OPL9: Chapter 5: the suffering of samsara

The title may tempt you to skip this chapter — who wants to hear more about suffering! Indeed, Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation includes vivid descriptions of the six realms of samsaric existence as places we could be reborn into, depending on which obscuring emotions we are most caught up in in this life. But — it is also where you will find the key to complete liberation from the whole thing. And freedom is what we want, right? (It’s actually worth checking in with ourselves from time to time to make sure.)

To claim your key, click on “continue reading,” below.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche referred to the six realms as styles of imprisonment, and additionally described them as psychological states we humans can get stuck in on a daily basis. Pema Chodron has offered a few tweaks to the traditional emotional cause for each realm, which I include here alongside the traditional one: the hot and cold hells (anger), the hungry ghost realm (greed/poverty mentality/never enough), the animal realm (ignorance/dullness/routine), the human realm (desire/if only I had …), the jealous gods realm (jealousy, competitiveness), and the gods realms (pride/bliss/obliviousness). OPL offers more details about each of the realms, and they are also described at length in Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher and Taranatha’s Three Types of Beings, published in English as Essence of Ambrosia.

The main point of studying the suffering of samsara, and the key to liberation from it, is to understand unequivocally that all samsaric experience is suffering — even when it feels like pleasure. If we don’t fully grasp this and stop looking for loopholes and exceptions, we will never free ourselves from endless rotation around and around the six realms (see Gampopa’s case for awakening). Seriously: do not pass go, do not collect $200, it’s back to jail, again and again, as long as we keep seeking secure happiness and fulfillment in worldly pursuits and pleasures. If never getting out of samsara doesn’t work for you, keep reading. (Click on the preceding link and scroll down a bit for the classic New Yorker cartoon.)

The Buddha said it right up front, in the four noble truths, his very first teaching. Noble truth number one: all worldly experience contains suffering. In fact, suffering is the defining characteristic of samsara, as Gampopa informed us in his introduction. The other three noble truths are all good news: the suffering has a cause (noble truth 2), therefore it can be brought to an end (noble truth 3), and there is an instruction manual (noble truth 4: the path) — this is it.

The Buddha taught that the way to relate to the first noble truth is simply to understand it. He explained that there are three distinct ways in which suffering can manifest. Only one of them is obvious: the suffering of suffering. This is the stuff that actually feels unpleasant, anywhere on the spectrum from overcooked pasta to a terminal diagnosis. Even if we’re lucky enough to not be facing any serious adversity at the moment, if we look closely, we will see that even the happiest experiences have a flaw somewhere. Our life is never perfect, and on those rare occasions when it seems like everything is going just the way we want, it isn’t going to last long.

Which brings us to the second category of suffering: the suffering of change. This is the stuff that initially feels good, like getting the job, relationship, home, vacation, or trinket you coveted, settling in to binge watch your favorite show, enjoying a slice of your favorite pie, winning the lottery. Again, if we look closely, we can see how each of these is either a fleeting pleasure that will soon be over, or has suffering built right into it: the coworker who harrasses you or talks too much, the long commute, the overtime; your significant other’s one teensy habit that drives you crazy; flight delays, lost luggage, bedbugs; breakage; the second piece of pie (or just the calories in the first one); even winning the lottery is full of well-documented perils.

Shantideva famously described the fleeting pleasures of worldly life as like a honey-coated razor blade (The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, 7.65). They are also likened to the appearance of solid, safe ground that turns out to be quicksand. As I’ve recounted elsewhere, many years ago Lama Norlha Rinpoche looked me in the eye at lunch at KTC and said, “Samsara is very sticky.” He didn’t need to elaborate.

It isn’t that we have to give up everything we enjoy in life or turn down the dream job. It’s just that if we can remember in real time that each of these pleasures and positive developments is really the suffering of change in disguise, then we won’t buy into it. We won’t bite down on the razor blade or drown in the quicksand. We won’t get caught up in craving, attachment, and resistance to change, which are what bring on the suffering. Instead, we will appreciate transient pleasures and positive developments as the temporary, limited experiences they are; recognize the perils of our habits and addictions before we reinforce them yet again; and keep our focus on using all our experience, pleasant or unpleasant, for waking up rather than deeper sedation.

The third and final category of suffering, the all-pervasive suffering of conditioned existence, is apparent only to realized beings, according to Gampopa: “Ordinary people are insensitive to the suffering of conditioned existence, whereas realized beings are greatly distressed by it,” in the same way a hair or eyelash on the palm of our hand is hardly noticeable, but if it’s in our eye, we can’t bear the stabbing pain. This subtle, constant level of suffering is described in various ways. Ringu Tulku explains it as the fact that everything is changing and deteriorating moment by moment in ways that are ordinarily imperceptible, and also that, due to past karma, “we are constantly controlled, without knowing it, by innumerable causes and results, which we ourselves have created,” so we can never achieve complete and stable happiness. (For more on this, see chapter 6.)

The nineteenth-century teacher Patrul Rinpoche adds another dimension in his classic text The Words of My Perfect Teacher. “In fact, we are totally immersed in the causes of suffering. For our very food or clothing, our homes, the adornments that give us pleasure, are all produced with harmful actions [and] can only lead to suffering.” He goes on to describe the many levels of suffering, human and animal, that went into the production and transport of tea and tsampa (roasted barley) in his day. Contemporary examples might include the sweatshops and child labor that produce much of the clothing we enjoy, reported working conditions in the Amazon warehouses that magically fulfill our every material need and wish, the privilege and affluence many of us enjoy while others live in poverty and/or experience chronic injustice and persecution. Situ Rinpoche has said that even a vegetarian diet, though undeniably much less harmful than eating meat, incurs vast loss of life: “For every grain of rice, one bug dies.”

To sum it up: Gampopa ends the chapter on the suffering of samsara with this quotation from The Entering the Womb Sutra: “Woe and alas! Because this immensity of self-perpetuating existence is ablaze, completely flaming, really burning, totally blazing, not even a few remain undefeated by it. What is this raging inferno? It is the fire of aggression, passion, and stupidity; the fire of birth, aging, and death; the fire of sorrow, lamentation, mental unhappiness, and unrest. Because these fires are constantly raging and blazing, no one escapes them.” (Translation by Ken Holmes.)

Gampopa continues, “Knowing the suffering of samsara to be just like that will, in itself, turn the mind away from the pleasures of worldly existence,” echoing the Buddha’s instruction that the first step in freeing ourselves from the suffering of samsara is to understand it.

This concludes the first antidote to the second obstacle to awakening: attachment to worldly pleasures and distractions. In case you need a little more help to overcome this attachment, the second antidote, karma and its results, is coming right up.


Readings: OPL chapter 5, Path to Buddhahood pages 37-44

Related post: “The Quest for the Wish-fulfilling Gem!”

Related 37 practices verse: : to strive for unchanging freedom, verse 9

Class audio (2 sessions): January 31 and February 14

Next: karma and its effects (coming soon)

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