85 – I Shouldn’t Feel Like This: A Practitioner’s Conundrum
87 – Nyoho: Making Even Our Smallest, Mundane Actions Accord with the Dharma – Part 1

Samvega and pasada keep our practice alive and on course. Samvega is spiritual urgency arising three things: A sense of distress and disillusionment about life as it’s usually lived, a sense of our own complicity and complacency, and determination to find a more meaningful way. Contrary to society at large, Buddhism encourages the cultivation of samvega – as long as you balance it with pasada, a serene confidence that arises when you find a reliable way to address samvega.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Samvega: Spiritual Urgency
Keeping Samvega at Bay Through Denial and Distraction
Samvega is Not the Same Thing as Dukkha
How Samvega Can Be a Good Thing
Pasada, or Calm Confidence: The Balance to Samvega

I recently encountered an article by one of my favorite Buddhist scholars, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, called “Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega and Pasada.”[i] As far as I can recall, I had never before heard those terms – samvega and pasada – in my 20-plus years as a Buddhist. Indeed, you won’t find them in Buddhist dictionaries (I looked), and most references on the web are to Thanissaro’s article, in which he admits, “very few of us have heard of” samvega and pasada.

However, despite the apparently limited usage of these terms, I wanted to share them with you. Our human ability to reflect on our own subjective experience has developed hand-in-hand with language, so sometimes we just need the right word and we’re suddenly able to comprehend and express our reality in a whole new way. For me, the definitions of these two “Buddhist emotions” clarify and reflect my own experience in practice, and I find the associated concepts useful.

Samvega: Spiritual Urgency

First, samvega. Thanissaro explains:

“It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range—at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that comes with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complicity, complacency, and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. This is a cluster of feelings that we’ve all experienced at one time or another in the process of growing up, but I don’t know of a single English term that adequately covers all three. Such a term would be useful to have, and maybe that’s reason enough for simply adopting the word samvega into our language.”[ii]

Samvega is what made Siddhartha Gautama, later Shakyamuni Buddha, leave home and pursue years of strenuous religious practice. According to the classic story, he was raised in luxury in a palace and carefully insulated from the suffering in the world. Eventually he got curious and ventured outside the palace, only to encounter four sights: A sick person, an elderly person, a corpse, and a renunciate holy man. He was keenly aware upon seeing these things that he and everyone he knew would inevitably get sick, old, or die (or some combination of those). After some careful contemplation, he set out on the path of a renunciate spiritual seeker rather than continue to live as if his youth, health, life, and comfort were going to last forever.

Personally, I started feeling samvega as a young adult but had no word or context for it. Although, like prince Siddhartha, I was comfortable and fortunate in my own life circumstances, life in general seemed meaningless, if not downright unacceptable. So much of human effort seemed aimed at some future pay-off that rarely met expectations, and never provided permanent refuge. In an instant our circumstances could turn from fortune to utter despair and misery, and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it except try to ignore the possibility. I also experienced quite a lot of pain from the cognitive dissonance caused when I contrasted my happy-go-lucky life with the unfathomable human suffering, greed, and corruption I witnessed in the world. Life just didn’t make sense, and it was difficult to rally the enthusiasm to play along when, in my heart of hearts, I was experiencing samvega: An oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation from realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of my own complicity, complacency, and foolishness in having let myself live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.

Keeping Samvega at Bay Through Denial and Distraction

Sadly, as a teenager I found little solace or guidance about what to do about my samvega. I devoured Thoreau’s Walden, amazed at his gutsy and insightful criticisms of society. I resonated with the Stoic philosophers. It was nice to know I wasn’t the only one, but nothing I read offered me much in the way of advice about what to do about my feelings. Most people I talked to about them just didn’t relate. I think they worried I was self-absorbed or depressed, or just thought I was overthinking things. Overall, the message I got was that samvega was a weird – and hopefully passing – weakness in my personality, causing me to obsess over questions with no answers instead of getting on with life like a grown-up.

The response of society to the possibility of samvega seems, to me, to be expressed in the analogy of Siddhartha Gautama’s father keeping him confined to the palace, thereby insulating his son from the brutal realities of human existence. According to the myth, a prophecy had been made that Siddhartha would leave home, practice as a renunciate, and awaken as a Buddha. His father hoped to prevent this outcome and therefore tried to keep Siddhartha from experiencing anything that could cause samvega to arise. In Thanissaro’s words, Siddhartha’s father sought to “distract the prince and dull his sensitivity so that he could settle down and become a well-adjusted, productive member of society.”[iii] Like the Buddha’s father, those of us in modern society often seem hell bent on keeping samvega at bay by concentrating on the positive, absorbing ourselves in pleasant distractions, fighting the signs of aging, keeping the sick, elderly, and dead out of sight, and turning away from the incomprehensible levels of destruction, injustice, and suffering happening in the world.

To be fair, keeping samvega at bay through denial and distraction makes sense if you have no other way of dealing with it. The cool thing about Buddhism is that it acknowledges, and even encourages, samvega from the beginning, because (again in the words of Thanissaro) it offers “an effective strategy for dealing with the feelings behind it.” Thanissaro also says Buddhist practice is an “opportunity to solve the problem of samvega.”[iv]

Samvega is Not the Same Thing as Dukkha

I remember the first time I read about Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. I was 24 years old and reading a guidebook in preparation for a short trip to India. As soon as I read, “Life is marked by dukkha” (dissatisfactoriness, suffering, or stress), my heart leapt. I had never heard of a religion or spiritual tradition admitting that as its very first and basic premise. Then I read on to find out Buddhism didn’t just admit the existence of fundamental dissatisfaction, it provided a whole host of tools for addressing and relieving that dissatisfaction and making your life more meaningful. I was sold.

However, although the last 20 years of practice have been very rewarding, I didn’t actually have the concept of samvega with which to frame my experience. Instead, I thought of my initial samvega – my dismay at the ultimate meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived, my sense of complicity, complacency, and foolishness in letting myself get pulled into living that way, and my sense of urgency about trying to find another way to live – was dukkha. In other words, at least part of me thought my samvega should go away with practice.

Dukkha, as I’ve discussed a number of times on this podcast (e.g. Episode 9 and Episode 14), can range from a very subtle sense of dis-ease to acute suffering. The Buddha taught that the cause of dukkha can be found within our own minds. Essentially, we desire for things to be other than how they are, which is impermanent, not-self, and therefore ungraspable. It’s entirely possible for each of us, in any given moment, to release our desire and be freed from dukkha.

In terms of the way we view life as it’s normally lived – our own lives, as well as the lives of all beings on this planet – we can be freed from distress by giving up our desire for things to be any other way than how they are. In other words, we accept life as it is. We still may find ourselves in painful or difficult circumstances, but it’s all much easier to deal with when we’re not unnecessarily adding dukkha to the equation.

How Samvega Can Be a Good Thing

All well and good – but such practice with dukkha, according to Buddhism, should relieve some measure of your own internal stress and misery, but it should not negate your samvega. Samvega is a responsible, compassionate, natural response to the craziness of our world, and it’s what motivates us to practice. We’re right to feel shocked, dismayed, and alienated when we observe life as it’s normally lived (for example, with so many people struggling with abject poverty, generation after generation, while the vast majority of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few). We’re right to feel a chastening sense of our own complicity, complacency, and foolishness as we strive to act compassionately and responsibly but so often get pulled back into a comfortable nest of self-interest. We’re right to have a sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of this meaningless cycle.

Not only does Buddhism acknowledge samvega and offer a more meaningful path than life as it’s normally lived, Buddhism encourages you to actually cultivate samvega. Again, you usually won’t find the term samvega used per se, but Buddhist literature is full of exhortations to students to arouse their spiritual urgency. As Thanissaro explains, Buddhism’s “solution to the problems of life demands so much dedicated effort that only strong samvega will keep the practicing Buddhist from slipping back into his or her old ways.” In Theravada there’s a practice of the “five remembrances” for overcoming intoxication with youth, health, life, things we find dear and appealing, and bad conduct, where practitioners recite:

“‘I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ This is the first fact that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.

‘I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.’ …

‘I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.’ …

‘I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.’ …

‘I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’ …”[v]

In Mahayana Buddhism we similarly talk about bodhicitta, or the Way-Seeking mind, as being essential to practice. However, bodhicitta can be given a rather positive spin and isn’t nearly as explicit as samvega about identifying a profound dissatisfaction with the way life is usually lived. Some of the urgency and distress of samvega is conveyed, however, by the admonition common in Zen circles and elsewhere to “train as if your hair is on fire.”

In the process of letting go of desire and grasping, and thereby relieving dukkha, we’re not meant to give a big thumbs up to the way life’s normally lived. We’re not meant to rub salve over our sense of dismay, complicity, and determination so we’re better able to derive maximum enjoyment from our fortunate circumstances. However, sometimes Buddhism can seem rather down on ordinary life, so let me be clear that by cultivating samvega we’re not looking to judge others or make moral generalizations about lifestyles. We’re not concluding life is, on the balance, miserable, so only suckers would enjoy themselves. What we are trying to do is keep impermanence, not-self, and dukkha in the forefront of our minds, because life is fleeting. We’re trying to stay awake instead of being lulled back into complacency through denial or distraction.

Pasada, or Calm Confidence: The Balance to Samvega

The key to the Buddhist approach to samvega is cultivating its balancing emotion, pasada. (At least, this is according to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and my own experience confirms this is true.) Pasada, Thanissaro says, is “usually translated as ‘clarity and serene confidence’” but, like samvega, pasada is a complex emotion amounting to “mental states that keep saṁvega from turning into despair.” In other words, pasada is a strong hope, and later confidence, that we’ve found a way to address samvega – a way to live that’s not futile or meaningless, but positive, fruitful, helpful, and leads to greater wisdom, peace, and compassion. When I say “a way,” I don’t mean just the path of Buddhism, or even to imply all Buddhists are treading the same path. Just as Buddhists aren’t by any means the only people to experience samvega, I’m sure they don’t have a corner on the market when it comes to pasada.

The important thing is recognizing samvega is just depressing or overwhelming unless we have some confidence we can cope with it and address it. When we’re starting to feel overly negative about our lives or the world, it’s time to cultivate pasada. Each of us will have different ways we do this – perhaps spending time in meditation, reading or listening to the Dharma, talking with teachers or Dharma friends, or devoting ourselves anew to our practice (because that usually ends up being a positive experience). Pasada is renewing our serenity and our confidence in our path, not avoiding samvega through distraction or denial; pasada arises in spite of, or even because of, samvega. Pasada is what was reflected in Siddhartha Gautama’s experience when he traveled outside the palace and saw a renunciate spiritual seeker: After being rudely awakened to the realities of old age, disease, and death, the young man was inspired by the serenity of the holy man to start a spiritual search of his own.

It can be challenging to navigate your practice life over time. Sometimes things feel just right – you’re on fire for practice and deeply inspired by the path you’ve chosen. At other times you may find yourself feeling rather complacent and lazy and in the need of more motivation. At still other times, you may feel very determined to find a better and more meaningful way to live, but lacking in the faith that you’ll actually be able to do it. Perhaps the concepts of samvega and pasada will help you approach the inevitable difficulties involved with keeping your practice alive and on course: Sometimes you need to cultivate samvega, and sometimes you need to focus on pasada.

 


Photo Credit

Sannyasi in yoga meditation on the Ganges, Rishikesh (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1_Sannyasi_in_yoga_meditation_on_the_Ganges,_Rishikesh.jpg). Ken Wieland from Philadelphia, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Endnotes

[i] Thanissaro, “Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega & Pasada” (https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/NobleStrategy/Section0004.html)
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Ibid
[iv] Ibid
[v] “Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation” (AN 5.57), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.057.than.html

 

85 – I Shouldn’t Feel Like This: A Practitioner’s Conundrum
87 – Nyoho: Making Even Our Smallest, Mundane Actions Accord with the Dharma – Part 1
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