Suffering Injustice by Rev. Helen Cummings

February 16, 2015

The following text was written in preparation for an audio Dharma talk, the first of four talks given for the Bear River Meditation Group class series in February/March 2015 on The Four Practices of Bodhidharma. The audio file of Reverend Helen’s talk is available here. Reverend Helen is a Zen monk training at Shasta Abbey Buddhist Monastery. She will respond to questions and discussion on the talk during the class series. Please scroll down to the end of the text to post your questions in the “Leave a Comment/Reply” area.  Responses will be screened to eliminate spam and inappropriate language.

Suffering Injustice
by Reverend Helen Cummings

Bodhidharma’s Outline of Practice—written nearly 1500 years ago— describes two essential doors that lead to the Path.  One is the entryway of reason. The second is the entryway of practice and it this doorway that I will be exploring in this talk and the three that follow. The entryway of practice provides us with four  “all-inclusive” practices that have relevance to our contemporary life and training.

The First Practice is suffering injustice, also translated as acceptance of suffering or accepting karmic retribution.  “Suffering” in this sense is familiar to those who have grown up with the King James translation of the Bible and Luke 18:  Suffer the little children to come unto me…  It means allow or permit or not  get in the way of.  So when we “suffer injustice” we allow it to be…in our awareness, in our practice, in our life.

Let me read Bodhidharma’s words on “suffering injustice” as given by Red Pine:

When those who search for the path
encounter adversity,
they should think to themselves
“in countless ages gone by I’ve turned
from the essential to the trivial
and wandered through all manner of existences,
often angry without cause
and guilty of numberless transgressions.
Now, though I do no wrong,
I am punished by my past.
Neither gods not men can foresee
when an evil deed will bear it’s fruit.
I accept it with an open heart
and without complaint of injustice”
The sutra says “when you meet with adversity don’t be upset,
because it makes sense.”
With such understanding you’re in harmony with reason.
And by suffering injustice you enter the path.”

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth is fundamental: Dukkha – suffering dissatisfaction – exists. Bodhidharma’s First Practice invites us to a deeper relationship with this First Noble Truth, to a deeper understanding of what our suffering teaches us in our practice, as well as to a deeper understanding of how we relate to that suffering.

“Suffering injustice” might also be translated as “acknowledging the existence of the unpleasant”, or as  “allowing that which we don’t like to be in our consciousness (or in our lives!) without knee-jerk-aversive reactions” This, too is fundamental in our tradition. Dogen, in the Shobogenzo chapter called “Yuibutsu Yobutsu, tells us  “The determination to see things as they truly are, free from preconceived notions, results in the emergence of true practice…” This “seeing clearly” is at the heart of “suffering injustice”

Can we truly see the suffering–injustice—adversity in our lives – and allow it to be there without holding onto it or pushing it away?

Can we truly see what choices we make in our minds, in our speech, and in our actions as
we respond to that suffering–injustice—adversity ?

Can we truly see the places where we can choose to change our relationship to the
suffering–injustice—adversity as we deepen our practice?

But perhaps a good place to start is with the heartfelt questions that all of us have asked again and again: why is this happening to me, and why is this happening to me NOW?  How do I avoid it?  Change it?  Get rid of it?

The Buddha sought to answer the questions prompted by the Four Sights – an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk.  In the context of this talk, may I propose we might consider them the Four Injustices or the Four Adversities.  As he considered these Sights, the Buddha allowed himself – perhaps for the first time in his privileged life – to “see” – actually see – the suffering inherent – though not acknowledged – in his daily life.

Dukkha is one of the Three Characteristics of Buddhism.  Bodhidharma’s first practice – recognizes that dukkha exists for each of us, from the minor dissatisfactions of our normal work and family days to the truly horrific experiences that may confront us, either personally or globally on the nightly news.  And this arises because our the way our mind works.

The “normal” approach to suffering or dissatisfaction or even just boredom is that we flee uncomfortable situations and the painful feelings.  Bodhidharma is asking us to go against the grain in our relationship to those very things that we are conditioned, karmically and otherwise, to push away.

Can we allow the seeing injustice to simply “be there” and not react to it…not react from the emotions, thoughts or pain that it engenders in us?  Can we allow it to exist in our experience, but not being driven by it?  This is what we do in meditation, isn’t it? sitting with no deliberate thought, letting what comes up arise, abide, pass away…no matter how painful.  This is why meditation is so important as we commit to this practice of “suffering injustice”.  When we sit, we build our “suffering injustice” muscle.

How many of us find ourselves thinking: I do not want this to be happening…pushing away, denying, ignoring, the difficulty around us?

How many of us have echoed Star Trek’s Captain Kirk to implore:  “Beam me outta here, Scotty!”  when confronted with a hurtful situation, an unpleasant person, the dreadful diagnosis or that painful emotion?

How often do we close our eyes and one way or another affirm: “I do not want this karma, I demand something else.” We may not like “it”, but we can make space for it without acting on our likes and dislikes.  As Kanshi Sosan has said:  The Great Way is not difficult.  Just give up picking and choosing.  Just by not giving in to hatred and craving will your heart and mind be as clear and bright as the realm beyond the opposites.”  Just giving up picking and choosing is a form of  “suffering injustice”.

It is exactly when we are willing to be still and accept the difficult or the painful – when we can suffer injustice, allowing ourselves to recognize it for what it is and not try to avoid it – that we enter the Path.  And aren’t we searching for that very Path?

This does not mean we do not strive to change the things we can.  We do.  But we do it in a way that arise our clarity of vision.   We see what is truly in front of us, leaving aside our judgments, our aversions, our insistences. We see that “That person’s” behavior is not my responsibility.  “That person’s”  reaction is not something I can control.  And the universe is NOT answerable to my personal will.

Suffering does not flow into us from the pain and difficulty. It arises out of our delusion where we identify ourselves with what we think, what we feel, and then are driven to escape.

The meditative mind which recognizes that the endless flow of thoughts and feelings have
no fundamental reality is the mind that suffers injustice.

So what is our mind doing?  Generally our  “states” of mind – worry, pride, despair, fear, envy, desire – have us running from each of the traditional “six worlds:  heaven, hell, that of the hungry ghosts, that of the asuras, the animal realm, and every once in a while, the human realm.

Our practice invites us to go beyond this constant whirlwind, “stopping” to be fully present and aware of where we are right now, what we have right now. The story we weave of our past and future is problematic. The past is a memory we are grasping and repeating to ourselves and the future is a tale we are telling ourselves of what might be.

When we “suffer injustice” we see what is right in front of us, here and now.  When we are clear about the actual conditions we are in, we can respond more preceptually, more compassionately, perhaps even more effectively.  When we fully accept our present
experience, instead dreaming of a future that either entices or frightens us and dreaming of a past that we cannot let go, we are sitting on our cushion in our place of practice.  This IS the emergence of true practice.

“Injustice” is seeing within a narrow perspective and making judgments from that
.  It is seeing with blinders.  Bodhidharma invites us to broaden our perspective, reminding us that we are reaping the karmic results of past lives?  “Past lives” is a broad topic, but for now may I suggest that “past lives” be understood as “past choices”, whether in this life or otherwise.  So can we understand that we are reaping the “karmic” results of past choices?

“Karmic results” are not retribution, nor are they punishment. Karmic results are simply consequences of our choices.   If we choose to step off the roof of a 12 story building, the consequences of that choice simply accord with the laws of gravity.

By patiently accepting results from the past simply as results of our previous choices -and not punishment by an angry God or retribution from long-standing enemies – we don’t have to react emotionally to them.  We no longer “have to” react to them with anger or craving.  We can respond responsibility, perceptually, compassionately.

When we look in this way, we can more clearly see the consequences of our actions.  When we look in this way, we can make more information and responsive choices about our mind, our speech, our actions.  When we look this way, we can begin to change our relationship to “injustice” or adversity or suffering. Misfortunes will arise, but we do not have to be knocked off balance by them.  We can find a kind of equanimity, perhaps, or an acceptance, and even perhaps gratitude…we can choose to NOT be  resentful.  We can choose NOT to  suffer from disturbing emotions or be discouraged or depressed.  We can observe them without having to act on them.

“Seeing” and accepting karma in those patterns and tendencies is itself  the process of “cleansing karma”.  When we come to see our karmic patterns and tendencies we can see more clearly how karma affects our choices and how our choices affect our karma

Whether it is the fruition of karma in this life, or fruition of karma from past lives – when we can allow it to “be there” we may see our situation more clearly, more fully…and this is a doorway to understanding and acceptance, to the liberation of knowing that you can’t change others nor bend them to your will…

No, the universe is NOT answerable to my personal will!  And there’s nothing you have to prove!

We cannot – and should not – run away from our responsibilities and our karma. AND we should try to improve our conditions and karma,  If a situation can be improved, try to make it better.  If conditions can’t be changed, then we should accept them, understanding, as it says in the Scripture of Brahma’s Net, that  “Conditions are not separate from the Way.” And here, too, it is important to look at what our mind is doing.  Is our desire to change
things arising from a selfish sense of what should be?  Is our desire to change things rooted
in propping up our own sense of self?  Are we truly keeping the third of the Three Pure
Precepts:  Do good for others?  The alternate reading of that Precept is:  Purify one’s heart.  Let us not deceive ourselves.  Let us not deceive others.  Let us look at what our minds are

So yes, we do we have the opportunity to “suffering injustice”  – to cleanse our karma – in our daily lives.  There are the obvious things:

-competition and preference, in work, in love, even in practice
-perceived loss, material, emotional, psychological, even spiritual

-in fact, the “eight worldly conditions” apply to all aspects of our lives:

-gain and loss
-fame and disgrace
-praise and blame
-elation and sorrow

There are also the less obvious ones, less obvious but perhaps more corrosive:
-boredom, a form of anger, a form of rejection, wanting things to be different

-our insistence that we can change the people around us – they do what they do

-our insistence that we are responsible for others’ reactions…
-to say nothing of the weather, or our computers…
“Conditions are not separate from the Way.”  These very conditions – injustices –
adversities—are entryways to the path.

Myotai Sensei offered a reflection on Dogen’s words that I’ve found helpful.  He says: “… our emotions, disappointments, moods – every single dharma is a place we find
our seat in practice. As always, this is simple, but its usually not easy. Though there
is no pay-off, when we really commit to this, we may find that we’re no longer running a game, trying so hard to fix “one more matter” as he says, that we miss what’s right here: our lives. One another. The melt water raining off the roofnow. And now is where everything is possible. Its the invocation to bring oneself and one another home every chance we get…That is the promise of sangha — a bond beyond performance or condition, yet not denying precepts and weather, the fact that life hurts, and we can hurt each other. Moment by moment, not an idea—a life. Let’s show up for it, honest, bare-hearted, regardless…

So can we remember the Invocation to Achalanatha and consciously live “…within the temple of our own hearts…”?

Can we make our choices from the mind of meditation, seeing what our mind is doing?  Letting go of judgments and expectations?  Fears of the past?  Fears of the future?

Can we practice suffering injustice, acceptance of suffering, “acknowledging the existence of the unpleasant”, or as  “allowing that which we don’t like to be in our consciousness (or in our lives!) without knee-jerk-aversive reactions”?

So – in closing –  Bodhidharma’s words on the Practice of Suffering:

When those who search for the path
encounter adversity,
they should think to themselves
“in countless ages gone by I’ve turned
from the essential to the trivial
and wandered through all manner of existences,
often angry without cause
and guilty of numberless transgressions.
Now, though I do no wrong,
I am punished by my past.
Neither gods not men can foresee
when an evil deed will bear it’s fruit.
I accept it with an open heart
and without complaint of injustice”
The sutra says “when you meet with adversity don’t be upset,
because it makes sense.”
With such understanding you’re in harmony with reason.
And by suffering injustice you enter the path.”

Rev. Master Jiyu has said:  All-acceptance is the key to the gateless gate.

Kanchi Sosan has said:  The Great Way is not difficult.  Just give up picking and choosing.

Bodhidharma is telling us that by seeing injustice – suffering – for what it is, and by changing our relationship to it, we are not driven by it.  We enter the Path, acting perceptually, acting compassionately, living from a place of acceptance and gratitude

I offer the merit of this talk to all beings
that we together may fully and gratefully “suffer injustice”
Homage to the Buddha.
Homage to the Dharma.
Homage to the Sangha.


18 Responses to “Suffering Injustice by Rev. Helen Cummings”

  1. spark andrea Says:

    Thank you Rev. Helen for this first talk of the series.

  2. hounhelen Says:

    Thanks to you and Pam, Andy, for all you have down to bring this series to life!

  3. ljc1947 Says:

    A question for Rev. Helen: Would you explain Shakyamuni’s fourth sight, the monk, as being one of the Four Injustices or Four Adversities? Thank you for this offering, and this interactive adventure! Linda Pierce

    • hounhelen Says:

      Thanks for your question, Linda. The Four Adversities – the old man, the sick man, the dead man, and the monk, like all seeming adversities or injustices, are those things that take us out of the “automatic pilot” of our lives. They invite us to ask the important questions…what is happening right now? what is my mind doing?…the questions that help us to see more clearly.

      I include the sight of the monk in this because seeing someone who has made the choices the monk has made can only cause us to reflect on the choices we are making in our own lives…it certainly did for Gautama. And this is not to say that everyone should become a monk, but rather that we look at how – in the conditions of our own lives – we may keep the Precepts and do what needs to be done.

      With gratitude, Rev. Helen

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you Rev. Helen

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you Rev. Helen

    I take it that the adversity does not make sense but being upset is not helpful.

    I still have difficulty with the ideas of past lives, the beings or experiences, or actions that occurred before I was born.


    • hounhelen Says:

      Thanks for your comments, Roger. Nothing in our training is wasted. From the right perspective, adversity is a great help in that it gets our attention! Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t, but it invites us to look at what we are doing and how we are doing it. So we can ask ourselves if being upset is helpful…

      In terms of past lives, this is a very comprehensive and profound teaching with many dimensions. For myself, I look at the very different person I was 40 years ago, four years ago, or yesterday. The person I am in this moment is living with the karma, the choice, of those “beings”. In this moment my task is to cleanse the karma that is in front of me, to lessen the suffering in my life, or, as one of our offertories says “…keep the Precepts and do what needs to be done.”

      With gratitude, Rev. Helen

  6. drmv Says:

    I am delighted this blog came to being! I also like (beyond likes and dislikes) the Dharma Talk in writing. Thanks to all who made it happen!
    I shall return in a more substantive manner.

  7. John Anderson Says:

    I always try but do not always see that the experience of adversity can be a good teacher. But sometimes, I run into a “flight or fight situation and I find it difficult to be mindful with it. These fight or flight situations always seem to happen in crowded parking lots. I hear a honk and I am startled by it especially when I can’t locate it because of my hearing loss.

    My second thought about learning from adversity is how important it is to be able to seek refuge in the sangha so that you do not have to feel alone trying to learn from adversity. Is it OK to share with the sangha the struggle to be mindful with adversity?

    • hounhelen Says:

      In answer to your second question first: Yes, not only is it OK to share with the sangha the struggle to be mindful with adversity, but it is crucial in our spiritual practice. In the Mahamangala Sutra – The Great Discourse on Blessings – the Buddha explores how important it is to seek out wise companions. And the Third of the Three Treasures Precepts – the Three Refuges – is I take Refuge in the Sangha. We take refuge in those who are walking this Path with us – and we offer refuge to them as well, including those places where we are having difficulty. AND we take refuge with openness and honesty. We don’t have to maintain an image. We don’t have anything to prove…how nice!

      In answer to your first observation: Dukkha! Suffering! Uneasiness! Dis-ease! No, these are NOT pleasant. And yet they can point us to the reality of the First Noble Truth if we let them teach us. We don’t have to like them, but we can learn from them. In her Commentary on the Kyojukaimon, Rev. Master Jiyu says: Look with the eyes of a Buddha and you will see the heart of a Buddha. I think this is especially true in those situations that are most challenging for us.

      Our practice is one of “endless training”. We are always “…going, going going on…” In meditation, when we find that our mind has wandered, or that we have fallen asleep, we come back to mindfulness…again, and again, and again and again…without judgment. This is showing compassion to ourselves, turning the stream of compassion within. When it is difficult to be mindful, just notice that it is difficult to be mindful. That which notices that you are not being mindful is itself mindful…

      And, yes, we all have a long history of “fight or flight” as part of our legacy as human beings. This is a ground of on-going training for us all.

      With gratitude, Rev. Helen

  8. drmv Says:

    In order to strip adversity of its negative attributes, I think, one has to be forgiving. Are there other traits or characteristics that are comparable?

    • hounhelen Says:

      The practice of seeing clearly – of seeing things as they are – simply asks us to see what’s there. As the Chinese story tells us, a broken leg can be good news or bad news…

      Seeing things clearly takes the judgment out of our perception. This means we don’t have to like something, or approve of it, or support it…we simply see it, as in our meditation when we allow out thoughts to arise, abide, and ultimately pass away.

      And yes, in a sense this is what forgiveness does. It allows us to acknowledge a hurt or harm and not hold onto it. This is “suffering injustice”…

      When we practice compassion and loving-kindness, we do the same. When we practice the Four Wisdoms or the Six Paramitas, we do the same. When we “keep the Precepts and do what needs to be done”, we do the same.

      When we practice moment-to-moment meditation, responding rather than reacting, we do the same.

      With gratitude, Rev. Helen

  9. Sue Groghan Says:

    Thank you, Rev. Helen, for including the text. It added immensely to my understanding. (I read the text after listening to the audio.) Sue

    • hounhelen Says:

      Thank you for your feedback on this. We apprehend in so many different ways and it is nice to be able to include a variety of doors to the Dharma. With gratitude, Rev. Helen

  10. spark andrea Says:


    words stacked upon words

    meanwhile the Empty Field
    remains still
    waiting to be cultivated.


    • hounhelen Says:

      these very minds
      are Buddha
      these very words
      are entrances
      these very acts
      are practices

      of the Field
      we cultivate
      this very moment

  11. Anonymous Says:

    Being here

    In the cyber-now

    • hounhelen Says:

      this very being is Buddha this very here is Buddha this very cyber-now is Buddha this very practice is Buddha this-now

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