Buddhism 101: Responses and Suffering

As I move into the next part of my Buddhism 101 I first want to share a great post from my friend Harry over at The Unlikely Mage, then address why I’m talking about Buddhism here, and lastly suffering.

He goes into more detail about Theravada Buddhism, as well as Early Buddhism, both the concept and practice.

I’d like to his points/questions, because if you’re unfamiliar with the academic side of Buddhism, it’s essentially 25 centuries of debate and peer review. So reading his post will make the next section more coherent, or skip until this is no longer in italics if reading a post there to read a post here becomes tldr to you.

Vajrayana does have the four stages of awakening. The thing is in Vajrayana (and I believe by extension Mahayana, but I’m not sure) they become “optional.” So if you reach stream-entry, which is still a thing, it’s not necessarily that you cease incarnation within the seven lives, but that you have the option to, or it is sometimes explained that it’s seven lives until Bodhisattva-hood. Also, as Vajrayana became heavily monastic, it codified everything, so there is actually a break down of what “level” of Bodhisattva-hood you’ve attained. It’s useless in a practical sense, and strikes me as every anime power ever. You have Bodhisattvas, but then you have slightly more powerful ones…and then more powerful.

In general regarding the idea of “Does Vajrayana have…” Mahayana and Vajrayana build on Theravada. So even though the focus might shift, it arguably contains everything that came before. A proper monastic education in Vajrayana includes several years training just in Theravada practice and theory before moving on.

As for Compassion v Insight (Death Match of the Kalpa!) my take on the shift is that they are essentially one and the same. Perhaps it’s because I’m steeped in Vajrayana, but it’s hard for me to develop Insight without developing Compassion, because they’re the same underlying property in reality. As you gain wisdom into the nature of emptiness (addressed in a later post I’m sure) you naturally develop compassion because emptiness is compassion in many ways. I find with the three vehicles though each one focuses on one of the aspects, but they’re all really the same thing, it’s just which side of the (three-sided) coin you resonate with.

I wanted to counter the idea of worshiping Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but it becomes a mess of where is the line between reverence, engaging, and worship, not to mention the line between what is “traditional” (textual) and what people do. I’d say with the exception of Pure Land Buddhism (maybe another post) you’re not to worship Buddhas/Bodhisattvas, but see them as potentials and exemplars to attain to. Also they are you and you are them, so the engagement is less about an external entity (which isn’t to deny an external existence) but more about that aspect within you. They can be petitions, and prayed to, and for all intents and purposes worshipped like a god, but the attitude is usually supposed to be more about reverence and thanks, than worship. (But of course, some folks, especially laity do worship them, and again, you give a clear line about what is and isn’t worship, and we’ll have a point to work with, but it’s not something easily defined)

The second (quick) point I wanted to address before moving on, is why am I talking about Buddhism when I deal with magick? Well, even if you’re just looking at the meditation practice and skills developed in Theravadan traditions, the ability to focus the mind and understand it is crucial for good magick, and whatever you or your teacher has said, I’d (perhaps arrogantly) say that no tradition has as good of a handle on meditation and the mind as Buddhism does. It’s spent 2,500 years refining and practicing techniques, they might know what they’re doing. Beyond that though magick is a big part of Vajrayana, even if most practitioners might not use that word. Recently when I was skyping into a brothel to help diagnosis and handle a haunting situation (okay, even I found that a weird experience heh) I was asked my credentials by one of the women, and when I said I was an ordained Buddhist she was confused. Again, this is that lack of knowledge about the different forms of Buddhism. Vajrayana is all about the spirits. There is a saying that if you could see all the spirits in the world around you, you’d be driven mad by it…they’re a big part of our system. But Vajrayana involves dealing with demons, with manipulating your energy to do great things, calling on “gods” to heal, hurt, or help, projecting your mind to other realms, divination…everything you can think of in any magickal system, it’s in Vajrayana. It’s the sorcerer’s Buddhism in many ways. So while I have an intense sitting vipassana meditation practice, I also have nightly feasts I offer to demons and ghosts, I deal with god-like beings to help myself, others, and the world, and work on refining my energy body into more intense states. That’s why I’m talking about Buddhism on a magick blog, because magick exists in Buddhism, though not everyone realizes it, and I think some of the Buddhist tech is amazing. (And not just in Vajrayana, as Harry pointed out it appears in Theravadan cultures, pretty much from the beginning with wearing sutras as protective charms)

Onto the real post proper, but don’t worry, it wasn’t meant to be a long post, so the introductory discussion help flesh this out.

One of the biggest misconceptions of Buddhism I have to suffer through is…suffering. There are Four Noble Truths, they’re basically the foundational principles of Buddhism, and the first one is “All existence is suffering.”

Doesn’t that sound like a fun basis for a religion? Everything is suffering. Except it isn’t. There are layers of issues here, but the primary one is that suffering is a horrible translation. The word used in Pali is Dukkha, and while suffering /could/ be a translation, it’s a pretty extreme one. A better translation would be discontentment or unsatisfactory, or more colloquially just-not-right. The Buddha didn’t mean (nor do Buddhists believe) that all existence is suffering, that every moment is some form of agony, but that reality is not, and cannot be completely satisfactory.

There are moments of great joy, but moments of sadness and horror too. Sometimes people (unfamiliar with what the word means) make comments like “I’d rather live in world where I can suffer if it means I get joy, rather than cease being.” That misses the point. The idea is that it isn’t, and won’t be perfect, and in fact the idea that you need the highs to experience the lows is in many ways how to understand the discontentment. It doesn’t mean big horrible discontentment, I hate my job, my girlfriend left me, my dog ran away with the mailman, my leg was removed by rabid alpacas, but a chronic underlying discontentment. I’m not completely comfy in this chair, my drink has gotten warm as I’ve been typing, the whirring of my laptop is annoying if I pay attention. This sounds like petty stuff, and it is, but it’s what we live in.

People take it as a negative. “If you think everything is discontentment/suffering, then you’re never going to enjoy anything.” Yet look at Buddhists, perhaps for the most popular look at the Dalai Lama, does he seem like an unhappy man? The man practically radiates joy. If you understand that reality isn’t and won’t be perfect, that it can’t and won’t live up to your expectations, and it will be unsatisfactory, then you can actually begin to live in it, and even enjoy it. We’re the cause of the experience of this chronic discontentment. (Is it really so bad that my drink is warm? No, but I had a cold drink, and I prefer that, but now that cold is gone) The basis to dealing with it is understanding that.

What people need to understand is Buddhism isn’t about suffering, and even discontentment isn’t a horrible pronouncement, just a realistic one.

So if your concern or issue with Buddhism has been the emphasis on suffering, realize that’s a horrible translation/understanding of it, and question if every second of your life is pure joy? If not, then the nature of reality as we experience it is unsatisfactory.

Now to contrast this, in tantric Buddhism you come to understand that the ground of reality is actually bliss, but that’s another post for another time.

(And as before, if you have any questions about this post or Buddhism in general, fire away here or wherever, and I’ll see what I can answer.)

4 Responses to Buddhism 101: Responses and Suffering

  1. Harry says:

    Thanks for the shoutout. I’m going to write a follow-up on the three types of suffering and follow up on your responses. This back-and-forth is rather refreshing.

    • Kalagni says:

      It’s just odd for me to debate Buddhism without shouting in TIbetan and clapping my hands and stamping my feet :-p

      Depending on questions/responses and the topics I want to cover I might have to put responses to you into their own posts.

  2. Eliot says:

    Personally I think “Suffering” is a good translation of Dukkha. The Four truths of the Aryas (Noble ones/ Arhats) are formulated from the perspective of Enlightenment. When Shakyamuni attained Nirvana (which is not non-existence) he realized how everything before was ignorant suffering, just as perfect self-knowledge of Being (Nirvana) is complete bliss.

    It’s a way to keep your priorities straight and motivate practice.

  3. […] an incredibly important concept in Buddhist thought. Kalagni translates it as “suffering” in his latest post. I prefer the term “unsatisfactoriness”, but there is really no good English translation for […]

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