People who lack compassion are that way for only one of two reasons:
1. They have not suffered;
2. They have suffered.
People who lack compassion are that way for only one of two reasons:
1. They have not suffered;
2. They have suffered.
Recently, as I rode the bus, I observed a most delightful sight. A small dog, a Maltese, to be exact, was quickly scampering across the surface of an icy parking lot, pulling behind him a thin boy of no more than seven years of age, and perhaps, sixty pounds. The dog looked like it was having the time of its life, and the boy, if not being pulled, was also running with no obvious concern for falling. The Maltese is a small dog and quite low to the ground. Its average weight is around five to seven pounds, with a height of about six to eight inches.
As a middle-aged woman living in a climate where winters last about four to five months with lots of snow, and the cold can be bitter and prolonged, I spend quite a bit of time trying not to fall. Despite my ascending age, my imagination remains quite vivid, and I am constantly involved in making connections. “Making connections” is my definition for ‘learning.’
So, it didn’t take long for me to put myself in that young boy’s place, imagining how different the picture would have been had it been I walking that dog. First, I wouldn’t have been dragged anywhere; and second, if the dog had been larger, and I had the potential for being dragged, I would have definitely been fearful, being much taller than that boy, of falling. Walking on only two legs and being over five feet tall, I’d have much farther to fall to the ground than that little boy or the dog.
Then, I thought of that tiny dog’s obvious joy in being outside, scampering fairly free, with no fear of falling. It literally had nowhere to go even if its legs went out from under it! And then I thought of the “four legs” of the joy of a Buddhist’s life: the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Working to live by, and meditate on, these Four Noble Truths can help us to remain grounded and less likely to fall by constantly reminding us that not only are we not as “tall” as we think, but also that should we find ourselves “sliding” on the icy pavement of circumstance, there is a sure way to regain our footing. They remind us that suffering is part of living and that we are not alone in this suffering.
There are many renderings of The Four Noble Truths. Two of my favorites are:
I’m currently searching for where I found the above rendering, and hope to soon post the authorship/location.
The second rending appears on the Website, Buddhaweb.org, under the title Essentials of Buddhism:
These Four Noble Truths are difficult for many to accept because the implication is that we cannot simply pray to ‘God’ to take our suffering away, or expect to live a life free of suffering, immediately and easily. I was once a practicing Christian. And before I continue, I must say that I know many Christians who take great comfort in their faith and much joy in sharing it. So, if this works for them, I am happy for them. It’s just that one day, when praying to God to make something a certain way for me, I realized that if “He” did so, it would be at the expense, happiness, and possibly even safety of others. I wondered how ‘God’ answered every good person’s prayer fairly, justly, and to everyone’s satisfaction — at the same time. I also came to the conclusion that for me, it was not “enough” for me to simply say, “It was not God’s will” when something did not go my way. I was also disheartened and dissatisfied with the idea that, sometimes, our lives simply have to be miserable, and we must just deal with it because, in the “great by-and-by,” we will one day be happy forever. This is how slaves were taught to deal with their misery. “God will reward you after you die.” The Buddha said that we can be happy in this life. This life.
This is why, today, I wish for everyone to grow two more legs and always live life, joyously, and without fear, like that Maltese — ‘close to the ground.’
There is nothing more self-centered, selfish, or needy than the human infant. It assumes that it is the center of the universe, and cares nothing for you, except for your ability to provide and cater to it. Supposedly, as we reach such human milestones as “toddler-hood,” puberty, and the ‘teen years,’ we gain more independence and maturity. Then, once we become adults we are to “put away childish things.” Yet, for many people, this never occurs. Instead of going from infancy to adulthood, we go from infancy to “enfantcy” (i.e., enfant terrible).
Instead of expressing maturity and independence, we simply grow older and, instead, remain just as needy but in different ways. Instead of a diaper change, a butt rub, a warm bottle or breast, or a pacifier while sitting on a shaking knee, we “need” other people’s admiration, agreement, acceptance, fear, friendship, fairness, or love. This state of “need” is called ‘craving’ or ‘clinging.’ Clinging is, in part, “all about *me,* and as stated by Ajahn Buddhadassa:
The spiritual disease of our time is the disease whose germ lies in the feeling of “we” and “ours,” “I” and “mine” that is regularly in the mind… So it follows that all unenlightened people must experience this feeling of egoism arising continually… It is the greatest danger of our time (from Essential Point of the Buddhist Teachings).
When the Buddha still walked the Earth, he was asked if it were possible for him to succinctly sum up the essence of all his teachings. He answered in the affirmative. His response was “Sabbe Dhamma Nalam Abhinivesaya.” This is the Pali for “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to.” The Buddha discovered that “clinging,” conditioned by “craving” was (and remains) the most deadly infectious disease known to humanity. And except for engaging in meditation, active mindfulness, and study, there’s no other method of “treatment.”
Now, for some examples of clinging:
To want some situation, or some person, to remain always the same is clinging. Conversely, to want some person, or some situation to change is also clinging, but to something or someone that does not presently exist but that you would prefer, or like to exist. And either way, we can never be “happy” because in the first situation, we will always have the nagging fear that our perfect situation/person will change; and in the second, we’re simply afraid that it/they will never change. The problem with both these perspectives is that everything always changes because of ‘impermanence.’ Impermanence is the “theory” (until we realize it for ourselves), that everything is ‘impermanent,’ and this is applicable even to ‘permanence.’
Subsequently, depression is clinging. Complete self-assurance is clinging. Resentment is clinging. Contentment is clinging. Arguing (to be ‘right,’ or to avoid the embarrassment of being ‘wrong’ is clinging). Happiness is clinging. Sadness is clinging. Anxiety is clinging. And anger is clinging — to name just a few examples.
Now, imagine how different life would ‘feel’ if we didn’t always need things or people to be a ‘certain way’ in order to support our self-centered, egoistic need to have things our way. Imagine if we took this a bit further, and looked at the Buddha’s statement that there is no “self” to defend, or be fearful for (yes, that’s another post), and we lived our lives in the dispassion that comes with experiencing the Truth. If we can do this, it’s called nibbana (Pali), or as it’s more commonly known, nirvana. Many people think that Nirvana is some place, or something that happens after one dies. This is not the case. Nirvana is freedom from suffering in one’s present lifetime. No informed person has ever claimed that one had to “die” to attain nirvana.
Imagine how different we would feel if we weren’t so deeply offended by such insignificant events as someone walking in our “lane” on the sidewalk (making us have to walk around them, yes,us — can you imagine?). Or imagine how differently we would feel about everyday life if we didn’t become upset or offended that that “ingrate” didn’t say “thank you” after we held the door open for them because we’re such nice people. In truth, if we were that nice, holding the door open for someone would be its own reward — and we wouldn’t need their thanks to make us feel like good people… i.e., is it our actions, other people’s recognition of our actions, or the intentions of our actions that make us “good people?” The answer to these questions being quite obvious, let us now consider the chained, imprisoning effect of always wanting and needing approval, acceptance, and recognition from everyone, even complete strangers! And this is how we go from being self-centered infants to self-centered adults.
A doctor or midwife or police officer cuts our umbilical cord — and we spend the rest of our lives trying to find someone else to whom we may reattach it.
Please note that I am in no way saying that I am there, “all that,” or anywhere near being free of “clinging disease.” Far from it. I am simply one more pilgrim on the journey to, hopefully, enlightenment. In closing, the Buddha said,
I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.
So, let us begin to end it…
“It’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel…”–Anonymous
Last year, I found myself in the position of being bullied. And I’m a middle-aged woman. I’d dealt with the situation, quite sanely, by reminding myself that I was not the only person being bullied by this man, and by remembering something that the Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön said:
“If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”
Thinking along these lines has helped me to realize that sometimes, the only difference between my “goodness” and someone else’s “perversity” is only that I, unlike that person, am aware of the integral and overwhelming part that ignorance plays in each of our lives. And as I always like to emphasize, when I use the term ‘ignorance,’ I use it not in the common parlance of meaning “stupid” or “idiotic,” but rather in its truest sense. And for the Buddha, ignorance was, and is, the cause of all suffering…
To be ‘ignorant’ of something is to be ‘unaware of, unenlightened regarding, some issue or aspect of one’s existence, persona, or “reality.” And idiocy is not a necessary ingredient. I have, more than once, come to be truly appalled at my own actions, finding them to be based on what I can only refer to as ignorance of the most stultifying proportions (yes, the assumption here is that I am not an idiot), and it has been these types of realizations that have helped me to find compassion for people and situations where, previously, I had none.
The bullying I’d experienced was not physical, but rather verbal, with implied promises of physical violence. I eventually learned not to engage with this individual (which turned out to be an excellent strategy), thus depriving him both of any knowledge of how I truly felt about what he was doing, and any type of bearings for knowing how much further he needed to go before lighting my fuse, or even if it had already been lit.
Nonetheless, he still bothered me. I could feel myself tensing up every time I found myself in the same room with him. I was upset whenever he said anything to me because it was always foul, and I was upset when he didn’t say anything to me because I was anticipating that he would say something. Then, one day, as I walked by, I heard him say to a friend, as he stood, one foot up on the edge of a picnic table while smoking a cigarette, “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.” And they laughed.
Though I couldn’t honestly determine if that comment was directed towards me, I did realize that I had a problem because I’d taken it quite personally, anyway. I’d heard that expression, “…like shooting fish in a barrel,” at least a hundred times, but had never used it myself, or thought much about it. Generally, we take it to mean that if something is like “shooting fish in a barrel,” it’s easy. And I realized that I was, for lack of a better word, ‘easy.’ And whether he’d been referring to me or not, I was his “fish in a barrel,” his ‘captive audience,’ his ‘sure thing.’ He knew he’d riled me up on more than one occasion, and that he could do it again, whenever he wanted. So, I decided to do a little research on this popular expression.
Here’s what I found:
One of my favorite television shows is the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters; that is, if I had a television, I’d probably watch it on a regular basis. I discovered that the hosts of this popular show had actually dedicated an episode to testing the ease of shooting fish in a barrel. The hosts, Jamie and Adam, filled a barrel of water with 30 plastic fish. Using a shotgun, Jamie fired into the barrel, hitting only three of the fish, which is a 10 percent hit rate. What they were able to calculate, as a result of their experiment, is that the damage to real fish isn’t so much the bullets as the changes instituted to the fishes’ environment by those bullets. In other words:
“Fish are extremely sensitive to the slightest water pressure change thanks to a specialized organ they have called the lateral line, which detects water displacement, force and direction. When a bullet moving faster than the speed of sound strikes the water, it forms a high-pressure acoustic shockwave in front of it. The MythBusters calculated that a 9-millimeter gunshot delivers around 100 g-force units of pressure into the barrel.
Similar to how a loud noise can injure a person’s ear drum, such an intense pressure fluctuation from the ballistic shockwave would rupture the fishes’ blood vessels and mortally wound them, proving that you don’t even have to shoot a single fish to kill a barrel full of them.” –From MythBuster’s Database, Discovery.com
Again, this is all in view of the fact that while only hitting 10% of the fish, all will die…
So, how is this relevant to us as human beings? Well, it’s all about our physical, mental, and emotional environments. It’s also about our proximity to others, i.e., even if we’re concealed in “the crowd,” and it’s our neighbors taking the direct hits, those hits can still be fatal to us – and the ‘shooter’ not only counts on this, but also counts on our not knowing it. After learning of the latest Malaysia Air disaster of July 2014, the horror and revulsion we experienced was palpable and universal — except for the case of a few sick or tragically misguided individuals. We were all affected. And that’s how terrorists operate. Whether members of Al Qaeda, our workplace, or our personal living environment, their goal is to cause us to wake up in fear, and lie down in despair. When we are not actually experiencing harassment, bullying, or mortal threats, we are, instead, anticipating them. The fear and dread are, as they say, in the water…
So, we can pretend, as much as we like, that we’re not affected by what’s going on around us, by the bullets of hate and discord, but that doesn’t change the fact that human beings also have a type of special organ, similar to a fish’s lateral line, which detects violent “displacements” of what we generally consider to be the humanitarian norm. For a great many people, becoming invulnerable to such “displacements” would require something like the practice of substance abuse or the manifestation of psychopathy. As with fish, becoming invulnerable to our environment isn’t something we can do, naturally; but unlike fish, we can, nonetheless, examine, rethink, and reposition ourselves to better absorb “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” (that’s Shakespeare, baby). And this starts with learning to sever our connections to our superficial environments by following some of the last advice the Buddha ever gave: “Be an island unto yourself.” Yes, the Buddha significantly differed with John Donne’s pronouncement that “no man is an island”…
When our feelings of safety and security depend on other people’s acceptance, good will, dependability, or decency, we are destined to be forever in search of the same, and consistently disappointed. Unfortunately, and in reality, everything is in flux. The only thing that never changes is change, itself. And we must include people among those “things,” as in the Tao Te Ching’s “ten thousand things.” So, though we eventually get what we want or need, someone is always rude enough to die, have a nervous breakdown, move to another country, or simply change their mind. And often, situations which seem interminable (particularly in an unpleasant way) are just about to change, if only we can “stick it out.”
Not playing the game is a good start to personal freedom, but understanding the forces, or g-force(s), if you will, that are pressing against us on every side is the only way to truly gauge our position in the battle of wits that is daily life. It simply isn’t enough to pretend that we are above it all, especially when we are literally stuck in that most unnatural of places, “…a fish in a barrel.”
And it is exactly this kind of being ‘stuck’ that the Four Noble Truths address:
Obliterating A Fish In A Barrel: MythBusters (A YouTube demonstration)
Is Shooting Fish In A Barrel Easy? from MythBusters Database (brief text explanation)
And Oh, yeah… The Four Noble Truths from About.com/Buddhism
Have you ever felt that your life is like one of those stunningly spectacular traffic accidents where pedestrians and drivers, alike, literally stop in their tracks to gawk in horrid fascination? Of course, nothing restores normalcy and order like a police officer motioning and admonishing the stunned onlookers to “Move along, folks! Nothing to see, here!” Honestly, I’ve never heard a real police officer say this – only in the movies; but then, I’ve never stopped to gawk.
Whether or not police officers actually say this, I recently discovered the equivalent of a personal police officer, or better yet, bodyguard, to direct traffic in the sometimes-seeming collision of my own life. I’d like to share it with this caveat:
Depending on where you are, or are not, in your meditation practice, or if you don’t have a meditation practice, you may or may not find value in this offering. I know this because just three months ago, after reading what I’m about to share, I would have said, “What the hell?” Really.
The following quotation is from the book Meditation On Perception: Ten Healing Practices to Cultivate Mindfulness by Bhante Gunaratana. I’ve never met this man, but I love him, and I love his work. And I was amused to learn that he is commonly and affectionately referred to as Bhante G, which seems like the Dharma equivalent of such celebrity names as Sheila E., Kenny G., or Heavy D. And mind you, I mean this with all metta and respect. So, let’s get to business. The following quotation is from the book chapter titled, “Perception of Non-Delight in the Whole World”:
As we discover, the mind purified of greed, hatred, and delusion is naturally free from excitement when perceiving anything in the world. There is nothing special in the entire world for such a mind to delight in. Nor is there anything to be disappointed by. Nothing is extraordinary. The same problems of impermanence, suffering, and selflessness exist everywhere. Recognizing this truth, the mind becomes relaxed, peaceful, and calm (pp. 81-82).
Waitress! I’ll have one of what he’s having! Can you imagine what a deep realization of this ‘truth’ (as opposed to knowledge about, or agreement with) could accomplish? First, it calls us to task regarding the alleviation of our own delusions; then, it causes us to question whether or not we are alone, extraordinarily, or otherwise, in our sufferings. Of course, we are not; but it often feels this way. Finally, it calls into question our core values or beliefs regarding that which is important, singular, or even remarkable about what might be happening to us – if anything. It’s about detachment (as opposed to indifference). And in a strange and tragic sense, people who resort to watching television 22 hours a day (which Buddhism considers an intoxicant, or form of ‘intoxication’), or abusing substances to numb the pain actually sort of “get it,” but their methodology is unhealthy and rooted firmly in ignorance. There’s another way! Another caveat, here, could be that this ‘other way’ could take years.
If it’s true, as the Buddha said in his Four Noble Truths (the very foundation of Buddhism), then it is only our ignorance of what constitutes “reality” that makes us suffer. The Second Noble Truth reveals that it is ignorance that is the cause of our suffering – not that someone might actually be racist, sexist, stupid, unfair, or __________ (fill in the blank). Isn’t it funny that when we invest in stocks, we want something stable but profitable, but when we invest our hearts in people, or situations, entities that are often not stable, and never un-changing, we wonder why we aren’t getting our money’s worth… We also learn, eventually, that we are usually our own worst enemy in the worst of situations, not to mention the best…
Finally, we learn that there is a way to “suck it up,” all up, without faking it, or becoming a closet addict, or having a nervous breakdown, and we can do it with discernment, objectivity, and uncommon sense, as well. But, it ain’t easy. It never is. As the First Noble Truth says, ‘Where there is life, there is suffering…”
Gunaratana, B. (2014). Meditation on Perception: Ten Healing Practices to Cultivate Mindfulness. Wisdom Publications: Boston, MA.