Dancing With Life: Buddhist Insights for finding peace and liberation in the face of Dukkha

Speaker: Ven. Zhili

Fo Guang Shan Nan Tien Temple, Australia

I. Introduction

Auspicious greeting to all Dharma friends from around the world! This is Venerable Zhi Li from Fo Guang Shan Nan Tien Temple in Australia. Thank you for joining our online English Dharma service. The topic I would like to share with you today is Dancing With Life: Buddhist Insights for finding peace and liberation in the face of Dukkha.

The Four Noble Truths, being one of the Buddha’s first teachings after he attained awakening, has been most frequently studied and discussed by Buddhist practitioners for centuries. For those who are not familiar with the topic, please refer to the talk by Venerable Zhi Xing back in July 2020. Today, I would like to mainly focus on the application of the teaching in our daily life, peppered with some of my personal reflections and stories.

II. Recap of First Noble Truth

First of all, let’s have a brief recap on what ‘Dukkha’ means. One of the most misleading and confusing English equivalents given to Dukkha is perhaps ‘suffering’, which is too limited in its meaning to serve as a direct translation.

Alternatively, Dukkha has been translated as “anxiety, uneasiness, dissatisfactions, unsatisfactoriness and discontent.” You will probably agree that rather than “life is suffering”, a better translation for the 1st noble truth would be ‘life inevitably gets uncomfortable’ which reflects the true nature of human existence.

When you were a child, you used to love and crave chocolate and cake, and you thought: When I’m old, like my parents, I’ll have all the chocolates and cakes I want, and then I’ll be happy. Now that you have so many chocolates and cakes, you are bored. So you decide that since cake doesn’t make you happy anymore, you will get a car, a house, a partner, a child and then you will be happy. So now you have everything, but there are more problems. The car can be a problem, the house can be a problem, the partner can be a problem, the children can be a problem. You realise: Oh, this is not satisfaction. I am still unhappy.

Sometimes, Dukkha manifests as acute pain and suffering, or depression; sometimes it could just be worry or simply a vague sense that things are not quite the way they should be. Even when things are going really well, for many of us, in the back of our minds, at least occasionally, is a refrain: “What if I lost this – this person, relationship, social status, advantage, opportunity, etc.” Even when we are blessed with fortunes, we are still worried about what we might lose, how we might lose it, and when.

When I was young, I used to worry a lot. As the only child in the family, my parents would give me everything I wanted. Although there was never a lack of anything, I was not happy. There was always a sense of insecurity. I was worried about how one day my parents would die, how this abundant life was going to change, how I would no longer be able to enjoy the same comfort, etc. When we look around, it’s NOT difficult to recognize that our lives are pervaded with Dukkha. Health, love, security, material comfort… all these things can be of great concern to us.  Nothing gives us happiness forever.

III. Typical Reactions to Dukkha

As we prepare to face Dukkha, it helps to understand some typical human reactions to it.

  • Not accepting Change

To combat the sense of insecurity change brings about, we might be motivated to fight change by protecting everything we have and trying to make things last, or to accumulate wealth, relationships, and possessions so that we manage to feel substantial. However, when change inevitably starts to make itself known – e.g. wrinkles appear, health deteriorates, relationships break up, loved ones pass away  – we might cling to the past or live in denial, trying to maintain or re-create the bubble of reality which we used to regard as secure and certain. 

  • Seeking Pleasure and trying to avoid pain

In the midst of Dukkha, its’ also common that we might long for our pain, depression, anxiety, or stress to go away. To blot out the realization of Dukkha, we might try to grasp something pleasant or simply not think about it by using distractions or intoxicants to numb the senses and the concern (e.g. on drugs, get drunk) in order to become so-called worry or care-free.

  • Acting on emotions and taking them as real

Most of us strive for perfection, desperately wanting things to always be good. When they’re not, it is hard to cope emotionally. Worry, fear, pain, anger, resentment can constantly call for our attention. Our habitual reaction is to use emotions to regain our ground; or to fool ourselves about what’s really true by spreading blame and self-justification. By giving these emotions full attention and fanning their flames, we are trying to make everything secure and predictable again.

Can you recognize one or more of these types of common responses in your own life? Be honest with yourself.

  • Consequence of typical reactions to Dukkha

Actually, the more we hold onto what we believe life should be, or what we believe we should be like, the more Dukkha there is.  To give in to any of these common reactions is doomed to failure, like drinking poison to quench a thirst.

When we don’t look deep into our life, we won’t fully and truly understand the nature of human existence-i.e. the question of Dukkha and way to liberation. Actually, this was something that inspired the Buddha’s whole spiritual quest. He observed the lives of people around him and saw people more or less subject to their conditions – happy when their circumstances were fortunate, stressed when their situations were less than ideal, and miserable when they were unfortunate. So, the question is: Do we really have a choice about being happy? If we do have a choice, why would we choose to be unhappy?

IV. Personal Story and Reflection on the cause of Dukkha

The Buddha told us that we would never find happiness unless we understand the cause of it, and how our attachment and delusions of the mind arise. Before I move on to talk about this, I would like to share with you one of my personal stories- my personal reflection on the Dukkha and its source.

The story begins with the cushions in the Meditation Hall of Nan Tien Temple which have been used for more than 20 years. Last year, we decided to order a new batch, but they were very expensive! Despite the price, we still ordered 57 sets.

New cushions were ordered in order to give each retreat participant the best meditation experience! One day, 57 sets finally arrived by sea—they were brand new! Both the stuffing inside and the material outside are of very good quality! I was very excited!  I kept them in the meditation hall so that only people meditating in the hall could use them, until one day (probably after a month)—one cushion was found missing!

I got very upset. There were plenty of old ones, why did someone take the brand new one?! I was worried that whoever took the cushion might use it every day so the cushion might be worn out very quickly!

Then I also got angry, because someone took it without permission! How could they just ‘break in’ and take one without notifying me?  Don’t they know that I was the person looking after the meditation hall? Or do they just not care?!

Well, you might be thinking: taking a cushion isn’t a big deal, but back then I was making a really big fuss over this issue in my mind! Why was that? What do you think was the source/origin of my Dukkha?

I reflected on my personal experience and discovered that:

Firstly, deep in my mind, there was a concern. I was hoping the good quality of the cushions could be maintained! I could picture them still in perfect condition 5 years later, 10 years later, just as perfect as they were when they first arrived! The more often people use them, the shorter their lifespan is. And I wouldn’t want that to happen! You might be laughing at me – all conditioned things are subject to change! But I had craving for the good quality of the cushions to last!! In other words, I resisted the experience of unpleasant feeling arising from the worn-out cushions! Secondly, I was the person looking after the meditation hall. When someone just took the cushion without permission, it became a disrespectful behavior which needs to be blamed! Hang on, what if it was not me but another venerable looking after the meditation hall and when they told me “You know what, someone took one of the brand new cushions……!”, I might just shrug it off with a laugh “Oh really?” But it’s a totally different story when the thing happened to “me”! So, all the drama was actually caused by the deep rooted “I.”

V. Origin of Dukkha

Deep underneath self-justification and self-righteousness sits a sense of ‘self’ which we cling onto. Ungrounded and often experienced as a sense of lack, this cognitive illusion can defend the ‘ego’, which leads to unwholesome thoughts, speeches and actions.

It turns out that Dukkha is not caused by the circumstances of our life, but instead by how we view and relate to our experience. All conditioned things are subject to change. However, instead of letting them be the way they are, we often resist the unpleasant experiences and try to grasp the pleasurable things and seek lasting happiness in them in order to feed and nourish the ‘self’. In other words, we often push the unwanted experiences away from us and pull the favorable ones toward us. It’s our resistance and craving that lead to Dukkha. 

It also helps to differentiate between ‘pain’ and ‘Dukkha’. Pain, as a type of feelings we have to endure naturally in order to be alive, is a straightforward and uncomplicated response to stimuli. Dukkha, on the other hand, is the next step we take to act on the painful feeling, craving to be free of it. To put it simply, a painful and hurtful situation doesn’t necessarily cause a whole lot of Dukkha unless we become resistant and obsessed with replacing pain with pleasure.

VI. Path Leading to Peace and Liberation

The different parts of the path to peace and liberation are grouped into three essential elements of Buddhist practice— Wisdom, meditative concentration, and moral conduct.


  • Right View/Right Understanding

To experience freedom from Dukkha, which is peace and liberation, we need to let go of our craving and resistance. This cannot be achieved without Right View or Right Understanding of the true nature of human existence and the phenomenal world.

Look deeper into our lives and we will see the impermanence inherent in everything and every being. We are constantly reminded that everything changes – circumstances change, people change, when our beloved ones pass away, when we lose jobs, when we get sick, etc. 

Truly, the pleasure we crave can be very fragile. Why? Because it’s based on conditional things! As all conditioned things rely on various causes and conditions to manifest, there is no inherent essence in them.

  • Accepting and Appreciating Impermanence

The impermanence of conditioned things is inherent in their existence, just as deaths are inherent in lives, and sorrow in happiness. Take this glass for an example, It holds the water perfectly. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When we tap it, it has a lovely ring.Yet, for me, this glass is already broken. When one knocks it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, we say : of course.

What it means is that the impermanence of the glass is inherent in its existence. When we are fully aware of this and accept the impermanence, every minute with it becomes extremely precious. This preciousness, which is so easily neglected NOW becomes so obvious and radiant. 

So when the day eventually comes when you need to be parted withyour loved ones or things, you don’t sorrow, grieve, beat your breast or become distraught… Through the wonderful practice of accepting the impermanence of all things and yet to “enjoy them fully”, we are training ourselves to truly appreciate everything encountered, pleasant or unpleasant, without attachment or resistance.

  • Suchness

Nothing is permanent. All sadness and sorrows will pass, just like all happiness will too. Life isn’t good, life isn’t bad. Life just is. We often label experiences, and by doing so, we create suffering. Instead of holding onto what should or should not happen, we need to look at our experience with openness and curiosity. We experience it fully in the way we would fully experience getting wet in a downpour. We may feel uncomfortable for a while, but we also understand this is just a passing state.

When a feeling arises or a circumstance changes, if we simply accept the current moment as it is, without judging, labeling or discriminating, without thinking “Oh, this is so terrible!” or “I am suffering”, directly perceiving what we experience instead, then we can live everyday life in ‘suchness’ and find peace and liberation.

Meditative Concentration

  • Dealing with emotions

When we are in the midst of Dukkha, we usually don’t want to welcome any uncomfortable emotions. We usually do everything we can to drive them away.  However, sometimes in a disturbed state, doing nothing is actually better than doing something!  Let me share a story with you.

One day the Buddha was walking from one town to another with a few disciples. While they were traveling, they happened to pass a lake. They stopped there and Buddha told one of his disciples, “I am thirsty. Please get me some water from that lake there.”

The disciple walked up to the lake. When he reached it, he noticed that right at that moment, a bullock cart started crossing through the lake. As a result, the water became very muddy, very turbid. The disciple thought, “How can I give this muddy water to the Buddha to drink?!”

So he came back and told the Buddha, “The water in there is very muddy. I don’t think it is fit to drink.” After about half an hour, Buddha again asked the same disciple to go back to the lake and get him some water to drink. The disciple obediently went back to the lake.

This time, too, he found that the lake was muddy. He returned and informed Buddha about the same. After sometime, Buddha again asked the same disciple to go back. The disciple reached the lake to find the lake absolutely clean and clear with pure water in it. The mud had settled down and the water above it looked fit to be had. So he collected some water in a pot and brought it to Buddha.

The Buddha looked at the water, and then he looked up at the disciple and said,” See what you did to make the water clean. You let it be … and the mud settled down on its own – and you got clear water. Your mind is also like that! When it’s disturbed, you do NOTHING. Yet, you are doing something very important. You just let it be. Give it a little time. And it will settle down on its own. You don’t have to put in any effort to calm it down. It will just happen. It is effortless.”

So, when we find our mind disturbed, we don’t react instantly or impulsively. Reacting to a disturbed mind is like throwing stones in muddy waters. It muddies the water even more. Had the Buddha reacted to the muddy waters, he would have lost the chance to drink the water.

When you are faced with an unpleasant situation, stop acting on your emotions. Simply be with them. Don’t cover them up. Don’t push them away. All you have to do is to become aware of any thoughts or intentions that tend to increase the inner turmoil and not give in to these habitual ways of coping. Simply observe what is going on and be aware of your experience as it is. Show patience long enough for the thoughts and disturbances to settle down and the mind to get clear again. Time is a great healer and revealer.  

  • Self – Compassion

If things do get too tough and emotions get the best of you sometimes, you need to treat yourself with compassion. Don’t get annoyed with yourself for losing control. It is ok that every now and then you sit down with your emotions and even cry for a while. Don’t punish yourself for having big emotions. Just sit down with all your drama and let it pass through you, instead of taking you over completely. Instead of distracting yourself in whatever way to avoid dealing with the pain and the uncertainty, sit down and feel what you don’t want to feel. Moving toward a painful situation and becoming really close to it can open up our hearts in ways we never imagined before. It will set you free! Don’t ignore it, don’t highlight it. And because you embrace it and be with it, it moves on.

Moral Conduct

Three Acts of Goodness Campaign

Apart from gaining insight into our own craving arising from the delusions of the mind, lasting solutions to our Dukkha also require us to change our behaviors of body, speech, and mind to accord with our insight. Since the source of unwholesome Karma comes from our body, speech and mind, our cultivation should start from these three areas.

To do good deeds is to generate good physical karma by helping others with kind and beneficial deeds to lead a peaceful and honorable life; to say good words is to cultivate good speech Karma and make sure that our words are benevolent, encouraging, truthful and helpful; to think good thoughts is to cultivate the mind of loving-kindness and compassion, free of the three poisons. The Three acts of goodness are not just slogans but rather the purification of the three Karmas of body, speech and mind, i.e., the Buddhist Faith in action. The Buddhist ethical and moral conduct, being an integral basis for all higher spiritual attainments, aims at promoting a happy and harmonious life for both the individuals and society, leading to peace and liberation.

VII. Conclusion

In our lives, pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. By being open to unwanted experiences, we can cultivate the curiosity, strength, and compassion we need to grow from them.

We decide what Dukkha means to us–A special seasoning to put on top of a salad? A little bump in the road? A small boat in the middle of a raging sea which can be turned upside down at any time? Or a dead-end street with not enough room to turn?

Stop running away from life. Instead, learn to embrace the entirety of life, not just the parts we enjoy. Embrace life as a whole, including the bits we don’t like, until then will you see the original face of life.

Last but not least, remember – peace, liberation, and happiness won’t come to you. They only come FROM you!

Thank you for joining us in this week’s online service. May the Dharma joy gained from this session be spread in all ten directions. May you all find happiness and peace in the practice of Dharma. Omitofo!