by Todd Armstrong
This morning as the sun rose over the Hudson River, a small group of us gathered at the NY Shelter for the Homeless and Emergency Food Bank in Tarrytown, NY, to meditate and explore the rich topic of suffering.  We gather here twice a month and it was my morning to lead the meditation……I thought it would be interesting to go back to the core insight of the Buddha…..that life inevitably contains suffering or unease or dissatisfaction.  “Can this be true?” I asked.  I shared an experience of intense fear I had recently…..that feeling of flushing with heat, of being caught “between two stools”, as His Holiness puts it.  I described the feeling of things going terribly wrong and fear arising in my heart enough to bring tears to my eyes…..just not according to plan.  “When you get right down to it, nothing really unfolds exactly the way you plan.”  The others shared their own fresh examples of life not going to plan.  “Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched,” said one man, quoting Mike Tyson.  Life can throw a hook. It was marvelous taking a single word…..“suffering” …..and really questioning it, drawing on the material of our own lives. 
Here is Walt Whitman, in “Leaves of Grass”:
“Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the
spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.
Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied…..he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love…..if they are vacant of you, you
are vacant of them.”
In the course of our exchange, I realized that turning back towards our own experience with curiosity has a way of opening up our experience, enlarging and stimulating heart and mind.  Questioning loosens identification.  Examining our experience, we become brighter (if not fully enlightened)……we are less likely to just pugnaciously side with ourselves.
And truth has a way of emerging in a group.  The conversation about suffering began to reveal the way out of suffering. One man wondered why suffering couldn’t just be transcended…..couldn’t philosophy and strategy be applied?  A woman said that in her experience there was a kind of understanding that can only be earned by consciously being with suffering……without indulging or repressing it.  It has to be earned to be yours.  It can’t be found in a book or a thought.  I could tell she had lived this.  It struck as marvelous… be in that sun washed room hearing someone’s own realization.  Seeing… the full sense of receiving and holding… transforming. The extreme greatness of Buddhism lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.
When I was young, I dreamed of going to India on a spiritual quest.  I loved the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.  Now that I’m not quite so young, I realize that life itself is a teacher…..if we can learn to turn and see ourselves. 
Here is Siddhartha, after his long, strange journey:
“No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it… I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to live it and be glad to belong to it.”
Does suffering contain freedom from suffering?  Does sin contain grace?  Can every moment be perfect?
My teacher Sudharma, always told me the story of the eagle, raised as a chicken….
“A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them. All his life the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did, thinking he was a barnyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air. Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat on his strong golden wings. The old eagle looked up in awe. “Who’s that?” he asked. “That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” said his neighbor. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth…..we’re chickens.” So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.” Anthony de Mello (1931-1987) Jesuit Priest
It seems to me that it is natural to concern ourselves with the suffering of the barnyard as like chickens fixated on the earth. There is nothing wrong with this. It is the way of the world. Why not strive to be comfortable by avoiding suffering?
The deepest spiritual practices in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, teach us that for those needing a higher human perspective represented by the eagle, they cannot love the world or its suffering. There is no grace in it. The source of grace is from within one’s own heart. The great teachings offer that for those feeling the need for this higher emotional and conscious perspective, the conscious experience of suffering most often leads to the quality of human perspective represented by the eagle.
A person has the choice of being a contented chicken through adapting to suffering or acquiring the eagle’s perspective by consciously and impartially experiencing it and acquiring with the help of grace, the psychological freedom lawful for conscious experience. It is very hard and I am not suggesting I am capable of it. I just believe it to be the way for those who take Buddhism and Hinduism seriously.
There is a very good chance that if that eagle allowed himself to really feel his suffering as a chicken, earthbound, pecking, he may have discovered he could fly. In my heart, I can picture him spreading his mighty wings in a great gesture of despair against his captivity and…beating his wings…lifting off.