The Soft Anguish of Dukkha

I don’t remember who exactly — though I have a hunch it was Joseph Goldstein — who said, at a dharma talk I went to once at CIMC, that much of dukkha (the Buddhist word for “suffering” — the basis of the First Noble Truth) is not this dramatic, cataclysmic affair. Instead, the majority of dukkha is like rubbing your face softly against a brick wall. Doesn’t really hurt. But the problem is, we don’t stop. We keep on rubbing . . . and rubbing . . . and rubbing. Ouch.

I think a similar insight finds its expression in those two unforgettable lines of the poem I shared here last year, by Nyoshul Khenpo:

Those with dualistic perception regard suffering as happiness,
Like they who lick the honey from a razor’s edge.

And yesterday, this dharma found its way to me yet again, in the form of an Iranian movie. Celebrated filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami created this work, Shirin, by filming the faces of over 100 Iranian stage and screen actresses as they themselves watch a film of an 800-year-old Persian epic love poem: the story of Shirin and Khosrow. Shirin is an hour and thirty minutes of framed face shots, inviting us to meditate on subtle and dramatic changes of expression as the women become emotionally involved with the story. The film also invokes self-consciousness about our own being and emotional vicariousness: spectators spectating other spectators.

For me, the arresting part in the epic poem (which is both audible and subtitled in Kiarostami’s film) was this, from a scene where a dying queen shares her final words with her heiress, Shirin:

AUNT: “I had my blossoming spring, I grew old at fall. Now I welcome the winter and the snow that will cover my grave.”

SHIRIN—”Haven’t I suffered enough? My heart can’t afford to be broken again, or my body to be abandoned.”

AUNT: “It took me a long time on this earth to understand that the joys of life are like the caress of a feather on the palm of your hand. Pleasurable at first, and a real torment if it perdures. I leave this earth to people who deserve a better life.”

(Visuals show women’s faces, teary and crying.)

The feathers tickling our palms are not emotions themselves. Rather, they are the self-generated process of reacting blindly to those emotions: embracing pleasant ones and running from unpleasant ones. We blindly, habitually react in countless small ways like this every day, allowing transient moods and the vicissitudes of experience — pain, pleasure, neutrality — to dictate our internal well-being.

Part of what I love about Kiarostami’s film, though, is that it allows us to step back from our emotional entanglements and watch them play out externally, on a stream of other faces. It’s like ninety minutes of looking in a mirror, and watching the flow of feeling pass by, unhindered. We don’t get to know any one woman long enough to get caught up in her story. It’s simply beautiful to greet her for a moment, welcoming her into a growing rosary of all the audience members. I’m reminded that I myself am, in some ways, a rosary of many faces: always changing, counted one by one. This allows me to relax. It’s the same comfort I feel when I look out the window on a long train or bus ride. The scenery is flowing by so quickly that there’s no time to fixate on it; and so I let go and simply watch. Give the feather — and the brick wall — a rest.

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