During a one-month practice period (dathun) at the Buddhist Gampo Abbey in the spring of 1989, Pema Chödrön gave morning talks to encourage participants “to use the abundant material of daily life as their primary teacher and guide.”
Midway through the month, she spoke about the meditation practice of tonglen, “sending and taking,” which has to do with cultivating fearlessness.
The essence of tonglen practice is that on the in-breath you are willing to feel pain: you’re willing to acknowledge the suffering of the world. From this day onward, you’re going to cultivate your bravery and willingness to feel that part of the human condition.
You breathe in so that you can really understand what the Buddha meant when he said that the first noble truth is that life is suffering. What does that mean?
With every in-breath, you try to find out by acknowledging the truth of suffering, not as a mistake you made, not as a punishment, but as part of the human condition. With every in-breath, you explore the discomfort of the human condition, which can be acknowledged and celebrated and not run away from.
Tonglen puts it right on the line. (132-33)
— Awaking Loving-Kindness (1996)
The history of the human consciousness has been filled with the struggle to assign meaning to suffering. No living being welcomes suffering, yet human beings impose immeasurable unnecessary violence upon themselves and others—psychic, emotional, religious, political and physical violence—in order to avoid suffering, or at least to define who does or does not deserve to suffer.
Yet what a simple notion Pema shares: acknowledging the truth of suffering, not as a mistake you made, not as a punishment, but as part of the human condition.
Not that life is nothing but suffering. Just that fully lived life of necessity includes suffering.
We are now in an age of endless argument between those of us who lean toward a “God” who measures out pleasure and suffering and those who, horrified at the notion of such a “God,” insist there cannot be any “God” worthy of belief.
One could draw a simplistic diagram to represent this argument, because it is not really about “God” but about “human beings versus suffering.”
The irony is that all of us personify “God,” the theists and the secularists and those who waver in between. This is because all we human beings know about is interaction with persons. More to the point, we live with the knowledge, or at least the fear, of being at the mercy of persons with absolute authority over us.
How could we imagine a Wholeness which simply is, in which we know ourselves to be complete and compassionate, even in the midst of our finite, fallible, suffering, mortal existence?
In his 2011 book, Conversation with Christ: Quaker Meditations on the Gospel of John, Douglas Gwyn shares a commentary on John 6:25-34, a passage which follows the sacred story about Jesus feeding five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish.
The people are puzzled…. Jesus brushes aside their mundane concerns…. He knows they didn’t really see the sign he had performed in feeding them yesterday. Or more exactly, they didn’t see where the sign was pointing.
If it pointed anywhere for them, it was simply toward more bread today, and tomorrow. These are agrarian peasants, after all. Many of them live a hand-to-mouth existence…. Jesus gave them bread, but they took it as loaves. They grasped the commodity, the form, without perceiving the _substance_….
Apparently, the crowd at least understands that Jesus is the one sent by God…. So they ask, what work will he perform, that they should believe in him? They remind Jesus that Moses provided their ancestors manna in the wilderness. That was a daily event. So yesterday’s miracle is only yesterday’s miracle…. (45)
Jesus…aims to shift their frame of reference…from yesterday’s miracle to the eternally present work of God. He hopes to refocus their eyes into the eternal, heavenly dimension of their temporal, mundane present. But again they miss it. They simply ask Jesus to provide yesterday’s bread every day. (46)
These people were normal people like us. It was extremely difficult for them to stretch their imaginations, their expectations, beyond the mortal needs of the day.
And their notion of “God” was our normal one: “God” as a powerful being who can relieve our day to day suffering—if we can only figure out what we need to do to persuade “him” to do it.
The only other alternative we can normally imagine is the existentialist one: there is no “God,” and hence no meaning, no sacredness, to existence. We just exist.
Both Jesus the Christ (“the Anointed One”) and Gautama the Buddha (“the Awakened One”) breathed in the suffering of their fellows and breathed out a loving “middle path.” Not one that removed suffering, but one that led to an adult embrace of all aspects of life.
Jesus, ministering to country folk who were basically good but struggling folk like us, used the “God” language and the scriptures they knew. Even so, he sought always to breathe in their fear of the stern, capricious gods of their world and their time. He sought always to breathe out the embrace of a compassionate “Father,” whose sole purpose is to lead “his children” into mature, emotionally self-sufficient adulthood as mortal beings.
The distinction is a simple yet challenging one.
It is not necessary to use “God” language in order to witness to such life, yet it is also possible to use a sort of “God” language which gives voice to such witness.
And so it is.
Note: This Beyond Meds post includes links to tonglen teachings by several different people, including Pema Chödrön.