Hence we can understand that it is the distortion of our perception as human beings dwelling in duality that causes us to experience dissatisfaction. It is not our bodies and our world in themselves that are unsatisfactory. Ngak’chang Rinpoche once explained to me that the idea that samsara is the body and the world of form, owes its origin to the Tirthika philosophies. It is not that Buddhism is a body-negative or life-negative religion.
Buddhism arose within the context of Indian monism and therefore certain ideas prevalent within modern-day Hinduism have become confused with Buddhism. This confusion especially arises because Sutric Buddhism does teach renunciation – detachment from form. That Sutric Buddhism teaches detachment from form however, is not a statement that defines form as duality. It is merely our referential relationship that is dualistic.
Shakyamuni Buddha discovered the hollowness of success experientially. As the prince, the son of the king, he had to excel in every field. He had to be the greatest archer, wrestler, poet, artist, and musician. He had to surpass others in everything, because to be second-best or to fail would undermine his position as the future king. The Dzogchen view of this familiar story as presented in the Ulukhamukha Sutra, states that it was thus—through his success—that he came to view ‘accomplishment’ with suspicion. All he had left was to find what lay both beyond and within the issue of hollowness. His path is based on the unsatisfactoriness of ‘success as a reference point’.
The traditional Sutric view presents the sights of sickness, old age and death as being the cause of Siddhartha turning away from his privileged and luxurious life to follow a spiritual path. From the perspective of Dzogchen, it is not that sickness, old age, and death fail as issues to turn one’s attention to spiritual enquiry; it is rather that there is a more subtle level of unsatisfactoriness which needs to be perceived. Perceiving the referentiality of success means that even if we were immortal, the cyclic nature of serial successes would still leave us with a sense of unsatisfactoriness.
According to this interpretation of the teachings, sickness, old age, and death cannot actually be described as unsatisfactory. They are simply the play of form – the arising, abiding and dissolving of aspects of our lives.
If we are born as human beings, then it is inevitable that we will experience sickness at times, that we will grow old, and that we will die one day. Shakyamuni Buddha said that, where there is dualism, change is perceived as dukkha. We do not want to lose the good things in our life, but everything changes – always. The apparent existence of all phenomena slips away from us, especially if we try to grasp at permanence.
I experienced it as something of a relief to discover that a feeling of dissatisfaction is universal. I felt that I could let go of depression and know that the niggling feeling of ‘surely there has to be more to it than this?’ or ‘what is the point of getting washed and dressed again, going to work again, eating another meal?’ did not mean that I was going crazy. I could get washed and dressed knowing that there was no ultimate purpose in these actions. I could go to work knowing that in the grand scale of things it was pointless. I could enjoy eating the meal knowing that it was a transient satisfaction. I could let go of wondering whether I was socially acceptable in the way I dressed and behaved, because social norms are ultimately hollow. I could let go of wondering whether it was alright to really like a particular type of music, because I understood that all opinions are ultimately empty. No-one else’s dress-sense, behaviour, likes and dislikes, and opinions had any more value than mine. I was free to be exactly who I was.
Knowing that there is nothing in the relative world that we can do that will make any real difference in an ultimate sense, gives us permission to dedicate time to practice. This can be an energy boost for engaging in a spiritual path. Practice will make a difference because it will enable us to move beyond the relative existence of samsara. We can be successful at knowing that we can never be successful at samsara. We can celebrate that our bodies and our world are actually perfect.
Death, impermanence, things that go wrong, laughter, colour, autumn leaves, light sparkling in puddles, cars breaking down, relationships ending, falling in love – all are the play of existence, the movement and change that is reality. It is only experienced as unsatisfactory when we try to stop movement and change, or see movement and change as painful. Once we have a real understanding of the cause of our experience of samsara as unsatisfactory, we can engage with it in a light-hearted manner. We can play with our life experience, rather than feeling like a victim of our circumstances.
However, it could be argued that such an understanding of the nature of dissatisfaction could lead us to become uncaring: if the world is perfect and it is only view that is distorted, then there is no purpose in trying to help people. Their unhappiness is their problem. The Dharma practice though, is to regard samsara as illusory from our own perspective. As spiritual practitioners we have developed a clear understanding of the root of our experience of dissatisfaction. However, as our practice is also rooted in compassion, we relate to others’ experience of dissatisfaction as real from their perspective2. We engage with other people’s perception as if samsara can be made to work. We do not undermine others’ sense of meaning and purpose in life.
Most people do believe that samsara will work eventually – if I just shuffle the pieces of the puzzle carefully enough and conscientiously enough, one day it will all work out perfectly.
We would like to complete the jigsaw so that we can experience that moment of satisfaction, but at the same time without letting go of the fun of moving the pieces around. We live in hope that things will continue to run smoothly or that one day it will all click into place and we will be happy forever. Once we realise that the pieces of our jigsaw will never miraculously click into place, we are freed from the effort of attempting to make it happen.
We can relax into the realisation of the reality of what is, and enjoy the energy that is liberated. We can then help those who hold this view to be comfortable and successful on their own terms. We understand that it is extremely difficult to perceive the subtle unsatisfactory quality of samsara from a perspective of suffering, so our compassionate activity is to help others achieve relative success within samsara, and free them from gross suffering. Only then will they too have the chance of realising the hollowness of success.
2. The only exception to this would be other practitioners within our sangha. Sangha are the community of practitioners, gendün, This could be the red sangha of monks and nuns, or the white sangha of non-celibate ordained practitioners – the ngakpas and ngakmas (sNgags pa and sNgags ma) (Tibetan). The white sangha is also called the gö kar chang lo’i dé (gos dKar lCang lo’i sDe) (Tibetan) which means white skirt / long hair. Another name is the Ngak’phang Gendün (sNgags ’phang dGe ’dun) (Tibetan) which literally means ‘mantra wielding’ and refers to the Tantric community of practitioners. With fellow practitioners we refrain from indulging their addiction to duality and encourage them to awaken to the reality of the nature of the experience of dissatisfaction.