By John Pendall
When I first stumbled on Buddhism, I thought, “What a depressing load of garbage!”
There was a bit too much dust in my eyes at the time to see that it isn’t depressing garbage at all. Maddening at times if we take an intellectual approach, but depressing? No.
I am depressing.
“I am” is always depressing in the long run. “I am” is always inevitably stressful and unsatisfying. “I am (insert statement)” is the heart of delusion that the Buddhadharma encourages practitioners to let go of by observing it with a clear mind.
The Four Noble Truths are often glossed over by students, but they are the Dharma in its entirety. They’re meant to be pondered deeply and applied to day-to-day life which results in prajna or insight. Alleviating suffering is a lifetime practice, which is why we don’t all act like perfect little Buddhas. We have faults, bad habits and idiosyncrasies…and that’s okay.
There’s a lot I would change about myself if I could. I’d be kinder, physically fit, have hair and a beard like Amityville Horror-era James Brolin. I’d be able to withstand the temptations of chocolate, imported beer, beautiful women and be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Some of those things may come to be, some not. Buddhism lets us be okay with either outcome.
I mean, it’d be awesome to look like James Brolin, but those looks would only last for a few years anyway. Really, perfection isn’t the goal. Perfection is the goal; meaning going beyond ideas like perfection and imperfection. I’d say 9/10ths of Buddhist practice is simply watching oneself make mistakes, watching oneself holding onto things, and watching oneself suffer because we’re holding onto things.
The Middle Way isn’t about curing ourselves. It’s about learning to let ourselves heal.
Let’s say I pick up a hot coal and hold onto it for a few seconds. This causes a lot of pain and burns my hand. I don’t do anything with the burn, I just let it fester because I can be quite stupid. Eventually, it starts to smell funny and I realize I have an infection. Now I know to put antibiotic cream on it next time.
So the next time I grasp the coal and hold it, I burn my hand and put some ointment on it. Hooray! No infection! Then a scab develops. It really itches so I scratch it and open up the wound again. This time, I learned to put ointment on and to not scratch scabs.
Then maybe I learn that the longer I hold the coal, the worse my burn is. So I let go of it sooner and sooner. Eventually, I realize that if I don’t pick up the coal at all, I won’t get burned in the first place. Instead, I just sit by the pile of coals and enjoy the warmth they offer.
It’d be nice if we could learn all of this secondhand, but that just doesn’t seem to work. If I read the Sutras and think, “Oh yeah, that makes sense,” but never put their wisdom to the test, then I’m always going to doubt them to a degree. It has to come from direct experience.
That means getting burned a lot and learning from it each time.
Like fellow writer and podcast co-host, Daniel Sharpenburg pointed out, Buddhism is medicine. It isn’t designed to cure us, but to heal us. Only those who know that they’re sick seek medicine. Buddhists are people who have been thoroughly burned throughout their lives. They are decorated with old scars from that hot coal.
So they are drawn to a teacher, a teaching and a community that helps them understand why they are burned and how to stop burning.
Editor: Dana Gornall