Saturday, July 26, 2008

When the present is just bloody awful


This is from a Question and Answer Session with Thich Nhat Hanh on 20th of July 1998, in Plum Village:

Question : “I hear you say that the present moment is a wonderful moment. What if the present moment is just despair... a desert of emptiness and loneliness, meaninglessness, sickness, a feeling of loss and despair? Most of the time when I stop I find myself there.”

Answer By Thich Nhat Hanh

When the Buddha gave his first Dharma talk, he spoke about ill being, dukkha. Of course the feeling of loneliness, meaninglessness, sickness, despair, all belong to dukkha, ill being.

The Buddha talked about it first of all.

That was the first topic of his Dharma talk. According to the spirit of that Dharma talk, you should not try to run away from your ill being, try to escape, because if you do, you have no chance to get out of it. If you know how to embrace your pain and look deeply into it, and if you really care to look deeply, you will find out how it has come to be: the roots of your ill-being. And only with that kind of insight will you be able to get out of the situation. Therefore the attitude of running away from your suffering is not a wise attitude.

In fact the first truth, namely, ill being, suffering, has been described as a holy truth, because the first Dharma talk given by the Buddha was about the Four Holy Truths. First of all, ill being. The second truth is the cause, the roots of ill being. The third truth is the possibility of overcoming ill being and restoring well being, and the fourth is the way out of ill being and arriving at well being. Not only are the two last truths described as holy, but also the first one and the second one. Why do we call pain and suffering a holy truth? It is because, thanks to it, we can find the way to overcome suffering and ill being.

If we know how to handle our suffering, then we can learn a lot from it and we can discover the way out. But if we don’t know how to handle it, we will be overwhelmed by it, crushed by it, and the only thing we will want is to get away from it.

But how to get away? That is why even suffering is described as holy, wonderful. "Wonderful" does not mean pleasant alone. "Wonderful" means that there is a depth that we have to discover, and that looking into this, we can discover that also. The fact is that happiness is not possible without suffering. Those of us who have not experienced any kind of suffering would not be capable of identifying happiness, this is my experience. If you have never been hungry in your life, you do not know exactly the joy of having something to eat. If you have not suffered as a homeless person, you would not be able to identify the joy of someone who has a house to live in. That is why happiness cannot be identified without the background of suffering. That is why when someone says, "Come with me—I will show you a place where there is only happiness," please don’t believe him or her. Without the background and the remembrance of suffering, of pain, you cannot enjoy the happiness you are having now. That is why not only happiness is wonderful, but your non-happiness is also wonderful.

Suppose you have sadness and you want to get away from it. How can you get away from it? You have to embrace it and look deeply into it and identify the causes that have brought it to you. Then you can learn from your sadness, and then you can enjoy the non-sadness, the well being that you can afford to have. If you know how to cut the source of nutriment that has brought on your sadness, then you are on your way to emancipation, and you begin to enjoy your non-saddness. It is like your toothache. I hope that in this moment you don’t have a toothache, yet you don’t enjoy your non-toothache until you have a toothache. Suffering from your toothache you get enlightened: you say: "It’s wonderful not to have a toothache." So, how to enjoy your non-toothache? Just remember the time when you had a toothache.

Suffering plays a very important role in helping you to be happy. That is why even what you call suffering, loneliness, meaninglessness, sadness, fear and despair can be wonderful, because it is thanks to them that you have an opportunity to discover what freedom, stability, friendship, interbeing and love are.

So let us not run away from our garbage; we should learn the art of making compost. Using that compost we will grow a lot of flowers. Don’t think that without compost you can have flowers. That is an illusion. You can have flowers only with compost. That is the insight of interbeing — look into the flower and you will see the compost. If you remove the compost that became the flower, the flower will disappear also. What you are looking for, freedom, joy, and stability, you know that suffering plays a very important role in it. So be aware that we cannot just run away from our problems. In fact, we have to go back to our problems. The practice of calming, of concentrating, of embracing, of looking deeply into the nature of our pain, is absolutely necessary for us to get the transformation, the healing that we need so much.


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