Imagine a person who feels completely healthy, completely free of all illness, sickness and physical disability. Wouldn’t it be ridiculous for that person to get medicine? What would be the point of that? What would be the rationale in getting medicine when you feel completely healthy? Those people who don’t see any problems, who are not aware of any dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, in their lives, what would be the point in their attempting to study the dhamma and to practise meditation?
If you are new to this thing called ‘dhamma’, and new to meditation, then you are not expected to immediately agree that you have all sorts of problems and are suffering from many burdens in life. However, if you are not completely sure that your health is perfect, you could examine yourself, you could get to know yourself and find out what kind of shape you are in.
An absolutely essential condition for the proper study of dhamma is the desire to be free of dukkha, to be free of suffering. Without this desire and intention to be free of all unsatisfactory mind states and all dissatisfying conditions, we really won’t know what we are doing, and we shall just be muddling about. It is absolutely essential, therefore, to have this need to end dukkha. Otherwise, the desire to meditate and study the dhamma may just be the desire to follow a current fashion, or a crowd of people who happened to have wandered over from the beach!
It is quite amusing and quite sad that most people seem to wander through life in a little cloud, as if nothing were wrong. And then, when something is obviously wrong, they pretend it isn’t. People rarely develop the keen and powerful urge to be free of all the dukkha, of all the problems and burdens that torment life. But without that desire, we cannot practise dhamma.
Do you want to be healthy, or not? This isn’t an intellectual consideration. Most people will say quite readily, ‘Oh, sure, I want to be healthy!’ But is there a deep-seated urge that is beginning to work in you and beginning to take over your life? Is your life becoming oriented to being healthy, spiritually healthy, free of dukkha! If someone threw you into the ocean and held your head under the water for a couple of minutes, or so, what kind of desire would there be in you to get out of the water? The Buddha spoke of the feeling one would have if one’s hair were on fire. If your hair were burning, if the flames were shooting up from your head, would you sit around twiddling your thumbs? Or would there be a desire to do something about it? Do you have the desire to extinguish dukkha to the same extent that you would have if your hair were on fire? Is your desire that strong?
The majority of people have no awareness of dukkha within their minds. They may have many opinions drawn from books and conversations, but most do not have a clear realization within their own minds that there is dukkha. In spite of this, some come here in order to extinguish it! They are not aware of dukkha and yet they want to get rid of it!
You have come to Suan Mokh. Have you come because dukkha has driven you here? Has the whip of dukkha driven you to this place like a herd of frightened cattle? Or have you come out of curiosity, because you’re travelling around Thailand and this is another place in the guide book? Why are you here? Take a look at yourself and see what influence dukkha has within your own life. Until you see that dukkha is central to what you do, what you say, what you think, then you will never have the desire to understand it and to take it apart so that you know the escape from it. Until you truly see this dukkha, you will never have the desire to be free of it.
In its most favourable light, we can say that dukkha is both friend and enemy. It is dukkha that makes us clever and intelligent, and it is only through dukkha that we learn. We don’t learn from being happy! We learn from mistakes and problems. Dukkha is what causes us to grow in wisdom. To whatever degree human consciousness has developed, it has only done so because of dukkha — dukkha, the friend. On the other hand, dukkha bites; it slaps, is painful, and torments us. In this way dukkha is also an enemy. We are always trying to be free of it, whether we realize it, or not. We are always trying to run away and escape this enemy of ours.
If we conceive both of these aspects of dukkha — as friend and enemy — then we shall begin to understand it on a profound level; we shall see dukkha on the level of mindful-wisdom, satipanna. This is knowledge that is based in awareness — self-awareness and an understanding of life. This is the opposite of stupidity. If our understanding of dukkha is foolish and childish, it will be of no use to us.
By making use of what dukkha offers us, we can develop the mind and grow in wisdom and understanding. By using dukkha as a friend, there is less opportunity for it being an enemy. Dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, will then not bite, claw, scratch and torment us so much. This is a mindful and wise approach to dukkha. Don’t let it go by itself, don’t leave it on its own where it will remain an enemy!
Read more by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
From the February 1995 Buddhism Now