Ice Cream and Stomachaches: Zen in Everyday Terms (1)

Although Zen, and Buddhism in general, is often considered very difficult if not impossible to understand — and is actually often greatly misunderstood —  I don’t think it is all that strange or outside our everyday experience, if the latter is looked at correctly.

It’s true that as one goes deeper into studying and practicing Zen, one encounters plenty of mystery of one sort or another. But if someone who encounters the subject for the first time (not the Zen of “Zen perfume” and “cool out and get into a Zen mood,” etc., but the real thing) tries to penetrate the mysterious aspect of it,  there is a danger that she or he will just get discouraged and give up. So perhaps it is not too great a mistake to start with the aspects of it that can be grasped without getting completely twisted into mental knots that can’t be untied.


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Consider a baby at the start of her life. After an initial screaming fit, the first thing she wants is to drink some milk. After that, she is satisfied — but only up to a point. (Actually, she wants some other things, too, such as cuddling, but here I will focus on the digestive area.) After a while, when that feeding has been digested, her system signals that that was not the end, and the cycle begins again: hunger, hunger satisfied, digestion, and so on, for the rest of her life.  

In fact, Buddhists actually add another kind of experience to the two of dissatisfaction and satisfaction, or “pain” (in the broadest sense) and “pleasure”: experiences which are neither one, which could be called “ignorance” (not knowing precisely whether one is having a pleasant or unpleasant experience), or just being bored. 

And of course, human desires include many other hungers besides the literal kind for food and drink — no need to list all of them, nor the possibility of doing so. All of these hungers are perfectly natural, in a very ordinary sense of “natural,” although some can eventually take some forms which we might not want to own up to, such as some kinds of sexual desire, anger, and so on. 

These many cycles of dissatisfaction and (temporary) satisfaction take such an overwhelming importance in our lives (ignoring many of them, such as the desire for nutrition, can even be fatal) that we quickly take them for granted. Followers of the Buddha in India named this huge part of life “samsara” (which traditionally meant “wandering through the world in many lifetimes,” but if the idea of one being reborn in many lifes is a little hard to accept at first, you should realize that it also applies to what we ordinarily refer to as one lifetime).

Unpacking the detailed meaning of this concept gets complicated, but we can think of it right now as the way the moments of life seem, at least, to be put together and run on as a constant stream. Buddhist understandings of samsara emphasize two aspects especially: first, that each moment depends causally on others, and second, that no moment lasts forever — all moments of life sooner or later come to and end, as does life itself. 

For a simple illustration of this idea, let’s go back to food. Imagine eating something very delicious and even  such as to arouse adoration, say, an ice cream sundae. You’d like the experience to go on forever (just as one supposes that a baby wants the suckling experience to never end), but it doesn’t. Furthermore, trying to prolong the moment by eating still more ice cream could very well cause a stomachache. 

Thus: no experience is eternal, and each experience causes another. As I said just now, we generally are so used to this way of existing that we don’t even question it. 

But the start of seeing life and existence in a Buddhist way is to begin questioning it. One day, we might start to think: “Why does life have to be this way? Yes, pleasant experiences can be achieved, but usually it takes a certain amount of work, and often, in our society, money. And then you have to start all over again. Is that all there is to life?” 

When people who espouse Buddhist ideas start with the so-called “First Noble Truth” (a bad translation from the original languages, by the way; it’s a little silly to call it a “noble truth,” I think): “All life is suffering,” this is what they mean. “Suffering” (“dukkha” in Sanskrit) really means the whole cycle I mentioned above, not just the unpleasant part. Even pleasant, happy, joyful episodes in life are included in “suffering,” which is why the “first truth” contains the word “all.” 

“Come on!” skeptics will protest. “Not everything in life is suffering, right?” But to begin to understand what Buddhism and Zen are about, we have to understand that we are using “suffering” in a special sense. In fact, English-speaking Buddhists sometimes resort to using the horrible-sounding, artificial word “unsatisfactoriness” to get a better translation of “dukkha.” It would be nice if the Sanskrit word had been adopted in English the way “nirvana,” for instance, was. (By the way, most people misunderstand “nirvana” terribly, too, but we’ll get to that.) If you don’t mind the word “unsatisfactoriness,” use that; I will proceed by using dukkha when necessary. 

(By the way, though I am by no means an expert on Sanskrit, I understand that the word originally meant basically “putting the axle hole in a wheel off center, so that when the wheel is put on a cart, the ride gets very bumpy.”) 

qedd© Jon Johanning 2011