Great Bliss Beyond Ordinary Pain and Pleasure

All-pervading sensitivity is a special appreciation of pain and pleasure without projections; this is Great Bliss (Mahasukha). The trouble with the term Great Bliss is that it sounds like some grand name for an intensification of the ordinary sense of pleasure, but it would be a big mistake to think that what it means is that everything just becomes some kind of vapid pleasure trip. Great Bliss really means having passed beyond the sense of being swayed into rejection because you suffer pain, or being swayed into attraction because you delight in pleasure. Pain and pleasure have become transformed; you experience them differently, you respond to them differently, and you act differently.

When Trungpa Rinpoche was dying in hospital he seemed to experience quite a lot of suffering, trying to shrug off the tubes in his body and so on. Tibetan Lamas say things like, “Great teachers don’t experience pain because they are beyond ego”, but Rinpoche had previously told me it was a mistake to think that a person who is developed on the path doesn’t experience pain. Following the path isn’t a way of deadening oneself. He said that in a way such a person experiences pain more and not less because they really experience it clearly and intensely. The reason Lamas say things like that is because they feel if they expressed things more directly in terms of the path being difficult and challenging and painful, it would frighten people away from the Dharma. This approach may be suited to the average Tibetan lay person, but it is probably not appropriate for the committed Westerner.Buddha face The real reason for practising Dharma is because you see there is truth in it, you want to link into that genuineness, and in a sense you realise there is nothing else for you to do.

So Trungpa Rinpoche said that further along the path you experience pain more strongly, but you don’t experience it claustrophobically. Experiencing pain claustrophobically means there is a sense in which you don’t experience it clearly because you shut off some aspects of it such as the vastness, which means that you don’t get the inspiration there is in pain. With claustrophobic pain you get to keep your ego, and that seems to be important because letting go of your ego somehow feels like annihilation. Much of the Buddhist path consists of trying to expose the pain so strongly that you finally realise, “It is stupid just to hang on to the way I am, maybe I can just let that go”. The Buddha said, “I teach only two things, duhkha (pain) and the cessation of duhkha”, and by that he didn’t mean, “I am a real pessimist, I am really going to tell you how bad everything is”. He is saying that when you experience things more and more clearly you begin to realise the absolute objectionableness of ego. Eventually you are faced with the stark choice of experiencing overwhelming pain or letting go of it.

Student: Is it that one eventually experiences the pain more strongly but is somehow detached from it?

Rigdzin Shikpo: It is more like you don’t have the space to feel the pain as invasive to oneself. Great teachers have said that the sense of ego or sense of self somehow hides in the little gaps in one’s experience which are happening all the time. Somehow you space out in the gaps, and ego lives in that sense of spacing out; that is how ego survives. It is almost like the sense of ego has a holiday in the gaps. And then when you come out of the gap, you come out of the escape from pain, and so there is pain again. It is like a natural process of being forced into the pain, coming out of it, and then being in the pain again and so on. When your experience is more continuous you can genuinely open up to the experience just as it is, without the sense of needing little gaps somewhere to keep hiding in. So in answer to your question, I am not sure you would really call that detachment, it is more the sense that one’s ordinary sense of ego has dissolved rather than one has become detached from anything. This is the meaning of the Great Bliss, the vivid and overwhelming experience of sensitivity without ego, which you can experience when you are experiencing pain or when you are experiencing pleasure, it doesn’t make any difference.

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