Brothers and sisters in suffering, old age, sickness and death, by Ajahn Sumedho

Buddha image. British MuseumThe Buddha pointed to an existential truth. It’s about existence. Suffering (dukkha) is about our human existence. And the actual meaning of `exist’ is to `stand forth’. What stands forth for us in our lives is suffering, isn’t it? We suffer a lot. We have a lot of existential suffering on this journey that we’re involved in from birth to death. And this suffering is common to every human being. It’s not just certain ones — it’s not just the poor, or just men or just women, or just Europeans or Africans or Asians — it’s everyone from the beginning of the human race, and will be to the end of it. As long as there’s ignorance, there’s going to be suffering. So this is a common experience we all share. When we talk about suffering, we don’t say, `I believe in it,’ or `I don’t believe in it.’ We know it because we suffer. You don’t have to believe in it — you already know you suffer. You have to believe in things you don’t quite know yet.

We start directly from using our knowledge faculties rather than the believing ones. We’re looking at suffering. And what is the insight? Suffering should be understood. So the direct path of the Buddha is saying: There is suffering. It should be understood. This is a way of knowledge. We’re using knowledge directly all the time if we’re practising in the right way.

This realm that we’re born into as human beings is a conscious realm. And this consciousness is the ability to know things; it’s the experience of knowing. The reflective mind that we human beings have that allows us to reflect and contemplate our own existence, our own suffering — this is what we call `the Buddha’ — the ability to know and see things as they are, and to use wisdom, to see according to wisdom rather than according to belief or bias or prejudice. So it’s like a gnostic path. The Greek word `gnostic’ is related to the Pali word `nana’ which is insight knowledge, direct knowledge. The western world has not developed direct knowledge. The Gnostic forms of religion were persecuted and destroyed by the Catholic Church.

It has now been proven by modern scientists that there is no such thing as pure objectivity. It was believed at one time that one could be objective — a pure objectivity totally unaffected by anything. And it is possible, but only in when one is mindful, when one is seeing the objects as `what arises, ceases’. That is pure objectivity — the purity of the mind with no cultural additives, prejudices, angles, distortions, filters, positions, and no axe to grind.

In mindfulness you begin to observe all the cultural conditioning as the impermanence of your own language, your own thoughts, your own attitudes, your views of yourself, views of the world, opinions, emotions — all of these are witnessed as anicca-dukkha-anatta (impermanence-suffering-nonself). That is seeing in objectivity. That is a pure objective seeing, knowing. And it is through mindfulness and wisdom, which are not conditioned. They’re not conditioned and they’re not cultural. You can’t even say they are Buddhist, or anything. They are beyond any of those kinds of concepts.

By looking at suffering, therefore, and understanding it, we develop this way of knowing the truth. And then there is the realisation of cessation and the development of the path. It’s a way of realising God, or realising truth. The teachings are excellent teachings. They’re not dogmas or beliefs. They’re even stated in such a way as to encourage us to reflect with them rather than just to grasp them. People still grasp Buddhist teachings, of course, and become Buddhists rather than liberated enlightened beings. So people do become Buddhists by believing in Buddhism, but the actual practice the Buddha gave is a direct path of liberation here and now. That’s why, as you practise more and more, you find there is no suffering. The suffering the Buddha pointed to is through ignorance.

Buddha image. British MuseumIf the Buddha had started with the teaching that there is no suffering, none of us would have believed it: There certainly is! He certainly got that wrong! So he started with: There is suffering. This is a teaching we can identify with. It isn’t difficult. It’s the common bond between us all, isn’t it? In Thailand they say: Brothers and sisters in suffering, old age, sickness and death. A monk will address a whole group: Brothers and sisters in old age, sickness and death. And that brings a bond. Suddenly we’re looking at each other as brothers and sisters who are sharing this common experience. We’re not thinking in terms of who is better than who, or in terms of class or race or nationality, or any of these things. That seems irrelevant to the common bond we have as human being — brothers and sisters in suffering — whether it’s the Iraqis and the Kuwaitis, the Saudis, the Americans, the British or the French. When we think of ourselves as brothers and sisters in old age, sickness and death, we stop the foolishness. But if we want to build up an army to fight, we can’t say we’re brothers and sisters in old age, sickness and death. We have to say, `Those people over there are demons. The more you kill, the better. They don’t have any feelings. They like to bayonet babies and butcher old women. They have no respect for anything.’ And then you think, `Oh, I’m going to kill them.’ Propaganda is like that. It’s a way of making you think the best thing you can do is kill them. But in reflective knowledge we see the common bond — from the most despicable human being to the most saintly. That is a reflective teaching. We think, `Yes, yes, that is the truth. When you think about that — brothers and sisters in old age, sickness and death — we’re all getting old and . . . ‘

Click here to read more teachings by Ajahn Sumedho.

 First published in the February 2001 Buddhism Now.

The above is taken from a talk given during a retreat at Amaravati. Courtesy of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery.

Click here to see more photos from British Library endangeredarchives.

Categories: Ajahn Sumedho, Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, Encyclopedia, Theravada

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4 replies

  1. Brothers and sisters in suffering, old age, sickness and death…
    And brothers and sisters in the freedom and eternal bliss of Nibbana


  2. This piece by Ajahn Sumedho resonated with me just as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh remains in a French hospital having suffered a brain hemorrhage. Suffering, old age, sickness and death are unavoidable, but joy and mindfulness and wisdom are still there for us. Letting go of the fear of these things is very liberating when we are able to accomplish it. And this for me is as impermanent as is all else. Therefore a daily practice is the only way I have a shot at it!

    May all beings be free from suffering, and may all beings be at ease. And may our beloved Thay continue to regain health and strength.

  3. Great! There is no suffering. Yet Teacher said, there is suffering. It is due to ignorance. Thank you, how nicely you have narrated. I recollect the words of the great Teacher, “this Dhamma is for wise.”

  4. This was excellent! Thank you!


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