People often ask what the ending of dukkha or suffering is, and what is the moment of awakening that they’ve heard so much about. Some modern practitioners question whether it is even real. The following is an attempt to describe this ultimate goal of Buddhist practice. It is flawed, as any attempt at description with words must be, but is offered in the hopes that it might help some people set aside some of their doubts about practice. Ultimately, it must be experienced directly for oneself.
When a being is born, that being’s ability to perceive itself accurately is by nature limited. The being is much like a horse with blinders on. A horse with blinders is unable to truly perceive and understand what is happening in the world. The metaphorical blinders I am referring to prevent the being from seeing and understanding itself. This innate impairment in self-awareness leads the being to respond to experienced internal and external phenomena with either greed/wanting, or anger/fear/not-wanting, or non-interest. The being responds to phenomena in this way in a misguided attempt to find happiness, all based on its impaired ability to perceive itself clearly. Of course, responding to phenomena in this way does not lead to happiness but only to endless suffering. But, because the being is saddled with this innate impairment in self-awareness, it obstinately follows this strategy from birth to death, vainly seeking happiness, and reaping only suffering. This is truly a tragedy.
The Buddha discovered that when one observes the activity of the body and mind in a natural way, but with determination and continuity, and without any positive or negative judgment towards what is seen, there will eventually arise a state in which the blinders drop away for a brief period, and for the first time the being perceives itself with utter clarity. It sees and understands the fundamental deception that keeps the world in this endless state of suffering. In technical terms this is called the experience of “fruition.” The “self” completely ceases to function during this experience. Indeed, one knows for sure that it never actually existed. Before long, the experience of fruition ends, and the mind returns to its normal functioning, but it remembers what was seen. The illusion has been exposed, and one can no longer be deceived. What was seen can never be unseen.
My teacher, Ajahn Da, will often talk about his experience quitting smoking as an illustration of the Dhamma. When he was a smoker, he believed that cigarettes brought him happiness. When he met his teacher, Luangpor Teean, and developed his self-awareness, it became clear to him that there was really no happiness in cigarettes – only suffering, and he put them aside for good. For Ajahn Da, what enabled him to quit his smoking addiction was seeing through the deception inherent in the smoking of cigarettes. They weren’t a source of happiness at all, but only suffering. He saw that quitting the habit is what actually produced happiness.
This is a wonderful analogy for how the experience of fruition allows one to give up suffering. In the moments of pure clarity that it provides, one directly sees that the way one has been pursuing happiness – attaching to internal and external experience with wanting, or not-wanting, or obliviousness – is hugely misguided, based entirely on an illusion, and brings only suffering. One understands that until now, one has been like a dog chasing its tail. Just like the smoker who recognizes the deception inherent in cigarettes, one can naturally set aside the habit of wanting and not-wanting. This “seeing of the deception” is something that must be done through direct knowledge, not intellectual or secondhand understanding. Of course from the very beginning, smokers know that the habit is bad for them, but it is only an intellectual understanding and they continue to smoke. The same can be said for one’s dukkha habit. Intellectually, most people know that their incessant wanting and not-wanting is suffering, but still they continue. They cannot put it down until they see the deception through direct knowledge.
In giving up cigarettes, there are often different stages involved. Sometimes there is a lingering attachment to the cigarettes. When they first quit, many people report dreaming about smoking, or being enticed by the smell of someone else smoking. To non-smokers – those not under the spell of the habit – cigarette smoke smells terrible, but for some who recently quit, it can smell good, or they might be tempted to occasionally have a smoke when they are stressed. It is only when the smell of a cigarette is no longer perceived as enticing, but as disgusting, that one is totally safe from the habit and the suffering it brings. It is much the same for the practitioner who has seen the truth. Some people quit their suffering altogether right away. Others may have some lingering attachment that fades over time with continued practice. But the key to kicking the habit of wanting/not-wanting is to drop the blinders for a moment and clearly see the nature of the deception that keeps one in bondage.
The good news is that the blinders will drop for anyone who sincerely asks for them to drop. One asks by practicing – by diligently and continuously observing the present moment activity of the body and mind without any judgment towards what is being perceived. Ajahn Da often quotes the Biblical text, “knock and the door will be opened.” One knocks by practicing earnestly and continuously. If one does so, the door will inevitably open. Suffering begins and is sustained according to the laws of nature, as a natural consequence of the fundamental delusion that accompanies birth. Suffering also ends according to the laws of nature, as a natural consequence of seeing through that delusion, and kicking the habit for good.