|collecting ash from recent fires burning near our home**|
In the lottery of life every day there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. But what is it to win? And what does it mean to lose? How many hopeful people purchase an actual lottery ticket every week for years in the hope that life’s riches may rain down upon them? How many of those ‘lucky winners’ have found their good fortune turns on them and that they long for their lives to be what they were prior to their ‘win’? Researching the later question online, it would seem more often than not to be the case.
At times as humans we lack the capacity to be happy with what we have. We spend a great deal of our time ‘future dreaming’ about what we may one day have in our lives, rather than enjoying what we have around us in the present moment. We sometimes lack the ability to appreciate that we are ‘winning’ already.
And at times – life throws challenges our way - and it is hard not to feel consumed by them. At these moments - even that which is good within our lives can be overwhelmed by the sorrow, anger, or fear we feel as we try to come to terms with such news/events; or by ‘future nightmares’ of what may become; rather than taking the time to be with what is now.
In truth – every win will bring with it some sorrow; just as every loss will bring with it some joy, perhaps not in the immediate, or even in the short term. Life, in many instances is very long. Sometimes it takes time to understand or appreciate the true gift an event we initially perceive as positive or negative can have on our lives.
This week I have had to listen to some news that is hard to hear, about someone I care very deeply for. This news will affect the course of my life as well as theirs – and I have had to remind myself to maintain perspective as my mind began the journey through fearing ‘the worst’ or ‘what may be’.
At such times in life – I take great comfort in the writings of Thay [Thich Nhat Hanh] returning again to my favourite sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone – and who reflects on the nature of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ succinctly below:
It is not possible to judge any event as simply fortunate or unfortunate, good or bad. It is like the old story about the farmer and the horse.* You must travel throughout all of time and space to know the true impact of any event. Every success contains some difficulties, and every failure contributes to increased wisdom or future success. Every event is both fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate and unfortunate, good and bad, exist only in our perceptions.[i]
*One day a farmer went to the field and found that his horse had run away. The people in the village told the farmer it was “bad luck.” The next day the horse returned and the village people said, “That is good luck!” Then the farmer’s son fell off the horse and broke his leg. The villagers told the farmer that this was bad luck. Soon after, a war broke out and young men from the village were being drafted. But because the farmer’s son had a broken leg, he was not drafted. Now the village people told the farmer that his son’s broken leg was really “good luck.”
There is another sensation that arrives when one receives news that is hard to hear. A sense of isolation, even if you are in the company of others who shower their care and empathy upon you – one can feel alone. Whenever I am challenged by life and begin to have ‘why me?’ moments I take great comfort in re-reading the story of Krisha Gotami from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche:
This is the story of Krisha Gotami, a young woman who had the good fortune to live at the time of the Buddha. When her firstborn child was about a year old, it fell ill and died. Grief-stricken and clutching its little body, Krisha Gotami roamed the streets, begging anyone she met for a medicine that could restore her child to life. Some ignored her, some laughed at her, some thought she was mad, but finally she met a wise man who told her that the only person in the world who could perform the miracle she was looking for was the Buddha.
So she went to the Buddha, laid the body of her child at his feet, and told him her story. The Buddha listened with infinite compassion. Then he said gently, "There is only one way to heal your affliction. Go down to the city and bring me back a mustard seed from any house in which there has never been a death."
Krisha Gotami felt elated and set off at once for the city. She stopped at the first house she saw and said: "I have been told by the Buddha to fetch a mustard seed from a house that has never known death."
"Many people have died in this house," she was told. She went on to the next house. "There have been countless deaths in our family," they said. And so to a third and a fourth house, until she had been all round the city and realized the Buddha's condition could not be fulfilled.
She took the body of her child to the charnel ground and said goodbye to him for the last time, then returned to the Buddha. "Did you bring the mustard seed?" he asked.
"No," she said. 'I am beginning to understand the lesson you are trying to teach me. Grief made me blind and I thought that only I had suffered at the hands of death."
'Why have you come back?" asked the Buddha.
"To ask you to teach me the truth," she replied, "of what death is, what might lie behind and beyond death, and what in me, if anything, will not die."
The Buddha began to teach her: "If you want to know the truth of life and death, you must reflect continually on this: There is only one law in the universe that never changes – that all things change, and that all things are impermanent. The death of your child has helped you to see now that the realm we are in –samsara- is an ocean of unbearable suffering. There is one way, and one way only, out of samsara's ceaseless round of birth and death, which is the path to liberation. Because pain has now made you ready to learn and your heart is opening to the truth, I will show it to you."
Krisha Gotami knelt at his feet, and followed the Buddha for the rest of her life. Near the end of it, it is said, she attained enlightenment.[ii]
So for me at present there are three meditations to keep foremost:
The first – That all things change, and that all things are impermanent.
The second – That every event is fortunate and unfortunate.
The third - That grief, sorrow or fear can blind us - but that if we look in to them deeply, they can help us to see the true nature of life.
Over the last month fires have been continually burning in the mountainous rainforest behind our Yarrabah home. Smoke plumes daily like cloud, drifting out across the bay, erasing Cairns from view. The dense green foliage has been stripped back to charcoal, earth and ash. For a time this landscape will be barren, but before long new life will sprout forth and certain species will actually thrive because of the burning time.
We cannot know what the future holds. We cannot know the potential benefit ‘bad’ news can have on our lives. I have read a good many stories over the years by people wanting to share how being told they were dying of cancer ‘saved’ their lives, and made them start to really live…