After his awakening, Buddha Shakyamuni traveled to Deer Park in Sarnath in northern India, where he have his first teaching (Gandhara, Kushan Period, Lahore Central Archeological Museum).
After his awakening, Buddha Shakyamuni traveled to Deer Park in Sarnath in northern India, where he have his first teaching (Gandhara, Kushan Period, Lahore Central Archeological Museum).

In two new books, psychiatrist Mark Epstein and dharma teacher Ken McLeod bring contemporary Western sensibilities to the life and enlightenment of the historical Buddha.

With reference to Freudian theories of pleasure and desire, Mark Epstein focuses on a little-known story in which Siddhartha, emaciated after practicing extreme asceticism, remembers sitting under an rose-apple tree as a child. This memory triggers a reevaluation of his asceticism and the realization that the experience of pleasure does not preclude enlightenment.

McLeod uses both his literal and metaphorical talents as a translator of Tibetan dharma to describe the classic training of his own studies under the late Kalu Rinpoche. Here, the life of the historical Buddha provides essential instructions that delineate stages of the path. But by drawing on his own experience and that of his students, McLeod’s version of the life of the great sage of India affirms that the path of the Buddha is as appropriate for the modern West as it was for ancient India.







The Platform of Joy

by Mark Epstein

The rough outline of the Buddha’s life story was familiar to me. A provincial prince, he was raised by his overprotective father to never see old age, illness, or death. Renouncing his family and privilege at the age of twenty-nine, he became a renunciate, wandering through the forests of Northern India in search of his freedom. Sitting under a tree in what is now the village of Bodh Gaya, after exhausting all of the spiritual disciplines of his time, he awoke to the truth of emptiness. But his process of awakening was more complicated than I had initially imagined. There was a pivotal event hidden within his years of renunciation that had all kinds of psychological implications. There, in that critical period after forsaking all that was dear to him but before his awakening under the Bodhi tree, was a little-known vignette about a childhood memory that was the turning point in his life. This event also involved a recovery, and an enrichment of the self, and it set the stage for his ultimate realization. That his memory had psychodynamic implications is undeniable. It came just at his point of maximum vulnerability, as he was attempting, with all of his might, to subdue himself through penance and starvation.

In search of enlightenment, Siddhartha attempted to subdue himself through ascetic practices: "My limbs became like the jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo; my ribs jutted; the gleam of my eyes sunk far down in their sockets..." (Gandhara, Kushan Period, Peshawar Museum).
In search of enlightenment, Siddhartha attempted to subdue himself through ascetic practices: “My limbs became like the jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo; my ribs jutted; the gleam of my eyes sunk far down in their sockets…” (Gandhara, Kushan Period, Peshawar Museum).















The Buddha-to-be, Gotama of the Shakya clan, left his wife, newborn son, palace, and kingdom and struck out on his own, pursuing the available spiritual practice of his culture. This was a big step, but it was not a radical one. This was the traditional modality of the spiritual seeker in ancient India, and there were many such seekers. Gotama found several well-known teachers and perfected a variety of ascetic practices, but, unable to penetrate the riddle of his own being, he grew increasingly frustrated. His renunciation became stronger and stronger. Like a modern-day anorectic, Gotama pushed the limit of his own endurance and refused the least possible nourishment. With five companions looking on in anticipation of the fruits of his penance, he struggled to reach beyond the limits of his mind and body. As the Buddha later recounted it, “I thought: Suppose I take very little food, say a handful each time, whether it is bean soup or lentil soup or pea soup?’ I did so. And as I did so my body reached a state of extreme emaciation; my limbs became like the jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo stems, because of eating so little….my ribs jutted out as gaunt as the crazy rafters of an old roofless barn; the gleam of my eyes sunk far down in their sockets looked like the gleam of water sunk far down in a deep well….If I made water or evacuated my bowels, I fell over on my face there. If I tried to ease my body by rubbing my limbs with my hands, the hair, rotted at its roots, fell away from my body as I rubbed, because of eating so little.”

The Buddha was on the brink of self-eradication. In trying to subdue himself, and the restless passions that he had already identified as part of his problem, he succumbed to the use of force, beating himself into submission, as the ascetics of his time counseled. He was trying to go deeply into his problems, with an eye toward getting rid of them once and for all. The Buddha, it seems, was once headed down a path of self-abuse. He was human too, subject to the same kinds of psychic pressures that afflict most of us, and he seemed to have felt as unworthy as any late twentieth-century initiate into psychotherapy. While this approach of self-subjugation may sound alien at first, it is not actually so far removed from the kinds of strategies that many people still employ. The self-starvation of anorexia and the incessant self-criticism of the judging mind are ascetic practices in their own right. Unworthiness takes many forms, but at its heart is a confusion about one’s own promise.

The Buddha was close to destroying himself when he suddenly took his attention in another direction. In one of those moments like that in which a chronic smoker finally decides to quit his habit, the Buddha saw that he had reached his limit. At his most forlorn point, he started to question himself, making a remarkable turnaround that established joy as the platform upon which the entire promise of enlightenment is based.

“I thought,Whenever a monk or brahman has felt painful, racking, piercing feeling due to striving, it can equal this but not exceed it. But by this grueling penance I have attained no distinction higher than the human state, worthy of the noble one’s knowledge and vision. Might there be another way to enlightenment?”

This thought – “Might there be another way to enlightenment?” – proved to be critical. It opened up the memory that at first must have seemed irrelevant to the Buddha’s question. I can imagine him trying to brush it away, a disturbing thought echoing from the canyons of childhood, of little interest to this starving forest renunciate. But like an association in psychotherapy, the memory had a hidden meaning. The Buddha did not ignore it all. Trusting in his own psychic process, he gave it his full attention and probed for what it might reveal. The memory centered, as did his subsequent enlightenment, around a tree. In the midst of the self-punishment, Gotama remembered a time of wholeness under a tree. An episode of pleasure tugged at his mind.

“I thought of a time when my Shakyan father was working and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree: quite secluded from sensual desires, secluded from unwholesome things, I had entered upon an abode in the first meditation, which is accompanied by thinking and exploring, with happiness and pleasure born of seclusion.”

Reflecting upon his time under the rose-apple tree watching his father work, the Buddha remembered a simple pleasure that sprung from his own state of mind, one that he compared to the fruits of concentration meditation. Under the canopy of the protective arbor and his father’s benevolent but non-interfering presence, the young child experienced a taste of what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called jouissance, the joy that is born out of relaxed contemplation, the pleasure that was his being. In the midst of his ascetic practices, he had lost touch with that simple happiness. Suddenly, it came flooding back to him. “Might that be the way to enlightenment?” the incredulous Buddha thought to himself. “Then, following up that memory, there came the recognition that this was the way to enlightenment.” In recognizing that it was indeed the way, he continued his investigation.

What happened next is, for me, the most crucial. The Buddha noticed that there was something scary about this pleasure that appeared out of nowhere. “Why am I afraid of such pleasure?” he wondered. He said only one thing in reply, leaving it up to us to fill in the rest. This is the Buddha at his most psychologically astute. In reading the passage, I can almost see his mind working. He remembered his pleasure and in the next breath recognized his fear of it. As the Jungians would say, he saw his own shadow. And then he was quick to analyze. “It is pleasure that has nothing to do with sensual desires and unwholesome things,” he thought: that is what is causing so much fear.

The Direction of Relief

This is a fascinating realization, but difficult to understand. Why should this be scary? Why should a pleasure that jumps out of nowhere, not dependent on sensual desires, be frightening? Because it challenges our identity as someone who is lost, hungry, cut-off, deprived, bereft, searching, or in need of (as we say in psychodynamic language) an object. It challenges our assumptions about the direction of relief. The pleasure feels too great, too undeserved, too blinding. Yet this, as the Buddha himself intuited, is the direction of enlightenment. It is a reminder of what the great fourteenth-century Tibetan teacher Tsong-kha-pa, the founder of the Dalai Lama’s school of Buddhism, said at the moment of his enlightenment, “It’s exactly the opposite of what I expected!”

The Buddha, after a moment’s reflection, saw through his fear. A pleasure that did not depend on the gratification of desire was a pleasure inherent to what is. If happiness was inherent to what is, then why push reality away? Why engage in these self-punishing exercises at all? Sensual grasping was not the route to happiness, but neither was its suppression. In a flash, the Buddha renounced renunciation and set out to nourish his body. The first recorded instance of self-analysis had done its work.

“I am not afraid of such pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual desires and unwholesome things,” he reflected. “It is not possible to attain that pleasure with a body so excessively emaciated. Suppose I ate some solid food – some boiled rice and bread.” It is interesting in the life of the Buddha to see what this memory unleashed. First of all, the five ascetics accompanying him could not make heads or tails of his discovery. They were disgusted with him, felt he had given up the holy life, and soon parted company with their former friend thinking, “The monk Gotama has become self-indulgent, he has given up the struggle and reverted to luxury.”

As the reactions of his five disciples demonstrate, this revelation of the Buddha’s was a radical one. It smacked of self-absorption, of luxury, of reveling in emotional experience that was dangerously self-indulgent. He might as well have said he was going into therapy to nurture his inner child. But the Buddha was indicating something very profound. Enlightenment requires the recovery of going on being.depend on the gratification of desire was a pleasure inherent to what is. If happiness was inherent to what is, then why push reality away? Why engage in these self-punishing exercises at all? Sensual grasping was not the route to happiness, but neither was its suppression. In a flash, the Buddha renounced renunciation and set out to nourish his body. The first recorded instance of self-analysis had done its work.

As the reactions of his five disciples demonstrate, this revelation of the Buddha’s was a radical one. It smacked of self-absorption, of luxury, of reveling in emotional experience that was dangerously self-indulgent. He might as well have said he was going into therapy to nurture his inner child. But the Buddha was indicating something very profound. Enlightenment requires the recovery of going on being.

The Key to Enlightenment

The road to enlightenment lay in this direction, the Buddha discovered, not in self-abnegation. Rather than existing in a state of reactivity, fighting against reality or clinging to it as it inexorably changes, the Buddha discovered that relaxing into his own being permitted him to relate to the world with an openness and acceptance that had been missing. While it was threatening to his followers, his path to awakening meant deepening internal experience; it meant developing more of an inside, through thinking, exploring, happiness, and pleasure born of seclusion. It meant building upon a capacity for joyful experience that was inherent to who he already was. This is what marked the Buddha as a great psychologist. He was not afraid to go in a more individual direction, although it was counter to the prevailing wisdom of the time.

This was the seed of what became known as the Buddha’s Middle Path, and he taught it with great distinction and consistency for the rest of his life. The Buddha came to see that his childhood pleasure under the rose-apple tree was the key to his enlightenment. That there could be a happiness unrelated to sensory pleasure at first glance appeared to be impossible, but it is, in fact, a reality that even Freud, whose focus was sensory pleasure, was forced to admit. While sensory pleasures derive from pursuit of pleasant physical sensations, from the instincts or erotic desires that Freud demonstrated existed even in children, there is another kind of happiness that derives from being in the moment, the joy of aliveness or at-one-ness, or concentration.

Freud found evidence of this most clearly in the happiness of love, but he described it, at its most primitive and pathological, as an expression of infantile narcissism. He noted, correctly, that a child who could be happily self-involved could later develop the ability to invest that same kind of interest and attention in another person. He clearly differentiated what he called ego libido’ (or narcissism) from sexual libido, but his writings on love exhibit the same kind of painful shyness that his writings on mysticism reveal. Freud was more comfortable in the terrain of common unhappiness than he was with real joy, and this is a predilection that has been handed down through generations of Western psychologists.

The Buddha proclaimed the Middle Path as a means of reclaiming happiness. Both self-indulgence and self-denial were oriented around sensory pleasures, he realized. By not grasping after pleasant experiences, but by not pushing them away either, the Buddha was able to reorient himself. He was able to make use of the spontaneous being-in-the-moment of his childhood, which was not, in itself, the same as enlightenment, but which was the key to its attainment.

The Buddha’s admission of fear at the time of his memory is very interesting. It is not just the Buddha who is afraid of this pleasure. Many of us take our early intimations of Buddha-nature, our spontaneous expressions of love, imagination, and joy that are unrelated to the satisfaction of sensual desires; and contaminate them with self-hatred when they are not reflected back to us in our childhoods. We drive them into exile for reasons that are unique to each of us. Feeling unrecognized or undeserving, we relegate that spontaneous expression to some hidden, or forbidden, fortress that is then lost, even to ourselves.

In the history of psychoanalysis, much has been made of the progression beyond Freud’s original “drive model” of the neuroses. Freud’s theory was based at first around the pleasure principle. Driven by the need for discharge,’ the instincts of sex and aggression were presented as the primary models of maximizing pleasure. Later generations of analysts recognized that people are not merely instinct-driven, but they are also person-driven. Babies are not just seeking discharge, these psychologists reasoned; they are also seeking personal contact, love, and holding. Freud neglected the eyes and the smile in his focus on the genitals, just as he neglected relationships in his focus on the personal unconscious. This latter kind of pleasure, the pleasure of interpersonal contact, has come to dominate psychological thought in the post-Freudian age. But what I recovered in meditation was something that seemed different from even the pleasures of intimacy. It was the pleasure of being, rather than of doing or being done to. While it may be a precondition for relationship, it emerged out of my own individual meditation practice. It forever countered the tendency to seek freedom from somewhere outside of myself, from a lover or a teacher or a therapist or a religion. That is not to suggest that I did not need each and every one of those relationships, for of course I did. But it was meditation that gave me a way of being that allowed me to seek them out.

The path to enlightenment requires us to recover the capacity for joy, not by imitating the Buddha’s process, but by initiating our own. As the Buddha found in his recovery of his childhood experience, the discomfort with joy is understandable. It challenges most of our basic assumptions about rewards and punishments. We are trained to assume that sensual gratification, or its absence, is the defining element of our pleasure. This is part of what is revolutionary about the Buddhist approach: it marks the introduction of a positive psychology to the West, one that is rooted in a radical rethinking of the route to happiness.

The Great Departure. In this scene, Prince Siddhartha, at the age of twenty-nine, leaves the luxury of his father's palace and sets out to study with the great religious teachers of his day (Gandhara, Kushan Period, Peshawar Museum)
The Great Departure. In this scene, Prince Siddhartha, at the age of twenty-nine, leaves the luxury of his father’s palace and sets out to study with the great religious teachers of his day (Gandhara, Kushan Period, Peshawar Museum)
















Buddhism in a Nutshell
by Ken McLeod

Approximately 2,500 years ago, Siddhartha, a prince of the Shakya clan in northern India, abandoned his royal heritage to seek the source of human suffering.

Sheltered by an overly protective father who wanted his son to succeed to the throne, Siddhartha grew up in the greatest luxury that his time could provide. Not until his twenties did the prince venture beyond the palace grounds. His illusions about life were quickly shattered as he encountered illness, old age, and death among his subjects. Soon afterward, Siddhartha saw an old religious mendicant who was utterly present and at peace. How could that be? How could anyone be at peace in the midst of all that suffering?

No matter how we grow up, in wealth or in poverty, in love or adversity: we form a view of life. Everything we do subsequently is based on the belief that that view of life is how things are. Perhaps you grew up in an environment in which you could easily trust everyone not to hurt you, but then you encounter a person who, for no reason you can imagine, is intent on doing you harm. Perhaps you grew up learning to trust no one and can’t imagine trusting another person with anything that is important to you. We first encounter the mystery of being when our view of life is called into question. All too often, we react by ignoring, closing down, manipulating, or controlling what arises in experience to avoid questioning that view of life and what we feel we are.

Siddhartha could not simply ignore what he had seen. Power, wealth, and position became meaningless to him in the face of illness, old age, and death. His conception of life and what he was were turned upside down and inside out. He saw another possibility, however, in the presence and peace of the religious mendicant.

The first encounter with the mystery of being momentarily shatters the structures of ordinary life. When everything falls away, a moment of opening takes place. In that moment, we are free – free from the fetters of beliefs and ideas about who and what we should be. In other words, in the midst of the destruction of our illusions about life, we experience being what we actually are – free, open awareness. Most of the time, we don’t notice that freedom and open awareness. We’re too busy putting our view of life back together. Even if we do notice it, we don’t stay there for long. But we have, like Siddhartha, encountered the religious mendicant and the possibility of presence.

Siddhartha soon left the court life he knew to examine the issue of suffering. Why is there suffering? Where does it come from?

His first step was to turn to the religious teachers of the day. He quickly learned everything they had to teach: their philosophies, meditation techniques, and codes of conduct. He practiced what he was taught, and he gained abilities equal to those of his teachers. Yet his questions remained unanswered.

The mystery of being often makes itself felt in our lives in the form of questions. We turn to institutions, traditions, and respected teachers, hoping to find answers to our questions. We study and practice, learning much that is helpful, but the answers can never come from outside. They come only through our own experience. We have to make the practice our own.

Along with five companions, Siddhartha began a life of extreme asceticism in order to understand the source of human suffering. Tradition records that for six years, he ingested only one sesame seed, one grain of rice, and one drop of water each day.

When they discover that their approach to life is based on an illusion, many people react by pursuing wealth and power. In pursuing asceticism, Siddhartha was taking an approach to life opposite of the one that most people adopt. He had learned that wealth and power were meaningless. Perhaps the answers to his questions could be found in poverty and austerity.

Whether we pursue wealth or austerity, our lives are still based on the same conditioning. Which direction the conditioning runs makes no difference. Like a train headed the wrong direction, we stop, turn around, and go the opposite way, but we are running on the same tracks. The same ideas and assumptions are still operating. To enter the mystery of being, we have to step off the tracks.

After six years of starving himself, Siddhartha could no longer keep his mind clear. He saw that asceticism would not lead him to understand suffering. Siddhartha stopped his regimen and began to eat normally, despite the rejection of his companions.

With his body restored, he sat under a tree and resolved not to move until he understood the source of suffering. He let his mind rest in attention, undistracted, not trying to make anything happen, not trying to cultivate any particular quality or ability. He stopped everything and simply sat with his question: what is the source of suffering?

How do we step off the tracks? We stop trying to avoid, close down, manipulate, or control what arises in experience. When we do stop, we are inevitably regarded with suspicion, and even rejected, by those who continue to live their lives based on patterns and conditioning. We go forward alone.

That evening, Siddhartha entered progressively deeper states of attention. The traditional description describes how Mara, the demon of obsession, tried to distract Siddhartha and bring him back into the realm of reaction and confusion where Mara held sway. He first tried to distract Siddhartha with desire by sending his daughters, in the form of beautiful women, to seduce him with affection, relationships, and sexual pleasure. Understanding that all experience, no matter how pleasurable, comes and goes, Siddhartha remained in attention. Mara tried anger next, sending armies of demons to the attack. Siddhartha saw the demonic armies as the play of mind, so the rain of weapons arose in his experience as a rain of beautiful flowers. Siddhartha then saw that the source of suffering was emotional reaction to what arises in experience. He saw that the reactivity is based on the misperception that the “I” exists apart from experience. When he saw through the misperception, it dissolved completely. In that moment, Siddhartha became a Buddha, a person who has awakened from the sleep of unawareness and reactive patterning. Mara had one final challenge for him and demanded an external validation of his experience. Buddha Shakyamuni smiled, touched the earth, and said, “The earth is my witness.” That was the end.

To wake up is hard. We must first realize that we are asleep. Next, we need to identify what keeps us asleep, start to take it apart, and keep working at dismantling it until it no longer functions. As soon as we make an effort to wake up, we start opening up to how things are. We experience what we have suppressed or avoided and what we have ignored or overlooked. The reactive patterns that have run our lives, kept us in confusion, distorted our feelings, and caused us to ignore what is right in front of us are triggered. They rise up strongly to undermine the attention that is bringing us into a deeper relationship with what we are and what we experience. When we can see those patterns and everything that is constructed out of them as the movement of mind and nothing else, we begin to wake up.

The final challenge of habituated patterns is to question direct experience. How do we know? How can we trust this knowing, which is totally beyond the ordinary conditioned experience of life? Like Buddha Shakyamuni, we turn to no external reference and live in the knowing. We live in presence, in the mystery of being.

After his awakening, Buddha Shakyamuni spent the next seven weeks quietly digesting what had happened. His initial assessment was that no one else could possibly understand what he had discovered. Eventually, however, the Buddha decided that he had a responsibility to try to communicate his understanding to others. He set off for Benares, a major city a few miles away.

When we see how things actually are, our whole system experiences a profound shock. We are not what we thought we were. All our struggles to define who and what we are are revealed as pointless, fruitless, and self-defeating. At first, we have no idea what to do or how to function, but we are still breathing. Life goes on, but now what? A natural human impulse is to share our knowledge and understanding with others. This impulse manifests in life as compassion, which is a response to the circumstances of the moment.

In the village of Sarnath, a suburb of Benares, Buddha encountered his companions in asceticism. At first, they didn’t want to have anything to do with him. As Buddha approached, however, they spontaneously rose to greet him. Awed by his presence, they asked him to explain what had happened. Buddha Shakyamuni started with the existence of suffering and he gave his first teaching, the Four Noble Truths.


The Four Noble Truths

Buddha Shakyamuni’s way to presence was through the question of suffering. What is it? How does it arise? Can it be ended? How do we end it? When other spiritual teachers and philosophers asked Buddha to describe his teaching, he usually answered, “I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering.”

In his first teaching, he formulated his understanding as the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to cessation. Stated baldly, the four truths seem a bit enigmatic. They are, in fact, based on a simple problem-solving model, a model that dates far back in Indian philosophy and medicine.

●What is the problem?

●What is the root of the problem?

●Is there a solution?

●How do you put the solution into effect?



For Buddha, suffering was the central issue. And it is still the central issue for us today. So, what is suffering? The Sanskrit term is duhkha, a term that refers to the unsatisfying quality of experience. It is a general term that covers everything from vague feelings of unease to extreme physical and emotional agony. Suffering, as it is used in the First Noble Truth, refers to any sense of discomfort. The First Noble Truth is basically an injunction not to ignore or dismiss what we experience.

Suffering arises in three ways: from pain, from change, and from existence.

The first kind of suffering is the suffering of physical or emotional pain. When we encounter physical pain, we reactively try to avoid, control, or get rid of it. Burning a finger on a stove is very painful. We plunge the finger into cold water so that it will stop hurting.

The second kind of suffering is the suffering of change. When change takes place in our lives, internal and external structures are dismantled, either by choice of by force of circumstances. A relationship comes to an end. Our children go to college. We take on a new job with new responsibilities.

Even when we welcome change because it creates new possibilities, we still feel discomfort as the old structures come down. At first, the new job is exciting – more responsibility, more money, better opportunities. At the same time, all that is familiar is gone – a new office, with new people, new pressures, and new expectations we aren’t sure we can meet.

The discomfort we feel in the face of change is the suffering of change.

The third kind of suffering is the suffering of existence itself. We believe that we exist, yet if we ask, “What am I?” we find no answer beyond the roles and functions that we fill in life. We feel empty inside or separate from what we experience, and we react with fear and doubt.

Even when everything is going perfectly well in our lives – when we are happy and fulfilled with our family and work – a small doubt or fear lingers. Is this who I am? Is this all there is to life? Am I really all alone? The suffering of existence is the discomfort we experience from our fear and doubts about what we are or are not.

The First Noble Truth invites us not to ignore or avoid suffering, but to look at it, know what it is, and understand how it arises.


The Origin of Suffering

Buddha Shakyamuni’s second insight involves the origin of suffering. Suffering comes from emotional reactivity.

All experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The three fundamental emotional reactions to experience are attraction, aversion, and dullness or indifference. Attraction is the emotional reaction to what is pleasant. Aversion is the reaction to what is unpleasant. Indifference is the reaction to what is neutral. The three reactions are called the three poisons because they poison our life experience.

Suppose that you are having a good time at a party and you wish you could always feel this way. Your desire to hold onto the good feeling subverts your enjoyment. Attraction has poisoned your experience of the party.

Suppose that you are hungry but you won’t eat the only food available because you don’t like it. Hunger gnaws at you and you become more and more irritable. Aversion has poisoned your experience of eating. Suppose that you have an open afternoon but you can’t think of anything interesting to do. You sit around, bored and discontented. Indifference has poisoned your experience of peace.

In each case, an emotional reaction separates us from what we are actually experiencing (company, nourishment, peace), and interprets the experience as negative. The negativity is not in the experience itself, but in the way we react to it.

If we examine the experience of suffering, we see that it has two components: pain and emotional reaction to the pain. The experience is simply what happens. We drop a hammer on our foot. It hurts. Suffering is the emotional reaction. We yell at the hammer, berate our spouse for leaving it precariously balanced on a shelf, or fume at ourselves for being careless.

Another example is anxiety. We feel anxious about a job interview. Because we want to do well in the interview, we do not want to be nervous, so we start to feel anxious about feeling anxious. The cycle of reaction feeds itself, causing anxiety and fear to escalate quickly.

Reactions are patterns of emotions and behaviors, formed by conditioning, which run automatically when they are triggered by internal or external events. They are pre-established by conditioning, are triggered by external and internal events and, once triggered, run only according to what has been conditioned. Such mechanisms may appear to be aware or responsive, but they are no more responsive than a computer program. Sufficiently complex machines, such as IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer, may give the impression of being able to think and decide. Deep Blue’s programmers state clearly, however, that is doesn’t think and isn’t aware. It only reacts to the other player’s moves by calculating its next move from complex algorithms and pre-established acceptance/rejection criteria. The patterns may (as a belief, a myth, a metaphor, or a teaching method) be personified as Mara, or demons, or some other conscious entity, but for our purposes, they are mechanisms. The Second Noble Truth tells us that the origin of suffering is emotional reactivity. What do we do to end this suffering? We dismantle the patterns of emotional reactivity.


End of Suffering

Is it possible to disengage from reactivity? The Third Noble Truth is Shakyamuni’s powerful answer, yes. He saw that the sense of self, of “I,” is the basis of emotional reactions, and that “I” as a real entity doesn’t exist. In other words, when the conditioning that underlies the sense of separation, the false duality of subject and object, is dismantled, suffering ceases.

We cannot and do not end pain, but we can and do end suffering. We end suffering by ceasing to identify with what we are not: a pattern that interprets experience as separate and other and then strives to justify its own imagined existence.

Attention is the ability to experience what arises without falling into the conditioned reactions that cause suffering. Attention is always present in potential but is unable to function because of conditioning. Most of us have experienced spontaneous attention. A person attacks you verbally, but instead of reacting to the insults, you see how upset and angry the person is, and you respond appropriately, perhaps by simply asking what is upsetting him or her. Your response takes you by surprise, too, because it is so different from the way you usually react.

In the account of Buddha’s awakening, Mara, the demon of obsession, and his army represent patterns and conditioning. Buddha Shakyamuni rested in attention, undistracted and undisturbed by the ploys and attacks of Mara. His attention penetrated Mara and his army, so that he saw them and experienced them for what they are: movements in mind. They fell apart and ceased to function. The fetters of conditioning fell away. All that remained was original mind, pristine awareness. When Mara, the sense of “I,” demanded an external authority for pristine awareness, Buddha knew none was necessary, so he simply touched the earth, saying, in effect, “Here’s your authority. That’s it.”

In pristine awareness, awareness and experience are not separate. Gone is the sense of separation, of internal emptiness, or of not being quite present. We are awake and present. We may not be able to say exactly what we are or what the experience is – hence, the mystery of being – but in the moment of presence, questions about origin, meaning, value, and purpose do not arise. We know, and that’s it.

Most of us have experienced moments of pristine awareness. In a conversation with a close friend about a tragedy, time stops, yet the conversation continues. Although you may not remember what was said, the experience of presence remains with you. It becomes a treasured memory in the middle of the tragedy. It may even awaken a curiosity about this mystery we call life.

The reactive patterns that maintain the feelings of separateness, incompleteness, and lack of presence all arise from the fear of non-existence.

Our intuition is correct: we don’t exist in the way that we habitually think, feel, and perceive we do. For most of us, the experience of not existing as a separate entity is terrifying. Our attention is too weak for us to stay present in the experience. Reactive patterns form to keep us from experiencing it. These conditioned reactions maintain a world of illusion, a world of subject and object, which prevents the direct experience of being. Layer upon layer of reactive patterns form to maintain the illusion that each of us is a separate entity. Suffering is the subjective experience of all this emotional reactivity.

Buddha Shakyamuni could say unequivocally that there is an end to suffering because he developed such a high level of attention, diamond-like attention, that he could rest in the mystery of being, the experience of not existing as a separate entity, with no fear and in complete clarity. At that level of attention, the experience of not existing as a separate entity is known for what it is and ceases to be a basis for fear and emotional reactivity. The key effort in the Third Noble Truth is to come to this understanding ourselves.

Suffering ends when we have sufficient ability in attention to be present in all experience – even the experience of not being a separate entity.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .