The title refers to some situations – an individual often faces that are difficult to overcome. The difficulties may or may not arise from an individual’s persona, trait or individuality – rather from a combination of factors having roots both in the person’s individuality and the surrounding. We have seen some glimpses of individuality (e.g. Six of them: greedy-natured, hate-natured, dull-natured, faithful-natured, intelligent-natured and ruminating-natured) in the context of meditation practices. The situations – in one form or another, in one degree or another – appear as a constraint, giving birth to conflict between one’s endeavor to do the right thing – and his or her strength or weakness to overcome the hindrances posed by the constraints. When I first came across them – a total of twenty – I was totally fascinated by the list – realizing how true they were. They were delivered by the Buddha (563 – 483 BCE) in his Difficulty Sutra – apparently to teach monks that some difficulties are common – therefore nothing to be concerned about – rather one should try to understand the causes – and be courageous to overcome them with discipline, calmness and practice of the Dharma.
As we shall see, the delivered difficulties are not only applicable to monks, but also to all. They were compiled in the Sutra of 42 Chapters (The Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters translated by Dr. DT Suziki; 1870 – 1966; https://buddhasutra.com) in the Buddhist scripture – with the 12th Chapter describing the difficulties. Osho (1931 – 1990) elaborated and interpreted them in the chapter, ‘The Twenty Difficult Things’ in his book, The Buddha Said . . . (Osho, Watkins Publishing 2007). Thought of sharing 14 of them in this piece – with explanations and interpretations – in ways I understand them (included the image of a beautiful orchid as a metaphor of overcoming the difficulties ׀image credit: anon). In my attempt to elaborate I will try to focus on: (1) what are the nature of constraints; (2) why it is necessary to overcome the difficulties they pose; and (3) last but not least, the rationale behind the Buddha’s teaching of them.
Difficulty means it is not easy or straightforward to either understand and/or accomplish something. Some of it are so universal that they define life – in the form of a limitation. For example, when we were young we could not do or understand certain things – as we grow older we overcome those difficulties – but when aged new difficulties come upon us. In the context of energy balance (see Entropy and Everything Else) we have seen that all processes are characterized by reversibility or irreversibility. The Buddha was not talking about irreversible situations. He saw most of the difficulties as a stumbling block – not an obstacle – something reversible that can be overcome with due diligence and efforts. And the reasons for him to include them in the Sutra – are to draw attention to, to be aware of – to equip oneself to triumph over them.
A difficulty has two elements – one relates to the person trying to overcome, the other relates to the situation he or she is trying to overcome. In line with the sublime qualities (see Sublimities) the Buddha taught that one should not feel contempt, but be patient and compassionate to the person (could be himself or herself, or others) struggling to overcome the difficulties. Similarly, one should not forget to feel joy for being successful in overcoming them. Thanks to the Buddha’s deliverance, some of the difficulties are common knowledge now. We echo the universality of the Buddha’s teaching with Jiddu Krishnamurti’s (1895 – 1986) tribute – who saw the Buddha (in his poetry book, The Immortal Friend; Boni & Liveright 1928) belonging to all humanity, not only to Buddhists (. . . Enlightenment attained – He gave to the world, as the flower gives – Its scent – The Truth . . .).
Let me begin by explaining the nature of difficulty in terms of Relativity – the ability of a person trying to overcome versus the resistance of constraint. To a strong able person a certain resistance may appear easy – but the same resistance may appear difficult to overcome by a weak person. Difficulties are something we all face in one form or another, at one time or another – some of them are due to our own constraints – while others are explicitly conditioned by the environment/society where one lives in. Therefore I have grouped the situations of difficulties into three broad categories. (1) Intrinsic Premise: it includes those that arise from one’s personal inability – for example, one cannot always totally understand oneself to be a master of controlling things the way he or she likes it. (2) Extrinsic Premise: they stem from one’s position in a social stratum, and his or her mental framework. As well important, are the circumstances in which an individual is in – because they condition his or her behaviors. (3) Emotional Premise: it refers to those situations that are acted upon or are triggered by something or someone. The presented order of difficulties placed in these premises is not necessarily the same as described in the scripture.
Before going further, first let me try to present a simple example – of the relation between the ability of a person trying to overcome and the resistance posed by a constraint. Imagine a person, let us name him Pi, is on his journey to have a glimpse of things on his foot. Among other difficulties he might face, let us focus how he has managed to cross over the water bodies of different sizes. The first was a small fast flowing stream of chest-deep water. Pi crossed the stream by folding his clothes and belonging over his head, and carefully walked, to not get swayed by the stream. Next he came across a river that was not crossable by walking, nor by swimming. It was too wide and deep. Pi pondered over; there were no help around and no boat to use. He cut tree branches and shrubs to make a raft – and crossed the river floating on the raft. Next, he came across a bay. It was too big with waves and currents of all sizes. A raft will not work, and cutting a tree and digging a canoe will take very long time. Pi decided to walk along the bank with the hope to find help. His strategy paid off. He came across a small port where vessels were carrying goods and people, and he availed the opportunity. An analysis of the example would show that none of these three difficulties was insurmountable. At least 3 things equipped Pi to overcome them: (1) confidence and perseverance, (2) energy and effort, and (3) intelligence associated with strategic or critical thinking.
1. Intrinsic Premise
1a. It is difficult to be thorough in learning and exhaustive in investigation.
This situation defines the nature of things – that it is vast, beyond the capacity of one to be fully cognizant of it. One cannot say I have learned everything there is to be learned – and investigated everything there is to be investigated. Many giants in the history of mankind were humble and brave to say that – for them, the more one knows the more appear the unknowns. Although PS Laplace (1749 – 1827) convinced of the powerful deterministic paradigm of Newtonian (Isaac Newton, 1642 – 1727) physics – declared that determinism is sound and solid, and is the only method needed to solve any of world’s problems including social relations. Despite such a declaration, frontiers of science did not stop questioning conventional wisdom. Thus learning and investigation continue – and each of us in various capacities adds a little drop to the vast ocean – perhaps not so thorough not so exhaustive, but enough to address a certain problem. These are the rationale for the Buddha to include this constraint in the Sutra – that at a certain time, one has to face the reality that he or she cannot wait for everything to be known. Instead, while the quests must continue, one has to come to terms – to define workable solutions that are acceptable to manage things.
1b. It is difficult to be one in knowledge and practice.
This situation arises from the fact that knowledge and practice do not always go hand in hand. There is a certain amount of paradigm shift between knowledge and practice – therefore reconciling both is not always easy. The processes of acquiring knowledge and the constraints of applying it into practice with prudence are not the same. In the context of solving a problem – we have briefly touched some aspects of it in Artificial Intelligence – the Tool of No Limit. The other contexts of this difficulty can be examined from at least two simple standpoints. (1) Personal limitation: one may know lot of things – but some often fail to put them into practice of convincingly sharing them with others in speaking, writing, working, etc. (2) Limitation of time and energy: both acquiring knowledge and actually practicing them demand time and energy. Often, it is either some of both – or most of one and a little of the other. In academic fields, we see some have theoretical expertise; others develop expertise in finding empirical evidence by working in the field. The other simple example is the split of Natural philosophy from philosophy in the 19th century – with further splits occurring across disciplines as the horizon of knowledge continues to expand. The rationale for the Buddha to include this in the Sutra is that – one should be aware of this difficulty as a reality – and be equipped to manage things efficiently.
1c. It is difficult not to express an opinion about others.
This situation is so common that people do this without the slightest of thinking – even though some may manage to remain non-judgmental. Some of such common practices have very harmful effects on social harmony – because they give birth to misinformation, disinformation, gossips and misunderstandings. They are superficial or unreal – simply because knowing someone’s true nature – as well as of entities – is not something easy to master. Therefore one cannot say for certain that he or she is absolutely qualified to pass an opinion. This is one of the rationales for the Buddha to include it as one of the difficulties. That one should be aware of the harmful consequences before passing an unqualified opinion. There are also opinions – that are outright flattering – massaging the ego of a person or an entity. Such opinions may appear harmless – but in reality distort or mask the true nature of things. When the truth or reality gets masked by unqualified opinions – there appears double edged damages. On the one hand the flattered individual fails to see the corroding weaknesses of himself or herself – on the other, false premises may be relied upon to manage things – which may bring-in disastrous outcomes in the long run.
1d. It is difficult to gain an insight into the nature of being and to practice the Way.
This difficulty is somewhat like 1b, but here the Buddha has drawn attention to insights depicted in the governing Natural laws (e.g. the Laws of Transience and Dependent-origination) – and practicing the Middle Way or the Noble Eight-fold Path. To be able to incorporate laws and principles into practice – one needs patience, perseverance and energy – to deeply understand the true nature of being and reconciling it with the practicality of implementation. Many do not have such natural capabilities. Therefore, sometimes the Way is followed as a routine or ritual without examining and understanding the rationale behind it. The Buddha has drawn attention to this difficulty to make aware that it is important to overcome – because blind following of anything has its harmful consequences. The Buddha’s teaching tells one to be in sync with practice and understanding of the insights (used to develop the practice).
1e. It is difficult to be always master of oneself.
The reality of this difficulty draws our attention to the fact that no matter how one does not want it – one cannot always control things in his or her favor. It is sort of a frailty that we all succumb to at one time or other. It stems from the reason that it is not only difficult to see or know something or someone as they are – but also to control one’s own thought processes and actions – to modulate them in the right direction. If one does not know and understand himself or herself properly – it becomes difficult to control behaviors. The meditation practices (see Meditation) the Buddha taught – are geared toward the direction of calming the mind to overcome this difficulty. The Buddha included it in his Sutra – inviting all to see the necessity of overcoming it – so that lapses can be avoided from drifting to the wrong path – or getting trapped into distractions – or conducting unwholesome thoughts and deeds.
2. Extrinsic Premise
2a. It is difficult for the poor to practice generosity.
This difficulty can be discussed from at least three perspectives. The first is that, to give someone something – one must have that something. A poor – not having things – either in terms of material or non-material possession (e.g. the sublime qualities; see Sublimities) cannot give or share what he or she does not posses. The second, as discussed earlier (in 1a and 1b) is that one cannot be knowledgeable in everything – which means even a rich or a highly educated person can be poor in something. The third perspective should be realized from the fact that there has to be the willingness to share. Having something does not mean he or she will share or give that something to others. The term miser reflects the popular perception of this aspect. The rationale for the Buddha’s inclusion of this difficulty – is that one should not feel contempt for the poor – instead he or she should try to understand the facts behind this difficulty.
2b. It is difficult for the strong and rich to observe the Way.
This difficulty indicates how hubris and arrogance associated with the authority of strength and power could change a person – making him or her totally disrespectful to the necessity of having a righteous conduct. What one sees as right is nothing close to seeing things as they are. Power comes from one’s wealth that gives him or her the authority to control and coerce things in favor. It also comes from one’s position in the hierarchical authority – again, to manage things in his or her favor. One can imagine that with such changes in attitude toward life – an individual succumbs to becoming selfish and snobbish. And observing the Way to do the right thing – appears irrelevant and unnecessary – even undesirable to him or her. The person succumbs to the vagaries of the changed attitude – feeling the illusion of power – seeing nothing more, nothing less. Here again, the Buddha’s teaching says that the strong and the rich should understand the causes of this difficulty – in order to find time to observe the Way.
2c. It is difficult to disregard life.
Life is full of hope and aspiration. Despite all the harsh realities – the vision of hope keeps life’s flame alight. The will to life begins in one’s childhood – I have tried to explain that in the context of Happiness. It is the parent-progeny-parent-progeny wheel of life we all inherit. The Buddha was saying that one has to understand these realities of life processes – to remain calm and maintain the balance of attachments. Denial of life by succumbing to the difficulty has no place in the Buddha’s teaching. Life’s processes come in different phases and disguises of high emotions of anger, hate, love and joy. Unless one is equipped with the light of wisdom for the necessity of remaining calm – it is difficult for him or her to overcome the negative emotional ups and downs – and enjoy the bliss of positive ones.
2d. It is difficult to conquer passions, to suppress selfish desires.
Here again, once the will to life overwhelms everything and gets the total grip on one’s life – people tend to succumb to the damaging passions and desires. Passions have different roots – such as desire, infatuation, obsession and craze. One has to understand that passions do not have a long life – they rather represent a certain state of mind in space and time. Therefore remaining calm is very important. If one fails to control his or her passions by being too attached to them – they translate to selfishness – to the acts of trampling other’s interests without hesitance. The Buddha taught all to be aware of these facts – to be balanced – to steer passions away from selfishness. Apart from such passions, there are also others that act as a powerful drive to accomplish and achieve things. But even in such cases, one needs to maintain the balance – otherwise uncontrolled ambitious passions could derail things downward.
2e. It is difficult not to abuse one’s authority.
The lure of temptation to succumb to this difficulty is so spell-binding that very few – the strong, the courageous and the righteous – manage to overcome them. Authority comes with power – and while power gives an individual the ability to lead and accomplish many good things – it also tempts him or her to do bad things. Holding on to and having the power and position of authority is one of the most desirable things – that an individual wishes for in his or her life time. There is nothing wrong with that – but problems starts to accrue when the temptation to abuse – proliferates in myriad of colors. When it overtakes an individual or entity endowed with authority – seeing things as they are is considered unimportant – thus accountability and responsibility take backstage. Instead, seeing things through the lens of power and authority is considered the right of way of doing business. This seeing gives birth to the illusion that having the power of authority is like a blessing – that comes with the blanket license to abuse the cursed (so the abuser thinks). Things have not changed since the observation of 19th century German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900): All things are subject to interpretation, whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth. If anything, the power of authority is interpreting things more and more in its favor. One can think of at least 4 types of abuses: (1) The sincerity of maintaining and holding on to integrity – is seen something manipulateable by the practices of covering up; (2) Opinions and decisions coming from such sources of authority have the aura – that they must be followed and obeyed without question; (3) Corruption and nepotism are seen as the legitimate rights of the authority for doing business; (4) It is permissible to deny the abused the right to voice opinion and defend themselves. The Buddha included this important truth in his Sutra for all people to understand the rationale of such abuses – and finding the courage to overcome the difficulty.
2f. It is difficult to be even-minded and simple-hearted in all of one’s dealings with others.
The nature of one’s dealings with others stems from at least two factors. The first is his or her ability or inability to remain neutral and even-minded in judging the person being dealt with. Remaining even-minded or mastering the virtue of Equanimity has been discussed as one of the sublime qualities in an earlier piece (see Sublimities). The second factor can be explained from two perspectives. One spectrum of the dealings is: simply seeing others as they are – the other seeing through the lens loaded with pre-conceived notions or cognitive biases. The former has been highlighted as one of the trio of the Noble Eight-fold Path – the Purity of View (see Happiness). The latter gives rise to misunderstanding and mischaracterization. The Buddha’s teaching says that one should understand the nature of this difficulty – to try to remain calm and composed by considering others with a simple and pure mind.
2g. It is difficult not to feel contempt toward the ignorant.
Let me begin explaining this difficulty by saying that ignorance is identified as the root cause of unhappiness in Buddhism (see Happiness). Therefore, when one sees a suffering person – he or she automatically assumes that the person might be ignorant and starts feeling contempt. Such a feeling leads to the development of superiority complex in people who consider themselves learned. When the complex gets hold of the learned – he or she feels elevated to a higher class or strata and becomes arrogant – with the effects of seeing the ignorant as someone that does not deserve respect. A prime example of this is the attitude of highest caste Brahmins in Hinduism. It is another indication of the fact that learning or having a high academic degree – or even spiritual awakening does not necessarily make a person ideal or good – although the potential for being so is in his or her favor. As also discussed earlier (see Happiness) one’s success in learning does not only depend on his or her own efforts – but also on many other societal contributing factors. Therefore, the learned must be grateful and humble for success – and refrain from being arrogant and feeling superior. The other fact, as discussed in 1a, 1b, 1d and 1e, is that the sphere of knowledge and learning is huge – therefore even the one who claims to be learned is ignorant in something. This reality should also make the learned humble, not arrogant. The reason for the Buddha to include this in the Sutra is to let people understand these realities to avoid succumbing to disrespectful and contemptuous attitude and behavior toward the ignorant. However, it is also expected that people who consider themselves deficient in learning some aspects of life or skill – should try to do away with the darkness of ignorance.
3. Emotional Premise
3a. It is difficult not to get angry when insulted.
Trading insults is one of the most negative social interactions – abhorrent, shameful and heinous – that taint the world of civility. Insults deeply hurt the core of the victim’s personality and dignity. The victim feels humiliated and it is very difficult not to react with anger. It is even difficult to forget about it – thus giving birth to societal animosity and mistrust. Most insulting outpours have their roots in hatred, jealousy, dislike, competition and conflict of interests. Continuous insults can destroy the victim by inflicting scars of depression. Insults can be inflicted by at least 4 different ways: (1) face-to-face verbal; (2) through mail/email; (3) spreading insulting misinformation/disinformation and rumors; and (4) now with the digital Internet age, insults come in different disguises of online harassments. Some ethical and moral aspects of online abuses are discussed in the piece Artificial Intelligence – the Tool of No Limit and in the section on Science of Social Interactions in Upslope Events and Downslope Processes. A face-to-face insult not only gives birth to anger – but may also lead to instantaneous fights – often ending up in injuries and/or loss of lives. The Buddha taught people to understand the nature of this difficulty – to not get provoked by the insult, but to face it with utmost restraint and calmness – and forgive the remorseful apologizing perpetrator. One story tells how the Buddha took an insult on his person. Without getting provoked and becoming angry – he taught the perpetrator a lesson, making him ashamed and remorseful for the abhorrent behavior (see the finishing paragraph in Harbor Sedimentation).
3b. It is difficult to subdue selfish pride.
Having pride or being proud of something is inherent in human nature. One becomes proud of things he or she has earned – or something glorious his or her family or ancestors have achieved. There is nothing wrong about such prides – because they are a healthy way of becoming joyful of one’s achievement. But pride takes ugly turn when the person becomes too attached to it. When this happens, he or she becomes rigid, conservative and protective of the pride – making him or her totally oblivious of changes around. The person is in denial of Natural laws and principles (see The Fluidity of Nature; Social Fluidity). The ugliness of selfish desires overtakes the person’s thought processes and activities. Such activities totally disregard others’ interests – with no hesitance whatsoever in trampling over anyone coming on the way. This problem of selfishness is somewhat like the selfish desire discussed in 2d. The Buddha’s teaching says to not get too attached to pride – to avoid giving in to the viciousness of selfishness.
Before finishing, I am tempted to draw attention to the two prayers, Buddhists chant to pay homage to the historic Buddha and his teaching – the Dharma. They highlight the attributes of the Buddha (9 of them) and his teaching (6 of them) that made him victorious by overcoming many different difficulties and antagonism. Most people including many Buddhists do not know them completely; therefore I am listing them here.
Attributes of the Supremely-compassionate (Maha-karonic) Tathagata Buddha:
Attributes of the Buddha-Dharma:
The Koan of this piece:
It so happens that things do not pay off well if you are just part of the crowd – try to be someone noticeable – because politics of managing things do not see anyone below.
. . . . .
- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 5 March 2021