Buddhism is not founded on great world-shattering questions like: ‘Who Made the Universe?’, or ‘What is the Meaning of Life?’ It takes as its jumping off point the basic fact that we all suffer, that life not only has a pleasant, light side but a dark, painful side too — and that’s a problem.
‘Suffering I teach,’ said the Buddha; ‘and the Way out of suffering.’
A couple of years ago I experienced that commonplace modern disaster, the breakup of a marriage. It’s always a trauma when two people who have thrown in their lot together split up. High hopes are dashed, trust is betrayed, and a terrible emotional wrenching takes place. I remember one night of particular desolation, when all my oldest and deepest wounds seemed to have been reopened — and rubbed with fresh salt. A vast despair filled the night.
In Buddhism, we place a special emphasis on practice, on things to do rather than things to think or believe. One vital practice is meditation, which in its most basic form involves awakening awareness. We don’t have to struggle to be aware; it’s our basic nature. We just have to let go of all that obstructs it. Then we can fully attend to what’s happening in the present moment.
So on that desolate night, I sat cross-legged on my meditation cushion, closed my eyes, and just tried to be with the emotional turmoil. It wasn’t at all easy. Our own raw emotions — not just pain, but fear, jealousy, anger and all the rest — are very unwelcome tenants in our house. We will resort to, anything rather than confront them: denial, repression, distraction . . . We’ll even try to wipe them out with drink or entertainment. But none of these ploys can really get at the root of the problem. Difficult emotion can only be resolved through acceptance and awareness.
So it was a struggle for me. My mind tried every trick to avoid looking at what I was actually feeling. But in the end resistance and evasion gave way and I was able to hospitably entertain my pain in the vastness of awareness. Then that fiery cauldron of feeling began to change. It seemed to open out. It was no longer strictly personal — my suffering — but infinitely wide and deep. Then I knew that our own suffering, if faced, puts us in touch with the measureless suffering of the world. For every sentient being that has come into existence has been wounded in some way.
Once the Buddha asked his disciples: ‘What is the greater, the tears you have shed during your many rebirths, or the water in the four great oceans?’
The disciples replied: ‘Insofar as we have understood your teaching, the flood of tears is greater.’
‘Well said!’ the Buddha commented. ‘For a long, long time you have experienced the death of mothers, sons, daughters, the misery of relations, the misery of wealth; for a long, long time you have experienced the misery of disease . . . Weeping and wailing, the flood of tears shed by you is indeed greater than all the waters of the mighty oceans . . . ‘
When we stand on the brink of the ocean of collective suffering, we awaken to our basic humanity — and more than that, to our common ground with all life. We aren’t alone. Life is a process from which no one and nothing can escape unscathed. Awareness of this transforms personal pain into the warmth of compassion, which is the source from which true kindness springs.
More from John Snelling here.
Published in the December 1989 Buddhism Now
[Originally broadcast on the 'Reflections' series on the BBC World Service.]