Daily Archives: September 4, 2010

Third Noble Truth: The Good News

All this suffering! Is there any end to it? The Good News it is that through insight, through seeing how we make ourselves suffer, we also begin to expand into seeing the optional nature of this self-inflicted suffering. The Third Noble Truth is simply that there is an end to suffering, according to the Buddha. It’s the good news. The oppressive tangle of our suffering can be seen for what it is, and it can, through insight and compassion, be made more spacious so that we can find joy in simply being with whatever arises.

Yes, we are still confronted with tar-babies, and maybe we still get entangled in the sticky tar from time to time; but through the regular practice of meditation, we are learning to notice when this is happening.

When we notice, we remember to stop struggling and simply be with our experience, as uncomfortable as it may be. Through the practice of meditation and the development of spacious awareness we find our center, our inner access to a sense of equilibrium and ease.

When we were reviewing the First Noble Truth in class a while back, I read from Wes Nisker’s article in Inquiring Mind magazine about what he called ‘Firsters’ and ‘Thirdsters.’ He claims to be a Firster. For him, having The First Noble Truth’s reminder that there is suffering in life is not just a first step to awakening, but a gift that keeps on giving, sufficient for a lifetime’s practice. He doesn’t have much patience for those ‘Thirdsters’ as he calls those who want to be remade into enlightened beings.

Because of the interpretation so many of us put on the Third Noble Truth, it can become a tarbaby in itself. We are attracted to its promise, and may feel compelled to see it as some distant goal of happiness and enlightenment. We get caught up in it and it just becomes another way for us to suffer. We want it. We want it so badly. And we want it now. The wanting is an ache we cannot satisfy. Succumbing to the dazzling promise of the Third Noble Truth can actually keep us from ever experiencing it.

The Third Noble Truth is not about some future version of us, someone who will be so much more calm, peaceful, kind, compassionate and enlightened. The Third Noble Truth is about the promise held within each moment.

Each moment holds the gift of sight. Okay, most moments we may ignore it. But the gift lives fully in each moment, whether noticed or not. This moment for example, as you sit here listening or reading this talk, you have the capacity to be fully present, to sense in to your body, to notice what is true in your experience right now – pain, beauty, emotion, thought – and in that noticing is spaciousness.

The Third Noble Truth is not a destination; it is an ongoing ever-present totally accessible present. When we make it a destination, one more vacation we have to save up for, make time for, one more thing on our to do list or our bucket list, then we have lost touch with its true nature. It becomes a fairy tale, a Shangri La, a Wonderland or an Enchanted Isle.

It is none of these.

The Third Noble Truth is about what is inherent in each of us: our Buddha Nature. This naturally arising way of being in the world is not in some cave on a mountain top in the Himalayas that is beyond our reach. It is always present.

We expend a lot of energy ignoring it, discounting it, pooh-poohing it, but it is there. Here. Now. Always. It is a light that shines within us, one that we may keep carefully shuttered, but from time to time we are able to see things more clearly by the light through the cracks of our shutters. We get a glimpse of insight, an intuitive hit or a moment of clarity. Learning to trust what is revealed by the little light we allow, we begin to notice the light more. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna’ let it shine.” Such a great song! It’s impossible to sing it without the heart feeling full. When we sing it, we are setting an intention that resonates deep within us. When we act out of that intention to allow what is naturally arising within us to express itself by showing compassion to ourselves and others, by trusting what the light reveals to be true and stepping out of the shadows, then the shutters begin to open even more.

The light shows us the lay of the land, reveals the tar-babies for what they are before we get suckered into entangling with them.

We can remind ourselves that the Third Noble Truth is not a distant promise but a constant presence shining its light within us, patiently waiting for us to open the shutters of our hearts and minds.

Here is a chant from the Heart Sutra:

Gate, gate
bohdi svaha.

It translates loosely as:
Gone, gone,
gone beyond,
gone beyond the beyond,
into awakened mind. Aha!

Chant this for a while, staying fully present in your body with all your senses or just the rising and falling of your breath. Be present with whatever arises, without expectation.

This present is not an intellectual maze you must master, but a simple, even subtle, shift of attention from the belief that we are the thoughts we think, the labels we’ve accepted, or the emotions we feel. This is a shift into expansive ease and open awareness of the spacious nature of being.

We access the present moment through the portal of sensation. Simply sensation. Simply being.

During meditation over the past months, we have been allowing for this subtle shift from thinking in labels, compartmentalizing ourselves and the world around us, to accessing an infinite spaciousness as we experience pure sensation without tagging any particular sensation with the label ‘itchy foot’ or ‘achy back’, for example. Instead, we sense in to the energy field of being, the being that isn’t demarcated by the ‘edge’ of skin.

The Third Noble Truth is not a promise of some heavenly pain-free existence, but an invitation to discover the unlimited nature of our being, the compassionate ease of feeling one with nature, one with all beings; knowing it, not as knowledge we learn from books — although science now supports it — but knowing it deeply, from personal experience.

The last time we were studying the Four Noble Truths, my post on the Third Noble Truth was a sharing of something I wrote many years ago, an exercise called The Dance of the Seven Veils. The Third Noble Truth invites us to discover who we are under all the veils we wear.

Fix-it? Forget it!

We were discussing the Second Noble Truth, and how we can each notice the way we create suffering for ourselves through clinging, grasping and pushing away our experience instead of holding it in an open compassionate embrace. A meditator said that she was noticing this, but that she hoped that the Third Noble Truth was going to offer the next step: How to fix what we notice.

I said that the noticing is all there is. Now this may have been a tad disingenuous because of course the Buddha offers the Eightfold Path (The Fourth Noble Truth.) I suppose it could be regarded as a fix, but I see it more as a circle of light with which we surround ourselves in this practice. Each aspect of the Eightfold Path is a guidepost shedding light that helps us see where we have strayed too far from the core of consciousness and compassion. But the Eightfold Path itself does not fix anything; it simply brightens our way so we can notice. The noticing itself is the one and only step in this process.

The minute we try to fix whatever arises in our thoughts, we are caught up in the stickiness of suffering. Our ‘noticing’ is fault-finding and once we have found a fault, like a fissure in a tooth, we want it ‘taken care of.’ We want it drilled, filled and made perfect.

This is a reasonable response, a naturally arising thought from our creative brain activity. But in this regard, when it comes to releasing from tight constriction into a spaciousness of mind, you can see that this fault-finding fix-it methodology is more likely to shut us down, make us feel defensive and constrict us, rather than open us to feel more and trust in the process. Thus our desire to fix ‘the problem’ undermines the process.

The only tool that is up to the task is this ‘noticing.’ At first our noticing might be rather coarse, full of judgment and attitude, like “Oh there I go again with my big mouth,” or “Yup, I see how angry I get at the least little thing that person does.” Even this has some consciousness to it, some willingness to acknowledge what is happening, or why things are happening as they are, even if we are harsher than we need to be. If this is where we are, we can acknowledge that this is considerably more skillful than not noticing we’ve said something offensive or not noticing our own anger or what seems to trip our trigger.

The next step is not to ‘fix’ what we have noticed, but to refine the quality of our noticing.

Noticing is polished to a rich sheen through meditation practice, both concentration practice and metta practice. This is why we practice and why it is ongoing. The practice is the way we keep our tool of noticing polished.

At first we might think that meditation is a place we go, a retreat we take to get a breather from the hectic life we lead. And if it offers this, that’s lovely, but it is not the purpose of meditation. The core purpose is to develop and refine the ability to see with clarity and compassion whatever arises in this moment.

You can think of the knife-sharpener or the silverware polisher performing a vital service. This is a good way to think of meditation because it takes away the allure of thinking it is about having a mind-blowing experience. It takes away comparing one meditation with another. It is just the practice of being as fully present as we can be in this moment with as much compassion as we can manage right now.

It is just polishing our ability to notice what arises. There is no bad or good meditation, only this taking the time to do the task, to do the practice. If it creates inner peace, sparks creativity, etc. all to the good. The knife sharpener at his grinder and the silver polisher with her felt cloth also may experience this quieting down of the mind. And all the while the knives get sharpened, the forks get polished and the food is well cut and served. Just so, with meditation practice insight, we polish and refine our ability to notice what is arising in this moment and to hold it with acceptance, wisdom and compassion.

And through this practice we can see how the quality of our noticing shifts from, “Oh God, there I go again” to something along the lines of, “Ah, thinking. Noticing a tightness in my jaw when that thought arises. The emotion that arises with it is a sort of_____. Hmmm, the associative images that are arising are ______. Making space in my field of awareness for this to simply arise and fall away.

This kind of inner process could be called a dispassionate curiosity. Although the subject is personal, we are willing to allow for the possibility that it is inherently human, that we –though unique and individual in our own ways – are dealing with a universal stream and we are constantly testing the waters. It is not our job to fix the water, but to become more skillful in navigating in it. We can only do this through noticing the nature of the tides, the undercurrents, the weather, etc. We tune in. We notice. We notice everything.

So through our regular daily practice of meditation this quality of noticing gets polished up into a tool of self-exploration and expansion, rather than a weapon of harsh judgment that cuts us to the quick and leaves us to find a hole to hide in while we lick our self-inflicted wounds.

As you give yourself this gift of meditation, trust that whatever noticing you experience is sufficient for now. Yes, with regular practice, over time the noticing will become more insightful, but judging your state of noticing now as lacking is just another sticky dukkha delivery system, just another tarbaby to get caught up in. So trust the process, trust that as long as we live there is the polishing.

Let your light shine.