The first fundamental certainty can be described as an ‘experientially common base’. This means that it is experientially undeniable – and that undeniability is common to all human beings. We don’t have to have faith to accept the first fundamental certainty as being real. All we have to do is observe our condition. We simply have to look at our lives and make a pragmatic assessment. If you take a hammer and give yourself a sharp blow on the toe, you don’t have to speculate—or ponder the philosophical complexities of the act—in order feel pain. The pain is there as a categorical fact. What we’re speaking of is as down to earth as that. What is it then, that we observe? We observe dukkha 8 which means unsatisfactoriness – although it is mainly translated as ‘suffering’. Before we look at dukkha however, it is important to understand why fundamental certainties are undeniable. They are undeniable because faith is not required. Because faith is not required, any logical systems that build from the first fundamental certainty can all be intellectually communicable. The logic remains experientially valid because its basis is not an article of faith.
Logical systems which build on experientially unique bases—such as the ideas, theories and mystic experiences of individuals—are not universally intellectually communicable. They either touch us in some way that is difficult to define or they do not. If a spiritual proposition touches us, we believe or have faith. If a spiritual proposition doesn’t touch us, we remain unable to believe or have faith.
The first fundamental certainty is the experience of unsatisfactoriness. Dukkha—unsatisfactoriness—is not what we are and where we are – but how we are. It’s the subjective quality of our experience that is being described as unsatisfactory. The problem lies in our way of seeing rather than in the material fabric of the world.
Life is not unsatisfactory; it is our dualistic experience of life which is unsatisfactory. That we experience life as unsatisfactory is often put down to ‘a deep rooted feeling in all of us that there is something lacking in our lives, something missing or incomplete’.
I have never been entirely happy with that explanation. Likewise with the idea that ‘self-fulfilment is always just out of our grasp.’ These ideas are not inaccurate – they are simply ‘spiritual in tone’, and I would rather be a little more clinical. Dukkha is the self-undermining functioning of dualism9. This is often misunderstood as meaning that our world and our physicality are unsatisfactory in themselves.
This idea is linked with non-Buddhist trends of Indian philosophy10 which posit the physical world as samsara.11 Release from samsara in these terms would mean release from the world and the physical dimension.
The emphasis on emptiness within the Sutras can be mistakenly allied with the idea of ‘world as samsara’ – but the Buddhist view in all schools and traditions isn’t dualistic and therefore entertains no split between form and emptiness, samsara and nirvana.12
I will say more of this later – but superficially, nothing ever seems to work out in quite the way that we hoped it would. We never seem to be in complete control of our plans – our schemes and projects always go slightly awry. Often when we obtain desirable things, we lose interest in them. Often when we lose things—in which we have lost interest—we discover that they are more important to us than we ever imagined.
Our happiness—or lack of it—doesn’t seem to rely on ‘the thing itself’ but on our relationship with ‘the thing’. That relationship is mostly entirely independent of ‘the thing’.
Samsara means ‘cyclic experience’. It is often thought that the cyclic quality of samsara pertains to the cycle of birth and re-birth – but what it actually means is the cyclic quality our strategising. Simply expressed – we are trying to be happy by using a means which is guaranteed—of itself—to fail in that respect.
We seem unable to come to terms with the is-ness of life – the process of birth, growth, decay and death is something we’d rather not contemplate. If we ever mention these things, people often become upset (in polite society we just don’t do that kind of thing) but whether we own up to the nature of our existence or not, life is what it is.
Birth, growth, decay, and death are intrinsic to everything. Phenomena are constantly arising and dissolving – creation and destruction are a nondual dance. The phenomena of our perception are changeable, transient, and impermanent. We cannot hold onto anything forever – even our physical continuum dies.
The time scale involved in the process of dissolution varies tremendously – but eventually everything displays its impermanence. Everything—in the form that we know it—becomes something else. It dissolves into nothing, and arises again in some other form. Certain phenomena may always ornament the kyil’khor 13 of my experience – but my own death will eventually separate me from everything. If that idea disturbs me I would be a prisoner of the cause of the disturbance. As long as I attempt to establish the phenomena of my perception as the cause of my security I would be fighting a lost cause.
As we become aware of the ramifications of the first fundamental certainty, we are naturally led to discover the second. We see that our experience of life is one of unsatisfactoriness and this stimulates us to question why our experience should have this quality.
8. Tib: dukha’i tsorwa (du kha’i tshor ba)
9. nyi-tog (gNyis rTog)
10. gyang pan-pa (rGyang phan pa)
11. ’khorwa (khor ba)
12. The state of mind that is free from attraction, aversion and indifference – and characterised by the absence of arising. This term is used mainly in Sutrayana as Dzogchen views the realised state as being the indivisibility of samsara and nirvana.
13. ’khyil ’khor; Skt: mandala – literally centre and periphery.