By Duane Toops
This past week I was doing some writing and research, and I started rummaging around looking for a particular book.
In the process I stumbled upon a book that my wife got me for Christmas the year before last. The book is called Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, by English professor Eric G. Wilson. Of all the books I read last year this one is easily within my top five. That’s why I can’t believe I didn’t think about it at all, when I started writing about sadness, sorrow and my on-going struggles with depression and anxiety. I’m kicking myself for not remembering it, and for not taking the opportunity to delve into it again, especially on this particular topic.
Luckily (for me at least), between Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche’s book, Sadness, Love, Openness and this book by Eric Wilson, I think there’s more that we can say regarding the intersection of Buddhism and sadness. This might be completely self-indulgent but let’s talk a little bit more about sadness.
Choki Nyima Rinpoche explains that the teachings of the Buddha are founded upon “sadness, love and openness.” Sadness is the pathway that leads us to love, it is the avenue that guides us to openness. Sadness can generate love and it can create opportunities for openness if we allow it. In other words, sadness is not an end, in and of itself—it’s only the means to an end. Sadness is not the destination, it’s the vehicle that takes somewhere we need to go. It’s part of the process that brings us to where we belong.
Eric Wilson writes that, “melancholia and insight are intimately connected, that profound gloom generates rapid light, that dissolution is the key to transformation.”
The Buddha explained that life is filled with suffering, sorrow, and sadness, and this is partly due to the fact that every aspect of existence is unavoidably impermanent. No matter how much we so desperately desire for things to be permanent, nothing is and nothing can be. Everything is destined to dissolve.
The moment when we are most confronted with the impermanence of all that is, is most often the moment in which we are most overwhelmed by suffering, sorrow and sadness.
Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche highlights that “deep sorrow comes with realizing that everything we previously took to be lasting and real is actually just about to disappear.” And yet, this sadness spurred on by impermanence is also an incisive moment of insight. Eric Wilson writes that this painful insight provides us with “novel knowledge of our selves and the world.” He says that, “out of its blankness something will come, a new insight, a fresh way of seeing, of being.”
When we experience profound sorrow and sadness, our vision of the world dramatically shifts into clearer focus. The clouded lens that shields our eyes from the truth of our being cracks, and the unencumbered light of reality pierces through—sometimes only for a moment.
When we are struck by sorrow, all the walls that we’ve built up around ourselves under the auspices of safety and security—those defenses—begin to crumble. Sometimes they break wide open and we are left fully exposed. In this very moment of vulnerability our view of reality is at its most unobstructed, we experience the raw such-ness of “what-is,” and we are quite possibly more open to the world than we have ever been.
Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche says that it is in this moment that “we have truly become students of the Dharma.” Because it is in this moment that we begin to encounter and confront the truth of reality.
Buddhism is about being awake—awakening and waking up to reality. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoches writes that, “Buddhism may look like a religion or a philosophy, but in fact it is neither. Buddhism is a commitment to truth.” He says that, “the reason we study the teachings of the Buddha is that our perception is out of touch with reality” and thus, “the purpose of Buddhism is to understand and experience things as they really are.”
Our adherence to our practice is equally proportionate to the level of allegiance, attentiveness and wakefulness that we bring to the actuality of the way things really are. I think the sorrow experienced in the honest encounter of impermanence is one of the things that positions us to see that.
Eric Wilson writes that “Sadness reconciles us to realities. It throws us into the flow of life,” because “When we are forced to face the fact that our existences are but mere blips on the scale of cosmic time, we realize how absolutely precious every instant is.” In the same way, Chokyi Nyiam Rinpoche writes that, “The profound sadness that overwhelms us when we understand the impermanent nature of all phenomena opens us up to the world around us.”
Maybe awakening is a kind of sorrowful joy, maybe it is a melancholy bliss. Sometimes it’s sorrow that opens us up to the love of the world. Sometimes it’s sadness that leads to an awakened view of the way things really are.
Editor: Dana Gornall