Sukha-Duhkha, Pleasure-Pain

This is the first piece. We hear of two words a lot in Indian thought—sukha (pleasure and happiness), and dubkha (sorrow or pain). These are familiar words in Buddhism, but there is a secret in them. Sukha comes from su, meaning ‘good’ and kha meaning ‘space’. Duhkha comes from dus (or duh, dur, dush and so on, depending on the next syllable of the Sanskrit compound) meaning ‘bad’, and kha, ‘space’. The origin of the words, with their sense of happiness or pleasure and sorrow or distress, comes from the application to the axle of a chariot. As you know, the axle goes through the centre of the wheel as it turns. Now su-kha ‘good space’ is when there is space so that the wheel can turn freely on the axle, and duh-kha ‘bad space’ is when there is not enough space, or when the space is uneven or gritty, so that wheel and axle grind against each other, or stick and don’t move smoothly.

Sukham as an adverb can also mean ease. For instance, sukbam-asit refers to someone sitting at ease. So, when there is space at the axle to move easily, the chariot will go forward smoothly and happily. The hint from the make-up of these two words is that in our actions, in our interchanges with the world, we need to have a little space. If the world and the events, and the circumstances outer and inner, press too directly on us, we can’t move easily within them, especially if there’s a lot of grit and it’s too tight anyway. But if we can learn to make a little space, then our actions, and our thoughts, can move easily without obstruction.

This is a hint that we can learn to make a little space in life, and it is done by practice. How? Suppose we are doing some job, a wearing job. We can learn to break off completely for a few seconds. We put it down so to speak, close the eyes if we are alone, and sit up. Then we can take in a slow, deep breath, and on the out-breath feel the muscles and nerves relax into empty space. Perhaps it takes thirty seconds. Then we take up the job again.

This is one of the first points—to make a little space, to get the habit of trying to make that little space. Then, even when I am furiously angry .. ! Suppose someone hits me, I feel my body moving into reaction. But if I’ve cultivated the habit of a little space, in the middle of my anger I find myself taking a deep breath and my nerves relaxing momentarily. After those few seconds I then go to take up anger again… but something in me says, ‘Oh, I don’t know … what do I care anyway?’ and I find, to my surprise, that I really don’t care. There has been a tiny break, and the anger has not been transmitted so automatically across that break.

These things have to be practised regularly. There is no time to philosophize or think of little spaces at a time of anger, or temptation, or fear. If we have practised in the ordinary way, then we shall find, to our surprise, that when one of these things hits us and we are about to make our typical reaction, there is somehow just a little space within us, and we’re free from our usual automatic responses. So this was the hint from the derivation of the words sukha and duhkha.

Sukha-Duhkha, Pleasure-Pain from the Old Zen Master

© Trevor Leggett

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