Ouch! Systemic Suffering and The Third Noble Truth
“Great is the matter of birth and death, quickly passing, passing, gone. Awake, awake, each one, awake. Don’t waste this life.” This is the message written on the Han, a wooden instrument used in Japanese styled Soto Zen centers around the world, to call practitioners to the zendo (meditation hall). So when I hear the Han sounding out I don’t hesitate. I don’t waste time. I stop my mental and physical activity. Listen. Then walk to the sound of this piece of wood being tapped with a wooden mallet, sounding out, “Wake Up! Life is passing, right now! Right now, you are passing.”
Everything that comes into fruition will pass away including our suffering. This is one interpretation of the third Noble Truth: There is the cessation of suffering. In other words, suffering may be inevitable but it is not permanent. This is the good news. It means that healing and wellness is possible. However, often times on the spiritual path we jump to the good news before we acknowledge the presence of suffering. We want to transform our suffering into enchantment without being aware of how we suffer. In our society we use things outside of ourselves to surpass suffering. We attempt a kind of joy that requires others to please us or it requires the accumulation of money, job, status, etc. And we all know too well that whatever we were suffering before reaching out for external gratification, the suffering returns the moment these things in life grow stale. We may then distrust the Third Noble Truth that there can be a cessation of suffering.
Once a student asked a teacher at a retreat for people of color, “Can racism and other forms of oppression cease to exist?” The teacher nearly shouted, “Yes, racism will one day cease to exist.” My mouth flew open. Not at what the teacher said but at my own inner feelings. Despite possessing the knowledge that every thing and every one changes and is changing, I felt racism would last forever. I saw no end to it and this is how I suffer. I have worked hard politically and spiritually against racism without trusting there was an end to it all. Why would I fight a losing battle? What motivated my actions? Through the exchange between the teacher and the student at the retreat, I realized for the first time that the suffering within systemic oppression was an evolving experience. More importantly, the cessation of systemic suffering depends completely on such evolution. Although there is still racism, it “appears” different than the racism experienced by my parents. Is the change in the appearance of racism mean that racism is ending? I would not go that far. But it does mean that changes in causes and conditions affects how racism looks. It means that there are different causes of racism creating different effects. It means that those who are marginalized and oppressed systemically because of their race are interdependent with those who dominate the resources of our society. This interdependence is what gets overlooked in systemic oppression. When those who dominate resources acknowledge and understand suffering as caused by collective karmic (actions) then the nature of racism will cease to exist, eventually–emphasis on the word eventually. If we don’t understand the origination of systemic suffering or acknowledge that it even exists then we won’t fully experience the complete cessation of racism. Origination and cessation are interwoven aspects of suffering. If we are too afraid of facing suffering we miss the path out of it.
When I was thirteen, I remember one evening our family sitting at the dinner table at our home in southern California. My older and younger sisters were in their places and me somewhere in the middle, and my parents each at one end of the table. Something was especially strange with the taste and texture of the meat we were eating. Not being big on meat as a child, I remember frowning and asking what kind of meat was it. My father proudly said in his thick Creole accent, “Possum. I caught it in the backyard.” I didn’t know what a possum was, but I stopped eating the meat because it was caught and killed in the yard I played in daily. Yet, I could see my father’s pride at bringing something to our bare table. Life was hitting us hard at the time, as my parents were aging with three teens, my mother being fifty-five years old then and my father seventy-three. It wouldn’t be long before we received our first bag of food for Thanksgiving from a welfare office. It would be our last bag because we could not stand the humiliation. We would never speak of those hard times again, because it was frightening to talk about being black and being without – not having anything.
Immediately upon accepting the path of Buddha I began to see the depth of suffering within and around me. It was almost unbearable, causing me to doubt the teachings, meaning I had taken on something that might get the best of me. But with the help of many teachers I began to see that the suffering would be the place in which I practiced the teachings. That my life would serve as the ground in which Buddha’s teachings would come alive. I wrote:
She walks through the gate,
Gazing out from the darkness of skin,
Seeing no church pews,
She sits barefoot on cushions chanting,
Why have I come without knowing whose house I have entered?
I came to face the ways in which I suffered. I came looking for that way out of feeling almost as enslaved as my ancestors. The cessation of suffering requires that we acknowledge suffering. We say that it is so. We say that we know what causes it? Then we can honestly look at ending it. Can we end systemic suffering or oppression with such a path of acknowledgement? I say yes, as loudly as the teacher did that day in retreat. Cessation counts on us saying yes. Yes, to the existence of systemic suffering and yes to the evolution of it. We cannot run from our collective illness and at the same time claim we are well. Suffering and well being exist together within the ever-evolving dynamics between us. This is the nature of living beings. Hence, the spiritual path between sentient beings relies on our attention to social conditions that are often based on race, sexuality, gender, etc. It is required for our survival to acknowledge the ways in which we suffer. There is no way around it.
Top image by Jack Moebes.
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and guiding teacher of Still Breathing Meditation Center in Oakland, CA.
Zenju is the author of Tell Me Something About Buddhism, with a foreword by Thich Nhat Hanh. She is the contributing author to Dharma, Color, and Culture: an anthology of essays by western Buddhist teachers and practitioners of color (Parallax); and The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-five Centuries of Awakened Women (Wisdom Publications).
You can visit her website at zenju.org.
About BPF’s The System Stinks
To help promote collective liberation and subvert the highly individualistic bent of much mainstream dharma these days, Buddhist Peace Fellowship presents our second year of The System Stinks — a collection of Buddhist social justice media named for the favorite protest sign of one of our founders, Robert Aitken, Roshi.
This year, we’ve asked some of our favorite dharma teachers, practitioners, and activists to reflect on the Four Noble Truths — suffering; the causes of suffering; cessation of suffering; and a path to cessation — from a systemic, social justice perspective.
Other Buddhist groups from around the world have also used the Four Noble Truths as a lens for social movements: for good examples, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka. In a U.S.-based context (not predominantly Buddhist), where mindfulness is increasingly separated from ethics, we are eager to uphold this social justice tradition.
If you like what you see, please comment and share to show the world another side of Buddhism!
We are deeply grateful to the teachers and practitioners who lend their voices to this cause. In alignment with our media justice values, all contributors to the 2014 series have been offered humble compensation for their work.