“Now, Almsmen, for the spiritually ennobled ones, there is this dukkha: birth-dukkha, illness-dukkha, death-dukkha, association-with-the-unpleasing-dukkha, separation-from-the-pleasing-dukkha, not-getting-what-one-wants-dukkha. In short, clinging-to-the-fivefold-personality-processes-dukkha.” – SN 56.11 Conveying the Dhamma Sutta (Also called Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion Sutta). Translated by Christopher J. Ash

At the beginning of this month, I challenged the conventional idea that the Nikāya Buddha said:

“that all human beings experience great pain from old age, sickness, and death, from getting what we do not want and from not getting what we do want. He said that these changing conditions are dukkha, a Pali word usually translated as ‘suffering’ or ‘dis-ease’ or ‘stress.'”

That is, there is talk that the Nikāya Buddha said that the fact that you have been born and will die is dukkha. This is tradition being passed on uncritically. This teaching is not a solution to our actual old age and death. It’s the dukkha about old-age-death (jarāmaraṇa-dukkha) which the teaching addresses, and this has to do with clinging to the five sentient processes of: body (or form), feeling-tones (pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), perceptions, formative factors (intentional factors), and consciousness. Clinging to these in the belief that they constitute an enduring, permanent, entity-self – that brings dukkha. The knot in consciousness caused by trying to live a life according to the entity-in-time-space model is painful in a very special way, because it is a ‘bad fit’ (du- = bad).

Aitken Roshi translated dukkha as anguish, and that certainly is a flavour of dukkha. The wonkiness of dukkha is not always operating. Many moments of well-being (sukkha) occur in each day. However, dukkha is sufficiently troublesome to merit very special treatment. This sutta is a goldmine of insights into the dukkha of human life.

The most exciting moment in the sutta, for me, is when Kondañña, one of a group of five ascetics, wakes up to what the Nikāya Buddha has realised. The Nikāya Buddha, just a several weeks away from his awakening, has been able help another see it in himself, personally. “And with this instruction, the stainless, dust-free vision arose in Kondañña.” And he says this beautiful thing, which has been passed on again, and again for the twenty-five hundred years; “Whatever is arising, in every respect it is ceasing.” So important was this insight that it rocked the heavens, and the all the gods on all levels declared, “The incomparable nature of reality has been conveyed by the flourishing one at Isipatana, the deer sanctuary near Benares, and no recluse, brahmin, deva, māra, brahma, or other being in the world can hinder it.”

Then, he taught and instructed the others, and Mahanama and Assaji both realised it, too. This happened over several days. It definitely wasn’t a ‘sermon.’ Three of them would go out begging for food, while he walked the other three through the inner vision. They all lived on the food they brought back.

Not long afterward, Assaji passed on the essence of it to Sariputta, on the dusty road somewhere, and Sariputta had a profound awakening on the spot, and the stainless, dust-free vision arose in him: “Whatever is arising, in every respect it is ceasing.”

Playfully, try it out yourself. When your meditation is feeling peaceful, steady or concentrated, for a little time watch the arisings. Then, shift the focus to the quality of ceasing. Then, notice that arising and ceasing are there together.

When you can see this, you might see that our actual life never comes into existence, into an entity state; that is, ourselves as some object with location is dependent on naming, and not on direct experience. Or, saying it another way, we are never born except nominally.

The Nikāya Buddha’s teaching is to help us gain insight into process, and specifically, a false process of self-ing. To use the word ‘I’ or ‘self’ is merely useful convention, but we get snagged on it. In the dust-free, homeless state of ‘no-entity ever forms here,’ indeed, what being in the world could hinder it? Here, birth, illness, death, association with the unpleasing, separation from the pleasing, not getting what one wants, these are just states that come and go in life. See them with Kondañña’s eye, and they are no drama.