What does cessation of suffering mean for me? From personal experience, I identify with cessation as being linked to emptiness. Nagarjuna’s understanding (he was one of the greatest Mahayana Buddhist thinkers), therefore, has great meaning for me – that understanding cessation should be based on understanding emptiness. His Holiness the Dalai Lama concurs in that cessation is the total elimination of delusion and suffering through insight into emptiness.
An experience some time ago illustrates how I came to understand that cessation is closely related to emptiness. Comments made by a family member hurt me deeply. In fact, I agonized over the words spoken for a long, long time (years). Only later, in coming to understand the Dharma, could I begin to see a release from this personal suffering of hurt feelings, low self-esteem, and anger.
The first step was to gradually come to understand the emptiness of the “I”. It seems that when we are embarrassed, indignant, upset, or angry, for example, we have a greatly exaggerated sense of “I”. The “I” appears so inherently and genuinely real. However, through meditation, I began to realize that the inherently existing “I” is not as solid, real, and eternal as I imagined. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s words helped: “We should imagine that our body gradually dissolves into thin air, and then our mind dissolves, our thoughts scatter with the wind, our feelings, wishes, and awareness melt into nothingness. Is there anything left that is the ‘I’? There is nothing. Clearly, the ‘I’ is not something separate from the body and mind” (Introduction to Buddhism, 2002, p. 119). This “I” lacked any sense of intrinsic and independent reality – it was not the body, not the mind, not the combination of mind-body, and not separate from the body and mind.
My second step was to deeply recognize my clinging and grasping at my image of “I” that I had actually created in my mind – and which was a misconception of reality all along. As long as I grasped and held on to this solid and real image of “I” in my mind, I had to strive to protect, defend, and justify it. This led right into the afflictive emotions of attachment on the one hand, and aversion toward all opposing elements on the other. Surely, clinging and grasping on to this image of “I” (including “me”, and all things “mine”) had to be annihilated and eliminated if I was to have any cessation of my suffering.
Finally, the third step: With (1) the veil of ignorance (not understanding the nature of reality in which everything is interdependent and lacks intrinsic, independent existence) beginning to lift, and (2) the letting go of my fears and deluded mental states surrounding the grasping and holding on to “I”, (3) I am truly starting to experience the cessation of suffering and its origin. And so, on a practical, day-to-day level, I am no longer clinging as much on to my projections, partiality, expectations, extrapolations, judgements, conclusions, views, opinions, conceit, and pride.
This to me, then, is the meaning of cessation – the fading away and ending of my attachment and grasping at my image of “I” through the life-empowering insight of emptiness. This indeed is synonymous with liberation, and gives me a glimpse into the reality of the state of nirvana.
Copyright © 2013 Alexander Michael Peck
Source: Some ideas adapted from Geshe Tashi Tsering, The Four Noble Truths: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Vol. 1, with a foreword by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, ed. Gordon McDougall (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005), 101-104.