Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Zen of Pain: Part II


Crying Baby by CeeKay’s Pix

Two weeks ago, we began our discussion on something that all of us will sooner or later come across in life - pain.   We looked into the nature of pain and also the fact that pain is in fact one of Zen's specialties.

This week, let us hear from a Zen master what he has to say about pain and illness in general.  After all, it is better to know beforehand how to handle pain and illness while you are still relatively healthy. To try to cram on this mind-training practice when you are already in deep pain or severe illness is going to be much harder.

By the way, the emphasis on Zen does not mean that Buddhist masters of the Theravada tradition are less able than their Zen counterparts when it comes to gaining wisdom from pain. To practice vipassana under a good teacher, one naturally knows what pain is. Vedana (feelings or sensation) is one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Satipatthana is that which one would definitely encounter and gain wisdom from.

The difference, perhaps, is the emphasis. From the little experience that the author has had with both traditions, Zen seems to zero in on the ability to cultivate wisdom out of extremely trying physical and mental conditions. This applies not just to zazen, or sitting meditation, but on other types of Zen-inspired training as well such as martial arts.

Moreover, it does not mean that one has to engage in one "formal" form of Zen training or another in order to have a shot at wisdom and, consequently, freedom from suffering.  The ability to apply Zen to daily living so that one would know how to deal with impromptu physical and mental suffering is what Zen is all about.

The following are insights from the teachings of Zen master Seung Sahn, to which the author has added additional commentaries.

Your Physical Body is Not Your True Self

The first lesson from Master Seung Sahn is that you have to understand that your physical body is not your true self.

Well, that is a tough one.  For those who have not physically experienced in a retreat the fact that the body and mind are two separate entities, this very first lesson is already difficult to swallow.   How could my body not be my "self"?  If it is not "me" that can feel, and in turn got terrified of, pain, who could that be?

Relax, the master said. Do not be afraid of your sickness (and/or pain).   At times everybody is afraid of what will happen to their body.   Rather than assuming that "I must be healed," the master suggested that we must understand the Ultimate Truth first.

And what is that Truth?  It is that everyone dies.

The Question Worth Asking

Certainly, we will all die. In fact, we can even die sooner than any statistics suggest, meaning our death could be from countless other causes totally unrelated to our illness.

Once that realization is firmly settled in our minds, the next logical question would naturally follow, "... Why, then, do I have to go through this much suffering of illness, pain, and, on top of that, face the fear of dying?"

The question itself gives hint to the answer. If there was no "you" to begin with, would there be any being that can feel the pain?  Definitely not.

It is because "we" were born that there is this physical body to serve as a breeding ground for various illness and hence the pain.

It is because we were born that we must become ill, have pain, and die.

One of my vipassana teachers even went one step further and suggested that, when we were asked what caused the death of Mr so-and-so whom we happened to know, we should simply reply, "birth."

My teacher is right. Birth is the real "natural cause" of death. Not only for Mr so-and-so, but also for all of us.

Turn This Pain into an Opportunity

But why do we have to be born, then, to face all these sufferings?  If you have not yet found your teacher and started practicing mindfulness, this question may pop up in your mind now and then.  The more pain you have or the more serious your illness is, the more often this question would come up to bother you.

This is how Master Seung Sahn's teaching fits in.  He simply invited us to find out first what human beings really are, meaning why we were born, and what for?   His reason is that, if you do indeed find the answer, your direction will be clear when you die.

And if not?  The Master gave a simple and to-the-point answer.  He said that our consciousness will go round and round.  If the pain you are facing now, either physical and mental, seems unbearable to you, the idea of facing that very same pain over and over again should at least make you cringe and try to find out more how to get out of all this as soon as you can.   Not just this very present pain, but every future pain.

If losing your direction while you are still living is a problem, imagine how horrifying it would be if you lose your direction when you are dying?  How can you be sure that you could direct your mind, your consciousness, into the right direction?

Having survived near-death experience before, the author could assure the readers that indeed mindfulness does help in that crucial moment.   At least, your mind is calm, your direction is clear.   The result?  Well, to each his own karma.

This brings us to ask ourselves if we have created any positive karma lately?  Even in pain and illness, you can still create good karma for yourself. How?  By living a Zen life and practicing mindfulness at every waking moment, of course!   If you are now having pain in your life, regard it as a perfect opportunity to become Enlightened.   All you have to do is to start finding out what your true self is.  Think of it as the most special gift you can give to yourself because, quite frankly, we all deserve it.

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