The man was eager to speak, unusually so for a newcomer to the monastery and its weekly tea-time ‘Questions and Comments.’ After a few initial pleasantries, the other guests were content to quietly mull things over, but ‘Ted’ (not his real name) jumped in. There was an experience that had shaken him to the core a decade or so ago, and he had finally found a time and place to give it voice.
Ted had committed to volunteer work in a drought-prone area of Africa – medicine, work on the land, anything he could do. People were malnourished and infant mortality high. On the too-frequent bad years, the meagre crop failed altogether. The villagers had a few goats that survived by nibbling scrubby grass and thorn bushes. For Ted, working there meant meeting a hopelessness that seemed as inevitable and implacable as the sun. As volunteers know, finding the emotional resilience to persist in such a situation is as much part of the work as anything one can do physically; in fact one of the values of the physical work, however inadequate the results may seem, is that it provides a relief from the grinding force of helplessness. Doing something helps to dull that edge.
However, what had stirred him most deeply was the mental state of the villagers themselves. They were bright-eyed and lived lightly; they weren’t always happy, but neither were they patiently enduring or grimly surviving. They were as void of such shields as they were of bitterness or despair. Somehow, they could dance and sing and laugh: it didn’t make sense. But what turned his mind completely upside-down was that when the time came for him to leave, these people who had as near to nothing as makes little difference, insisted on giving him one of their goats. It was all they had.
That contradictory response had challenged Ted’s sense of living a meaningful life in secular materialist terms. How was it that people who had so little, so much less security and comfort than he had, were yet happier than him? And a further question kept nagging: In terms of freedom from stress and inner conflict, how far does the conventional direction of getting a successful career, a car and a mortgage go?
I paused and listened to what was happening within me. ‘They didn’t have a “should be”,’ was what I offered, waiting for anything further to arise in my mind, ‘they didn’t have an idea of how things should be.’ The statement seemed simplistic, even callous if developed as an ideological response to the world’s suffering. However as is often the case when one listens deeply to what is being expressed, the comment that emerged touched the moment’s truth.
As we moved into dialogue, it was easy enough to explore the degree to which the emotionally-charged notion of ‘the way it should be’ was a major source of suffering to us well-fed, clothed and comfortably-sheltered people. ‘Should be’s’ – expectations and assumptions about everything from other people, the weather, the government and the global economy – formed clouds that hovered over most of us for periods of time and cast shadows of lost promise, of frustration, and of further struggles to get things right. Whatever ‘right’ would be.
Because, although the sense that the society, life and oneself weren’t as good as they should be was a presence in our hearts, it was difficult to get a realistic picture of a scenario that would suit everyone. Furthermore, as things had never been the way they should be … on a statistical basis alone, that made it unlikely that they ever would. A few moments’ investigation also questioned as to who it is that knows, or what is it in us that tells us, how things should be. And on what grounds? How many people as we meet them, and how many situations that arise, can actually fit into any ideal state? Wouldn’t it feel freer, wouldn’t our minds feel more open to come to terms with what was actually happening without that sense of ‘it shouldn’t be like this.’
However, there’s an uneasiness about letting go of how things should be. Would that commit us to a state of indifferent passivity? What about aspiration? And compassion? Do we just watch the pangs of the world and the wincing and pushing of our minds until we give up? Is that what ‘letting go’ is about?
There’s a story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges that makes a point about the wrong kind of letting go. Called The Immortal, it’s an exploration of a theme, a parable of sorts. The central theme of this story is one of a quest for immortality, for freedom from death and for the paradise that would ensue. After a long trek across a desert, the narrator comes across a paradoxical city. It is elaborately constructed of streets that lead to dead-ends, of labyrinths, of great doorways that open onto pits, of irregular cupolas and columns; this crazy city is also uninhabited. In the desert that surrounds the city are some scrawny sub-humans clothed in rags and eating little. One of these, a being who is accompanying the narrator as a guide, only manages to speak – and with difficulty – when a provident rainfall washes their faces. He, it turns out, is Homer, and has become immortal, as have all the sub-humans in the surrounding desert. So, the fable unfolds. Being immortal, these people are under no pressure, and have nothing driving them on to reach deadlines. Nothing will kill them, so there is nothing to be concerned about. They see everything pass away, so they are free from the pangs of unrequited love, and from the gnawing envy of others. Nothing needs be built, nothing is precious and made poignant by its unrepeatability; hence there is nothing that needs to be expressed. So they look at each other with indifference; and when one of their number falls into a quarry he spends seventy years in this pit burning with thirst before anyone throws him a rope to haul him out. Building the crazy city was the work of these immortals, a final expression, before they abandoned even that, of the meaninglessness of an endless future devoid of moral purpose, compassion and self-sacrifice. So is this immortality the ending of birth and death, the extinction of desire and the way to the Deathless that the Buddha advocated? Surely not – these immortals are the living dead. The plight of the African villagers offers more in terms of living freedom.
The human predicament needs to be looked into fully and holistically; it needs to include not just the world as something ‘out there’, but the ‘inner’ world of our attitudes, reactions and responses. Actually it needs more than looking into – this holistic experience, in which there is no real separation, has to be entered and fully felt. No sane mind can advocate poverty and infant mortality – but can we open to and sit with the fact that ageing, sickness, death (at any time) and separation from the loved are universally unavoidable? ‘All that is mine beloved and pleasing will become otherwise, will become separated from me.’ This, one of the most troubling statements about the human condition that I’ve come across, is something that the Buddha recommended we reflect upon and take in on a daily basis. Because whether it should be or not, this is definitely the way it is for all of us. It’s an arrow of truth, shooting straight through the heart.
It’s all so unfair – but the Buddha shot this arrow, the truth of dukkha, as an opening to an Awakening that brings about our highest happiness. Yes, in one of his own moving parables, (Samyutta 56.46) the Buddha sets up the scenario whereby what is offered to you is the possibility of being stabbed with spears one hundred times in the morning, one hundred times in the afternoon and one hundred times in the evening. In this parable, this ‘stab-a-thon’ will happen every day for one hundred years – at the end of which you will realize and Awaken through the Four Noble Truths. ‘If someone makes you that offer’, says the Buddha, ‘accept it.’ Realizing as it really is the truths of suffering, its arising, its ceasing and the Path to that ceasing will be for our long-lasting welfare. And this process will also be accompanied by happiness and joy.
However, the Buddha didn’t teach these Four Noble Truths to uninitiated beginners; only when the heart was made ready by reflections and practices of generosity, morality and renunciation would he deliver the truths that release it. And that’s the clue. Because these practices introduce us to the holistic sense – ‘to others as to myself’ – and also check the rush towards sense-gratification that is a primary obstacle to staying holistic. The African tribe, by being a collective, had that sense; together they could dance, grieve and share what they had. Because of this shared sense they were not bowed down with the suffering of ‘Why me?’ This sense of being part of a universality has a capacity that our self-importance blocks; here is the bull’s eye to which the arrow of suffering brings transformation when we no longer deny or rail against it. Because if attention is steadied on that vulnerable point, the response of true knowing, selflessness, and compassion issues forth. This is the Awakening to the Way It Is – a Dhamma that does not shift and die. It’s a Dhamma that never tells you how you or they or it should be, but it unerringly makes it clear what you should do.
In Dhamma-practice we are encouraged to relinquish guilt, regret and fantasies around trying to be clearer, stronger or more loving than we are, and to replace all that with here-and-now acceptance of ourselves and each other. That acceptance is that there’s nothing that we have to be; in fact that there’s nothing that we ever can be – except the awareness that the images and impression of self, other and the world are subject to change. Yet that acceptance requires a subtle action, a shift to the holistic sense.
Of course, to put the conventional reality aside and to step out of the regretted past, the mundane present and the anxious future; to come to a place of timeless, selfless response – that too takes some doing. But if we don’t do that, our minds either spin around trying to create a happy world, or close to shut out its pangs. Either of these currents, ‘becoming’ (bhava) and ‘negation’ (vibhava), obscure the holistic sense – which is the only sense that can transmute suffering into unflustered compassion. So what we can do, what in fact we should do if we seek our own welfare, is to come out of those currents. And that means developing the emotional and psychological capacity to steady our awareness and meet what arises without holding on or closing awareness. This is uncomfortable and confusing at first, because to give up controlling or defending the heart against life confronts the ego. Initiation into wholeness isn’t ego-gratifying. But it’s from this attention as it deepens beyond the currents of bhava/vibhava that the Awakening response will emerge. Putting aside the ‘should be’ therefore doesn’t mean putting aside being touched and responding. It means that our true response has to be one that doesn’t get bogged down in, regret or deny life. To live truthfully is to live lightly.
In fact Ted’s presence in Africa, his wish to help, his work, along with his confusion at the villagers’ attitudes were also attempts at the Four Noble Truths. He saw suffering, and in the only way that he knew how, he went forth to end it. But he hadn’t fully entered dukkha and he had no Path. Yet he got a teaching: he thought that suffering was outside himself and he could fix it, but the villagers had presented him with a Dhamma that blew that paradigm apart. Unable to fit the experience into his customary way of thinking, now he needed the skill and the encouragement to meet and deepen into what had hit him. The monastery’s reception room in comfortable West Sussex is a long way from impoverished rural Africa; but it’s significant that something in him sought out such an occasion – because it was a place for talking to and being heard by others. This is the most available entry to the holistic Cosmos. But more than that, Cittaviveka monastery presents a situation that is based on generosity, morality and renunciation, where deep attention to oneself, to others, and to the Way It Is, is encouraged and cultivated. These frame a door, but then you’ve got to do it. The key has to be turned. Because without wisely attending and opening into what it reveals, the door of suffering isn’t a Noble Truth, it’s just plain miserable and it doesn’t go away.
Ted comes to the monastery regularly now, to work, listen and meditate. As for me: at times – and if my mind was fully-Awakened, it would be all the time – I live in awe of how the peace of the Way It Is emerges out of meeting, purely, what arises. That out of an unsatisfactory and even anguishing existence should flow such strength, grandeur and freedom that will make a human being give all they have – just because it is the right and true thing to do. But the sweet truth is that although sickness and death may be our lot, greed, hatred and delusion and the needless suffering they create don’t have to weigh us down.