One of the Buddha’s central claims is that there are two chief factors that set the stage for human suffering and dissatisfaction. First, life is constant change. Our immediate environment is constantly changing. We are constantly changing. And because of this, over and over again many of the things we need or adore disappear from our lives.
Additionally, constant change brings many unwanted things in its wake. These things range from the mildly disagreeable to the abjectly abhorrent. Change seems to rob us or bust us unceasingly. Ah, but “don’t throw away the Buddha.”
“Vulnerability in the face of constant change is what we share, whatever our present condition.” ~Sharon Salzberg
There is very little to do about this first factor. Obviously, we can and should do our best to take good care of ourselves in every sense. Furthermore, we can take the best care we can of people and things near and dear to us. Just as well, we can care for the people and things that share this life further a field. Yet, to be alive is to be both an agent of change and changed until the day we die. There simply is no escape from this first factor.
On this point, Suzuki Roshi sometimes recalled that Dogen Zenji advised us to live like a boatman. It’s the constantly changing conditions of the sea and the weather that carry the boat. Yet, the boatman does her best to skillfully handle the boat at all times.
Next, the second factor is much more significant with respect to our suffering since it’s our responses to change that turn the unavoidable pain of living into the burdens of anguish, depression, or despair.
“We long for permanence but everything in the known universe is transient. That’s a fact but one we fight.” Sharon Salzberg
That means our response to change is not only a factor in our suffering. Our response is also a cause of our suffering, a condition we create. That’s because our responses to change are generally unskillful, reactive, unnecessarily emotional, and in light of the unavoidable reality of change, not a little irrational.
Rather than simply taking care, we struggle mightily to escape. We resist or deny the reality of our own ever-changing bodies and minds and circumstances. We try to live as if some things don’t change.
Yet though this may be deeply irrational, it also makes perfect sense.
It makes sense because the constant flux and ever-present changes we meet in life reveal our vulnerability, limits, insecurity, and mortality. These things are extremely difficult to square up to. I find it difficult to look the certainty of my own death in the eye. Nevertheless, this is part of the reality of change. A reality I’m hard pressed to live with.
So, for example, rather than see our situation as it is, we contort and distort and therefore suffer. Many of us become psychologically entangled in or emotionally enmeshed with ideologies or with religions or family dramas. And we identify with something in these things as the True, or the only holy, or the highest good. And then we wrap ourselves up in these things as a kind of guarantor of the integrity and immortality of the essential core of our being at the level of me, myself or mine.
They become my identity, or my totem, or my god. Yet, as far as we can tell, everything changes, even gods. So the more tightly I cling to what I call mine, the more I’m bound to disappointment and suffering, and the more I’ll find myself at odds with those who disagree with the truth or righteous goodness or my chosen totem.
“In order to do anything about the suffering of the world we must have the strength to face it without turning away.” ~Sharon Salzberg
Yet, there is another possible response to change. The great Thai Forest monk and abbot Ajahn Chah revered change so highly that he welcomed change as the Buddha and taught that change was the Dharma teaching itself.
“In truth [all of life is] uncertain,” he once said, “but our desires want things to be certain. What can we do? Actually, the real Dharma, the gist of what I’ve been saying here today isn’t so mysterious. What ever you experience is simply form, simply feeling, simply perception, simply volition, and simply consciousness. There are only these basic qualities; where is there any certainty within them?” ~Ajahn Chah
We can fully accept the changes that are our constituent parts, that is our bodies (form) and our mental and psychological constituents (feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness) in the Buddhist scheme of things. “More easily said then done,” you say. I agree.
And this is why the Buddha and the great teachers up to today recommend that we practice mindfulness in all we do.
As Ajahn Chah taught, “When we have mindfulness, we are close to the Dharma. If we have mindfulness, we see impermanence, the transience of all things… We must maintain our practice constantly, whether we are working or sitting or simply lying down. When the eye sees form, the ear hears sound, the nose smells an odor, the tongue tastes a flavor or the body experiences sensation – in all things, don’t through away the Buddha.”
“Don’t Throw Away The Buddha.”
What Ajahn Chah meant by “don’t throw away the Buddha” is don’t stop paying attention the constant change in every moment. Every Buddha is awake to change.
If we’re mindfully awake to change, we’ll shift out of a lifetime of ignorance and unnecessary suffering and into a life of true understanding. Since everything is always changing, we’ll see that there is nothing in life to hold on to, nothing to grasp or cling to. We cannot avoid our own vulnerability or insecurity, or mortality. Yet, if we fully see and accept the constant change in life we discover we can joyfully use life’s boat without attachment and entanglement.
“Because the development of inner calm & energy happens completely within & isn’t dependent on another person or a particular situation, we begin to feel a resourcefulness and independence that is quite beautiful—and a huge relief.” ~Sharon Salzberg
The Quotes from Ajahn Chah come from a talk he gave called, Not Sure! — The Standard of the Noble Ones. You can read the whole talk at this link: ajahnchah.org/book/Not_Sure_Standard.php
You can find many lovely and pointed quotes by the understated yet totally masterful meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg here: goodreads.com/author/quotes/17208.Sharon_Salzberg?page=1
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