A Better Way of Experiencing Pain
a talk by Gudo Wafu Nishijima -
Buddhist thinking method (The Four Noble Truths, or Three Philosophies
and One Reality)
Idealistic philosophy (Idealism)
all people have confidence in their mind, and so people usually think that what
they think is true.
Materialistic philosophy (Materialism)
after experiencing the world a little more we usually find another viewpoint,
which is that what is reliable is not what we think, but what we perceive. Then
we revere the external world, and become diligent in studying scientific
Philosophy of action
when we consider the two philosophies of idealism and materialism, we find that
they are completely different. So if we believe in idealism it is difficult for
us to accept materialism, and if we believe in materialism it is impossible for
us to accept idealism.
establisher of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, also worried very much about this
contradictory situation between the two fundamental philosophies of idealism and
materialism. And after his enormous efforts in pursuing the truth he found the
important fact that he was not living in what he thought and he was not living
in what he perceived, but he was just living in this world and acting at each
found action in his life, and such fundamental experience of action was the
starting point of his Buddhist philosophy.
those three philosophies are just philosophies, and they are not reality itself.
Therefore he practiced Zazen diligently, and he found reality itself in his
practice of Zazen.
think that when
we think about things on the basis of Buddhism, the fundamental thinking method
of Buddhism outlined above is very important to understand the Buddhist
Pain as a fact
to the Buddhist thinking method, we can also find four kinds of pain as facts.
Denial of pain
people often think that we need not worry about pain at all, because we can
overcome pain by encouraging our spiritual condition. But, actually, those
idealistic efforts usually fail, because pain is just a fact, and so even though
people want to forget pain, pain attacks them very severely. Therefore an
idealistic viewpoint of pain is usually useless when faced with concrete facts.
(2) Worrying about pain
people usually have the opposite attitude to idealistic people. They worry about
pain much more than the facts themselves, and so their pain is not only the pain
as a fact, but also their emotional worry about pain which causes them much more
severe pain than the real fact.
(3) Meeting pain as it is
the Buddhist viewpoint we do not try to deny pain, but at the same time we do
not exaggerate pain emotionally. We accept pain as it is. The existence of pain
can not be denied, but it is not necessary for us to promote pain emotionally.
the Buddhist practice of Zazen exists to enable us to realize such a condition.
Zazen is a kind of action, and when we are practicing Zazen our autonomic
nervous system becomes balanced. In other words, when we are practicing Zazen
the two parts of our autonomic nervous system, i.e., the sympathetic nervous
system and the parasympathetic nervous system, tend to become equal to each
other. In that situation we can have a state in which we feel that our spiritual
efforts are not necessary, but at the same time our emotional exaggeration of
the fear of pain does not occur.
(4) Relying upon daily practice
it is very difficult for us to keep our autonomic nervous system balanced.
Therefore Buddhists practice Zazen everyday. Because the balance of the
autonomic nervous system is not just a concept or not just perception. Rather,
balance of the autonomic nervous system is just a state, or a real fact, and so
it is necessary for us to do some action to realize it. And Gautama Buddha
recommended us to practice Zazen everyday to maintain that balanced state. By
relying upon the daily practice of Zazen we can always keep the balanced state,
and then we can keep an attitude to accept pain as it is, without spiritual
efforts or emotional exaggeration.
Zazen and the 20th Century
course, when Gautama Buddha was alive there was no scientific knowledge like we
have in the 21st century. Therefore it was impossible for human
beings to know any scientific explanations for Zazen until the last century or
so. But, fortunately, in the 20th century scientific research
developed enormously and many very important advances occurred in the areas of
psychology and physiology. Therefore I think it is very a happy situation for us
to now be able to find some scientific explanations of Zazen on the basis of
psychology and physiology.
The theory of unconsciousness
Freud (1856-1939) established a theory about unconsciousness, and I have found
his theory very useful in understanding the meaning of Zazen on the basis of
modern psychology. This is because we sometimes find theories in Buddhism that
seem to be a little mystical and difficult to understand on the basis of
reasonable consideration. For example, Buddhism reveres the human intuitive
ability very much, and calls it 'prajna.'
In Sanskrit, 'pra' means 'before', and 'jna' means
knowledge or consideration. Therefore 'prajna' means 'before
consideration', and it suggests the human intuitive ability to grasp reality
directly before consideration. I think that in European civilization human
intuitive ability is not so revered, and that intellectual ability is revered
much more than our intuitive ability. But in Buddhism we revere intuitive
ability much more than intellectual consideration. Before noticing the theory of
the unconsciousness, I couldn't understand why Buddhism reveres intuitive
ability so much. But after studying Freudian ideas about the unconsciousness, I
could understand that when our autonomic nervous system is balanced the
suppressed ideas we have in our body and mind evaporate, and intuitive true
(2) The autonomic
physiology has developed the theory of the autonomic nervous system very much.
And if we rely upon the theory of the autonomic nervous system, I think it is
possible for us to understand the very complicated situations of modern human
societies on the basis of human mental and physical conditions. I think we can
understand such problems on the basis of a difference in the physical conditions
of idealistic people and materialistic people, and on the basis of balance of
the autonomic nervous system.
have a rather too brave hypothesis that people who have a stronger sympathetic
nervous system are prone to be idealistic, and people who have a stronger
parasympathetic nervous system are prone to be materialistic. Of course, this is
only my personal supposition so far, but I’ve utilized this hypothesis for
many years and haven’t yet found any fact to cause me to change it.
The balance of the autonomic nervous system
American psychiatrist called Karl Menninger wrote a book in which he explained
the relationship between 'Love and Hate', in which he insisted that hate and
love should be balanced. And when I read that theory I noticed that the Middle
Way that Gautama Buddha proclaimed is exactly related with the state of balance
between the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. We
can interpret that when our sympathetic nervous system is stronger than our
parasympathetic nervous system, we are prone to have a hateful tendency, and
that when our parasympathetic nervous system is stronger than our sympathetic
nervous system, we are prone to love easily. In his theory Karl Menninger seems
to insist that a state of hate is not always natural and a state of love is not
always natural. And he also seems to insist that extreme hate is not so healthy,
and extreme love is not so healthy. Therefore I think that reverence of the
balanced state of the autonomic nervous system, where we are not prone to hate
too much or love too much, may be the fundamental basis of Buddhist theory, and
that such a theory of balance has enormous power to solve almost all human
personal problems and social problems in the world today.
years ago I read a book entitled "A Teacher's Window into the Child's
Mind" by Sally Goddard, who is an American teacher and psychiatrist. She
quotes P. MacLean's opinion that between birth and 15 months of age a human baby
experiences three levels of development, that is, 'reptilian brain', 'mammalian
brain', and 'rational, logical, linguistic and altruistic human being'. And she
says that if a baby receives some kind of unfortunate influence during this
developing process, it is usually difficult for the baby to avoid the effects of
such unfortunate influence throughout its life. She explains that if we want to
help a baby recover from such kind of unfortunate influence, the only way to do
so may be by relying upon postural reflexes. And when I read her descriptions, I
noticed that the reason why Gautama Buddha recommended us to practice Zazen may
be related with this theory. When we are keeping our spine straight vertically
we can get rid of unfortunate influences which we have received from
miscellaneous circumstances in our life. Zazen is just a practice to get the
regular postural reflexes, and by such mental and physical efforts, we save
The ultimate method to overcome pain
Don't have intention to overcome pain.
Don't fear pain emotionally.
Accept pain as it is.
Just endure pain at the present moment.