The four Rivers of Suffering

Buddha said that the four rivers of suffering are birth, ageing, sickness, and death. These are the inevitable experiences of life. The river is your own experience, your passage through life. Time flows you on to journey’s end and the rocks of karma scrape your boat of happiness and rock its stability. At journey’s end lies the waterfall of death and beneath its mists lie the unknown rocks or pools of your next life.

Contemplating the inevitable journey of life and its lack of freedom leads you to develop the first of the renunciations, the outer or gross renunciation, “Unless I can bring about a change in my life, this journey of loss will continue forever!”

The Three States of Discontent

Being parted from what you want, having to put up with what you don’t want and not fulfilling your wishes are the three states of discontent. Together these states describe samsara. Contemplating this misfortune allows you to realise that, moment by moment, throughout your life you have been deceived.  You are unable to get what you want nor to keep hold of it.  At first this realisation is bitter, but later turns into the knowledge that you have found samsara.  Samsara cannot be felt nor tasted and has been hidden from you your whole life. This realisation is subtle renunciation. The final stage, very subtle renunciation, is to come face to face with the mara of samsara itself – the utterly worthless, sunya!


The path of Renunciation requires the student to discard everything. When everything is discarded the student finds Sunyata, the joy of abandoning everything. This path suits the naturally unhappy! We are unhappy if negative karma is ripening, thus the path of Renunciation arises naturally for the unhappy and is a path suited to those with ripening negative karma. For most of us that is the case.

But what happens if your karma changes from negative to positive? This can happen because the very practise of renunciation will change the positivity of your karma from bad to good. How do you keep your karma bubbling in the negative? Then meditate on Death. Since your death will ripen all the fears or loss and extinguishment. Meditating on Death ripens and purifies the karma that will cause you to grab at death when its time comes. A person without fear for life lets death come and go and the being passes easily into death.

But what if you get happy from practising renunciation, what can you do? If you have discarded all things as unable to bring you happiness: family, friends, job, health, you are left only with yourself. If you are unhappy at this point you will continue to meditate on the worthlessness of your own self and pass easily to the traditional practises of sunyata – i.e. “my soul has no basis for happiness, my aggregates have no basis for happiness. I can find no basis for happiness anywhere within or outside me!”

But if you look at yourself, having discarded all other objects as bases for happiness, and yourself is still happy, then why continue with your meditation? You have found happiness. Indeed happiness grows each time you look at yourself! Through your previous meditation during your negative phase you may have come across a realisation that your unhappiness is based on negative karma. And now, in your positive phase, you might realise that this is due not to the intrinsic nature of your own goodness which has apparently changed, but to the ripening of positive karma.

Thus you will come to the conclusion that happiness is due to positive karma and misery to non-positive karma. This is one of the great conclusions of the Mahayana path and you have begun the practice of Exchanging Self and Others.

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