No Satisfaction Anywhere

First, from a Dharma web newbie, a couple of online things that just came to my attention:

–Dosho Port of Wild Fox Zen is doing a very interesting thing in actualizing online Dharma by leading what promises to be a fairly rigorous but completely online 90-day Ango/Practice Period.  It seems worth checking out if your life doesn’t allow for a 90-day retreat of the walking around, bowing kind.  It goes from 2/20-5/22 – follow these links for information or a video invitation.

–Open Buddha has a Dharma blog aggregator that I hadn’t known about, a noble attempt to contain the Buddhist blog sprawl into one site.  It’s at


Last Sunday in my talk at Green Gulch (“Practice with the Life You Have” – an exceedingly “opiate of the masses” talk, however true it may have also happened to be) I scratched the surface of a theme that I want to pursue here and consider with you:  the relationship between “dissatisfaction” and “disillusion.”

The story in Two Shores of Zen is that I am dissatisfied with American Zen life and head to the Mystic East to find Real Zen.  Most of you know how that goes:  I cry, I laugh, I see Buddha, and ultimately I join the ranks of the many “Zen failures.”  That is, I end up just as dissatisfied with my austere Japanese Zen temple as I was with my decadent American Zen temple.  With dissatisfaction everywhere I turn, there’s really nowhere left to turn but my own heart, this present moment of my own mind producing my own dissatisfaction with whatever form my life takes.

In other words, my relentless, unproductive dissatisfaction led me to a gentler, more wholesome disillusion.  Not a disillusion with external conditions – with which we are all doomed to be forever dissatisfied – but disillusion with this dissatisfaction itself.

It isn’t then about being satisfied or dissatisfied with Western or Eastern Buddhism, but it’s about getting sick of, getting thoroughly disillusioned with, this all-pervading suffering itself.  Disillusion with this all-pervading suffering doesn’t mean that I should seek refuge some place it isn’t, but that I really have no recourse but to turn and face this suffering itself.

Dissatisfaction, or dukkha, is a turning and running away from what is.  It is looking or longing for some other option, some other more complete or more perfect life.  Disillusion on the other hand is a turning in, a turning towards the mechanism that creates suffering.  When dissatisfaction drives me, I dig deeper into samsara, endlessly cycling by trying to get out; when disillusion drives me, it’s more like stopping, more like seeing, more like surrendering to the life that I have and putting my energy into the deep work of letting go.

The Buddha invites and encourages us to grow disillusioned with samsara, with suffering.  We are to grow disillusioned equally with the agreeable and disagreeable.  To be disillusioned is not to simply be dissatisfied, but in a sense to give up on the whole realm of conditioned existence with it’s pervading dissatisfaction and its glimmers of transient satisfaction.  For me, that means to let my life be my life, let my circumstances be my circumstances, and shift my gaze to a subtler process by which I’m making the whole thing into a problem.

There may be a student of the Pali Canon out there who can help me with the words I am looking for, or who can clarify what the Buddha “really meant” when he taught “disillusion.”  In the meantime, I’ve found something in this framework that speaks to me at least.  It helps me to work with my dissatisfaction in a way that turns me towards my life.  Recalling that dissatisfaction won’t help but disillusion will, I can relax a little bit about getting that elusive satisfactory life circumstance, and just do the work of letting go completely of everything.

This is, of course, just a belated echo of what many of the first comments on “No Zen in the West” insisted – forget about East, forget about West, forget about monk, forget about layperson, and get to the real issue of settling your heart.


8 thoughts on “No Satisfaction Anywhere

  1. Had to post this comment from a facebook friend on reading the last post:

    Jiryu Mark, thank you, I have been so shocked by the No Zen in the West blog. All of you buddhists sound like a bunch of Jesuits!! hahaha! Why did I assume you are all so above that kind of involvement? Still, it was great to hear so many deep thoughts and feelings. I miss the San Quentin Sangha. Hopeufully I can rejoin you all soon.

    We are warned!

  2. Jiryu – it’s fascinating that you posted info about an online Zen ango, just as I was about to email you about the online “ZENVC” ango that I helped put together. Really, we are all one mind it seems. If you know folks that might be interested or you’d like to post on your blog, the practice period we’ve put together is focused on practice in the midst of everyday life, drawing from the practice and teachings of Soto Zen, Vipassana, and Nonviolent Communication. The website is It starts March 7th.

  3. I have read many times that the disillusionment you describe is somehow “a relief” or something easier and sweeter than dissatisfaction. That is not my experience. For me anyway, to wake up and see that there is no where to go, no conditions that will end suffering, and that it is entirely self-created, is even rougher because the end of suffering it is so obvious, so available, yet the contitioning races on creating mayhem.

  4. Jiryu, thanks for your blog. Very enjoyable and thought-provoking.

    Your question about the Buddha’s teaching of “disillusionment” reminds me of a stage in the path called NIBBIDA in Pali, usually translated as “disenchantment.”

    After one really sees and experiences conditioned existence as having the three marks of impermanence, suffering, and not-self, the “spell” is broken. No condition, no phenomena can provide what we’ve been seeking: permanence, permanent pleasure, self

    With this insight, the mind has “found out”, withdraws from the conditioned and inclines toward the unconditioned.

    Bhikku Bodhi:

    Since the fascination with phenomenal existence is sustained by the assumption of underlying selfhood, the dispelling of this illusion through the penetration of the three marks brings about a de-identification with the aggregates and an end to their spell of enchantment. In place of the fascination and attraction a profound experience of estrangement sets in, engendered by the perception of selfessness in all conditioned being.

    According to this model in UPANISA SUTTA, this kind of disillusionment is a necessary pre-condition to awakening. Disenchantent -> Dispassion -> Cessation. Personally, I find this model of “Liberative Dependent Origination” very inspiring and helpful as an actual map of meditation.

    Mu Soeng from BCBS in Massachusetts nicely links this Pali model to Dogen (remember him?!), specifically his enlightenment poem:

    Line 1) Disenchantment
    Line 2) Dispassion
    Line 3) Liberation

    This endlessly drifting cloud is pitiful;
    What dream-walkers men become;
    Awakened, I hear the one true thing:
    Black rain on the temple roof.

  5. Thanks Max, for this helpful background & teaching. I hope to revisit this.
    A question right now is maybe how we understand what this retreating from the conditioned into the unconditioned looks like (in terms of conditions). I’m suggesting it looks exactly like the conditions that were already there/are continuing to arise dependently, but I wonder if in this model that inching away from conditions is a real break at the level of conditions, if that makes any sense; that is, if the retreating from the conditioned looks like a change of conditions. How do you understand that?
    I have a suspicion that we’ve argued about this in the past… perhaps joining our voices to an ancient argument?

  6. I think I understand your question. My response, briefly, is… yes and no!

    Yes, there is a “break at the level of conditions” as you say. In the model of Transcendent Dependent Origination, this break happens precisely at the moment of transcendence/liberation. This is a moment of “supramundane consciousness,” we can say, of emptying out, of deconditioned existence. After which, consciousness and its objects return, but on an altered continuum. The classic example of this altered course is the “change of lineage” which happens when one attains first stage of awakening (stream-entry, pali SOTAPANNA); the first three fetters (doubt, self-view, belief in rites and rituals) get destroyed. So I think we can say, yes, according to this model, a deep shift has occurred which (hopefully!) manifests in the conditioned world. (If not, what’s the point?)

    As for the no: most simply put, a moment of “supramundane” consciousness doesn’t, I think, turn one into a superman. It is unlikely to improve one’s golf game, or luck in the stock market, etc. Even the Buddha himself ate some bad pork, got sick, and died; still subject to karma and conditions. In fact, this entire UPANISA sutta, “Discouse on Supporting Conditions,” points directly back to Dependent Arising: how both the way we create suffering and the way we free ourselves from suffering, both are governed by D.A. In fact, what we wake up to is precisely Dependent Arising.

    Some conditions change, some remain, but what we realize is that there are only causes and conditions. In the mind-body process, there is not an abiding “me”, behind the scenes, to whom it all happens. The relative is the absolute. Or rather, there is no absolute, just the relative seeing itself.

    My hunch is that this will harmonize very well with your understanding, maybe just using different terminology, and perhaps pointing back to the limits of language. What do you think?

  7. Thanks, Max. You’re right that our views on this are in harmony. As you say, if it doesn’t change our life, what’s the point, but if we think it will make us supermen, we’re just confused. Seeing that all there are is conditions has an impact manifested in the world, but it’s free of that impact. And maybe this is what I’m pushing towards in the original line of thought: whatever the post-insight conditions, the moment (or process) of insight or seeing into conditions itself has really nothing to do with the content of the particular conditions you are seeing into. So we don’t need to worry that the conditions we currently have are insufficient for seeing into conditions – that possibility is always available if we turn our attention from the content of conditions to the fact of conditions. The balancing act, and maybe a more contentious question between the Pali and Zen approaches, is the question of what conditions support this turning of attention away from conditions’ content. The criticism of the older teachings is that they feed reliance on the content of conditions by holding up the need for supportive conditions, and obviously the risk in Zen is ignoring the really important details of what we’re doing and who we’re with in favor of a not-so-grounded fantasy that we can break through wherever we are.
    That’s my summary of where we are in this. Any additions?
    I’m grateful for your help in sorting out the Pali teachings.

  8. I really like your summary! It reminds me of what one meditation teacher told me in an interview, in a bit of a clunky grammatical construction: “it doesn’t matter *to what* you don’t cling.” Just as you say, he was teaching me that letting go has nothing to do with the content of what one is letting go of.

    But, it has everything to do with how one relates to that content, how the mind clings or lets go of that clinging.

    So while the possibility of freedom is always available when we let go of clinging, the depth of freedom depends on the depth of the letting go.

    While it may be relatively easy to to liberate oneself from some kinds of suffering (being upset because someone took the last cookie, etc), I believe that the possibility of the deepest freedom, reached by letting go of the deepest, most subtle clinging, is greatly enhanced by taking special care to set up supportive conditions. Training the mind through meditation as one obvious example.

    Although there are the “you are always free!” non-dual masters out there, an approach which I find at times profound and inspiring, that style of practice seems to depend a lot on the power and charisma of a particular teacher. Even though Zen of course has that side, with mind-to-mind transmission, etc., I feel the Zen school in its own way harmonizes quite a lot with early Buddhism on the need for supportive conditions:

    – shingi and precepts as sila, foundational conditions;
    – monastic forms to build mindfulness, discipline, sangha cohesion, reduce self-centered activity;
    – koans and posture and stillness of zazen as concentration devices;
    – shikantaza’s “letting things be” as developing equanimity

    (good old sila, samadhi, and pannya!)

    I hope someone has found the above—at least in retrospect—to be conditions supportive for awakening. The Pali maps can also be seen that way, to great benefit I think, as descriptive rather than prescriptive, one way of describing how practice unfolds.

    To your last point, I really agree about that risk: I don’t think it’s a fantasy that we can break through at any time, but I think maybe the fantasy would be in the magical thinking of the “randomness” of that breakthrough. For a condition to manifest, by definition, there must be supporting conditions! Of course, we may not be aware of what those supporting conditions were. But the various Pali maps and Zen training matrix may give us some clues…

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