Time and again the Buddha would be asked speculative questions about the meaning of life or the nature of reality. His response was always the same: “I teach one thing and one thing only, and that is, ‘suffering and the end of suffering.’” (The English word suffering is translated from the Pali word “dukkha” which can also mean dissatisfaction, stress, or unhappiness.) When I first studied the Buddhist teachings I wondered why he didn’t say: “I teach the end of suffering and the discovery of happiness.” I thought, “That would certainly make it much easier to promote Buddhism to the world!”
After a few years of practice I discovered the answer to my question.
It’s a two-part answer. First, the Buddha did not present happiness as a goal to be achieved because that could foster craving and attachment to a goal, which would ultimately cause even more suffering. (Craving is a primary cause of suffering.)
Second, the word happiness inevitably conjures memories of experiences we deem “happy” by human standards. The “happiness” that the Buddha taught is far beyond any human concept, memory or experience of personal happiness. Very few persons have experienced this happiness that passes all human understanding.
How then does one teach something that is beyond human comprehension? There are two ways; and the Buddha used them both.
One way is to describe everything that it isn’t. The Buddha taught “the end of suffering” (nirvana) rather than “finding happiness.” (The word nirvana simply means to extinguish.)
A second way is to avoid any reference to an outcome and simply teach a method for attaining the direct experience of it--thereby avoiding any need to define it. (Don’t bother to define a strawberry- just taste it!) The Eight-Fold Path was the method that the Buddha taught.
As our practice unfolds we see that in order to end suffering we must be willing to experience suffering in a certain way. The only way out is the way through.
To overcome suffering we must see its cause. To see its cause we must experience suffering consciously. To experience suffering consciously we must drop all denials and defenses. This puts us on the path beyond suffering.
This is exactly what Insight Meditation practice (vipassana) is designed to do.
Begin by sitting; doing nothing. (Sitting/ Zazen)
Recognize suffering as it arises. (Mindfulness/ Awareness)
Allow everything to be just as it is. (Equanimity)
Recognize the cause of suffering as it arises. (Insight/ Vipassana)
Clear recognition dissolves the cause of suffering. (Insight/ Vipassana)
Recognize that suffering has ceased. (Insight/ Vipassana)
Experience “the end of suffering.” (Nirvana)
Don’t wait for a major disaster to occur in your life; use the everyday suffering that’s right in front of you. Simply be still, let it arise and work with what’s here right now. Your present moment experience is the starting place for the journey.