The previous post dealt with the suffering that buffoons in the white house are likely to cause others. Today I want to talk about a more subtle kind of pain — the pain we feel within ourselves just because crude, immoral, and frankly embarrassing people are the official leaders of our very own country.
This pain is an excellent learning opportunity because it’s caused by our ignorance of the three marks of existence. When we don’t recognize the three marks, we feel a particular kind of pain, or dukkha, that western Buddhists usually refer to as suffering. Suffering in Buddhist terms is pain that we cause ourselves because we don’t understand the true nature of things. When we do manage to recognize the three marks, it has a profound effect on our ability to navigate through this world lightly, unburdened by it’s cruel absurdity.
The three marks of existence are a deep and fundamental part of Buddhism, and not for the faint of heart. Taking this teaching seriously can pull the rug out from under your feet, so a calm, stable mind and a reasonably stable life situation are helpful prerequisites.
Also, this is not just an intellectual teaching. We are supposed to remember and reflect on the three marks of existence every day, and apply them to whatever situation we’re in. Only through effort and practice can this teaching become real for us.
Some say that the Buddhist path is just one insult after another. This teaching is why that is so.
The three marks are:
The world is constantly shifting and changing, morphing from one thing to the next, but we don’t see it that way. We don’t see the world in all it’s shimmering particulars, instead we create a cartoon cutout version of the world consisting of permanent characters and storybook situations. There’s our Great Nation and there’s Those Dangerous Idiots. This can be a useful abstraction, but it’s not the truth.
There is no constant thing that is our nation, there are just millions of people trying their best to make do and make their lives work on a particular patch of the planet. Nations are illusions. People are neither idiots nor are they wise, they are just people with all sorts of gifts and flaws, ourselves included, ending up in various situations they are more or less unequipped to deal with. Idiots are illusions.
The ceaseless churning of the world makes us unsteady and afraid, causing us to act out of greed, fear, and delusion and to make the same sorts of mistakes over and over. Trump isn’t the first foolish leader swept to power by people’s confused rage, and sadly, he won’t be the last. How many millions of Trumps have there been? This is what Buddhists call samsara, our eternal and aimless wandering through an ever-changing world.
Whatever may be happening to you and whatever you may be feeling, something similar has already happened to an uncountable number of people over endless ages and is happening right now to people all over the world. Your situation is not unique, it’s just the way the world is. Take heart in this. You are not alone.
This isn’t the only way to look at history and at ourselves, but it is a critical technique for releasing ourselves from the grip of our illusions. Everything that exists, every person, place, thing, thought, and emotion, is impermanent.
Our mind is very tricky. It’s always telling us that the thing that will solve our problems is out there, perhaps just around the next corner. If we find it and hold on to it, some fundamental restlessness that we feel within ourselves will be quenched, and we’ll be at peace. This intuition that we all feel is profoundly untrue. Nothing in this world, nothing, can bring us lasting peace. Replacing bad leaders with good leaders will provide only a momentary respite before the mind creates a new mirage and a new sense of incompleteness to drive us onward.
Evolutionarily speaking this restlessness has been very useful, or perhaps very destructive depending on your particular teleology, but either way, it’s painful. Dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, stress, the unending problem of being a fragile living thing, is frankly exhausting. When we don’t recognize this incompleteness built into the very fabric of our situation, we suffer.
Nothing in this world, no person, no place, no object, no idea, no plan, no technique, no feeling, nothing — nothing is going to permanently solve our problems. All things are impermanent and ultimately unsatisfactory. The more we cling to the latest answer, the more we suffer when it fails us.
The impermanence and unsatisfactoriness of the world come together in the third mark of existence, which has no reasonable English word for it so we call it no-self or not-self.
The impermanence of the world extends all the way into our deepest nature. We too, are constantly shifting and changing. Our innermost self is not a thing, it is a process. Each of us is a ceaseless activity, not a static being. There is no “me” in there, just constant change.
Our nature is not to accept this of course. We are on an endless quest to find something that is permanent, something that we can rely on to always be there, to always be true. We have this intuition that there is some thought, some thing, some philosophy, some situation, some part of ourselves that is really us, that is rock-bottom reality. It is that constant effort to build a solid world for ourselves, a story that we can believe in, that causes us to create such suffering for ourselves. We want to be good citizens in a well run country and derive a permanent sense of satisfaction from being such a thing. It’s a beautiful story and a compelling idea but it isn’t reliable, it isn’t permanent, and it will never provide the peace that we seek from it.
We can’t live in the stories we tell ourselves. They are not real. This is both a solution and a problem. If all the conclusions we draw about the world are just stories, and stories aren’t real, then we don’t have to believe them. We don’t have to identify with them and suffer when they turn out not to be quite true. But, without stories we don’t have anything to hang on to. How do we live like this? We are free but unmoored.
Our True Home
Metta. Karuna. Mudita. Upekkha. Goodwill, compassion, joy, and equanimity. These become our abode, our framework, our center of gravity. The clear mind and tender heart that we develop in our mindfulness and samadhi practice become our home address. Instead of desperately trying to force the world to work the way we imagine it should, we do what we can and rest in the knowledge that our kindness and wisdom, as modest as they may be, are already providing the only meaningful protection there is in this world.
We hold ourselves and all people in tender compassion, forgiving the ignorance that drives the world and it’s foolishness.
Our everyday mind (the aggregates), the everyday world, and all their exasperating particulars become our field work, a place that we visit to help those still suffering from their stories. It’s still important to strive to make things better, but not because we’ll somehow permanently fix anything in the world. We work in the world to relieve the suffering of other beings and help them to see the truth of things for themselves.
As we learn to live without clinging, what is truly real becomes clearer to us. We begin to hear the call of what lies beyond this realm of impermanent, conditioned existence. For Buddhists that is the purpose of everything we’ve been through, to hear that call.
The suffering that we all feel matters. Learning to release ourselves from that suffering and helping others to do so matters. All the stories we create around that are just noise. The Trump administration is just noise.