Born in the 6th Century BCE in India, the young prince Siddhartha Gautama was raised in a life of royal ease, shielded from the misery and cruelties of the world just beyond the palace gates and distracted by sensual pleasures and luxurious living. But one day his fateful encounter with the real world occurred. And there, in his own kingdom, he encountered suffering.
Ultimately, this led to his great renunciation - forsaking family, fortune and kingdom.
He studied various yogic disciplines as set forth in his Hindu tradition, he studied with various teachers and he practiced severe forms of asceticism, almost to the point of starvation. It was this ultimate rejection of his six-grains-of-rice meal plan that led to his important middle way philosophy.
And the central, profound question that burned in Gautama was this: "How may suffering be ended?" And he came to sit under that proverbial bodhi tree, determined not to rise from meditation until he had his answer. And after some 49 days, he delivered his first sermon.
And in his Four Noble Truths, Siddhartha Gautama, now the Buddha or the awakened one, identified the symptoms, established a diagnosis and assigned a prescription. He’s often been likened to a medical doctor.
He continued to wander and teach for some forty-five years, until his death from dysentery. His final act was to offer words of gratitude to the server whose meal opened the gates to his nirvana.
Buddhism is considered a religion, a philosophy, a way of life, any or all three. It’s completely unconcerned with labels such as Christian, Jew or Hindu. So much so that a common saying describes the normative Chinese as wearing a Confucian hat, Taoist robes and Buddhist sandals.
Buddhism teaches that all solutions are to be discovered within. That Buddhahood, although not necessarily easy to achieve, is available to everyone; that there have been, and will be, many Buddhas. And it begs the question: why does normative Christianity so resist its counterpart - that Christhood, although not necessarily easy to achieve, is available to everyone? That, indeed, humanity might do these and greater things?
Buddhism’s first Noble Truth offers the symptom; that pain happens at this level of reality. At which point I imagine a voice to rise, “But you don’t understand, I attend a Unity Church! That’s pretty negative there, Mr. Buddha!”
To which I imagine the Buddha’s voice to answer, “Really, now.”
And the Buddha points to childbirth. And the Buddha points to betrayal. And the Buddha points to loss and he reiterates, “Pain happens at this level of reality.”
Let’s remember that it wasn’t Unity Cofounder Myrtle Fillmore’s avoidance of disease but her navigation of disease that launched Unity as a way of life.
And then comes the diagnosis; that it is the mind’s struggle that elevates this pain to suffering.
I might say that this struggle is the mind resisting what is – resisting situations, resisting people (you recognize its voice to say, “So and so is unfair,” and “So and so is unjust,” and so forth).
Or I might say that this struggle is the mind clinging to what is – clinging to circumstances, clinging to people (and you can recognize its voice as that set forth in any number of sad love songs, “I can’t live, if living is without you.”
A fable was recalled by the great Unity minister, writer and teacher Eric Butterworth who reminds each of us of an eastern monarch.
Now this eastern monarch was plagued with worry and fear. He imagined thievery to be waiting around every corner, failure to be hiding within behind every decision, disease to be lurking within every handshake.
Now, so incapacitated by worry and fear was our monarch that through tears of desperation, he finally called together his wise people, his holy people, his learned people and he charged them with formulating something of a motto – magic words, if you will - brief enough to be engraved on a golden ring that he might be able to summon their magic in any moment with a simple lift of his hand.
And so, these wise people, these holy people, these learned people gathered. They studied and prayed and debated and after many long days they reappeared to introduce their something of a motto.
And with the pomp and pageantry appropriate to such a moment, the ring was presented, and the ring was accepted. And following a long pageantry of bowing and nodding, our eastern monarch, at long last, lifted his hand to behold that something of a motto - magic words, if you will, “This, too, shall pass.”
You might be surprised to learn that, “This, too, shall pass,” can be found alongside, “God helps those who help themselves,” and, “Spare the rod and spoil the child;” “God works in mysterious ways,” and, of course, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” in verses 12 through 40 of what I like to call the Book of Imaginations. In other words, “This, too, shall pass” cannot be found in your Bibe.
And yet, if you’re like me, you’ve symbolically lifted your hand and invoked that magic when life became difficult.
You’ve invoked that magic when you found yourself in a financial demand with no apparent solution in sight, when your body left you in bed sneezing and wheezing through endless episodes of Wheel of Fortune - tired old tissues hanging from your robe sleeves, when you reached that seeming impasse in a relationship – wailing and gnashing. “This, too, shall pass.”
And I imagine all of us have symbolically lifted our hands and invoked that magic during a global epidemic which has changed everything about life such as we’ve known it to be?
And yet, there’s another version of the fable from Jewish folklore that intrigues me even more. It’s not told as often.
One day, in a ploy to humble his most-trusted minister, Solomon sent him into the world to find a specific ring for Sukkot.
“It has magic powers,” explained the king. “It brings delight to despair and it brings despair to delight.”
“If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied the minister, “I will find it and bring it to you.”
Now, Solomon knew that no such ring existed and indeed, spring turned to summer until at long last, the minister found himself with a merchant in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.
“It has magic powers,” explained the minister. “It brings delight to despair and it brings despair to delight.”
At which point, he watched the grandfather take a gold ring from his carpet and engrave something onto its surface. And when the minister read the words on the ring, he smiled, for he knew that he had fulfilled his charge.
“Well, my friend,” said Solomon the next day, “have you found it?” And Solomon’s court laughed; at least until the minister held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!”
As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. For his eyes fell upon three Hebrew letters on the gold band which translated to, “This, too, shall pass.”
This version intrigues me more because in the second, we come to understand that we’re having a conversation about resisting and clinging to the temporary, changing aspects of reality.
It reflects the wisdom of Heraclitus that, “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” It reflects the wisdom of Hinduism that everything is in a constant state of change; that even our lives follow a path of unfolding from stage to stage. It reflects the wisdom of nature herself that a seafloor would become a great plain would become what we now call the Grand Canyon.
Yoga might say that it is our identification with the temporary, changing aspects of reality that leads to suffering while it is our recognition of the eternal, changeless self that leads to peace.
Unity might say that it is our identification with the transient wants and tendencies of the earthly sense self that leads to problems while it is our alignment with the enduring spiritual self that leads to solutions.
EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE
If one can accept that the problem is a mind mired in struggle, then we find ourselves at the necessary conclusion that the solution must be a mind freed from struggle.
It’s not that we would avoid the issues of earthly life, you see. It’s that we would approach the issues of earthly life in the highest way. And struggle born of resisting and clinging – that’s not it.
In turning to the words of our poets, Danna Faulds [Donna Folds] concludes our conversation with these words: There is no controlling life. Try corralling a lightning bolt, containing a tornado. Dam a stream, and it will create a new channel. Resist, and the tide will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground. The only safety lies in letting it all in - the wild with the weak; fear, fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of the heart, or sadness veils your vision with despair, practice becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your known way of being, the whole world is revealed to your new eyes.