Filed in Koans

Green Koans Case 41: The Meaning of Suffering

Clark Strand

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CASE #41:    The Meaning of Suffering

Shakyamuni asked, “What is wisdom?” and when no one could answer, added: “It is the ability to perfectly understand and patiently accept the truth of suffering.”


Perfectly understand        To understand a thing holistically, from beginning to end, rather than merely in terms of its parts—the latter constituting only knowledge.

Patiently accept    To accept without reservation—that is, without any attempt to alter the reality of a given phenomenon.

The meaning of suffering        Refers to the foundational teaching of Buddhism—the Four Noble Truths:

1. The truth of suffering
2. The source of suffering
3. The end of suffering
4. The path beyond suffering

The truth of suffering is the fact of suffering, the most universal feature of human life.
The source of suffering is desire.
The end of suffering is the cessation of desire.
The path beyond suffering is the Eightfold Path established by Shakyamuni—Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.


Why do we suffer? Most Buddhists can answer the question easily enough: It is because of our desires. But what is desire? That question rarely gets asked.

Desire is excess, the impulse to take something more—or simply different—from what the Earth provides. Our needs we learn from the planet. Our desires we learn from one another, as Eve did from the serpent, and Adam did from Eve. The more we learn, the more we want. We just keep egging one another on.

The extinction of desire could always come with the extinction of the human species. That is one solution. Or we could follow the Eightfold Path and get “Right” with the planet again. Who’s to say the teachings of Shakyamuni weren’t ecological all along?


The Path of Excess
Is the exact opposite
Of the Eightfold Path.
Right View, Right Speech, Right Action…
All simple matters of scale.

Find all the Green Koans here.

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jjwalker7730's picture

A basic cause of suffering is that of frustration about the impermanence of things.

avalmez's picture

Fear and concern are not the same thing (apologies for stating the obvious). Concern and action are more dissimilar still. And, as this thread began, action is not necessarily an expression of compassion, for the Earth in the case at hand.

With all due respect, it is the very fact that the Earth has dutifully brought us a new day for eons that leads to the belief that, to extend Mat's metaphor, like the wheel, the Earth will never cease to turn.

But cease it will, if only as a matter of course. It would be to humanity's great dishonor if it were to circumvent the natural course of events.

By chance I happened to be listening to the Beatles' Abbey Road as I read the contributions above. To follow Jim's lead, "Because":

Because the world is round, it turns me on, because the world is round...
Because the wind is high, it blows my mind, because the wind is high...
Love is old, love is new,
Love is all, love is you,
Because the sky is blue, it makes me cry, because the sky is blue...

Because. My gratitude to Clark for this blog. Now, to move beyond the cushion for a "moment".

Mat Osmond's picture

Many thanks Dominic, James. I am particularly struck by James' "Earth does not seem to be immobilized by fear of what the next day has in store for her, or for us. May we completely understand and actualize this Tathagata’s true meaning."

One of the difficulties that seems to arise in discussions of our culture's relationship to Earth is the way it tends to keep us all in a state of anticipation - be that morose, or otherwise.

And yet it seems an emphasis 'nowness' can all too easily act as a defensive screen against awarness of the change already upon us.

The language that best matches this predicament, for me, is that of the God Realm. Even when all seems to be established, stable and inviable, the wheel has never ceased to turn, and the signs of approaching descent become harder to ignore. I believe that as the Gods begin to edge towards this descent, they start to smell increasingly bad, and are increasingly shunned by their companions?

I am still digesting Clark's earlier comment, that he refused to accept a need to fear environmental change, because it was precisely this awareness that had already changed his life (my words from memory).

May we completely understand and actualize this Earth’s true meaning.

James Lignori's picture

Thanks to all for keeping this important conversation open.

Every morning the movement of Earth gifts us with a new horizon. This "dharma" has surely been met with for hundreds of thousands, of millions of eons, and it is still possible for us to be present, open, and attentive to whatever is emerging over that horizon. Whether we watch with the practiced alert glance of martial training or with a graceful gaze of going with the flow, we are all invited to "look honestly at our predicament, and not to be afraid." If we narrow down the view of this miracle through one dharma, dogma or doctrine then we are missing an opportunity to see the infinite with our own eyes. And it is the infinite alone which grants us the serenity, courage and wisdom we need to not be afraid.

To the end of his days, Thomas Berry reminded us, "This is not an abandoned world." It is for us to dare to live and love life in response to what may seem like our predicament, but is really a predicament of Earth. And Earth does not seem to be immobilized by fear of what the next day has in store for her, or for us. May we completely understand and actualize this Tathagata’s true meaning.

Mat Osmond's picture

I feel that I should apologize for being a bummer. But like gravity, the entire truth of our situation may just suck

Hi Avalmez,
A contemporary rewording of the first noble truth?
No apology needed I think, we all face the same questions.
A koan for me, that I have no verbal form for, has the utter hopelssness of the situation you name here, on the same page as the truth spoken over and over by the awakened: "Fear not".
What does it mean to look honestly at our predicament, and not to be afraid?

Dominic Gomez's picture

"What does it mean to look honestly at our predicament, and not to be afraid?"

Hi Mat,
I find comfort in the admonition "Expect the unexpected". It keeps me on my toes while simultaneously "going with the flow". A sort of easy-going alertness? (Though that may be more a vestige of my early martial arts training rather than a discipline of the practice of Buddhist per se.)

avalmez's picture

Very cool thoughts, sirs. I often ponder my need versus my desire for spirituality, and the difference between constructing a thought versus expressing wisdom - I emphasize, always with respect to myself. Both directly and abstractly the thoughts expressed above have been very helpful to me in that regard, so please take the preceding as a compliment not indirect criticism.

I guess there is a difference between being "green" and truly caring about our environment for the environment's sake. Someone recently wrote we all know in our gut that resorting to nuclear energy is wrong, but our addiction to comfort ultimately and so effectively "necessitates" the need for atomic power plants.

Unfortunately, living in a world increasingly populated by a species that segregates itself from the environment and all other species, it's very hard for me to think that somehow the peoples of this planet will act together not just to stem but actually reverse the need for energy "just" to prevent the destruction of the environment. Like the addict, we are unable to save ourselves. And again like the alcoholic, it is almost certain we must first "hit bottom" before we will be able to realize the need for change, spiritual or otherwise, in order to save not the planet, but ourselves.

Unlike the examples history provides where the planet was able to overcome the impacts of localized overpopulation, it's not at all a given that the planet will be able to overcome the impact of planet-wide overpopulation, at least not without killing the cancer that afflicts it.

While I do suggest that overpopulation poses the greatest threat to ourselves, I'm not suggesting that we should give-up the ghost and let the inevitable take its course. However, maybe we should include in thoughts the possibility that great suffering lies ahead of us before meaningful change can take place, and add to our efforts accordingly.

(I feel that I should apologize for being a bummer. But like gravity, the entire truth of our situation may just suck)

rinchen_wangmo's picture

I'm sorry -- what do Eve, Adam and the serpent have to do with the Dharma? Let's not confuse everything. Especially as there is a good case to be made that this version of "the Fall" was used to demonize a previous Goddess worship cult which used the tree, its fruit and the serpent as symbols of the female deity. I am sure we can think and talk about the Buddha's teachings without borrowing doubtful elements from other, theistic, dualistic religions.

ClarkStrand's picture

It seems to me that asking, "What do Eve, Adam and the serpent have to do with the Dharma?" is a little like asking, "What does Buddhism have to do with a person born and raised in West?" I see no need to throw out my own cultural myths, symbols, and reference points in my practice of the Dharma. Nor am I required to read the opening chapters of Genesis as if I were either a fundamentalist or an injured soul with some personal score to settle with them. Those chapters are filled with koans, although they are rarely read that way outside of monastic or kabbalistic settings.

avalmez's picture

is as metaphor allowed?

ClarkStrand's picture

Exactly. Actually, I should have read your response first avalmez, because it's shorter and more to the point.

Mat Osmond's picture

Good point Jim, and I recognise alot of your sense of dillemma about 'taking a position'. On the other hand there's a strong element in British culture I think, to want to pull apart anyone who appears to be taking 'the moral high ground'.

Interesting what you say at the end Jim. Most of the green/dharmic-oriented decisions in my life seem to me pretty futile if viewed as part of a strategy to solve the problems of industrial civilisation's impact on the biosphere. Worse even: they may easily become a self-congratulatory distancing of myself from 'their' behaviour.

But if those things are done simply as an expression of love, connectedness, that problem seems to dissolve. So renouncing - beginning to renounce - the layers upon layers of my own addiction to excess (albeit a fairly pedestrian sort of excess!), disavowing the endless manufactured desires, seems worth the trouble precisely because that way lies sanity - "the right thing to do".

(Clark, I am dazed and smarting from 'Endgame 1'. Blimey.)

ClarkStrand's picture

Inspriring to see the soul searching going on here around this issue, which is both real koan work and real ecological recovery. I don't believe, however, that we will be able to solve most of the problems that we have created. That the Earth can solve them, and will solve them--this I believe. We can join in this work (the Earth's work), or flee from it. These, it seems to me, are the choices.

And yes, Mat. I know what you mean about Endgame. But it's a necessary stage taking in this sort of information. Though I hope you're not planning to blow up any dams or bridges quite yet.

Mat Osmond's picture

Very necessary, and I need to keep hearing it. The cultural conditioning that would normalise the unspeakable is so all-pervasive, so hard to really shake off.
Re Jensen's blowing up dams, 'bringing down civilisation' - that is as plausible a solution, to me, as its polar opposite -geoengineering.
Perhaps what is most needed can only begin from knowing we are already beyond all such solutions.

Jim Spencer's picture

The first thing that popped into my mind after reading this was a couple of lines from the Traffic song, "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys":

The percent that you're paying is too high priced
While you're living beyond all your means
And the man in the suit has just bought a new car
From the profit he's made on your dreams

Of course nuclear power is safe. Our society NEEDS cheap atomic energy - how else will we power all these new things that we must have in order to be happy? Don't worry about the spent fuel. We'll take care of that down the road when we develop the technology.

And of course, in a time of crisis, do not stop buying things. How do you expect to get ahead without consuming?

I have to get back to eating my rice before it gets cold.

ClarkStrand's picture

Well put, Jim. And I love that old Traffic album. As far as nuclear energy is concerned, there are so many problems it's a wonder anyone could think of it as anything more than a transitional best. The biggest long-term problem (apart from the obvious safety issues...which everyone knows in their gut, whether they'll admit to it or not) is that the successful operation on a nuclear power plant requires phenomenal expenditures of petroleum based energy and product. You simply can't run a nuclear plant absent a social platform of cheap, easiliy available oil. As the petroleum age winds down over the next half century, this option will seem progressively less and less viable.

Jim Spencer's picture

And, the suffering can be caused by intentionally austere lifestyles. I have some uber-hippie friends that live in off-the-grid houses on communal property, some that live Luddite lifestyles - no TV, no computers, few electronic anything - and these folks can suffer just as well as the super consumers that I know. Several of these minimalists suffer because they are trying to be standard bearers but, in some cases, have become self-flagellating hungry ghosts, demeaning consumerism while verbalizing the wishes to have many of the things that they have sworn off.

In my opinion, it comes down to a couple of things: Understand the full ramifications of the choices that I make in my life and to then be content with what I have decided without broadcasting it to everyone that I meet. As I gain more insight into the Eightfold Path through my practice, my choices change and I change with them. My true happiness comes not from a stiff upper lip but from equipoise.

ClarkStrand's picture

Excess can lie in both directions--though, honestly, these days it mostly lies in the direction of consumerism, so I find it difficult to find too much fault with people who are at least giving a shot at tackling their addiction to excess.

Still, I'm sympathetic with your point of view here, Jim. What is most interesting to me is how difficult it is for many of these "uber-hippie" off-the-grid types to fully commit to their path. It suggests a lack of spiritual grounding in community. There is no strength without numbers when it comes to this sort of thing.

It's a little like Lois Wilson's repeated attempts to get Bill W. to stop drinking by taking him on so-called "camping trips." Sometimes these would last, quite literally, for months at a time, and still Bill drank as soon as he came back (and probably longed for alcohol the whole time). Later, after he founded A.A. and recovered in the context of a spiritual community, they were able to really enjoy roughing it to their heart's content, apparently untroubled by the spectre of an imminent relapse. The situation is analogous in my opinion.

Jim Spencer's picture

Agreed. The Bill W. situation is a great illustration of the need for spirituality in the reshaping of one's core mode of thinking.

I didn't mean to find fault with those that are trying to make a difference. I was just illustrating that it can go both ways, like when I decide that I am going to park my car for the summer and ride my bike to work, to the store, wherever I need to go. Then the rainy days come. I will stoically don the rain gear once or twice, then these really good reasons to drive come into my head (usually while I am draining the water from my shoes...)

I guess that my point here is that I need to make any commitment that I make to consciously alter my actions in order to lessen my impact on the environment a part of my vow, a part of my practice, rather than doing something because its the "right thing to do." And, to remember to be concerned more with what I do than engaging in self-righteous finger pointing, which I am good at doing.