Suffering and Sadness Are Part of Being Human (part 1)

One thing I’ve learned in my practice is that there are no guarantees – with perhaps a major exception. That is that we will all face hardship, difficulty, pain, loss at some time or times in our lives. Our practice is one which in its essence is about facing those challenges from a different perspective. Learning to live our lives fully in all circumstances. But what about living it fully being stuck in a subway station shelter while bombs are going off, or receiving a diagnosis of a terminal illness, or suffocating with covid in the ICU, or suddenly losing a spouse or receiving a long prison sentence? Not so easy to say amidst true tragedy. So, this is a practice which truly demands effort and courage – a far cry from some blissful nirvana. And there are no easy formulas. The good news for us right here and right now, though, is that we actually have the luxury to be able to practice – to make the effort courageously. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche wrote this about sadness: What are the experiences that the teachings of the Buddha are founded on? They are sadness, love, and openness. The very first thing is sadness – perhaps because it can actually be a gateway, an opening to this love and openness. It is a profound sadness that can overwhelm us when we comprehend the impermanence of everything but at the same time can open us to the world around us. A sorrow of knowing nothing will last. We come to recognize that each and everyone of us faces life’s hardships, that we all share similar painful experiences. Maybe our hearts begin to soften and compassion begins to grow – a desire to protect and help others. Through this practice, hopefully, a clarity develops – something we’ve talked about many times. Not nirvana, but rather a boundless openness that holds everything. Maybe there is an awakening – like the sudden one that occurred in the koan of a pebble striking bamboo. Maybe, rather than saying awakening, we could say a change in our perspective, a change in how we view the world. The blinders have come off. As we all know, however, this is a practice – a practice of letting go of all the things we used to chase after blindly. A practice, as Rinpoche puts it, of becoming realistic, of breaking free from our own self-delusion. When we realize that everything is impermanent and unreal, we open up to the pain and suffering of others. That is how love and compassion become heartfelt and genuine. And yet, what about when we have no choice, when we ourselves are trapped in circumstances far beyond any control of our own? Buddha faced this situation in circumstances that may seem eerily like present times. King Vidudabha of Kosala (an expansionary kingdom of which the Shakya republic was a tributary) was apparently not a nice man – he had usurped the Kosalan throne by betraying his own father, King Pasenadi. For a number of reasons Vidudabha decided to attack the Shakyans – perhaps, as Stephen Batchelor puts it, “In the blunt terms of realpolitik, the destruction of the Shakyans translates into the violent suppression of a potentially rebellious minority who threatened the stability and cohesion of the state...Vidudabha may also have wanted to show any other group who had similar aspirations of independence how he would treat them if they sought to rise up against him.” Doesn’t seem like much has changed in 2,500 years. At the time Buddha was an old man, not far from death, and had been ostracized by his own followers. As the Kosalan troops were preparing to invade, Buddha is said to have gone to the frontier not far from Kapilavatthu (the Shakyan capital) and sat beneath a tree that offered little shade – a stark reminder to me that sometimes we may be forced to sit elsewhere than under the bodhi tree of enlightenment. Vidudabha rode up and asked Gotama why he did not sit in the shade of a banyan nearby. The Buddha replied: “Do not be concerned, great king. The shade of my kinsmen keeps me cool.” Moved by Buddha’s compassion, Vidudabha retreated but eventually he ordered the army to attack. Vidudabha offered to cease if the Shakyans laid down their arms and opened the city gates which they did. But as soon as the troops were inside, he ordered everyone to be killed. Then the slaughter began, which according to Pali sources, “spared not even children at the breast.” Vidudabha was moved by Buddha’s compassion – but apparently not for long. The Latin cognate of compassion is to suffer together with. And all the Buddha could effectively do was sit in compassion – suffering for his kinsmen and I imagine probably weeping deeply. Nothing magic or nirvanic here. So, even Buddha was suffering along with everyone in this mess.

With bows, Zochi