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The title of this talk comes from a saying by a Buddhist mystic of long ago, Santideva, who said:

“The heart that breaks open can contain the whole world.”

Take a moment to savour this beautiful poetic image ….. before I start to talk explain it in more prosaic language.

Most people know, at least in general terms, the story of how the young nobleman Siddhartha became the Buddha – but in case you don’t I will tell you the short story.

When Siddhartha was born, a holy man prophesied that he would become an ‘awakened one’, a Buddha.   His father, Suddhodana, was a leader of the Sakyan clan, one of the many warring tribal republics of that time.  He thought the survival of his clan depended on his son growing up to be a great warrior and leader of his people, so he was determined that the prophecy not come true.*

Suddhodana kept his son within the walls of the family compound, training him in the skills of battle and surrounding him with all manner of sensual pleasures including, in his twenties, a beautiful wife. The lame, the sick, the aged and the down-and-out were banished from sight.  He was so thoroughly protected and distracted, there was no time or need to explore his inner life.

Nevertheless, a restless curiosity grew in Siddhartha, and one day he ordered his charioteer to drive him out to explore his native city.  His Father, hearing of this, ordered that any people who were sick or maimed in body or mind should be kept indoors, so that Siddhartha should not be disturbed by what he saw.  Well, we still try this kind of thing today, for example when the Olympic Games come to town.  But we all know human lives are not so amenable to being ‘tidied up’.  Sure enough, the inevitable happened, and Siddhartha saw people who shook his secure world to the core; he saw a person who was sick, a person who was ageing, and a dead person.

Siddhartha was now in existential crisis.  As his charioteer explained, sickness, old age and death were inevitable for everyone.  He was shocked that if people knew this, they would still live such complacent, petty lives, chasing after one fleeting pleasure after another.

Intrigued and puzzled, he went out into the city once again.  This time he encountered a wandering holy man, whose sense of composure, warmth and silent integrity are said to have aroused in him feelings of Pasada - a mix of inspiration, faith, clarity and serene confidence.  In other words, this encounter inspired Siddhartha to have faith that there could be an end to suffering and the clarity and confidence that he could realise this end.

As this radical alternative opened up, Siddhartha’s whole world shifted on its axis.  He could see that most people seemed to be in a state of denial about sickness, old age and death.  More importantly, he saw that this denial undermined people’s ability to respond with compassion to one another.

“I considered how most people feel fearful, humiliated, and disgusted when they come across old age, sickness, and death in others, forgetting that they are subject to these things themselves.  For myself, such an uncompassionate response did not seem fitting….”  Anguttara -Nikaya 3:38

A life of complacent luxury, lived in denial and shored up by various psychological defense mechanisms, was no longer an option for Siddhartha.  He left his family and set out on his urgent quest to find an end to all suffering.


So what is this suffering of which the Buddha speaks, and how do we know it in our own lives.  It’s a big word, “suffering”, and not necessarily the best translation of the Pali word, dukkha, a term whose range of implications is difficult to capture with a single English word.  It literally means an axle of a cart that doesn’t fit properly into its hole in the wheel of the cart.  So some words that fit are: disharmony, friction, uneasiness, being uncomfortable, and dissatisfaction.  Or as one teacher says, ‘dukkha is any gap between how things are and how you want them to be!’  Because the range of meaning is large and subtle, I won’t translate dukkha as ‘suffering’ – I will simply use the word ‘dukkha’.

I think with this broader definition, you will recognize many aspects of your own experience at this retreat as dukkha.  You may have been dealing with a deep grief in your life, or some other strong emotion, or you may simply have been experiencing a difficult thought, a little bodily discomfort, or a desire for a different kind of food.  It’s all dukkha, and our task is to draw near to any of these experiences with gentle, aware compassion.  Too often, we recoil from or push away our experience of dukkha, and sometimes we even criticize ourselves for experiencing dukkha, which is absolutely not a gentle, aware and compassionate response!  But if we do find ourselves doing that, can we be gentle, aware and compassionate with our critical voice as well – for that is certainly dukkha. When we don’t or can’t face the reality of the dukkha in our lives, we lose our compassion for ourselves and others.

I remember a story told to me by a friend who worked as a social worker in Centrelink.  One of her colleagues was a refugee from Chile.  He had been imprisoned and tortured.  He had lost his family, his possessions, his homeland.  One day, when she was feeling irritated by what she perceived as an endless litany of complaining clients, she turned to him and said: “Peter, how can you – you who have known so much suffering, remain so patient and tolerant with these people with their petty complaints?”  “But Sue, he replied, this is their reality.” “This is their reality.”  This is one of the most intelligent, compassionate statements I have ever heard.

There are no hierarchies of dukkha.  There is just dukkha.

True compassion requires an open heart and a well-developed moral imagination and capacity for intelligent empathic reflection.

There’s an additional factor that I want to draw attention to now:  that is, the denial and distancing that can occur when we encounter dukkha – our own or another’s – and don’t know what to do to make it go away.  This arouses feelings of helplessness, which are linked to a sense of being ‘out of control’.  When we sense we can’t control something – whether that’s our own minds or other people or circumstances, it terrifies us.  What do most of us do when we’re terrified?  Deny it – either by shutting down in some way, or by lashing out and blaming someone else.  Either way, it reinforces our sense of helplessness, so we become as powerless as we fear we are.

I worked with Rural Australians for Refugees for several years. Jennifer Wilson, a fellow refugee activist says: “to truly bear witness to the suffering of the asylum seekers is to be confronted by the reality that our fortunes are determined by all manner of events over which we have no control.  Perhaps the fact that we are all so exquisitely vulnerable is what we flee from.  It enrages us, fills us with fear and intolerable discomfort and we want only to expel it, or hide it away in a fortress in the desert”.

Perhaps it is partly the flight from dukkha, from the inevitability of suffering, an unwillingness to engage intelligent, compassionate reflection, which aroused in many otherwise decent Australians a passionate hatred of the refugees.  (But I won’t get too sentimental -tribalism and ignorance – plus populist politics and ‘shock jocks’ also played their part.)

The sanest response to the dukkha of our vulnerable humanity is self-compassion.  Self-compassion involves three components.  They are: self-kindness – being kind and understanding to oneself, rather than self-critical; common humanity – viewing one’s difficult experiences as a normal part of the human condition; and mindful acceptance – not denying our difficulties, while not over-identifying with painful thoughts, feelings and stories.

Kristina Neff, who researches self-compassion tells her own story: “Four years ago when my son Rowan was two and a half we found out he had autism,” says Neff. “I processed a lot of the same emotions other parents experience when they get that news-I would sit on a playground or in a restaurant or be at a store and look at all of the moms with their ‘perfect’ kids and wonder why in the world I had been visited with such tragedy. Why couldn’t I have had one of those perfect, healthy, whole children? Was that too much to ask? How was I going to handle this?

“My husband and I supported and nurtured one another, of course, but it becomes essential for you to be able to give yourself what you need as well. I began very deliberately to give myself compassion, nurturance and soothing. I didn’t try to tell myself that the situation with which I was dealing wasn’t difficult, and I gave myself time to feel grief, despair and anger. Then I started to think about how all families have issues and difficulties related to their children at some point in life, even if their children are ‘normal’ and healthy. I began to see us as just another family and Rowan’s autism was just one of the unique features of the fabric of our family, not a punishment or defeating disaster. I started feeling a connection with other families rather than isolation.”

Empathic reflection on dukkha and its causes connects and empowers us;  denial of dukkha and its causes tears us apart.  The Buddha used dukkha as the basis for his universal teachings, because we all know what difficulty feels like.  Our capacity to experience physical, mental and emotional pain, links us across all divides of nationality, race, colour, religion, gender, sexual preference, political or other belief.  It’s like a common denominator of humanity.

(Please be clear I’m not ‘deifying’ dukkha, or ignoring the third and fourth Noble Truths – that extraordinary freedom and happiness are possible, and there is a path that guides us in that direction.  This talk is about the first two Noble Truths – the reality of dukkha and it’s causes; and it is about our capacity to grow, change and evolve by confronting it, rather than repressing or denying dukkha.)


Complacency and denial are side-effects of living in the palace of Western affluence.  We create endless distractions and defense mechanisms to dull and deny our personal pain, and blinker us to the suffering of ourselves and others.  Nevertheless, we are haunted by a sense of unease, stalked by a sense of vulnerability.

It is repression or denial of pain that is the big problem.  Denial is embedded in Western culture.  Distraction abounds, and job and time pressures continuously narrow our focus. It can be hard to get accurate information because of misinformation, cover-ups, organised lying and censorship.  Media reports bombard us with simplified accounts, while stereotyping, blaming, taking positions, but not investigating real causes and effects.  We come to fear our own city streets, barricading ourselves behind locked doors.  For the failures of consumer-oriented societies, we scapegoat each other, particularly our young men.

As an individual or as a society, the consequences of denying the pain we feel for the world are enormous.  Personally, the mind pays for its deadening to suffering by giving up its capacity for joy and flexibility.

I remember a day many years ago, when my daughter Chloe was about 8 or 9, and John and I were fighting.  I was in tears.  John was about to leave the house; he was telling me to ‘pull myself together, and stop crying’ when Chloe turned to him and said, “She has to cry now, so we can have fun later”.  Joy and flexibility returned, and we played.

Politically and socially, denial leads to passivity – leaving it all to the politicians – while bagging them and growing increasingly distrustful.   Or we burnout with bitterness, cynicism, depression, exhaustion, or illness.  Or we turn to displacement activities – desperate seeking after pleasure – or violence – or to drug abuse or even suicide.  Or we start blaming and scapegoating.  These are all terrible prices to pay, and there’s currently an epidemic of everything on this list.

Worse than these things is that, in avoiding painful information, we cut ourselves off from the vital feedback that has enabled humans to be the great survivors we are.

Facing pain is one of our essential survival skills.  We are here because all our ancestors, from amoeba to homo erectus learned to respond to feedback, to do something different, to evolve.

Perhaps it was more simple when were faced with a sabre-tooth tiger at the cave mouth.  Today, massive and complex dangers should rouse our collective energy – but more often make us want to pull down the blinds and watch TV.  We humans have taken so long to develop our large, complex brains.  What a tragedy it is that repressing pain diminishes our capacity to think.

No other animal consciously constructs their life in the way humans do.  This is the great gift of humans, and also our greatest liability.  We can construct our lives, and therefore our institutions, our systems of Government, for the good of all beings – or not.  We have choice.

The first step in being able to change anything is to know what you are dealing with.   Don’t be afraid to face what is dark, painful and confusing.   By shining the light of intelligent reflection into the darkness, we will find out things we need to know.  We will more easily know what to do, and what not to do, to help.


Empathic reflection on suffering begins with ourselves.

We come to retreats or go to churches or therapists to try and come to terms with the uncertainties of life.  But if we are really honest with ourselves, we will see that we are often after is consolation, not insight.  Then we hit a point in our practice when we see just how needy we are, and how we use our intellectual postures of being people dedicated to wisdom and insight as defenses against this neediness.

It’s an inescapable embarrassment that every sincere practitioner has to face on the path of insight.  It’s a beautiful paradox.  Acknowledging, feeling, this vulnerable neediness is itself a stage of insight because it links us directly to the Buddha’s first noble truth: the reality of dukkha. Then dukkha is not just a doctrine one learns, but is the reality of our own immediate experience. At this point we stop keeping the teachings at arms length, and really see that it’s about me.

When we go for consolation, rather than insight, the parts of ourselves that we can’t or don’t want to acknowledge or accept become like internal exiles. Most people who have done some meditation practice will have noticed the tendency to cling to some aspects of experience as ‘me’ and to ‘other-ise’ less desirable parts as ‘not me’ – or at least as ‘soon-to-be-’not-me’- because-I’m-going-to-get-rid-of-it’!

I suspect many more internal civil wars have raged silently in meditation halls than have than have been fought in the external world, and maybe there are more internal exiles and refugees in our psyches than in all the camps and detention centres in the world!

To ‘other-ise parts of our experience is to do violence to ourselves.  It perpetuates separation rather than wholeness, and the delusion that there is a ‘me’ and a ‘not me’.

In your meditation practice, I hope you have had many peaceful, happy, contented or even blissful moments.  And, you will probably have come up against dukkha in some form – whether that’s physical, mental or emotional.  The practice is to become intimate with everything that arises – including your dukkha – not resisting, rejecting or grasping anything – simply developing the ability to gently investigate it, to tolerate it.

Please remember the word ‘gentle’.  Sometimes we can have the ‘meditation from hell’ where we are overwhelmed by a strong emotion, a scene, a type of thinking or a memory.  In that case, it’s not necessary to grit your teeth and force yourself to stay with it.

Trust yourself to know your tolerance limit, and when you feel you’ve reached it, gently bring your attention to something that grounds you, like the touch of your hands or the breath or anything else you have found to be a good anchor at these times – maybe opening your eyes and noticing the colours in the room. Just let your attention become grounded for little while, and if the feelings, thoughts or memories return, let yourself go back into them again.  You may find you need to go back and forth between the experience and the grounding for a number of times.

Gradually you will build a tolerance for the difficulties, an ability to investigate them with gentle curiosity – to understand what keeps them going.

Truly facing the truth of our vulnerable humanity, and therefore the universality of Dukkha, is not essentially depressing.  Paradoxically it is ennobling and liberating.   Waking up to dukkha and its  implications, personally, in your own meditative experience is the first step on the path to wholeness and awakening.


[**see poem, next page]

Poem: “Descent into Love” – author unknown

Who would have known

that to burrow into your own shadows,

to step gently

into those dungeons

that hide their forbidden secrets

and sore and tender memories

that you’ve spent a lifetime avoiding

and running from -

That they would be the very passageway,

that begins with a crack,

a hairline splinter in the rock

that lets in a warm ray of light

that leads you down

into the fleshy rooms

of your heart,

and begins to soften that house

that has been vacant for years,

filling it with a sweetness,

an unimaginable openness -

where the hard boundaries that separated you

for so long

from the rigid edges of your world

start to become porous and dissolve.

And your skin becomes so thin

it starts to feel every impression of

this harsh and welcoming life.

And that’s where you come to know

the other

like your own.

And that’s where it begins -

the love you’ve waited for

starts moving

like the breath,

no longer making distinction

between inside and outside.

And that’s when you can’t help but fall in love with everything.