The path of Dhamma is rarely a smooth one, even for the great masters. Ajahn Chah once told his students that the difference between him and them was not in the number of severity of the obstacles he had to overcome, but in the strength of his determination to overcome them.
Vedanā, usually translated as ‘feeling’ refers to the tone of experience – pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. In the absence of mindfulness and wisdom, feeling provides the condition for the arising of craving (taṇhā). This craving is the cause of mental suffering. Awareness of vedanā as merely vedanā, not me or mine, prevents the arising of craving and of dukkha.
Theravāda takes a rather modest and downbeat approach to helping others. Whereas the Bodhisattva vow states boldly, ‘Suffering beings are beyond number; I vow to save them all’, the Theravādas are more circumspect. They say, ‘Suffering beings are beyond number; I shall try to help reduce the suffering whenever I can, as best as I can’.
Looking back on my teenage years, wandering alone through place like Afghanistan, I am struck by how reckless I could be at times. It is tempting to look on my attitude on such occasions as fearless. But, in fact, it was simply intoxication. Not intoxication by drugs (at least, not primarily) but by life itself. I assumed that I was the hero of my story, like Batman. I might get into some dangerous situations, but in the end I would always pull though. Why? Because that’s what heroes do.
The first meditation object given to new monastics – one embedded in the Pabbajjā novice ordination ceremony – is a contemplation of five parts of the human body: head hair, body hair, nails, teeth and skin. These constitute the first five items of the list of 32 body components found throughout the Suttas.
To investigate an apple, we might look at it in terms of its taste, its colour and its smell. In the apple itself, however, these qualities are inseparable. Similarly, we can distinguish three characteristics of existence: anicca, dukkha and anattā. In reality, they too are inseparable.
There is no way out of suffering for those who identify with it, or those who deny it. There is no way out of suffering for those who consider it a random occurrence, or those who see it as a test or a punishment from a supreme being. There is a way out of suffering for those who gain faith in the Buddha’s analysis of suffering as a conditioned state and who follow the Eightfold Path. In the Upanisa Sutta, the Buddha revealed the causal process involved:
In order to clarify the meaning of the word ‘dukkha’ the Buddha gave a number of easily observed expressions of it, one of which being that ‘not obtaining one’s wishes is dukkha’. It is an irrefutable point. Who has not experienced the disappointment and frustration that comes from unfulfilled desire for such things as sensual pleasure, wealth, love, respect, status or power?
The Buddha once taught that just as the water in every sea and ocean in the world shares the single taste of salt, so all of his teachings share the single taste of liberation (vimutti). In the light of this saying, perhaps we may re-formulate the most succint summary of the Dhamma, which states that it is concerned with just two topics: suffering and and the end of suffering. We may say instead that the Dhamma is solely concerned with mapping the nature of our imprisonment and the path to liberation…