Buddhism is not centered on a creator God. Therefore, there is no need for Buddhists to explain why suffering exists in the world. Suffering simply exists just like everything else and needs to be understood and responded to; more like the weather than a divine mystery. But the Buddhist word for it, duḥkha, is so generic that the word 'suffering' should often be read as 'unpleasantness' or 'unease' or even frustration; a factor of ultimate dissatisfaction that is pervasive in all our karmic existence. As an example, the English word suffering would not typically apply to the very fortunate, but the Buddhist doctrine of duḥkha fully does.
Buddhism may not have a theodicy problem but 'suffering' is, for Buddhists, the central religious problem; its cause and its elimination. Buddhist tradition associates suffering not only to conditions of physical or mental misery but also to thwarted expectations, anxiety about fame and gain; indeed, any strong cravings elicit duḥkha. The Buddha said, 'I teach suffering and the end of suffering'. The Zen response to the problem of suffering is to cultivate and harmonize a 'ground zero' meditation skill set with a radical harm reduction life strategy.
Harm reduction is not the same as 'harmlessness', which is the moral core of Zen righteousness. However, Buddhistically, kindness is more important than rightness. Harmlessness is an abstract ideal of compassion, while harm reduction requires penetrating insight along with compassion. Understanding the nature of harm-causing is a life-long pursuit. It is radical in the sense of assuming and valuing a deep innocence, i.e. an absence of ill will. It is also radical in the sense of skewing the karmic impact of a person toward zero. Meditation is as close to karmic neutrality as it is possible for a living being to get, causing almost zero harm.
The moment, the very instant we place our attention on our breath, our relationship with being itself is altered. This apparent grandiosity, I maintain, is verifiable by virtually anyone and qualifies as a fact of life. On that moment, thought activity vanishes and a firmness of place begins to take form. Initially this phenomenon is rudimentary and fleeting, yet it is palpable and establishes the connection between quiet mind and breath awareness. Beginning with this we construct a meditation practice.
If we learn to sustain awareness of breath we also extend periods of quiet mind and convivial presence. Zen meditation starts here at ground zero. When we sit we harbour zero opinions, zero judgements and where possible zero expectations. To be perfectly zeroed is to be perfectly open and perfectly receptive. Zen dogma asserts that this is the initial condition of the middle way, which is what the Buddhists call the path to eliminate duḥkha.
Meditation is an extreme behaviour. When we do meditation, we exert ourselves to an unnatural degree and bring about, through intention, the doing of not doing. This is one of the many ironies of meditation reality. Another is the irony that the middle way of Zen relies on the extreme behaviour of receptive concentration.
Wayne Codling is a former Zen monastic and a lineage holder in the Soto Zen tradition. He teaches Zen style meditation in various venues around Victoria. Wayne’s talks and some writings can be found on his blog http://sotozenvictoria.wordpress.com
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