Let’s talk about the Dhamma. Dhamma in Pāli, or dharma for the Sanskrit purists, has several important meanings. But what I want to talk about today is Dhamma in its most profound, essential sense.
Dhamma means ‘the way it is’. More specifically, ‘what it is about the way it is that makes it the way it is.’ In other words, we are talking about qualities of Being.
The English word ‘is’ is the third-person singular present tense of the verb ‘to be’: to exist, to occur, to remain, to manifest a certain state or quality. Being is the most important word in any language. We’re not talking about having or doing, thinking or knowing—and certainly not about believing—we’re talking about Being: the way it is.
And how is it? For almost everyone, life is suffering. In other words, the principal quality manifested by or in their existence is suffering.
Now I expect some of you to deny this: you will insist that ‘I am not suffering, in fact I am enjoying’. And that may be true at this moment or at certain other moments in your existence. When you are in the prime of life you can get together a nice act that, temporarily at least, looks like not-suffering.
But taken as a whole, life is suffering. Why is it that the very first thing a newborn baby does is cry? Birth is suffering. Why is it that people do everything possible to avoid death? Death is suffering. And during our life there are so many other kinds of suffering. Everyone has good days and bad days. That’s suffering. The Buddha said:
“That’s the way it is, Ānanda. When young, one is subject to aging; when healthy, subject to illness; when alive, subject to death.”
— Jara Sutta (SN 48.41)
Life begins and ends in suffering, and in between there is also suffering. Work is suffering; relationships are suffering; politics and broken promises and all the stupid, ugly things that people say and do are suffering. So you can’t deny that life is suffering.
The Buddha called this fact—that life is suffering, and that’s just the way it is—the First Noble Truth. It is a very deep, deep truth. In fact, if you understand this truth as deeply as possible and actually realize it for yourself, you immediately become enlightened.
Ven. Sāriputta had traveled all over India in search of wisdom, but he was disappointed. After many years of looking for an enlightened teacher, Sāriputta finally met the Buddha. He asked the Buddha to summarize his teaching in as few words as possible. The Buddha replied, “All fabrications are subject to cessation.” Sāriputta got it; in fact he got it so deeply, so thoroughly that he attained a high state of enlightenment on the spot.
To put it another way, “Whatever is born must also die.” Whatever is created will disappear in time. Everything that is, is impermanent.
So when we talk about Dhamma, ‘the way it is’, this is the way it is: everything that is, that has being, that exists, is temporary and will disappear in time. This is the nature of being, the way it is that makes it the way it is. Because of this fact, there is suffering. This is the Second Noble Truth: the cause of suffering.
As soon as we desire to be something, we set ourself up for suffering, because as the Buddha told Sāriputta, “All fabrications are subject to cessation.” Whatever we desire to become is impermanent. So the desire and effort to be, to become, to exist, to do, to occur, to remain, to manifest and maintain a certain state or quality of being, is the cause of suffering.
We ourselves cause our suffering by being and becoming. Out of ignorance, we don’t realize that this is going to cause suffering; we think we are going to enjoy. And of course there is a little enjoyment, now and then, in being. But mostly it is suffering, and we condition that suffering by our desire to be.
Is there a way out? Yes, and the Buddha hinted as much to Sāriputta when he said, “All fabrications are subject to cessation.” Cessation of being is going to happen; dissolution and death are going to occur no matter how we try to prevent it. This isn’t news; it’s the Dhamma, just the way it is: being causes suffering followed by cessation of existence.
But what if, instead of struggling to prevent cessation of being, we go along with it? What happens when we deliberately seek out and explore the cessation of being? Since it is inevitable that all fabrications are subject to cessation, what if we get to know cessation? What might we find if we overcome our fear of death, enter into it voluntarily and study it?
This is precisely how the Buddha discovered his enlightenment. This is meditation, this is tranquillity, this is emptiness: suññata. Many Buddhist teachers make a big deal of emptiness, as if it’s something terribly esoteric and mystical. But emptiness is simply cessation of being—the ending, fading out or nonexistence of being. The realization of emptiness is called nibbāna.
Nibbāna literally means cooling, in the sense of a fire running out of fuel. Where does a fire go when its fuel is exhausted? It is extinguished; it goes out of existence. The temporary conditions for its being are finished, so it simply stops being. The fire doesn’t really go anywhere; it just stops and cools down. This is nibbāna, this is suññata, this is emptiness.
This same phenomenon is also death, the cessation of existence. But when we explore this suññata in meditation, we find out something very interesting: the experience of cessation, of emptiness of being makes us feel much more alive! A completely enlightened person who has realized nibbāna is the most alive. To grasp this paradox, you have to understand the natural law of kamma (karma).
Kamma works by balancing opposites. In nature we find that when something moves too far out of balance on one side, there is a tendency for it to swing back toward the balance point. A pendulum is a good example.
The kamma caused by fabricating or creating being is cessation; the kamma of clinging to being and struggling to avoid death is suffering; and the kamma of embracing emptiness through meditation is fullness! The more we try to prolong being and life, the more we suffer when it’s time for death to restore the balance. Similarly, the more we deliberately seek suññata and willingly die to our fabricated being, the more we find we are filled with authentic life, consciousness and insight.
Suññata is not so paradoxical or contradictory when we understand kamma as the natural balance of opposites. Kamma does not mean there is some omnipresent god always spying on us and keeping a ledger of our good and bad actions. Kamma means that we ourselves observe our good and bad thoughts, words and actions, and create our being accordingly.
So when we pursue happiness, we experience frustration and bitterness in response; when we greedily seek our own benefit, we pull in harm and hardship; when we chase wealth we condition ourselves to miserliness and penury.
But when we seek out emptiness, being and life spontaneously flow to us; when we earnestly seek the benefit of others, we attain blessings and happiness automatically; when we generously give away wealth, more wealth seeks us out without effort. This intelligent use of the natural law of kamma is the basis of the Buddha’s practical teaching.
The possibility of a way out of suffering is the Third Noble Truth, the cessation of suffering. And the method of attaining the cessation of suffering is the Fourth Noble Truth, the Eightfold Noble Path taught by the Buddha.
So the whole Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha, can be summed up in just two words: suffering (dukkha) and emptiness (suññata or nibbāna). “All fabrications are subject to cessation.” This is the Dhamma—the Four Noble Truths: the way it is, why it is the way it is, what you can do about it, and how to do it.