Is there an escape from hardships? I doubt it. Is there a way to face hardship with some degree of equanimity? Pema Khandro addresses this in an article entitled “When We Have No Choice.” She starts by writing about the times when we must endure hardships, when we don’t have the choice or opportunity or freedom to change how things are, when the only thing to do is work with our own minds. The important word here is endure even in our powerlessness. She uses the story of Yeshe Tsogyal, the female bodhisattva of Tibet. She was a princess who had already suffered many hardships when her teacher, Padmasambhava sent her into intensive three-year training on a glacier high in the Himalayas, a place of extreme isolation where even if she called for help, no one would hear her cry. She finally came to a point where she would die or sustain the hardship and make it through. She prayed to Padmasambhava, who somehow appeared in a vision or dream. He gave her five instructions that guided her through that moment. He began with, “Even though you’re accustomed to be intolerant of unpleasant situations, now is the time to take joy and sorrows as the path, whatever hardships now befall you.” “To take joy and sorrows as the path” is a frequent phrase in Tibetan prayers. It refers to the ability to take an experience and make use of it to train, to see into the nature of reality, to clarify what we are. It also refers to the power available in extreme hardships, the way that petty concerns are naturally silenced. Things get very real, very direct. One of those Tibetan prayers reads, “If suffering comes, use it to take on the burden of everyone’s suffering.” Compassion – to suffer together with. That is how we suffer. Perhaps this creates an open-hearted presence in which we actually find relief. And in this practice, we can find acceptance, an acceptance that may allow us to let go of resistance when it is time to endure. As Yeshe puts it, “It is truly terrible, but terribly true, that we must sometimes accept the situation and be right there with it.” A second advice from Padmasambhava is, “Be less desirous of an easy life.” This is a reminder that our practice can and will be difficult. I’m reminded of a saying they have in AA - “We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not. With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start.” Quite the advice for those striving to recover from alcoholism, quite the advice for those of us trying to release ourselves from delusion. This is about courage, fearlessness, and not grasping. This is what Yeshe says, “This is one useful thing about our horrible circumstances: that by enduring them, we will know. We will know that we can maintain integrity while challenged, that we can work with our mind as our fundamental condition. This is the way we will find true and deep compassion. We will know.” Integral to this process is Padmasambhava’s third advice – “Meditate on impermanence”. We discuss impermanence in almost every dharma talk – in Pali, Anicca. Yeshe’s take on Anicca is that it can be viewed as a liberating factor, as a knowledge that whatever arises, whatever one experiences, it has its peak and then dissipates. We only have to be here right now. Knowing this we can endure anything. The fourth advice is – “Reveal your hidden faults. Don’t hide your latent vices. Lay bare your inadequacies.” This could be considered as part of the process of moving past self-deception – something that requires brutal self-honesty. And when things fall apart, when our world view is totally disrupted then all our hidden faults and latent short-comings are laid bare. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide – we have come to the point of both recognizing and letting go. Finally, the fifth instruction is that step of recognizing and letting go. Padmasambhava says, “Since you’ve been accustomed to over-reaching in your self-deceit, now is the time to throw off hypocrisy and dissimulation. Expose your secret self and take courage.” We are being asked to stretch beyond all artifice. Yeshe writes, “That is usually so hard, but less so when we are under extreme duress. We are so exposed, so vulnerable, so fragile, that there is very little capacity to pretend.” To me, this is where the very foundation of our practice lies – to be present with whatever occurs in our minds, recognize, accept, and let it go, to learn to embrace life in all of its aspects – joy and sorrows, to take courage and to recognize that we are all in this together. There is the old trope of “keep an open mind.” An open mind – we could think of a mind that is boundless and free. But keeping it open – day after day we may continually rediscover it in our practice, because we will always be imperfect and human. Keeping an open mind and taking courage. Then genuine love and compassion will take fruit.
With bows, Zochi