mind. When in fact, what we need to do is just let go, come back to center, breathe, focus, meditate. And then the inner wisdom from the heart will… can well up naturally to give us insight into what to do.

So, you might want to outline it this way:

Stopping. First we just stop whatever we're doing. If we're having… suddenly having an argument or getting… we know that we're about to do something that's going to escalate our depression or something — we just stop. We take the time to stop. Stop the thoughts. Stop the noise. Stop the activity. Stop the situation. And breathe.

And we begin to automatically start to cultivate the second aspect of Shamatha, which is Calming. Calming the anger. Calming the sadness. Calming the fear. Calming the suffering. And we do that in five steps, which our teacher outlines:

One, first of all, recognizing that we are feeling angry. Recognizing that we are feeling sad. Recognizing that we are feeling afraid. Just recognizing that. But also recognizing that it's not just that. There's probably other layers. And so, recognize that anger is made of non-anger elements too. That there are some things going on. So just recognize that it's there, don't deny it.

And that, of course, ties into second part, which is accepting. You recognize it's there, and now you accept that it's there. It's there and you're not trying to suppress it. But you accept that you are having this feeling of anger. Because what happens most of the time is that we recognize that we're having anger, but we don't want it. We don't want to accept the fact that we're angry. But we can't get to the other steps without first accepting. Coming to a place of acceptance: that's part of Calming.

Then, embracing… Once we come to a calm place of recognizing and accepting, then we can begin to embrace the suffering or the negative emotion. Like a mother hearing her baby cry and holding the baby, embracing the baby, trying to just calm the baby by embracing. So instead of thinking of your feeling or your suffering as some enemy, which of course then just creates this internal mental war, you know, the good part of you versus the bad part of you — it only makes it worse — instead, think of it more like the mindful, wise, loving part of you is like the mother; and then this emotion is like the little baby that just needs your mindful attention and awareness to embrace it, breathing with it.

Then, once you have embraced it you can start doing some of the second aspect of meditation: Vipassana. Which are: deep looking (looking deeply), and gaining insight. So these two are the main components of Vipassana meditation. Of course you can't really dissect them in reality. They all blend of course. So, then we look deeply into our… "Why is my baby crying? Does the diaper need to be changed? Is it hungry? Did it hit its head or something?"

So you look deeply. Now that you're calm, you can actually look deeply, your mind isn't in this hurricane wind of thoughts and feelings. Now it's calm enough you can look, "OK… Why? What is this feeling? What is this suffering? What is this anger? What is this sadness? What is it made of?" Maybe it's really not just anger, but underneath that anger, there's a fear. A fear of rejection or a fear of being embarrassed in public. "Where does that come from? Maybe five years ago something similar happened… And, when I was a child my parents did this thing and it's triggering that…"

So, "looking deeply" meditation is to… after you've done your calming breathing meditation, if you want to do a second meditation, right after that, sometimes what's helpful is doing twenty minutes of just sitting meditation, just breathing — calming, concentrating on the breath only. Then you can do a little bit of walking meditation. And sit again for another twenty minutes. Then you can look deeply into the situation. And you'll be able to find much more insight from that when you come to it from that angle of calm.

And "insight…" this kind of insight doesn't… you don't have to try too hard for it. There have been so many times when I'm doing meditation that out of the blue a solution just pops into my mind effortlessly. I didn't even have to really struggle about the problem. But just because I was in a space of calm and receptivity, the answer within my heart which was always there, just naturally came up into my awareness. And, "Oh, OK… there it is…" effortlessly.

In fact, a lot of scientists have discovered a lot of scientific discoveries just by doing that. They worked really hard on these calculations. And they just gave up and so they took a nap or took a stroll outside. And boom, out of the blue, it hit them. There's one scientist who discovered how molecules bond with each other because he had this dream about it. And so, there's a lot of wisdom from our inner, deeper mind that we are ignoring because we are so obsessed with this small surface analytical mind.

OK, the rest of the components of our practice, number three and four are resting and healing.


Audience member: "How do you do number one?"

OK, I'll get into that in just a second. How do you do the stopping? That's a good question. And I think some of it may be answered by what we're going to talk about with resting and healing. You know animals, when they get wounded, they instinctively stop what they're doing, go into a small little forested area, in a bush or something, and lay down and rest for a few days until their body heals. We humans, when we feel hurt by something, we just run around and keep doing other things and multitasking. We never give ourselves the rest we need. And it's like when we rest in meditation and mindfulness in activity throughout the day, it's like we allow that pebble to just float effortlessly down to the bottom of the lake. It's just… just let it … that's how we rest. We just ahh (big exhale). Just let go like a pebble falling down effortlessly to the bottom of the lake. And because of stopping and calming and resting, then healing naturally takes place. The transformation of the suffering naturally takes place.

So the stopping is what we've been doing today already. Mindful walking. Mindful breathing and sitting. Mindful listening. Anything done in mindfulness and concentration helps us to stop. When we allow ourselves the experience daily, getting in touch with that part of us, the true self… Or once a year, when we go to a long retreat really getting in touch with that… It gives us the confidence to continue in our practice because we know it's real… because we've experienced it and we've tasted it, and we know that it's possible. So that experience is glimpsing, touching, even if briefly, our true nature — touching Nirvana. And that is actually the greatest relief for our suffering. Of course we can do all of these other things to relieve our suffering — thinking positive thoughts when a negative thought comes, transforming a negative thought, cultivating the positive thoughts that are already there. These are all techniques. Doing loving… love meditation, kindness meditation. All of these are techniques we can use to relieve suffering.

Related links…
But the greatest relief of suffering is when we awaken, even if just for a glimpse to our true nature. Buddha is Buddha. Everything Buddha. That's Nirvana and it is complete great confidence and joy when you touch that. Nothing can overcome that joy and confidence. Nothing. No suffering can touch that. So I encourage all of us to practice these little things to relieve the suffering, little by little, meditation and mindfulness… things like that. But really practice in such a way that you realize who you really are. Because when you realize who really are, the vast sky of ultimate reality, not the small self that we think we are, that's when the relief from suffering is total and great.

Transcribed by Chelsea and Hal German

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