Pain and Freedom: A Buddhist’s Meditation Journey

Pain and Freedom: A Buddhist’s Meditation Journey February 11, 2016

Dan WooBy Daniel D. Woo (© 2016)


Saturday, January 30, I attended an all-day retreat at the Seattle Insight Meditation Center (…) led by two teachers in the Insight Meditation lineages.

In addition to several 30 minutes unguided silent sitting meditations, the teachers had the participants practice two self-inquiry walking meditations. The first one required contemplating two questions during 30 minutes of mindful walking:

(1) Where is my physical Dukkha; and

(2) How does this lead to personal freedom?

Dukkha was originally translated from the Sanskrit by scholars as “suffering.” This is the First Noble Truth in Buddhism: “Life is suffering.” Later more modern scholars determined that Dukkha more properly includes a continuum of “suffering” from mild unease, discontent, anxiety, through heightened states of anger, rage, fear and every kind of negative, afflictive, toxic and deadly emotional states.

The Second Noble Truth is that there are causes for Dukkha. They are desire (thirst, needs, wants, and similar states of lacking), aversion (ranging from avoidance to fears) and delusions (ranging from denial, illusions, conditioned and habitual reactions and responses, opinions to insanity). The Third Noble Truth is that there can be an end to Dukkha, and the Fourth Noble Truth describe the means to such end, through the Noble Eightfold Path.

This recent Dukkha exercise was a short experiment that compressed the actual 18 months personal experience for me perfectly. I am sharing my experience and a variety of practices that always afforded me (and never deprived me) in any single day of states of appreciation, gratitude and joy, despite my physical condition. In those states is freedom.

Background Health Problems: Because of pain when walking or running in 2003, I went to a sports medicine clinic where x-rays and bone scans were taken. I was informed that due to previous soccer injuries, my left hip had advancing osteoarthritis which would continue to deteriorate until I would need a new hip implant. By the end of 2009, I no longer could run or play any sports because of severe pain in my left hip, including a complete loss of feeling in the left lower body when the pain came. In January 2010 after more x-rays and a bone scan, I was told that I had severe osteoarthritis but advised not to get a hip implant until some issues resolved over the safety of certain kinds of implant devices. The osteoarthritis advanced until May 2014 when my hip gave way and I fell. On August 13, 2014, I had a total left hip replacement surgery. On August 18, 2014, my body had a massive allergic and inflammatory response to the medications. Urgent Care had to pump me up intravenously with medications for two hours to stop the swelling and allergic reaction. The next night on August 19, 2014, a 4” x 6” piece of skin ballooned out from and then fell off my lower left leg exposing raw meat. This opening developed into an open wound which didn’t close until early March 2015. I had related post-surgical or open wound complications including infections, edema, inflammation, etc. Finally in late November 2015, I was able to walk again without pain.

Because the Urgent Care doctors on August 18, 2014 (and later my family physician) were unable to identify what caused my allergic swelling and inflammatory reaction, I was told not to take any kinds of medication, whether OTC (over the counter) or prescription, for pain or anything else. Thus for 18 months, I went through daily intense pain and disabilities without the aid of any pain-killers.

By the 4th of November 2014, new bone growth into the roughened outside metal of the hip implant device was holding the implant firmly into place, as this X-rays show (x-rays edited for privacy).

Dan Woo X-Ray

A Bag of Bones: I grew to appreciate having skin. For two months, my wound drained copiously before my doctors sent me to the Wound Care Clinic where for about 5 months, a tight high tech fabric was wrapped around my left leg from below the toes to just under the knee, immobilizing my ankle. Now I appreciate having skin even more. There’s a very old description of a man being a bag of bones. Here I am typing now, a man wrapped by an unbroken sheet of skin.

How does this kind of Dukkha lead to freedom?

Full Mind; More Pain: Self-inquiry or investigation provides insights into the mind and sensations. In the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, also known as Vipassana Meditation and Insight Meditation) taught by the Buddha, a student develops in the following order:

  1. Mindfulness of Body (from gross to subtle)
  2. Mindfulness of Feelings
  3. Mindfulness of Thoughts
  4. Mindfulness of Objects of Thought.

Over years of daily practice, I found that I can and in the past did increase my physical pain unknowingly with my thoughts, conscious and unconscious. Thoughts build physical pain into something it’s not. It’s as if I had an infinite pain amplifier that goes up a level every time the knob is turned by a thought. What are the turnings of the knob? Thoughts such as the following:

  1. I don’t deserve this.
  2. I did something wrong in the past and this could have been avoided.
  3. I need this to go away right now.
  4. I think this will get worse.
  5. I can’t live in my own skin with this pain (or in my case for many months, I didn’t actually have all of my skin).
  6. Why can’t the doctors do something right away?
  7. Why don’t the doctors know how long this will last?
  8. This will last forever.
  9. No one appreciates my pain.

The Great Compassion Practice. I had learned early in my practices about the mind and pain. I wrote in another blog in Satiama about how in October 2003, practicing Tonglen (the Tibetan Great Compassion practice) ended over 12 years of personal chronic back pain with periodic disability with acute spasms. (See )

What I See: Mindfulness practices help develop the ability to see reality without all the limitations and filters of conditioned training, education and culture or the filters of difficult emotions. When angry, the phrase “I see red” is commonly used. We don’t see the full spectrum of colors and shades when caught in the self.

On May 5, 2014, after my hip failed and I fell, I drove 1.5 miles to a grocery store. On the way I noticed old people in walkers or using canes and injured young people using crutches. They hadn’t just popped into existence. My eyes noticed them in particular because I knew that I would have to talk to an orthopedic surgeon about my hip.

On May 10, 2014, I had a lunch planned with a friend in my neighborhood. When I hobbled from a parking lot into the restaurant, the first person I noticed was a large young man in a wheelchair waiting for take-out. After lunch I hobbled a few stores down to a consignment shop where one of the workers kindly showed me where the used canes were.

Light and Colors: In June 2003 when I was in my 6th month of daily meditation, mindfulness and contemplative practices, I was swimming in a large indoor pool where one wall was glass. The rising sun’s light shown directly on the pool. In the midst of a lap, suddenly time seemed to stop, the colors became intensely vibrant and I could see every drop of water as I continued swimming and the effects of direct sunrays, intersecting sunrays, refracted sunrays and reflected sunrays with each stroke. I got out of the pool saying to myself what happened? I don’t know even today but my take-away was that I thought I knew colors and light, but I didn’t. So what else didn’t I know?

In the 18 months of pain, I always knew there was light and colors if I only breathed and opened my eyes. And I could see.

This photo of our cat Willie was taken on the 10th of November 2014, almost three months after a total left hip replacement surgery, a few feet away from my bedroom. I didn’t know then that it would be another year before I could walk without pain. Willie was enjoying the light coming through a window and I enjoyed watching Willie in the light.
Dan Woo Cat

I Am Not Alone: There is a famous parable in Buddhism about grief and suffering.

Kisa Gotami and the Parable of the Mustard Seed”

A famous parable of Buddhism is called The Parable of the Mustard Seed. It is found in the foundational texts of Theravada Buddhism. It revolves around a woman named Kisa Gotami, who lived during the time of Buddha’s life when he had already achieved nirvana and was traveling to impart his teachings upon others.

Kisa’s only child, a very young son, had died. Unwilling to accept his death, she carried him from neighbor to neighbor and begged for someone to give her medicine to bring him back to life. One of her neighbors told her to go to Buddha, located nearby, and ask him if he had a way to bring her son back to life.

Bringing the body of her son with her, Kisa found Buddha and pleaded with him to help bring her son back to life. He instructed her to go back to her village and gather mustard seeds from the households of those who have never been touched by the death. From those mustard seeds, he promised he would create a medicine to bring her son back to life. Relieved, she went back to her village and began asking her neighbors for mustard seeds.

All of her neighbors were willing to give her mustard seeds, but they all told her that their households had been touched by death. They told her, “the living are few, but the dead are many.”

As the day became evening and then night, she was still without any of the mustard seeds that she had been instructed to collect. She realized then the universality of death. According to the Buddhist verse her story comes from, she said:

It’s not just a truth for one village or town, Nor is it a truth for a single family. But for every world settled by gods [and men] This indeed is what is true — impermanence” (Olendzki, 2010).

With this new understanding, her grief was calmed. She buried her son in the forest and then returned to Buddha. She confessed to Buddha that she could not obtain any of the mustard seeds he had instructed her to collect because she could not find even one house untouched by death.

Here is a passionate interpretation of what Buddha imparted upon Kisa Gotami at this point from The Buddha: His Life Retold, by Robert Allen Mitchell:

Dear girl, the life of mortals in this world is troubled and brief and inseparable from suffering, for there is not any means, nor will there ever be, by which those that have been born can avoid dying. All living beings are of such a nature that they must die whether they reach old age or not.”

As early-ripening fruits are in danger of falling, so mortals when born are always in danger of dying. Just as the earthen vessels made by the potter end in shards, so is the life of mortals. Both young and old, both those who are foolish and those who are wise – all fall into the power of death, all are subject to death.

Of those who depart from this life, overcome by death, a father cannot save his son, nor relatives their kinsfolk. While relatives are looking on and lamenting, one by one the mortals are carried off like oxen to the slaughter. People die, and their fate after death will be according to their deeds. Such are the terms of the world.

Not from weeping nor from grieving will anyone obtain peace of mind. On the contrary, his pain will be all the greater, and he will ruin his health. He will make himself sick and pale; but dead bodies cannot be restored by his lamentation.

Now that you have heard the Tathagata [a term Buddha used to refer to himself], Kisa, reject grief, do not allow it to enter your mind. Seeing one dead, know for sure: ‘I shall never see him again in this existence.’ And just as the fire of a burning house is quenched, so does the contemplative wise person scatter grief’s power, expertly, swiftly, even as the wind scatters cottonseed.

He who seeks peace should pull out the arrow lamentations, useless longings, and the self-made pangs of grief. He who has removed this unwholesome arrow and has calmed himself will obtain peace of mind. Verily, he who has conquered grief will always be free from grief – sane and immune – confident, happy, and close to Nirvana, I say” (Allen, 1991).

Kisa entered the first stage of enlightenment from her experience. She decided to become a disciple of Buddha’s and went on to become the first female arahant.”

(This version comes from here)

Having learned that there is no such mustard seed, I approached my own experiences not as something unique, but as something that others have experienced, better, worse or the same. Right after the August 18, 2014 surgery, I was first moved to a recovery room and then to a hospital room. Before being released from the hospital, I could hear loud cries of pain from other patients and I practiced tonglen for them, wishing that their pain would be absorbed by me and that they would be free of physical pain, paradoxically releasing my own pain in the process.

The Lotus Grows from the Mud. Every experience no matter how painful can be the foundation for growth. Every experience may be used in some way in the service of others. Because I was immobilized for long periods of time, without adequate sleep (a common side-effect for patients who have total hip replacement surgery), or lying down with feet elevated to reduce the edema and other swelling from the surgery and the complications in my left leg), I was physically isolated by necessity. I found that FB (which I use as a spiritual means of spreading Dharma) became an inspiration for me from articles, blogs, images posted by others and a means for me to post informative links or images for healing.

Hakuin’s Zen Butter Pill Meditation: Healing Practice, Pain Reducer and Sleeping Aid.

I had been practicing Hakuin’s Butter Pill Meditation since early 2003.

The start of each meditation begins with:

Of the essentials of preserving life, nourishing the breath has no peer.

When the breath is exhausted the body dies.”

This contemplation soon merges into an appreciation of the moment. The simple truth is that appreciation (gratitude) enters as the self dissolves, and as the self dissolves, everything becomes clear.

Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) traveled from Japan to China and there earned the Butter Pill meditation from a Taoist master. This practice became his daily practice. Below is a translation of Hakuin’s instruction:

There is a remedy especially efficacious for debilitated people. Its properties for relieving exhaustion of the vital breath are particularly wondrous. It counteracts a rush of blood to the head, warms the legs, settles the bowels, brightens the eye, augments good wisdom, and is effective in casting aside all evil thoughts.

The recipe for one dose of the soft butter pill is as follows: one part of the ‘ real aspect of all things,’ one part each of ‘the self and all things,’ and the ‘realization that these are false,’ three parts of the ‘immediate realization of Nirvana,’ two parts of ‘no desires,’ two or three parts of the ‘nonduality of activity and quietude,’ one and a half parts of sponge¬ gourd skin, and one part of ‘the discarding of all delusions.’ Steep these seven ingredients in the juice of patience for one night, dry in the shade and then mash. Season with a dash of the six perfections then shape everything into a ball the size of a duck’s egg and set it securely on your head.

Practitioners who are just beginning their study should not concern themselves with the properties of the medicine nor the amount used, but should merely contemplate the fact that a delicately scented soft butter-like object the size of a duck’s egg is suddenly on their heads. When a sick person wishes to use this remedy he (or she) should spread for himself a thick cushion, hold his back straight, adjust his eyes, and sit in a correct posture. He should then shift gently to position himself properly, and set about meditating.

Repeat three times the words:

Of the essentials of preserving life, nourishing the breath has no peer. When the breath is exhausted the body dies.’

By doing so, one can truly carry out this contemplation. Those who have this duck egg with the consistency of soft butter on their heads feel a strange sensation as the whole head becomes moist. Gradually this feeling flows downward. The shoulders, elbow, chest, diaphragm, lungs, liver, stomach, backbone, and buttocks all gradually become damp. At this time the various accumulations in the chest, and those of lower back pain, stiffness and constipation all drop down at will, like water flowing naturally to a low place. This sensation is felt throughout the body, and it circulates moving downward, warming the legs, until it reaches the soles of the feet, where it stops.

The practitioner should then repeat the same contemplation. The overflow that penetrates downward sinks in and accumulates until it steeps the body in warmth, just as a good physician gathers together various aromatic herbs, brews them, and pours the concoction into the bath. The practitioner feels that his body from the navel down is steeped in this moisture. When this contemplation is being practiced, because it is induced only by mental activity, the sense of smell becomes aware of exotic odors, the sense of touch becomes wondrously acute, and the body and mind become attuned. Suddenly the accumulations dissolve, the bowels and stomach are harmonized, the skin becomes radiant, and the energies increase greatly.

If this contemplation is conscientiously brought to maturation, what disease cannot be cured, what magical art cannot be performed? This is indeed the secret method for maintaining health, the wondrous art of longevity.

This treatment was first devised by Shakamuni Buddha. In the middle ages it came down through the Tendai school, where it was used widely as a treatment for extreme exhaustion. Yet seldom in this degenerate age do we hear of this miraculous treatment. How sad that people today seldom gain knowledge of this Way. When I was in my middle years I heard of it from the hermit Hakuyu, who maintained that the speed of its efficacy lay only in the degree to which the practitioner endeavored. If one is not laggard one may obtain long life. Don’t say that Hakuin has become senile and is teaching old-woman’s Zen. Perhaps if you just get to know it, you will clap your hands and laugh out loud. Why? ‘Unless you have seen disorders, you do not know the virtues of an honest minister; unless you have accumulated wealth, you do not know the determination of an honest man.’“

As with any practice, repetition and practice makes the new and uncomfortable easier to practice. For me, I discovered a few years ago, that if I have any trouble falling asleep at night, I could begin Hakuin’s Butter Pill Meditation and in under a minute, fall asleep. During the 18 months of pain, this continued to be true.

The Butter Pill practice as a cooling practice. We had record-heat during the summer and fall of 2015 in Seattle. One more medical complication occurred in July 2015 when the legs went through a staph infection that was successfully treated with antibiotics by my doctor. The skin on my legs were so painful and tender from the infection and afterwards that even hot air was painful. I decided to use the Hakuin Butter Pill meditation differently, substituting for the warm butter egg with an ice-cold healing elixir when my legs became painful. In the Adam Sandler movie, “The Waterboy,” he is resurrected at a critical moment in the last game with ice cold pure water from a special flask that preserved all of the water’s healing properties. In a way, the same transformation of pain took place with this derivative version of the Butter Pill Meditation.

Other Gratitude Practices. There are many resources for different forms of gratitude practice. In my own life, I’ve adopted a number, including smiling, laughing, reading encouraging and inspiring words, expressly verbally gratitude, and balancing every turn of the mind that brings up a negative with a positive. Over years of practice, my awareness of the negative mind and its appearance automatically starts a conscious awareness of what is already good. I’m especially grateful for practices that makes each day appreciated and the world appear with all of its polarities, rather than only the world of discontent and complaint.

One of my practices is to be surrounded by reminders of gratitude in wall hangings or post cards, or on my desktop computer, or even in my mobile. Since my mind can be faulty in memories or lazy in thinking, reminders blast away the negative. Below are two of such reminders.

Dan Woo Bahai Prayer for PeaceDan Woo Precious Human Life

My indoors meditation tableaux also includes reminders.

Dan Woo Table

The Heart Sutra and Emptiness of Self: The Heart Sutra encompasses all the teachings of the Buddha in a few short verses, including the “emptiness” of self. In thirteen years of practice, I found that I am not an empty self when I am filled with self and all of its manifestations: selfishness, self-centeredness, self-seeking, driven by ego. The 18 months period of pain became another living example for me that there is pain, and there is pain. In the former case, I can ensure that I have ratcheted-up amplified pain by being filled with “self.” In the latter case, there is space and boundless capacity for all possibilities in this very moment, including the reduction of pain.

The following new translation of The Heart Sutra is from Thich Nhat Hahn ( ):

The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore


while practicing deeply with

the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,

suddenly discovered that

all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,

and with this realisation

he overcame all Ill-being.

Listen Sariputra,

this Body itself is Emptiness

and Emptiness itself is this Body.

This Body is not other than Emptiness

and Emptiness is not other than this Body.

The same is true of Feelings,

Perceptions, Mental Formations,

and Consciousness.

Listen Sariputra,

all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;

their true nature is the nature of

no Birth no Death,

no Being no Non-being,

no Defilement no Purity,

no Increasing no Decreasing.

That is why in Emptiness,

Body, Feelings, Perceptions,

Mental Formations and Consciousness

are not separate self entities.

The Eighteen Realms of Phenomena

which are the six Sense Organs,

the six Sense Objects,

and the six Consciousnesses

are also not separate self entities.

The Twelve Links of Interdependent Arising

and their Extinction

are also not separate self entities.

Ill-being, the Causes of Ill-being,

the End of Ill-being, the Path,

insight and attainment,

are also not separate self entities.

Whoever can see this

no longer needs anything to attain.

Bodhisattvas who practice

the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore

see no more obstacles in their mind,

and because there

are no more obstacles in their mind,

they can overcome all fear,

destroy all wrong perceptions

and realize Perfect Nirvana.

All Buddhas in the past, present and future

by practicing

the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore

are all capable of attaining

Authentic and Perfect Enlightenment.

Therefore Sariputra,

it should be known that

the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore

is a Great Mantra,

the most illuminating mantra,

the highest mantra,

a mantra beyond compare,

the True Wisdom that has the power

to put an end to all kinds of suffering.

Therefore let us proclaim

a mantra to praise

the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore.

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”

The Tigers and the Strawberry: An ancient Taoist/Cha’n (Zen) story describes a hungry monk walking. He hears something behind him and sees a tiger running after him, so the monk runs until he comes to an edge of a deep gash in the earth. He climbs over one lip, hanging on to rotted old roots and the tiger reaches the top and snarls at him. Below him, he sees a second hungry tiger and above him, he sees two rats chewing away at the roots holding him up. The monk then notices a fresh ripened strawberry with reach and with one hand holding on to the roots, he uses his other hand to pluck the strawberry, which he smells and then eats, exclaiming “Ah!”

During my 18 months of pain and disabilities, I always found that strawberry (metaphorically).

The Turtle and the Wooden Ring.

“Every spiritual tradition has stressed that this human life is unique and has a potential that ordinarily we don’t even begin to imagine. If we miss the opportunity this life offers us for transforming ourselves, they say, it may well be an extremely long time before we have another.
Imagine a blind turtle roaming the depths of an ocean the size of the universe. Up above floats a wooden ring, tossed to and fro on the waves. Every hundred years, the turtle comes, once, to the surface. To be born a human being is said by Buddhists to be more difficult than for that turtle to surface accidentally with its head poking through the wooden ring.
And even among those who have a human birth, it is said, those who have the great good fortune to make a connection with the teachings are rare, and those who really take them to heart and embody them in their actions even rarer—as rare, in fact, “as stars in broad daylight.”

The quality of life in the realm of the gods may look superior to our own, yet the masters tell us that human life is infinitely more valuable. Why? Because of the very fact that we have the awareness and intelligence that are the raw materials for enlightenment, and because the very suffering that pervades this human realm is itself the spur to spiritual transformation.
Pain, grief, loss, and ceaseless frustration of every kind are there for a very real and dramatic purpose: to wake us up, to enable, almost to force us to break out of the cycle of samsara and so release our imprisoned splendor.” (Sogyal Rinpoche, from Glimpse of the Day)

Below is an image of a new turtle hatch from Morgan Edwards. It’s a perilous journey for the hatchlings to make it from the nest to the sea.
Dan Woo turtles

If the moment between the time the rats chew through the roots and the fall into the jaws of a waiting tiger is a lifetime from birth to death, and if birth is rare and precious (as it is), then Dukkha doesn’t have in permeate every moment with amplified pain.

That is where freedom is found, in our own abilities to transform.

In a separate 2014 blog, I wrote about some of these same practices and other spiritual tools with other common forms of Dukkha in a blog titled “
Are you screaming at me? Stopping the noise” at .

If it were not for the ancients to those present today who have provided tools for ending Dukkha, and my willingness to begin practices, I could have had a completely different experience during the 18 months period of physical pain.

I am grateful for all teachings that present themselves. My gratitude was reflected back to me in a fortune cookie that was given to me during the lunch break from the meditation retreat on January 31, 2016. The fortune simply said “You appreciate the good will of others.”

I bow to the universe.

Dan Woo Fortune


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