It is so hard to live life as it is, to accept life as it is. Our mind does everything it can to avoid it, for various reasons. In Zen, we often see the mind often trying to avoid suffering in any way it can. This could be suffering in the conventional sense, but it also has a deeper meaning – dukkha, a Sanskrit word which in Buddhism means dissatisfaction, or a sense of unease, or even dis-ease. We are all dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, and it is so easy to live in the “if only” reality – the world of possibility instead of the world that is. Why? It’s nice in there.
Yet, to achieve enlightenment, one of the main ways to banish dukkha from your life is to simply live in the present moment, to accept it for what it is. Neither pessimistic, nor optimistic – just life as it is. When judgements of good or bad are seen for the illusions that they are – things that make us attach to a situation – then they simply fall away and we can truly see clearly.
Surya Das emphasizes the matter-of-fact nature of dukkha:
Buddha Dharma does not teach that everything is suffering. What Buddhism does say is that life, by its nature, is difficult, flawed, and imperfect. […] That’s the nature of life, and that’s the First Noble Truth. From the Buddhist point of view, this is not a judgement of life’s joys and sorrows; this is a simple, down-to-earth, matter-of-fact description.
This was brought home to me over 10 years ago when, after visiting her dying sister in the hospital, my mother came home and told me something that really changed her viewpoint and mine on the situation. She said to my aunt, “But why you?” to which my aunt simply replied – “Why not me?”
This simple acceptance of life as it is, instead of railing against it, led to a life of less suffering. I still carry those words with me today, when I think that things or life is happening “to me”, instead of just happening. Life isn’t good or bad, it simply is. Things aren’t happening to me, things are happening. Good and bad are judgement calls that we make to avoid living in the present moment most of the time.
Charlotte Joko Beck wrote of No Hope in her book, Everyday Zen. This wasn’t the same as hopelessness – it simply meant not wishing for things to be other than they are, for the moment we are doing that we lose the gift of the present moment. Now, while a prisoner of war might wish not to be tortured at this very moment, most of us aren’t living in that situation. Even as my aunt was dying, she accepted the situation. It simply was. It was stepping outside of the mind trap of living in an alternate reality where our dukkha doesn’t exist and seeing that it is a part of life that we cannot “escape” from. All the wishing in the world cannot change the world. Only actions taken in the present moment can change the world.
So it isn’t a passive response to the world – oh, there is nothing I can do, I should live without hope. If we are in a harmful situation, then we take action in the present moment to change it if we can. If we are being abused, mistreated, see others being hurt, we take action in the present moment to change that. We have the ability to respond – responsibility. Life is constant change. We can also work to sustain that change for future generations. But it requires us to live with the courage to be fully present in our lives as they are. Step outside of your head for a moment, and take a look at the world around you, without judgement, seeing things clearly. It could change your life.