Why the Suffering, Mate?

Hanging out with Buddhist monastics is not always what one might consider uplifting. The conversation will start amicably enough, the weather or what so-and-so said, but it’s really just a matter of time before it wanders into areas where most casual conversations abruptly die. Aging, sickness, death, and loss. Inevitably, the conversation will move to and embrace the topics of suffering that too often people are avoiding or ignoring. What is suffering? Where does it come from? Why is it important?

I remember once having been invited to sit and talk with a woman who had just reached the end of a years-long battle with Lymes disease and regained her strength. She talked about the struggle, the fear, the bitterness towards her doctors. But the moment I pointed out and started talking about suffering, she threw up her hands. “Why do you monks always want to talk about suffering?!” I was stunned into silence. I thought that’s what we had been talking about the whole time.

But why is dukkha the theme of so many talks, so many meditations, so many retreats? Why does it come up again and again in so many forms? Our tea time talk last night inevitably touched on the topics, as one participant revealed a serious medical diagnosis and the very real contemplation on death that he was working with. If you had come to the tea time hoping to talk about generosity or devas or states of meditation you might roll your eyes, but anyone who paid attention long enough would likely realize the topic of conversation wasn’t merely about death. It was about life.

What happens when we contemplate sickness? We realize how special it is to be healthy. How rare and fragile and beautiful. The health of our body is something so basic we categorically overlook it until those moments when it fails us, and then we experience shock and loss. But to turn towards this contemplation in the good times, to consider how sickness could come at any moment, is to polish off the dust of apathy from the choices about how we spend our time. We breathe a little deeper, and maybe step away from the computer into a sunbeam. Why don’t we go for a walk? While we still can!

It’s the same with aging, and with death. Turning towards these things is to ask of ourselves – if I knew I was going to die tomorrow, would I still be doing this task right now? It’s one of my favorite contemplations of death, because done properly it is a celebration of a life skillfully lived. When every activity we find ourselves doing, even the seemingly mundane and trivial ones like brushing our teeth or cleaning up after ourselves, is something that we would do regardless of whether we will live for one more day or a hundred, then we know we are living our best possible life. It doesn’t matter so much the activities. Just the mindfulness and joy we bring into them. We breathe, we relax, and we do.

Monastics and dedicated practitioners, for all their talk and contemplation of suffering, are some of the most up-beat, energetic people I’ve met. They’ve cultivated their lives and their minds like gardens towards the harvest of what’s beneficial and lasting, and have pulled all the weeds of indolence and indulgence. They live every moment to the fullest and never regret all the places they haven’t seen or cuisines they haven’t tasted. There’s nowhere they would rather be than right here, right now. That’s the path of the Buddha’s teaching, and it’s practice, and it’s goal all in one. He talked about suffering for 45 years straight, but go look at your nearest statue of him and you’ll see – 2500 years and he’s still smiling.

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