Coming to grips with the causes of suffering-the heart’s real work

Ayya Khema is a wonderful Theravadan teacher who brought a remarkable love and light to her service as a nun in the Theravadan tradition.  I highly recommend her book Who is My Self: A Guide to Buddhist Meditation.  The following is an excerpt from a set of twelve dhamma talks entitled “All of Us: Beset by Birth, Decay, and Death” that she gave in 1987.

“Everyone is a human being with all the potential and all the obstructions. If one can love that human being, the one that is “me” with all its faculties and tendencies, then one can love others realistically, usefully and helpfully. But if one makes a break in the middle and loves the part, which is nice and dislikes the part, which isn’t nice enough, one’s never going to come to grips with reality. One day we’ll have to see it, for what it is. It’s a “working ground,” a kammatthana. It’s a straightforward and interesting affair of one’s own heart…

There is one aspect of human life, which we cannot change, namely, that it keeps on happening moment after moment. We’ve all been meditating here for some time. What does the world care? It just keeps on going. The only one who cares, who gets perturbed, is our own heart and mind. When there is perturbance, upheaval, unreality and absurdity, then there is also unhappiness. This is quite unnecessary. Everything just is. If we learn to approach all happenings with more equanimity by being accepting, then the work of purification is much easier. This is our work, our own purification, and it can only be done by each one for himself…

There’s nothing else to do and there’s nowhere else to go. The earth is moving in a circle, life is moving from birth to death without us having to move at all. It’s all happening without our help. The only thing we need to do is to get to reality. Then when we do, we will find that loving ourselves and loving others is a natural outcome of that. Because we are concerned with reality and that is the heart’s real work — to love. But only if we’ve also seen the other side of the coin in ourselves and have done the work of purification. Then it is no longer an effort or a deliberate attempt, but it becomes a natural function of our inner feelings, inward directed but shining outward…

The Buddha taught a balanced path, namely to see reality for what it is, to know that dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, suffering) is inescapable, but to have the counterbalance of joy from knowing that there is a way out. If we are too imbued with sorrow and are feeling weighed down under that, believing only that to be the path, then our actions and reactions will have to be based on our suffering. Being oppressed with dukkha doesn’t make for successful meditation, nor for harmonious living. If we try to negate dukkha, and suppress it, then we are not facing reality. But if we see dukkha as an universal characteristic, knowing we can do something about its abandonment then we are keeping in balance. We need equipoise in order to practice successfully.


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

3 Responses to “Coming to grips with the causes of suffering-the heart’s real work”

  1. I think I commented on this on facebook, but again I find that to be excellent.
    Lately I’ve really been noticing my defilements and feeling bad and let down by them.
    I can be very competitive and jealous. I set expectations for myself that are unrealistically high.
    I’ve done that my whole life. That’s one reason I practice.
    I just get appalled at myself, I feel bad about myself noticing these things. “oh my god, I’m so terrible, what do I do?” I’m not at a point where I can just ‘let go’ of my problems.
    What helps the most is having a larger view. I may have issues, but I also have strengths,
    and a life where I’m doing and learning a lot of new things, and I have people I love and who love me.
    And I give myself metta. But it’s not easy. I wish I sucked less… 😦

    • Ah, dear Gabby…my apologies for the very belated reply…and especially for letting that “I wish I sucked less” hang in the air all this time. Believe it or not, I too get down on myself a lot, and so I bet I know some of what you are feeling, but from all that I’ve seen of you and all that I’ve seen your share and comment on at Facebook, I can certainly say you do NOT suck! You convey a great heart and a keen understanding of the dharma, and the pitfalls of the getting the dharma wrong.

      All the things you say about yourself, and the self-knowledge you’ve gained into habitual patterns are the signs of someone who is actually progressive and dealing with her “stuff.” As we awaken, we can get really severe views of ourselves, but I have found that the self-judgementalness that comes with these unveilings usually speak to some internalized “parent’ or “big judge’ that got put into place in when I was a child. We are judging and condemning ourselves, typically, for the things that our parents couldn’t deal with in themselves when they saw them in us as a child. Genuine mother and father-love doesn’t get “appalled” at the very human traits that any of us might have, even as children. True love is unconditional and doesn’t look at “the child” that way, which borders on the murderous, frankly—murdering what we or our parents don’t or didn’t want to deal with.

      I’m not trying to psychoanalyze you, but am sharing from my own hard-earned insights about how this kid of self-judgment and self-condemnation work. As I’ve been sharing lately on Facebook, there should be no divide between psychological healing and spiritual healing, and I have not found that the dharma, by itself, is sufficient for unbinding the psychological issues of my origin, childhood, and pedagogy. You might do vipassana all day about those feelings of self-hate that arise, and might gain some ground on them, but vipassana isn’t geared to getting at the root problem the way someone like, say, an Alice Miller or D. W. Winnicott might be able to—or a Stephen Levine, or a Cheri Huber, or a Robert Masters, for that matter.

      And yes, keeping the larger view is essential. The self-hate and self-condemnation restrict, pinch, and crush our spirit. They get nothing right. Even their “insight” into what we do “wrong” is wrong, because self-hate doesn’t set us free; it’s simply a way of self-identification with a limited ego. Self-hate is the way ego preserves itself. It’s not about what it hates; it’s about the hating.

      My friend, you do have wonderful strengths, and I’ve seen them, and you have people who do indeed love and care about you, including this “stranger” your met on Facebook! So, don’t give up, or be discouraged. (Or if you do, look into it and try to get at the psychological roots of the discourgement.) You seem to me to be quite a wonderful and remarkable person, and you clearly have so much on the ball.

      Maybe it was a real bummer of a day when you wrote this, but such days are self-revelations, too, and if you look into all of this, I think you will be able to find your way home with greater and greater assurance.

      Hope it’s OK to say so much. It’s just that I could totally relate, OK?

      With great affection and gratitude to have met you,



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