A message from Rev. Richard Tennes which appears in the book, “The Taste of the Nembutsu,” published in 2016 by the HHMH State Ministers’ Association. The book is a collection of dharma messages by each of the active ministers.
To extend the reach of the dharma within these messages, we will publish one per week on our website.
Rev. Richard Tennes
The Buddha taught: This is the Noble Truth of suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with those we dislike is suffering; separation from those we love is suffering; not getting what we want is suffering…
(Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, “Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion Sutra”)
I would like to talk to you today about the foundation of Buddhism, which is the truth that “life is suffering”.
It is said that when Shakyamuni Buddha first became enlightened, he wanted to share what he had learned with others, but he didn’t know how. So he thought deeply about it. He realized that the way the human mind works causes people to become blindly attached to things and so to experience suffering, which means the absence of peace in our heart and mind. This suffering is a nagging, painful, sometimes agonizing dissatisfaction and restlessness; it is the confusion we feel when faced with the reality of old age, sickness and death; it is our lack of wonder and amazement and appreciation of life; it is the desperate desire to get what we want, even when that is not really what we need. In fact, it was that suffering that originally caused him, Siddhartha Gautama, to become a spiritual seeker and to leave his comfortable home and all his luxuries behind in order to wander as a homeless truth-seeker. In trying to teach the Dharma, the Buddha decided that the one thing everyone could easily understand and agree on, the thing that everyone had experienced, was this dukkha, this suffering; so he began his teaching with this fundamental truth: “life is suffering.”
That is the point where we all begin our spiritual journey. If we don’t recognize our suffering, there is no Buddhism for us. This basic truth got misunderstood as Buddhism became a religion. In countries where Buddhism became the dominant religion, people eventually came to think of it as something they “belonged” to or were members of. More recently I think, many believe that being “Buddhist” means belonging to a temple. Others believe that Buddhism is defined by certain practices, such as lighting incense. But the more we learn about Buddhism, the more we realize that it is not about cultural traditions, membership, or practices. What is it? Buddhism is a path that I walk, and its goal is for me to live an authentic and true life in order that all beings may also be able to live an authentic, true life. And on this path, the first step must always be the recognition that I am suffering.
Now, in our Shin Buddhist teaching, you often hear that our form of Buddhism is based on appreciation. That is not correct, at least not the Jodo Shinshu which Shinran taught. Appreciation is what arises in us through the Buddha’s Great Compassion, but appreciation can only arise when we realize the depth of our suffering and our helplessness to escape from it.
For Shakyamuni Buddha, the path of awakening is the way out of suffering and, if you study the ancient sutras you will see that one of the things he talked most about, that he wanted his followers to understand, was what we call “interdependence”. The Buddha was teaching us to look closely at our own suffering, to see it has causes, and to realize that my suffering and the sufferings of everyone else are completely interconnected. So Buddhism teaches me that I am causing not only my own unhappiness, but also the unhappiness of others.
There is a big distinction between the Buddha’s “life is suffering” and the fact that life includes a lot of suffering. Life is inevitably filled with all kinds of pain, trouble, and loss. The expression for this is “old age, sickness, and death” or in everyday terms, “how come I can’t always get what I want?” Funny thing is, “getting what I want” is also a big cause of suffering, because the real core of our problem, of our suffering, is that we are never satisfied when things don’t work out as we like — and we are not even satisfied when they do! The Buddha said that this is our “attachment” or our bonno. Buddhism is about overcoming the suffering caused by our bonno.
There is a story I learned many years ago that I would like to tell you. I didn’t learn it as a Buddhist story, but it certainly teaches a Buddhist lesson.
Once, there was a royal prince who became insane and decided he was a turkey. He felt compelled to sit naked under the table and, like a turkey, spend his time pecking at crumbs and pieces of bread that fell under there. The royal household was in an uproar because of this, and the royal physicians tried every possible medicine, but nothing worked. So they eventually gave up all hope of ever curing him of this madness. The king — the prince’s father — suffered tremendous grief because of this.
At that time there was a sage living nearby and he was asked what could be done. The sage said, “No problem. I can cure him.”
So the sage came to the palace, undressed himself, and sat naked under the table next to the prince. The sage also began to peck at the crumbs, just like the prince. “Who are you?” demanded the prince. “And what are you doing here?”
“What about you?” replied the sage, “What are you doing here?”
“I am a turkey!” said the prince.
“Well, I am also a turkey,” answered the sage.
“But, you don’t look like a turkey,” the prince said.
Just because I don’t look like a turkey doesn’t mean I can’t be a turkey,” said the sage, “I have just as much right to be a turkey as you do. Do you think you will stop being a turkey if I am a turkey too?”
So the prince accepted this, and the two of them sat together happily under the table for many days, until they had become good friends and the prince had come to trust the sage completely. Then one day, the sage signalled to the king’s servant to throw two shirts down to him under the table. He said to the prince, “You know, it’s a little cold under this table. What makes you think that a turkey can’t wear a shirt? Just because we are turkeys doesn’t mean we can’t wear shirts!” The prince was a little doubtful at first, but he trusted his friend, and so the two of them put on shirts.
After a while, the sage again signalled to the king’s servants and they threw down two pairs of pants. Just as before he said, “There is no reason that turkeys can’t wear pants!” So they both put on the pants.
The sage continued in this manner until, gradually, they were both completely dressed. Then he signalled again and they were given regular food from the table. The sage said, “What makes you think that you will stop being a turkey if you eat good food? You can eat whatever you want and still be a turkey!” So they both enjoyed the food.
Next, the sage said, “What makes you think a turkey must sit under the table? A turkey can still be a turkey while sitting comfortably at the table.”
And so, continuing in this manner, the prince was completely cured.
Since I am a minister, you might think that I would identify myself with the sage in the story who guides the prince back to sanity. But to be honest, I think I am much more like the prince myself. I may have an idea of who I am, but I often wonder whether or not I am totally wrong about that! We may all have a false idea of ourselves, we may be trying to be something other than what we are. We all are attached to false ideas about ourselves, and as a consequence, we all live in suffering. However, as a Buddhist, I would like to try to emulate the sage as much as possible, because of the way he helped the prince.
The prince in this story is definitely suffering and the sage guides him back to wholeness. One way of looking at the story would be to say that the prince’s insanity was abnormal, that he became deluded and left the healthy path of normal life to follow this obviously absurd path of imagining himself to be a turkey. And you might think that the sage, cleverly guiding and persuading the prince to change his behavior, was like a psychiatrist who helped him to become “normal” again. This would be a very common way of looking at such a situation. But I think that would be an incorrect interpretation.
It seems to me that our usual assumptions about what is good and normal are precisely the assumptions that keep us trapped in the world of suffering, which in Buddhism we call samsara. In our society, these assumptions keep things moving along, it is true. They certainly keep us desiring and wanting to buy things. They encourage ambition and restlessness and so on, but they don’t necessarily help us to understand ourselves or each other, or to appreciate who we are and what we have received. General assumptions about what is normal also keep us chained to a constant cycle of working, desiring, earning, acquiring, losing, re-acquiring, being disappointed and frustrated, and bearing the burden of all the duties and loyalties we accept with unexamined resolution. Most people convince themselves that they are quite content with such driven and frenzied lives, and aren’t consciously aware of the anxiety and anger boiling up inside them. They simply don’t notice their total lack of inner peace. This is not unusual you know; we have all learned to shrug off the doings of our society and pretend we aren’t responsible or that it doesn’t really concern us. But some people might feel that such a life, lacking inner stillness, awareness, appreciation, compassion, and peace, is somehow not a truly human life and that it is perhaps not even worth living, no matter how much wealth, status, or prestige one possesses. Such a person might find living such a stressful and driven life to be itself a form of insanity and might seek some kind of escape from it. The escape could be a hobby, a fantasy life — as children often have — or it might be drugs or alcohol or gambling. It might even be such a thing as “dropping out” and becoming a turkey like the prince in the story. In this sense, the wish of the prince in the story, to be a turkey, could be understood as a desperate act of sanity in an insane, brutal, and delusional world. It could be understood as a kind of protest against a society driven by attachment, acquisition, and the lust for power.
Most people want to be “normal”, but that itself is a symptom of the deeper problem of life. You and I might think that being a prince would be a great life and we might scold this prince — as his family did — for not going along with the program and doing his princely job. We might judge him harshly for dropping out and “becoming” a turkey. But I have a feeling that the prince’s previously normal and conventional princely life was the cause of his suffering, from which he was trying to escape. He must have begun to question who he was and the meaning of his existence. For some people, such questioning can be devastating, especially those who are given little choice of what they are allowed to do with their lives. I think Shakyamuni Buddha had the same problem. His father wanted him to become the king and tried to shield him from reality, so that questions about the meaning of life would not arise in his mind. That didn’t work, as we know, and questions did arise in his mind, which led to his becoming Buddha. The prince in our story deciding that he was a turkey may seem like a desperate measure to take, however, and not too effective an escape, because being a turkey enslaved and limited him just as much, if not more, than his previous life would have. But once he recognized his suffering, he had to do something to find liberation. Shakyamuni went off and became a spiritual seeker; but perhaps this prince hadn’t heard of such a thing. Fortunately, he met the sage, a kind teacher, who was able to show him the true nature of life. Now this sage didn’t tell the prince he was stupid or crazy for trying to be a turkey, as we might have done. He didn’t recommend drugs, psychiatry, or any other therapy. The sage accepted the prince, just as he was, and showed him — by becoming one with the prince in his suffering and getting right down under the table with him — that no matter what our condition in life may be, we can become a true human being just by being who we are. The sage helped the prince to become a human being by accepting the prince as a turkey, by joining him under the table! By accepting the prince as the prince imagined himself to be, the sage was able to guide the prince to become who he truly was! This sage illustrated the Buddha’s teaching of non-discrimination and non-judgemental acceptance.
Actually, you can never help anyone from above, from a position of superiority or authority. That’s the flaw with most of the things we do as a society to “help” people. To truly help a suffering person, you have to get down under the table with that suffering person and experience his or her suffering. You can’t think you know what is true and that they don’t! The greatest spiritual truth — the essence of what Shinran taught — is to realize that I don’t know what is the truth, I don’t know what is right or wrong! And so, in his very humble way, the sage was able to help the prince and bring him up from under the table. Because of the sage’s help, the prince was able to awaken to himself, and live the full life of a human being, with awareness and appreciation, meaning, joy, and happiness.
The same is true of all of us. Realizing that my life is filled with anxiety, anger, and stress sent me, long ago, on my own spiritual journey to seek wisdom and peace. On this path, I have fortunately met kind teachers and friends who, like the sage in the story, have accepted and helped me, just as I am, to seek a life of compassion, wisdom, and peace. But you know what? That’s not really in the past tense. Every day, I realize that life is suffering, and every day I am guided by others to realize my blind passion and my selfish nature. We are always being guided by Amida’s Great Compassion, in countless mysterious ways, and all of us, despite the suffering inherent in our existence, will ultimately awaken to the Oneness and Peace of enlightenment, which is our True Life. Namo Amida Butsu.