Gotama the Seeker composed a very strange poem:
Like haiku, it is complexity resolved, simply. Like Dada, it is a terse repudiation of those who would overvalue conventional norms of discourse and logic. It’s subtly funny, too.
The topic of discussion in the current Forum is nirodha, the third line. It is a topic that causes scholars and Buddhists alike to burst into Germanic capitals: Cessation, The Absolute, The Transcendent, The Holy, The Wholly Other, The Sublime, The Sacred, The Ineffable Ultimate, Enlightenment. We also get the more sober lowercase translations, such as cessation, destruction, stopping, and extinction. As all of these terms indicate, the topic at hand concerns something Big and Serious. And as all of these terms also indicate, the matter at hand is confusing.
Too often, attempts to clarify nirodha’s meaning result in a case of obscurum per obscuris, explaining one murky matter with another. Gotama himself may have had a hand in this confusion when he used, as he so often did, the terms nirodha and nirvana synonymously. (I’ll return to this equation below.) There’s another thing: the widespread contemporary usage of the nonsensical phrase third noble truth to express this important Buddhist technical term certainly does not help matters. Indeed, is there any greater head-scratcher in all of our Buddhist-hybrid English than noble truth—and here, the third one of those? The third noble truth: nirodha. What does it mean, and why should we care?
Fortunately for us, Buddhadharma has asked three contemporary Buddhist teachers of palpable clarity, warmth, and wisdom to help us out. Fortunately, too, the moderator of the discussion begins by asking for a definition. And off we are. The discussion that follows is deeply edifying. It also has the fascinating quality of being, I suspect, an echo of the kinds of dialogues that have been reverberating throughout the Buddhist world since thoughtful men and women gathered together to discuss the words of that remarkable teacher, the tathagata, the one who has come to an understanding of reality.
As our panelists make clear, nirodha is the good news of Buddhism. It says that that pervasive unease, tension, and discomfort—dukkha—that runs through your life like water can be qualitatively affected. The claim of nirodha is that dukkha can be acted on, confined, held in check, stopped—all of which are covered in the lexical range of the Pali word nirodha. In the Buddha’s teachings, what is to be directly acted on is the arising, or samudaya (the second line above), of that powerfully compelling force called craving.
If you have ever wondered, “What could possibly be fueling the unease that I so routinely experience in my daily life,” you might want to take to heart the Buddha’s suggestion: it is the fact that you demand too much from the world. You ask that the world’s objects yield abiding pleasure, satisfaction, and security. But how can they? The world’s pretty things are ephemeral, transparent, and unreliable, aren’t they?
So what can we do? Given the preeminent realities (aka noble truths) of dukkha and samudaya, how might we live? Well, all things want to float, says the poet Rilke, yet we go around like burdens / settling ourselves on everything / ravishing them with our weight / What deadly teachers we are / when things, in fact, have the gift / of forever being children. The Buddha, too, speaks of heavy loads, relinquishment, and freedom. “Just put down the heavy burden of craving!” he says. “Putting down that burden is happiness; it is itself the very ease you seek.”
And here we have the confluence of nirodha and nirvana. A medley of sutras may help. (The Buddha is speaking here.) Unease in life can be abated, friend. It can be acted on, qualitatively transmuted. This is nirodha. It is a preeminent reality. It involves learning how to free yourself from your unquenchable thirst for sensory pleasures. There is a way, a path to help you along. Following it, you discover that unease has an end. You will stop exhausting yourself and making trouble for others. How will you feel? You will be cooled, quenched, calmed, and deeply, deeply refreshed.
– Glenn Wallis
Buddhadharma: Since the third noble truth is about the cessation of dukkha, most commonly called suffering in English, perhaps we could first discuss what dukkha really means.
Andrew Olendzki: Dukkha covers a wide spectrum, from physical pain, aging, and getting ill or injured up through the suffering that comes from change and on to the psychological suffering that results when we don’t get what we want or when things go the way we don’t want them to. Finally, it includes the suffering occasioned by great existential issues, like the fact that we’re all going to die. Suffering is primarily the resistance to the truth of those things. That resistance causes a lot of heat or friction in our psychological makeup.
Blanche Hartman: From what I understand, the etymological roots of dukkha have to do with the image of a wheel whose hub is not quite in the center. That brings up the notion of something that is never quite right, always a little off, a bumpy ride. That bumpy ride includes everything from losing someone near and dear to you to something just touching you the wrong way. We all experience old age, sickness, and death, which are classical categories of dukkha. No one is free from those. The Buddha says that dukkha is simply present in our life. It’s not right or wrong or good or bad. It’s just our experience. Things sometimes don’t go the way we want them to, and it’s more or less uncomfortable.
Gaylon Ferguson: Traditionally, we say there are three kinds of suffering: the suffering of suffering; the suffering of change; and fundamental or all-pervasive suffering. The suffering of suffering, as Andrew indicated, means that if we burn our finger, it hurts. The suffering of change is the alternation from one condition to another, and the change can go both ways: from a pleasurable condition to something painful, or from something painful—that we nevertheless get accustomed to—to a happier state. That instability alone is suffering, which leads us to the third kind of suffering. As both Zenkei and Andrew mentioned, we’re struggling with things as they are. So the fundamental suffering, the suffering of fixation, one could say, has to do with the fact that we are attempting to solidify what is a fluid and impermanent situation. That constriction could be there even in moments of apparent happiness, if we are holding on to those moments.
We tend to overlook basic suffering, though. Traditionally, it is said that with practice one becomes more sensitive to this basic suffering. Initially, it might be like a hair touching the hand, but for the wise, this fundamental suffering is like a hair touching the eye.
Buddhadharma: Why is the first kind called the suffering of suffering?
Gaylon Ferguson: The original phrase is simply “dukkha dukkha,” the pain of pain.
Andrew Olendzki: When these words are put side by side, they’re being used in two different ways. First, it just means pain, as in pleasure and pain, sukkha and dukkha. That level of pain is never going to go away. Even on his deathbed, the Buddha said, “My body is wracked with pain right now.” Pain is a feeling tone, which is one of the aggregates. It’s hardwired into the mechanism of the human mind and body, you might say. But when you put the second word after it, dukkha dukkha, then it’s used in the other sense, the one Zenkei referred to as things being not quite right, or wobbly. It’s not that pain is the problem and that it will go away when you’re awakened. Pain is inevitable, but the distress caused by that physical pain will go away when you’re enlightened. So in the phrase “dukkha dukkha,” the first dukkha is simple pain and the second dukkha is the resistance to that pain.
Buddhadharma: Are the pain of alternation and the all-pervasive pain as inevitable as the original dukkha, the pain of touching a hot stove?
Gaylon Ferguson: No, cessation says that the pain is not a given.
Andrew Olendzki: Well, it’s given in the sense that it’s a starting point and that’s the first noble truth, suffering is there.
Gaylon Ferguson: But it’s not given as a condition one is doomed to.
Blanche Hartman: Non-acceptance of basic pain is not a given.
Gaylon Ferguson: In fact, these kinds of pain are intertwined, and we can’t actually separate out a given physical pain from the resistance and struggle with it. If there were less struggle or no struggle, what would that original pain be like? We don’t know what an enlightened person experiences in terms of so-called physical pain.
Blanche Hartman: The famous koan of Baizhang’s Fox indicates that an enlightened person doesn’t ignore pain. I recall when Suzuki Roshi was dying with cancer, I was with him and noticed that he grimaced as if he were having some physical pain. When it subsided he said, “Hmm, my karma is not so good” instead of saying, “Oh my god, this is so terrible! Why me?”
Gaylon Ferguson: There are also similar stories of the Sixteenth Karmapa. When he was dying of cancer in a hospital in Illinois, he seemed to transform the relationship to physical pain. It’s conceptual speculation on our part as to what that experience is, and throughout this discussion, particularly as we talk about cessation, we ought to acknowledge the limits of our conceptions. We are clearly not going to be talking about something that is fundamentally conceptual.
Buddhadharma: Yet even fledgling practitioners could transform their relationship to pain to a certain degree, couldn’t they?
Gaylon Ferguson: Of course, mindfulness-based stress reduction has shown that when mindfulness lessens the struggle with chronic pain, the pain is somehow lessened.
Andrew Olendzki: Dharma practice is intended to help us to stop stabbing ourselves with the second arrow, rather than concerning ourselves with the arrow that has already penetrated us, as the traditional analogy goes. The physical pain is inevitable, but as we resist it or feel sorry for ourselves or wish it were different, we continue to jab ourselves. That’s the emotional suffering we experience in the face of the pain.
Buddhadharma: You’ve all been talking about the first noble truth experientially, but the formula “all life is suffering” does make it sound like a philosophical pronouncement, doesn’t it?
Blanche Hartman: That way of saying it is maybe something that a missionary translated. All the Buddha said was, “There is dukkha.” We have unsatisfactoriness, unease.
Andrew Olendzki: It says in the teachings, sarvam dukkham, all is suffering, or all conditioned events are flawed, unsatisfactory. It’s not “all life” or anything like that. Buddhism’s strong suit is inviting people to look closely at their own experience. It’s not so strong on the conceptual storyline, particularly as compared to other world religions.
Buddhadharma: “All conditioned events are unsatisfactory” does seem much more in concert with the meditator’s experience. It’s an empirical observation, not a narrative about all of life, so to speak.
Andrew Olendzki: Yes.
Buddhadharma: Having discussed the nature of dukkha and of conditioned existence, how do we understand cessation in that context?
Andrew Olendzki: The idea of cessation does obviously invite the question, “Cessation of what?” Cessation doesn’t work all by itself. There’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding throughout the Buddhist tradition, both internally and externally, about what we mean by that and how it’s used. For example, you have the issues that came up in China at the time of the founding of the Zen tradition when the northern school of Chan essentially said that if we empty our mind of thoughts, we’ll be free of suffering. The southern school, with Huineng and the others, said that if you empty your mind of thoughts, you’re just like a rock or a stone. This led to the distinction that there is an emptying of the mind, but what is emptied is the resistance to what is happening, rather than what is happening itself.
The Buddha was very clear that cessation of suffering is not talking about being without consciousness and perception and all the rest of it. What happened to him under the bodhi tree, as I understand it, is that he became an altered person, but the primary alteration was not physical. He still had a body like the rest of us; he still had feelings and perceptions, the five aggregates. What ceased was wanting things to be different than they were, craving.
Gaylon Ferguson: In the essence of dependent arising, or pratityasamutpada-essence, mantra, om ye dharma hetu prabhava, and so forth, Sariputra gives a pithy synopsis of what the Buddha taught: “Regarding dharmas that arise from a cause, the Tathagatha taught their cause and also their cessation.” That’s a lion’s roar proclamation that we are not doomed to struggling and fighting with life. There is another possibility.
Blanche Hartman: David Brazier talks about nirodha, which we generally translate as cessation, as originally meaning an earthen bank. He offers the image of being down behind a sheltering bank of earth or putting a bank around something so as to both confine and protect it, like containing or controlling a fire. So the feeling he brings to it is of containment of the stress around whatever is not going the way we want it, rather than ending something. We’re not going to end impermanence, which is the cause of a great deal of the dissatisfaction we have in our life.
Andrew Olendzki: As a skillful means, that might be very effective, but containment as an image seems too limiting. For a householder trying to get by in the day-to-day world, there are ways in which the experience of dissatisfaction can be contained, through stress reduction and wiser choices, for example. But what’s radical and inspiring about the Buddha’s message is that the fundamental mechanisms in our mind and body that construct suffering on a regular basis can in fact be dismantled. The roots can be pulled up from the lowest levels, such that the suffering is no longer constructed at all. It’s nice to be able to treat the symptom, and the more effective the medicine for treating it the better, but how much better to reach a little deeper and be able to cure it entirely?
Blanche Hartman: What I like about the containment image, though, is that we can talk about the fire of passion and not wanting to put it out, because fire is useful. If it can be contained and controlled, if you put it in the oven, you can cook with it. But you want to protect it, to keep the wind of greed, hate, and delusion from blowing it out of all proportion. At the same time, you don’t want the embers to go dead. You want to employ them for useful purpose.
Buddhadharma: But doesn’t that sidestep the notion of extinguishing?
Gaylon Ferguson: Can’t we have both? Yes, there is pulling up by the root and extinguishing, but in the Lankavatara Sutra it says, “Skillful farmers don’t throw away their manure. They use it.” They spread it on the field of bodhi. So the containment is the sense that the basic energy could be used for waking up. Trungpa Rinpoche said that the Tibetan equivalent for nirodha is gokpa, which literally means “preventing.” So in addition to “containing” as an alternative way of describing it, there is this notion of preventing, the quality of vaccination, so to speak. Once the problems are prevented, it is for good.
Buddhadharma: It’s very helpful to hear these other terms for “cessation,” which is not a word we find in common parlance. That very fact can make the idea of cessation seem a bit obscure, if not philosophical or mystical.
Andrew Olendzki: It just means stopping.
Gaylon Ferguson: Yes, ending. I wonder why we don’t just say stopping. Why did it become cessation? That’s probably polite Victorian English.
Andrew Olendzki: It may well be, yes. Maybe we need to update the translation a little bit.
Gaylon Ferguson: Right.
Andrew Olendzki: The stopping of wobbliness [laughter].
Buddhadharma: If it’s stopping, then, and if you’re not stopping the fire that Blanche and David Brazier were talking about, what are you stopping?
Andrew Olendzki: I think it is the fire that you’re stopping. The three unwholesome roots of greed, hatred, and delusion—these three fires are blazing across the whole field of experience. Awakening and nirvana has to do with extinguishing the fires. And yes, you can bank the fires and you can keep them under control. It is a very tantric approach to take something like that and use the power of the defilement for transformation.
Gaylon Ferguson: It’s there in Mahayana as well.
Andrew Olendzki: Yes, Mahayana as well. But we also have to be careful not to be too hard on ourselves. Just because the Buddha says it’s possible for these fires to go out, it doesn’t mean we should expect it to happen by Tuesday.
More to the point, he’s saying this fire is burning in almost every moment of your experience. You are craving, and therefore you are suffering. Just come to know it, understand it, befriend it. You’re not encouraging it to continue per se, but rather you’re being at home with it. It’s not so much about an ideal state where this just doesn’t happen, although that is a placeholder at the end of the path, but it’s more about what is happening every moment.
Notice that. Look at it. Learn from it. Understand it. Experiment with how you can hold yourself differently in any given situation, to diminish its effect. It’s really a matter of how to play with fire, rather than how to extinguish it. But when you play with it long enough and skillfully enough, it goes out.
Gaylon Ferguson: It’s very helpful not to set up that carrot and then beat yourself if you’re not getting to it. If we are contemplating our experience and inquiring into our experience, we will notice it, just as the historical Buddha did when he remembered a time sitting under a tree at the plowing festival, when he had a moment of cessation, stopping.
Blanche Hartman: That’s true. Most students, most of us, have had some taste of that.
Gaylon Ferguson: People can recall a glimpse. I’m not saying they’ve had full or final cessation, but they can recall a moment of not struggling.
Blanche Hartman: And because they’ve had some taste of it, they turn to practice and they can breathe freely in the world. They have a taste of dropping the boundary that separates me from other and can feel that expansive inclusiveness, the interconnectedness of everything with everything. We have experiences like that, but we don’t know what they are or what to call them.
Buddhadharma: The third noble truth has sometimes been called the “the goal.” Does that make sense?
Blanche Hartman: You are more likely to have such an experience if you practice. It’s less hit and miss, but goal? Goal kind of jangles me when I remember how strongly Suzuki Roshi said, “No gaining idea, no goal-seeking mind.” Practice is about fully opening ourselves and accepting what is, as it is, in all its stuffness.
Gaylon Ferguson: According to the teachings of Dogen, that’s not a goal but rather our original state, right?
Blanche Hartman: To have some gaining idea or goal means that as you are right now is not OK.
Andrew Olendzki: I would add that since we construct our reality every single moment, and the five aggregates arise again with or without the influence of craving and ignorance, there are multiple moments throughout the day in which you could experience cessation. It could be the cessation of one of the defilements, one of the obstacles. For example, you could be sitting in meditation and your foot starts hurting. You see the physical sensation mounting along with your resistance to it, and your concern around it becomes more and more proliferated. At a certain point, you can just recontextualize what’s happening, let go of the resistance to it, and settle in to what’s actually happening. In that moment, the whole complex of resistance to that sensation ceases. It stops, and the next moment something new is created. Perhaps we over-dramatize the idea of what this whole awakening experience is. Well, maybe not the Zen tradition.
Blanche Hartman: Yes we do [laughs].
Andrew Olendzki: Like with everything else in the Buddhist tradition, this notion is useful as a verb and harmful as a noun.
Blanche Hartman: That’s a nice teaching. I’m going to steal that!
Andrew Olendzki: Teaching people how to have things cease, extinguish, or let go is very useful. It’s very dynamic and alive. Getting fixated on the notion of cessation as a noun, either occurring or not occurring or being attained or not attained as a goal, a big or a little goal, is just heading in the wrong direction.
Gaylon Ferguson: Even the glimpses of cessation are probably not just hit or miss, but rather they have to do with cycles of cause and effect. So we say go ahead and make use of that. Why not make causes that will lead in the direction of such stopping or opening, instead of just willy-nilly traveling around and around on the wheel?
Buddhadharma: We have been talking about cessation, or stopping, as an action. But cessation is essentially nirvana, which is a state, or at least a noun, no?
Andrew Olendzki: Actually, it’s more often used as an adjective in the Pali Canon, applied to a person who has become quenched.
Gaylon Ferguson: They’re nirvanic?
Andrew Olendzki: They’re nirvana-ized or something. The fires have been quenched, extinguished; they’re cool. They’ve become cool.
Buddhadharma: So you don’t teach nirvana as an experience? Or a state?
Andrew Olendzki: I try not to teach beyond my experience, so I don’t have a lot to say about the experience of nirvana. All we’re saying is that nirvana is what the Buddha attained under the bodhi tree, and that there’s incremental progress toward it. But I don’t see it as a state in the sense that, you know, I slipped into nirvana for an hour or two. There are also gradations—stream-enterer, non-returner, and so forth.
Blanche Hartman: You’ve also got the whole Mahayana side, the bodhisattva ideal of let’s do it all together or not at all.
Gaylon Ferguson: Dzongsar Khyentse talks about the classic four marks of view in his book Why You Are Not a Buddhist, and the fourth one is “nirvana is peace.” He emphasizes that nirvana is beyond conception.
Blanche Hartman: I would call it the inconceivable.
Gaylon Ferguson: Yes. It’s certainly not our concept of happiness.
Buddhadharma: Happiness has become a very popular word, and these days Buddhism is often described as trying to help you to become happy, because that’s what we all want. Doesn’t the search for happiness in fact define the root of suffering?
Blanche Hartman: My actual experience is that after a number of years of practice, I’m a hell of a lot happier than I was before I started practicing. That’s undeniable. My teacher named me Zenkei, which means total joy, and at the time I asked myself what the heck he named me that for. Now I really appreciate it, because there is a lot of joy in my life.
Buddhadharma: Is your practice motivated by trying to be happy?
Blanche Hartman: No, I have been more motivated by trying to figure out how to live when you know you’re going to die. Knowing that you’re going to die makes how you live a very important question. So my motivation was to find the best way to live given the limited time I have.
Andrew Olendzki: We all appreciate the Dalai Lama’s comment that everyone basically wants to be happy. That’s a really open and joyous place to start looking into all of this. At the same time, it’s also fair to say that happiness can turn into a marketing label. We found out a long time ago at the study center that no matter how good the teacher or the date, if we offer a course about coming to terms with sickness, aging, and death, nobody’s going to come. But if we take the same course and call it the art of happiness, lots of people come. It’s a skillful means thing. To a certain extent, you want to use the language and put out the ideas that are going to be useful and understandable to people wherever they are in their lives. Then hopefully from that starting point they are gradually pulled into the deeper and subtler ways of looking at the issues. I don’t think the Buddha was leading with the happy card, but he was very clear on saying that greater happiness is accessible through understanding than through confusion.
Gaylon Ferguson: I’m sure we all agree that seeking happiness is the cause of a lot of suffering. That’s classic buddhadharma. The very struggle to always be in any particular state is what the second noble truth is about. Yet I agree that it makes sense to start with people where they are and lead them to something deeper. Then we can open into a wider sense of what happiness is. Happiness isn’t just the limited positive states we strive for, but rather there is a larger openness that includes sorrow and joy. That would be true happiness. A friend of mine used to teach by asking people to consider, what is the good life? What would it really mean to have or lead a good life?
The conventional understanding is materialistic, but people come to realize that a good life actually might be a life based on compassion and serving others. And indeed, longtime practitioners often do say there is more happiness in their lives. That’s also classically Buddhist, in that the Buddha’s presence was such that he communicated to others a glimpse that awakening is possible, but that wakefulness is far beyond seeking happiness.
Andrew Olendzki: Our word “happiness” is probably too limited. With dukkha, we were saying that there’s physical pain and then there’s the resistance to that, which is a greater existential meaning of dukkha. Maybe the same could be said for sukkha. There’s physical pleasure and mental pleasure, but the Buddha was saying that it’s possible to cultivate a mind that’s larger and more balanced in the face of either pleasure or displeasure. It’s a matter of getting to a wider mind that can embrace both and still experience profound well-being. Well-being is not necessarily the same as happiness. Happiness is just a matter of stringing together pleasant moments.
Buddhadharma: Sometimes people imagine that the profound happiness you talk about…
Gaylon Ferguson: …which is sometimes called great joy…
Buddhadharma: …would enable you to be chilled out, cool as Andrew said earlier, or beatific, even in situations of extreme sorrow, like a dear friend’s death. Is that accurate?
Blanche Hartman: Well, that’s kind of deadening isn’t it? The only way you can do that is to just not feel anything. That doesn’t sound like well-being, or cessation, to me.
Andrew Olendzki: It’s a form of aversion, isn’t it? It’s not pushing away aggressively or violently, but it’s pushing away by not letting it matter. The middle path is between holding on and pushing away. It’s knowing and seeing something for what it is, in all its poignancy. That allows us to get more intimate with what’s happening, whether it’s tragedy or joy. Otherwise, we’re just denying.
Gaylon Ferguson: Also, responding to the suffering of the world goes against the notion of being chilled out and thinking everything is fine as it is. The commitment to lessening suffering in all kinds of ways is a part of how the buddhas have demonstrated their nature to us. Their compassion and responsiveness to human suffering is who they are.
Andrew Olendzki: In a world that’s fully interdependent, one person’s chilling out often is at the expense of a lot of other people bearing the burden.
Buddhadharma: Happiness and chilling out seem to be suspect motivations for the path, but isn’t starting off with the truth of dukkha an off-putting place to begin?
Blanche Hartmann: Not necessarily. Acknowledging dukkha can set up a connection among us, the sense that we’re all in this boat together.
Andrew Olendzki: I would have to say, though, in my experience it’s actually not a very good place to start. Trying to convince Americans of the truth of suffering is no small challenge. So many people are insulated from it, or have thought their way around, that it’s an uphill struggle.
Gaylon Ferguson: Not all teachings begin with the truth of suffering. In the buddhanature teachings, one begins with non-struggle, basic sanity, as the basis. Then one might proceed to discovering how we’ve covered over our fundamental nature, open spacious awareness, through habits of karma and klesha. We have become constricted and we struggle. The Buddha taught a variety of skillful means for different beings, and the four noble truths we are familiar with is one such skillful means. In the Flower Garland Sutra, a slightly different version of the four noble truths is presented, from the buddhanature viewpoint.
Andrew Olendzki: I taught a class full of undergraduates at Brandeis last year. I blithely started with the first noble truth, and I had a major fight on my hands. I spent an hour trying to explain what I meant. They all walked out of there thinking that Buddhism is pretty pessimistic, just as they had thought.
Gaylon Ferguson: In a consumerist culture, you wouldn’t usually deliver a product by beginning with unhappiness. But of course the teachings of Buddhism do go against the stream that there is pleasure and then greater pleasure and then greater pleasure after that.
Andrew Olendzki: As I understand it, in the classical teachings, the four noble truths is not so much the beginning point as the ending point. It summarizes the essential insights that the Buddha had, that brought about his awakening. I find it more effective to mention the truth of suffering halfway through the curriculum rather than on the first day. At that point, it’s rather to say, now that we’ve understood enough to know how much we’re kidding ourselves, constructing an illusionary life, we can see that underneath the distortions of the mind, the illusions we create, is the tangible experience of discomfort.
Blanche Hartman: I don’t find it so useful as a starting point for teaching necessarily, but I certainly find it useful as a starting point for practice.