131 – The Truth Of Unsatisfactoriness

The nature of reality is that difficulties will arise, and we’ll experience suffering. We can begin to embrace that fact by recognizing that suffering, in general, is not personal. It’s simply part of the experience of existence. And we will experience suffering, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. In this episode, I will discuss the pervasive suffering that sometimes affects how we see our relationships, jobs, and parenting.

Koan Discussed: What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?

Koan Shared: Elder Ting asked Lin-chi,
“Master, what is the great meaning of Buddha’s teachings?”
Lin-chi came down from his seat, slapped Ting and pushed him away.
Ting was stunned and stood motionless.
A monk nearby said, “Ting, why do you not bow?”
At that moment Ting attained great enlightenment.

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Transcript:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 131, I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m going to talk about the truth of unsatisfactoriness. As always keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learn to be a better whatever you already are. Furthermore, if you are new to the podcast, listening perhaps for the first time or you’ve jumped in on these podcast episodes recently, I want to remind you that episodes one through five have a summary of the basics of Buddhism, and you can find these by scrolling all the way back to the original first five, or you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click on start here.

Also, another request I’ve received quite regularly is a request for suggestions for reading material and books. If you’re interested in learning more about these concepts and ideas, feel free to visit secularbuddhism.com/books and there you will see my recommended books that I’ve read and that I wholeheartedly recommend for anyone interested in exploring more about Buddhism or about any of these general topics and concepts that I discuss in the podcast.

So quick update on my own life, I recently, as you may have noticed, I didn’t record the podcast episode last week because I’ve been on the road. Many of you know that I moved to Mexico for a year with my family to help my kids learn to speak Spanish and to identify with the culture since that’s where I’m from. But in light of the recent worldwide events and the potential social unrest and economic changes that are happening all over the world, including for me, much of my work related to online advertising, which I can do remotely, has dried up. So I had to make a decision and rather than waiting till June to move home, we decided last week that we should go ahead and make the move.

Now flying home was not the tricky part, we knew that would be easy. The tricky part or the scary part was how to get all of our possessions home, because we knew that that would require me packing them all up into the car and driving all of the possessions back home and that’s exactly what I did. So I’ve been off the radar a little bit for the last seven days. It took me seven days from last Wednesday. I left early in the morning, made my way through driving from essentially the Southern part of Mexico all the way to the North, crossed into Texas, made my way up to Dallas, visited my parents and then made the journey westward from there and recently made my way back to Utah. So that’s what I’ve been up to in the last seven days. And that’s why I was not able to record a podcast episode last week. So here I am catching up.

Okay, jumping right in I want to talk a little bit about the koan that says, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Now this is a koan that I wanted to bring up because it’s one of the classics. It’s one of the main ones that you’re going to hear when you start studying or reading about zen koans. I want to share some of the thoughts that come from the Patreon community and I’ll start with David Spots who says, “For me, the answer to this week’s koan is, whatever is perceived by the listener.” Nina from the community says, “This koan brings up the emptiness of things, as well as intervene. A clap is made up of non-clap elements, which dismantling it would be the fingers, the hand, the skin, the bones, the brain, the cells, et cetera. So ultimately the sound of one hand clapping is empty of sound because a clap is relative to what is perceived to be a clap.” I like those thoughts by Nina.

And then Matthew says, “Whenever I hear this koan, I remember when they had it on the Simpsons and it opened Lisa’s mind. I agree with a lot of what others said, which is interesting because before I used to try to solve the puzzle, but it is much like if no one is around and the tree falls in the woods, does it make a noise? It is about perception. I think it is also about things not having an intrinsic meaning. What is a clap? Is it two hands hitting each other? If so, how hard? What if I touch them ever so softly? Can one hand clap? Maybe. You can hit your palm with the fingers of the same hand. And what if you slap your thigh with your palm, like you often do at a sports event, or if you have a drink in one hand, that is one hand clapping and I know the noise that it makes.” And that’s the end of Matthew’s thoughts.

And I agree with all the sentiments that were shared in the group, it was as always it’s a fun experience to hear other people’s perspectives and their thoughts regarding one single topic, in this case, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Now for me, I feel like trying to answer is the problem, because I could equally ask other questions, like, what is the sound of anger? And if I were to ask, what is the sound of anger? You can give me an answer, you can say it’s yelling or it’s grinding your teeth, or it’s punching the wall with your hand. All of which could be correct, but all of which are also incomplete because perhaps there isn’t an actual sound to anger, there’s events that can arise with anger as its cause or its condition. And I think with the sound of one hand clapping, you can run into similar issues because you’d have to define what is clapping.

I remember in school sometimes when you had to be quiet in class but they wanted you to clap, you could lift your hands in the air and kind of rotate them back and forth like air clapping, but there’s no sound taking place and that counts as a clap. So then it forces you to have to define is clapping an act of celebration, where I want you to know that I’m celebrating with you and that counts as a clap? Is it specifically the two hands that come together? If so, what about at a sporting event where I take those two long sticks, the clapping sticks and I hit those together to make my clap louder, does that not count because my hands aren’t touching?

And it can become problematic because I have to define what is a clap, so then I’m left with this idea with one, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Well, the sound of one hand clapping is the sound of one hand clapping. However, I define it I may be missing the point, but I will always be correct by saying that the sound of one hand clapping is the sound of one hand clapping. And now I leave it up to you to imagine what that means to interpret the meaning of that. That’s how I like to think about this specific koan. It’s an invitation as always to go inward and ask myself, “Well, what does clapping mean to me? What does the sound of one hand clapping mean to me?”

So jumping into the topic that I have for this podcast episode, The Truth of Unsatisfactoriness, I’m going to echo some of the sentiments I shared in episode 122, We Don’t Eliminate Suffering and episode 57, Discovering All Pervasive Suffering. The truth of unsatisfactoriness is a title that we could use to talk about the first of the noble truths. So in Buddhism, if you were to ask almost any Buddhist, what the core basic Buddhist teachings are, they would probably summarize the four noble truths. And the first of the truths is the truth of suffering or the truth of unsatisfactoriness. And I like the word unsatisfactoriness more than suffering, but it’s the same general idea.

And here what we’re trying to understand is that the nature of reality is that difficulties will arise and we will experience suffering or unsatisfactoriness. We can begin to embrace that fact by recognizing that suffering in general is not personal, it’s simply part of the experience of existence. And we will experience suffering no matter how hard we try to avoid it, whether we search for a magic formula to remove it, or we chase after money to buy it off or seek fame to drown it out or whatever. If we pray, meditate, perform rituals, to try to shield ourselves from it suffering in some form will find us. It is the central problem of human existence. The diagnosis is universal. It’s not just you, it’s all of us, the rich, the famous, the powerful, the pious, everyone. If you think you’re alone with your difficulties, just spend some time talking to others and ask them about their problems. And if they’re open and they’re honest, you’ll soon discover that everyone has struggles and pain and unsatisfactoriness to contend with.

What we learned from the Buddha about embracing suffering is that life is going to be easier for us when we truly accept the suffering is a part of life for everyone, there’s simply no way around it. Now I wanted to bring this topic up because in recent weeks, I had a discussion with a friend of mine, Matt, who brought up this concept, this idea of acute suffering versus chronic suffering. And what he wanted to elaborate on was that sometimes when we approach Buddhism and we approached these big concepts or topics around suffering, it seems easy to apply these to some form of acute suffering, like some big change. Like you lose your job or you lose a loved one, or you realize that you’re sick, things of that nature.

But what happens when we experience this level of unsatisfactoriness in a chronic sense? It’s a lower magnitude of unsatisfactoriness yet it’s there and we just kind of deal with it day in and day out and often for months or years or even our whole lives. And in that discussion, it made me think about this Buddhist concept of all pervasive suffering. So if you’ve read some of my books that talk about the topic of suffering, I mentioned the various types of suffering, and I think it’s important to recognize and highlight that there are indeed various forms or ways to suffer. One of them is what we call all pervasive suffering. Keep in mind for a second, this notion of all pervasive suffering, which is essentially that there’s always at any given moment, some underlying unsatisfactoriness that’s there. And what we want to identify is where does that come from?

So just as an example, on my drive here, I spent seven days sitting in the car driving. My shortest days were 10 hour drives, and my longest days were 14 hour drives. So doing this day in and day out, I had a lot of thoughts about discomfort and unsatisfactoriness, and it stemmed from things like, my foot is going numb, to my legs are really uncomfortable, my lower back is hurting, all of the discomforts that come with sitting in a car for that long. But it got me thinking, “What if I went back in time?” At some point I would say, “Transporting my possessions is really hard on this sled.” So I invent wheels. Oh, well, that made it a lot easier. And for a split moment, I’d be grateful that it’s so much easier to pull this wagon with my possessions, rather than pushing it or dragging it on a sled. And then I might realize, “Oh, it was way easier when I tethered this wagon with wheels to an animal and I let it pull me. Oh, I’m so grateful for that now.”

And then there would be discomforts that arise from that. “Oh, I wish my animal didn’t need to rest so I could keep going. I wish it could go faster because this is taking forever.” Or, “I’m going numb sitting on the back of this horse.” Or something like that. And then motors are invented and they come along and, “Oh, well now this is easy. I get in this vehicle and I just go.” And again, “Well, but it’s slow.” And what I’m trying to get at is that over time this process has become better, and better, and better, and better, why? Because we generally don’t like discomfort so we’re constantly looking at ways to ease or minimize the discomfort.

And thanks to that, we’ve evolved to the point where here I am taking a seven day drive that traverses from one whole country to another, it’s pretty incredible that I can do that in a car. And sure there are difficulties that arise because that’s the nature of life is that there are always going to be difficulties and that’s what I wanted to highlight. Sure, I could make this better. What if I cut it from seven days down to three days, there would still be discomfort for sitting for three days or one hour. We do this when we’re on the airplane, right? We can be on an airplane, taking a flight that’s going to be an hour or two hours long that covers thousands of miles or something and we’re unsatisfied that the internet right now isn’t working and I can’t watch the movies, the screen in front of me is broken or something like that. And this is what I want to get at with the idea of all pervasive suffering or what Matt was talking about a more chronic form of suffering.

This is evident in things, not just because I was taking a drive, but let’s use another example, Matt and I talked about this and the example would be, let’s say you’re in a job and you’re not completely satisfied with your job. There’s an underlying level of unsatisfactoriness with your job. The problem that arises isn’t the unsatisfactoriness, I think the problem that arises is that we feel the unsatisfactoriness and we think that we shouldn’t feel it. t’s like we’ve believed for, I don’t know, from societal views or wherever these views came from that if we’re suffering, even a little bit, then we’re doing it wrong.

And I see this all the time when I receive emails that ask about tips or advice about parenting, for example in Buddhism, and the general vibe I get from these types of emails is that, “Hey, parenting is pretty hard, therefore, I must be doing it wrong. How can Buddhism help me to do it right, so that parenting isn’t hard anymore?” It’s almost like nobody told us that parenting is hard. Somehow we all bought into this lie, which is that if you do it right, parenting is easy. And that’s the problem. The problem isn’t that parenting is hard. The problem is that parenting is hard and we don’t want it to be hard. So here we are comparing, because of social media or whatever, what we think other people’s parenting experience is like, and we’re thinking, they must be doing something right and I must be doing something wrong because if it’s hard, I’m not doing it right.

And Buddhism kind of steps in and it’s saying, “No, all pervasive suffering is that parenting is hard.” There’s just no way around that, there’s no escaping it. Imagine that you have a restaurant that you really enjoy. And at that restaurant you have a specific dish, a meal that you really enjoy, so you always pick that. Now you may have this underlying unsatisfactoriness if you start to think, “I really like this, but man, what if there’s another meal at another restaurant that I might enjoy more?” If I think that, which absolutely could be true, then yes, it’s difficult to fully enjoy this meal because what if there’s another meal that I would enjoy more? So I want to go taste all of them. Now there’s no way around this because you cannot taste every dish at every restaurant in the world, it cannot happen. It’s physically impossible.

So when I recognize that, then I can learn to accept that there is going to be a level of all pervasive suffering every time I eat a meal, no matter how good it is, because somewhere in the back of my mind might be the thought, “What if there’s another meal somewhere else that I would have liked more?” Now take that same line of thinking and correlate that to other bigger things like relationships, I think this is a big deal in relationships. And we think, “Well, I’m in a relationship…” And some days I’m thinking, “Hmm, what if I had married this other person instead?” I don’t know someone you dated in college or high school and you start having those similar thoughts. What if there was a relationship out there that would be better than this one more compatible or whatever?

And the truth is, well, yeah, it very well could be, but here’s the catch you could be in that relationship and you’d be having the exact same thoughts, “What if I had married the other person?” And there’s no way around that because you can’t have the experience of being in a relationship with every single person in the world, it cannot happen. It’s physically impossible. So there’s always going to be that underlying all pervasive unsatisfactoriness in every relationship that is telling you, “What if, what if it would have been different?” Well, yeah, that’s fine. So what I want to get at with this, the idea here is that when these thoughts arise or when this general underlying form of all pervasive suffering arises, there’s nothing wrong with it.

The only time this becomes problematic is when that arises. And then we started thinking, “Oh, what does that mean? Oh no, maybe…” And don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not saying if you’re in a relationship, just stick with it, there’s no better relationship out there. That’s not true either, I know plenty of people who were in a miserable relationship and ended up getting divorced and ended up in a much happier and healthier relationship later. So I’m not saying stick with things, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is, you’re never going to find the one that is perfect in the sense that I will no longer have any form of unsatisfactoriness, whether it’s the meal at your restaurant or the person that you’re married to, or the way that you’re parenting your children or the job that you have. And there’s always going to be that, what if. And I think it takes a lot of skillfulness to decide if, and when it reaches the point that you actually should do something about it.

I’ve done something about it in terms of my job. I wasn’t happy with a job once and I finally did something about it and I was much more happy in another job. And I’ve made career changes that even now I feel like I am really enjoying my job, I cannot imagine, the line of work that I do teaching people to paraglide, I cannot imagine something more fun. And yet there is the all-pervasive thought of, “Well, what if I had become a helicopter pilot? That was my dream as a youth.” Or, “What if I had become an air force pilot and I flew jets?” Or, “Ooh, what if I would have had the chance to become an astronaut?” And I can go down that path and sure, it’s true, what if one of those things would have been way more enjoyable that than what I do? And I don’t know, because I wouldn’t know unless I was in those shoes and I might be in those shoes thinking, “This is kind of stressful, I wonder what it would be like to just be a paraglider pilot or a paraglider instructor?”

So the point I want to make is that when we identify this all-pervasive suffering, this underlying unsatisfactoriness that permeates everything we can learn to recognize that it’s perfectly okay to experience all pervasive suffering or all pervasive unsatisfactoriness. That it only becomes problematic when we experience it and we think we’re not supposed to be experiencing this because then we start buying into strange conceptualizations that have in our mind, which is, “Well, if I don’t like this job, I shouldn’t be here.” And again, I’m not saying stick with a job you don’t like, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that there’s a difference between identifying the all-pervasive suffering, that’s there versus this is an acute form of suffering and I definitely need to do something about it. Like my boss is mean to me and I can’t stand my boss then yeah, do something about it. So please don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to get at here, I’m not saying stick with a bad relationship or with a bad job.

Another way to think about this, a way that came up in our conversation this morning in our live Zoom call, the community call, we were talking about the concept of judgment and how one of the listeners, or one of the participants mentioned that he’s trying hard to not judge people. And I brought up the fact that judging people is a natural thing, we all do it and it’s because we’re hardwired to do it. We have to make quick assessments to decide, are we safe? Right? This is an evolutionary thing where we can almost instantly say, “Is this person on team us or on team them?” And we’re hardwired to do that. So what I wanted to make clear was there’s nothing wrong with judging, it’s the attachment we have to the assessment we made in our judgment, that can be what’s problematic.

So for me, I catch myself judging people all the time. And when I do, I just remind myself, “Well, that doesn’t mean that I’m right and it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s true.” And I have reasons for why my judgment goes one way or the other and that’s based on my societal views, my upbringing, my all kinds of things, things that I cannot help. But when I realized that I’m doing it, I can remind myself that just because I thought that doesn’t mean that it’s true. And if I were to spend time getting to know this person, I may be pleasantly surprised at how wrong I was. And that has happened to me various times. It’s also happened where the more I get to know them, the more confident I am in my assessment that I had already made the judgment. I’m sure we’ve all experienced both of those things.

But the point here is that judgment isn’t the problem, the problem is attaching to the assessment we made in the judgment and saying, “I know that I’m right, and I am definitely not wrong.” That attachment can produce a lot of difficulties. Now it’s another thing to say, “I’ve judged this person, but now I’m open to see how they really are. And I’m going to spend time trying to get to know this person.” And it’s just a whole different thing. So the correlation here is that suffering a similar, we experienced suffering because the nature of life is that unsatisfactoriness arises, right, the moment we want things to be other than how they are.

So the problem isn’t that we suffer, the problem is that we attach ourselves to this idea that we can somehow through a magic formula, eliminate it. And I know it sounds tricky cause Buddhism proposes this as a formula, right? The four noble truths, the truth of suffering, the truth of the causes of suffering, the truth of cessation of suffering and the truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. So there it would seem very clear that what we’re implying here is if you practice Buddhism hard enough and in the right way you eliminate suffering.

And although that’s what it sounds like, there’s a huge caveat there, which is first, we’ve got to define what is suffering and distinguish between what is natural and what is self-inflicted and then realize what we’re talking about in terms of eliminating any kind of unsatisfactoriness is the self-inflicted unnecessary unsatisfactoriness. Because the all pervasive, there’s always going to be that underlying form of unsatisfactoriness because of the nature of reality, because of the nature of the fact that I cannot taste all the meals at all the restaurants of the world, I will always be left with the prospect that this meal that I enjoy, no matter how much I like it, there could be another one out there that I would enjoy much more and I’ll never know because I will never taste it. And that to me is powerful to know that is the truth of unsatisfactoriness.

So going back to parenting really quick, being a parent is hard, there’s no way around that. And the problem isn’t that being a parent is hard, the problem is that we don’t want to fully accept that it’s hard because we somehow still believe that if it’s done right, it should be easy. And that is the problem, that is the lie, that is the mental conditioning. Parenting is hard. Being alive is hard. Having to go to work every day is hard. There’s no way around that. And that is the truth of unsatisfactoriness. So I hope that these concepts and ideas help a little bit with the understanding that in life difficulties arise and that’s not a problem. What we want to do is we want to start understanding the causes and conditions of our unsatisfactoriness and getting to know ourselves and getting to the point where we understand ourselves better.

And that’s all I have for this podcast episode, as always, thank you for listening. If you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, consider becoming a Patreon and join our online community where we discuss these koans and we discuss the podcast episodes, and we have a weekly study group and live interactions with a Q&A, and the Zoom calls, every Sunday. You can learn more about the online community by visiting secularbuddhism.com. If you enjoyed this podcast episode please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. And that’s all I have for now, but I look forward to another podcast episode soon.

Before I go here is your Zen koan to work with between now and the next podcast episode. Elder Ting asked Lin-chi, “Master, what is the great meaning of Buddha’s teachings?” Lin-chi came down from his seat, slapped Ting and pushed him away. Ting was stunned and stood motionless. A monk nearby said, “Ting, why do you not bow?” At that moment Ting attained great enlightenment. That’s all I have for now until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Playa del Carmen, Mexico with his wife and three kids.

4 comments on 131 – The Truth Of Unsatisfactoriness

  1. Bruce Harrow says:

    Good morning Noah,
    With a science/medical background I understand that matter is by far mostly empty space and that all space is grounded by the Higgs boson field so that emptiness has within it the ground of all matter.

    I also understand from reading Suzuki Roshi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Steven Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg and others, and from listening to you, that the Buddha was not prescient of these discoveries 2500 years later. No one was referring to field theory.

    I sit with my wife’s old sangha in Sonoma county though we are in Oregon these last 8 years. I was raised and educated Jewish conservative and long ago realized I cannot conceptualize or accept a supreme being. Buber say god is the verb that describes a compassionate interaction between 2 beings. I think I can accept the god-on-tap idea but transcendence and immanence leave me cold.

    I was never good at languages so my study of Judaism was limited to English. I doubt I will learn Sanskrit, Pali, etc. The rituals of sitting with Laguna Sangha interfere to a degree with the process.

    So with these sorry excuses in mind, what does the heart sutra mean? Even the phrase form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Why all the riddles and code names? Surely not spiritual elitism. Oral tradition and lack of writing materials explains so many numbered items to memorize. These days I can often misremember the day of the week and am daunted by the 4, the 8, the 18 et al needing to be remembered.

    Sorry for the disorganized question and thank for the work you are doing.

    Namaste,
    Bruce Harrow MD MSPH (hospice and palliative care)

    PS to my advantage I have late stage lymphoma, s/p everything, on palliation, probably have up to 3 years left. Guess I need the Buddha nature chip installed pretty soon. 😅🙏

  2. V says:

    Are you planning to have a transcript for this episode? I want to send it to my daughter that’s on a mission but can’t listen to the podcast. Thanks

    1. Noah Rasheta says:

      Sorry for the delay in replying. The transcript is on there now. Thanks!

  3. Audun Mæle says:

    Hi Noah. The transcript of episode 131 is not posted. Will this be posted later?

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