There’s a story with which many of you are probably familiar, that begins with the Buddha walking in the woods with some of his disciples. At one point the Buddha bends down and picks up a handful of leaves from the forest floor. He holds out the leaves to his disciples and says, ‘Tell me, are there more leaves on the trees and on the ground or more leaves in my hand?’ His disciples say, ‘There are only a very few leaves in your hand, but there are countless leaves on all the trees in the forest and on the ground.’ The Buddha replies, ‘Yes, that’s true. The leaves on the trees and on the ground represent all the things a Perfect One can know, and the leaves in my hand represent what I teach: the things you need to know and contemplate in order to free the heart from suffering.
Some of you may enjoy speculating about where the universe began and where it’s going to end, and all kinds of other questions to which there really isn’t much of an answer.
However, the Buddha encouraged us not to be concerned about such matters, but instead to attend to just four things. He referred to these four things as the Four Noble Truths.
The first of these he called the Noble Truth of Suffering. This refers to the fact that nothing in the conditioned world can ever provide lasting peace or well-being. The effect of this is that human existence is inherently stressful.
Secondly, there is the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering – that there’s a reason why we suffer, and we can discover it through our own observation. When we look carefully, we can notice the desire that creates a sense of unease, the wanting of things to be other than the way they are. When we attach to that desire, when we invest in it, that attachment brings a sense of stress, a sense of conflict.
The Third Noble Truth is the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, the ending of stress or conflict. This comes about when we let go of that desire for things to be otherwise. The desire itself may still be there, but we relinquish or let go of our investment in it. We make peace with things just as they are.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the Ending of Suffering: the guidelines the Buddha gave us as to how we can live our life, guidelines that can help us gradually to suffer less and less.
During the days of this retreat we’ll be contemplating these truths that the Buddha presented. If we’re experiencing suffering we might find ourselves thinking that we have to do something, that we have to get away from it, but the Buddha said, ‘No, suffering is to be understood.’ We can’t possibly understand the suffering in our lives if we’re constantly trying to run away from it or distracting ourselves from it. So my encouragement over these days is to really take an interest, to be curious about your lives and experience – even apparently trivial, insignificant stresses and strains and struggles, or the subtlest kinds of aversion or negativity. Take an interest in even the smallest kind of anxiety or fear, like a scientist carefully examining something under a microscope.
When I went for a walk earlier I was thinking that coming on retreat is a bit like being on holiday and making friends. That might sound surprising if you’re used to the style of retreats where you are encouraged to work very hard, where the emphasis is on putting forth a lot of effort to make progress in your practice of meditation. You might also wonder what I mean by ‘making friends’ when we have Noble Silence, not speaking to each other unless it’s really necessary. In fact, what I would like to encourage as far as possible is a sense of enjoyment, a sense of ease and relaxation. I don’t mean the kind of relaxation where you just fall asleep, although some of you may experience a lot of sleepiness during the first few days. The kind of ease and relaxation I’m talking about is an alertness, a brightness, and the kind of friendship I’m suggesting is that you try to become a bit more friendly with yourself.
One of the saddest and most difficult things for people in our Western culture seems to be their inability to actually make friends with themselves, to accept themselves as they are. We can be kind, forgiving and accepting of other people, but when we look into our own minds and how we relate to ourselves, we see that often we can be very unkind, very demanding and harsh in our judgements. So my encouragement is to get to know yourselves over these next days in a more kindly way. Notice the things about yourself that you don’t like or don’t approve of, and just see if you can forgive yourself for them and accept things as they are. In that way a real transformation can happen. Also, I’ve found that the more I make friends with myself, the more I am able to make friends with other people.
If we keep repressing the things we don’t like, our unpleasant thoughts and moods, that’s not really accepting ourselves and we’ll probably end up getting sick. It seems that many of the sicknesses of modern times are a result of not taking proper care of our emotional life.
So we can see this time of retreat as an opportunity to do some important preventative work. If we establish an inner atmosphere of trust and kindness, our negative habits of thinking can reveal themselves. Then, having seen and acknowledged these habits, we can let them go, so that our lives need no longer be limited by their harmful effects.
The Three Refuges and the Five Precepts
The words Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha are used often in our practice. Buddha refers to the historical teacher; it also means our own capacity to wake up, to see things clearly. The
Dhamma is the teaching the Buddha gave that points to the truth that each one of us can taste, or know for ourselves when we’re fully present with things as they are. The Sangha is the community of the Buddha’s disciples, countless generations of men and women since the time of the Buddha who have heard the teachings and, through applying them in their own lives, have been able to realize the truth for themselves and experience peace in their hearts. The word Sangha can also refer to a community of people who support each other in their practice, just as we are supporting each other during this time of retreat.
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