Archive for November, 2006


Five Skandhas: False and Unreal

Lecture delivered by Master Sheng-yen on the Surangama Sutra, July 13, 1986
Today’s passage from the Sutra speaks about the five skandhas. Also known as the five aggregates, together they constitute what is commonly considered to be the self or ego. The five skandhas are form (Skt: rupa), sensation (vedana), perception or conception (sanjna), impulse, volition, or activation (samskara), and consciousness (vijnana).
There are many lines in this passage and the Buddhas uses a number of analogies, but there is essentially one point. It is expressed in a single line of the Heart Sutra: the five skandhas and emptiness are one and the same.
Ordinary sentient beings take the five skandhas to be the self. Hinayana practitioners consider the five skandhas to be other than the self. Mahayana practitioners, however, are of the understanding that while it is true that the skandhas are not the self, it is equally true that the self cannot be separated from the skandhas. Thus in the Mahayana view, you cannot attain Buddhahood apart from the five skandhas. But the ordinary view is that Buddhahood is comprised of nothing but the five skandhas. The Mahayana practitioner, then, is neither attached to the idea of the five skandhas, nor would he or she be attached to the idea of their nonexistence.
According to the sutra, the five skandhas can be divided into the physical, the first skandha, and the mental, the remaining four.
An idealist, who believes in the preeminence of the mental realm would concentrate on the last four skandhas. A materialist, who believes that all spiritual things are ultimately derived from matter, would concern himself solely with the first skandha. Buddhism recognizes both the physical and the mental realms, but the fact that four of the five skandhas are mind-oriented indicates the importance accorded the mental aspect. The world, the universe — all life — comes from this combination of matter and mind. Matter cannot exist apart from mind; mind cannot exist apart from matter.
Some may object to this view. We know that there are many many life forms on this planet, and perhaps some life forms on other planets in our solar system. One could make a case for a fair mixture of mind and matter in our immediate solar vicinity, so to speak. But in the far reaches of the universe where there seem to be great lifeless stretches of space, how can there be life there? How can we make such a comprehensive generalization that mind always exists with matter?
There is really no need to speak of other galaxies or other areas in the universe. Right here on our own planet, if we delve deep enough below the earth’s surface, we can undoubtedly reach areas where there are no life forms. The same is true if we ascend high enough above the atmosphere. 
Nonetheless, we often extract minerals or chemicals from deep inside the earth or the mountains, and even though these do not contain life in and of themselves, they relate — often directly — to our lives. We build buildings of stone. We use oil to power our cars. The elements do affect us, and in many ways they are a part of us.
Let us return to the five skandhas. The first skandha, form, refers to all physical objects in whatever shape they may assume. Why do we use the word "form" to refer to all physical existence? In English, form refers to the shape of something, the way in which it occupies physical space. The term used in Chinese, ssu ("se" in pinyin), is actually the word for color. This may seem a strange rendering for the concept of form, but it is probably a better choice than the English word, form, which is rather restricted in its meaning. "Color" as it is described in Chinese, denotes anything that can block the line of sight, that cuts off the view of the eye. Only a physical entity can block the eye. Is there any physical entity that will not block the eye? The air or wind or any colorless gas might satisfy this criterion.
Form is further divided into "internal" and "external." In both cases form is comprised of the four elements, earth, water, wind, and fire. These elements are directly affected by the forces of mind and karma. It is fairly easy to understand the workings of internal form. This is your own mind/body. If you consider some action, or if karmic forces are such that you become ill, then the four elements within you move in a particular way. It is not hard to see that you are responsible for this movement. On the other hand, most of you would probably consider the external four elements to be nature, something totally unrelated to you. But this is really not the case. The movement of all external form occurs only as the result of the mental and karmic activity of all sentient beings in this world. But since this external form is the product of the activity of all sentient beings, it may be difficult for an individual to see how he or she contributes to changes in the external four elements.
It is because of the great power that mental activity exerts on the body, mind, and the external world that Buddhadharma places such emphasis on the mind. Thus, as we said earlier, Buddhadharma assigns four of the five skandhas to the mental realm.
To the Hinayana practitioner the five skandhas are absolutely false. But the Mahayana practitioner, as it is shown in the Surangama Sutra, understands that Buddha-nature — True Such-ness — Tathagata-garbha –cannot be found outside of the five skandhas.
Tathagatagarbha is a mental, not a physical dharma. "Garbha" means a storehouse. What is it that it stores? True Suchness — the Buddha-mind. To discover this True Suchness, this Buddha-mind, and to transform the world of ordinary sentient beings into this true world, we must go further than the physical world. We must understand the dharma of the mind.
Let us now turn to the mental skandhas. The sutra gives an analogy for each one of the skandhas, but I am not going to use these analogies. I will first explain what the five skandhas — the five aggregates — are, and then I will show how they are both false and at the same time how Buddha-nature — True Suchness — Tathagatagarbha is not separate from them.
After form, we have first sensation, that is, what we feel or sense; then perception or conception, the ideas we have and how we think and reason; then volition, impulse, or activation, the ideas of action or will that arise in the mind; and, finally, consciousness.
Note that the consciousness referred to here is the eighth consciousness (Skt: alaya-vijnana — storehouse consciousness). After we perform an action, the consequences — the karma of that action — are planted in this eighth consciousness. The first four skandhas that we have spoken about, form, sensation, perception, and volition relate only to the first six consciousnesses. These are the consciousnesses that correspond to each of our five senses and the awareness that arises when one of these five senses comes into contact with a sense object. The awareness that results from this contact gives rise to the sixth consciousness.
You might wonder what happened to the seventh consciousness. This is the consciousness that contains the most profound sense of self. It interprets all phenomena that occur to you in such a way that a sense of self is established. This seventh consciousness takes the eighth consciousness to be the self. While we are alive, the first six consciousnesses continue to function. When we die, they disappear. But the eighth consciousness continues. This consciousness is the storehouse of all the karmic seeds we have accumulated through all of our previous actions. They are planted in the eighth consciousness by the self-conceiving function of the seventh consciousness.
The eighth consciousness is, in a sense, a lazy, easy-going, overseer. It doesn’t care whether you take something out or you put something in. But there is a very sharp, jealous gatekeeper guarding the storehouse. He holds on very tightly to everything in the storehouse as if it were his own self. This is how the seventh consciousness functions.
The eighth consciousness would be quite useless without the seventh consciousness. It would be nothing more than a receptacle to take things out of and to put things into. It is through the action of the seventh consciousness that our self-identified karmic seeds are stored, and we are kept moving from life to life in the realm of samsara.
Let us return to the second skandha, sensation. There are five kinds of sensations: suffering or pain, happiness, worry, joy, and a fifth which has the literal meaning of "dropping or casting off," and which amounts to something akin to indifference. Nevertheless, it, too, is a vexation.
When you are in the midst of suffering, no doubt you suffer. When you are in the midst of happiness, no doubt you are happy. But there are really no objective criteria for these perceptions. What may cause one person a great deal of pain, may be perceived by another as an opportunity for growth. You could quite possibly be content in the midst of suffering. On the other hand, if you do certain things that you usually consider as pleasurable — drinking or smoking, let us say — to excess, then you may no longer regard these activities as agreeable. There is no objective way to measure these perceptions. How something is perceived depends on your state of mind.
For two people to live well together, it does not simply depend on shared activities or hobbies. What is important is a shared understanding and a common purpose in life. An initial perception of someone as attractive may wear thin after what you originally found attractive holds no interest for you, and there is nothing deeper to take its place. Many relationships fall apart for this reason. But with common meaning and common purpose, it is possible for two people to be quite content with their lives together.
Attitudes, perceptions, and feelings about people, places, and things are determined by subjective states of mind. There really are no objective criteria. Some people find pleasure in sadomasochism. Most people regard such behavior as strange and bizarre. But to the participants it is an acceptable way of relating. There are no standards of perception.
Now I will talk about the third skandha, conception, which contains our thoughts and ideas. These elements of ideation are constantly in a state of change. So long as they are in this state of flux, they have no real existence. Thoughts in our mind are like drops in a waterfall, changing, mixing, separating in a rapid succession. The water-nature of the waterfall may not change, but the individual molecules of water move and change at rapid pace.
Our minds are just too dull to perceive this torrent of thoughts within ourselves. Only the grossest thoughts are perceptible. Subtle thoughts pass beneath our awareness. But no matter what thoughts pass through our mind, perceived or unperceived, they are all false. They have no real existence.
For the expedient purpose of Buddhadharma, especially for the beginner, there is the concept of right thought, to be distinguished from illusory thought. But at higher levels of practice, all thoughts, both "right" and "illusory" are discarded. The thought, "I want to attain Buddhahood," may seem to be a noble thought, but it is nevertheless an illusion. With such a thought, you will never attain Buddhahood.
Such statements as "This is my idea", "This is my conception", "This is my philosophy," are really hopeless illusions.
You may ask if it is proper for us to have our own opinions about the goings-on of the world. After all, we are still ordinary sentient beings, and we cannot dispense with our perceptions and conceptions.
The word conception also connotes dreams, wishes, imaginings, and illusions. We dream at night and we dream during the day. When we think, we believe that our thoughts are clear, but nonetheless, we are still dreaming. All thoughts, ideas, and conceptions that pass through our minds are dreams, and we will not awake to this understanding until we reach Buddhahood. There will then be no conceptions.
The fourth skandha is translated in a variety of ways: "volition," "impulse," or "activation." Once ideas, thoughts, or conceptions have arisen in your mind, there is a tendency for you to have an impulse to actually do something, to perform some action. If, for example, you see a beautiful woman, and think, "I have to go after her," and that is exactly what you do, then you are in the realm of the fourth skandha. Note that no act can be performed without the idea of action first forming in the mind. That is why this skandha is classified as volition or activation. If you only think about doing something — if you only intend and do not act — then that is only in the realm of the third skandha, conception. Thoughts without action only generate minor karma. Only when mind, body, and speech combine in action is there absolute certainty that karmic seeds will be planted in your eighth consciousness.
It is important to understand that these occurrences of volition, impulse, and activation have no real existence in and of themselves because they are constantly moving, changing, and disappearing. These acts of will and their consequences may first seem to be truly awesome or terrifying: they determine whether we go to heaven or to hell. In heaven we enjoy the consequences of our actions. But this enjoyment is itself a kind of activation, and once the fruits of our previous good karma are exhausted, we might find ourselves cast down into the suffering of hell because of our previous bad karma. But what the Surangama Sutra tells us is that, yes, we must be responsible for our actions, but there is no need to be afraid of them, because such fear generates attachment.
You must realize that once you practice to the point where you transcend the three realms of desire, form, and formlessness, and once you transcend birth and death and attain Buddhahood, there will be no volition, impulse, or activation for you. You may have to pay for past actions, but you will no longer create karma.
What is most important is to practice and continue practicing. Do not fear the bad karma of the past. There is no reason for you to think that there is no hope for you because of what you have done previously. Do not be concerned with the fact that even as you practice you simultaneously generate bad karma. There is no need to worry. Keep practicing.
We now come to the last skandha, consciousness. I have explained earlier that this is really the eighth consciousness, and that it is the storehouse for the karmic seeds planted by our perceptions, conceptions, and activations. But as I have shown, these perceptions, conceptions, and activations are themselves false and unreal, and thus the seeds that they generate have no real existence. The eighth consciousness, therefore, is really a storehouse of illusions. Nothing within it is real.
The storehouse itself is none other than True Suchness, Buddha-nature. It is itself Buddhahood.
Does this mean that we have already attained Buddhahood? If in fact everything is an illusion, can’t we assume that we have achieved all that there is to achieve and that we can do whatever we like? Can we not rob and kill with impunity? Are we not already Buddhas? Is this the point of the sutra?
No, the sutra sets forth a path for us, it does not give us license to do whatever we feel. We must try to free ourselves from illusions, to understand our own minds, and to progress ever higher in the practice. We must be responsible for our actions. We must keep the precepts. We must practice samadhi to attain wisdom, and we must achieve purity of mind. Tathagatagarbha will then be the same as True Suchness. But until we reach the point where our mind is truly undefiled, our Tathagatagarbha will continue to store the karmic seeds of our actions, and we will continue to bear the responsibility for this karma; and we will continue to have perceptions that are rooted in illusion: of happiness, joy, love, hatred, worry, indifference.


In the past, there was a Ch’an master who had three disciples. One day, two of them got into a heated argument. One of them went to the Master, stated his case and asked if he was right or not. The Master replied: "Yes, you are right." The monk then went back outside and told the other two monks. The other monk who had participated in the argument didn’t believe him and went to see the Master himself. After stating his argument, the Master told him that he was correct. Upon hearing this the third monk was confused, thinking it’s impossible that both monks are right. Thereupon, he also went to see the Master and asked: "Isn’t one right and the other wrong." The Master replied: "Yes, you are right." The three monks then went to see the master to ask how it was possible for all three of them to be right. Had he made a mistake? No, all of them had been right.
This story illustrates that it is meaningless to get into any kind of argument. In this world, there is no absolute truth. From the Buddhist point of view everything in the world is impermanent and conditioned and therefore can only be considered from a comparative or relative point of view. When we judge one thing to be better than another we always do so from a relative or comparative standpoint. The Enlightened mind, which sees things as they really are, does not attach to any particular thing as being the absolute truth nor does it reject any particular thing as not being the absolute truth.
Both Buddhism and Ch’an condemn fighting and advocate non-opposition to ones’ enemies. This principle also applies to the practice of meditation. It often happens that when you sit down to meditate vexations and scattered thoughts arise in your mind, you find yourself hindered by various unwholesome habits, or disturbed by noises in the environment. If these disturbances cause you to feel annoyed and obstruct your practice, then no matter where you go you will be unable to settle your mind and practice Ch’an. To add annoyance on to the scattered thoughts you had to begin with amounts to setting off another layer of scattered thoughts in opposition to your original scattered thoughts. The result will be wasted effort. If a person goes on like this adding an annoyed feeling to his already scattered thoughts, then the more he practices meditation the more disturbed and ill-tempered he will become. It is for this reason that many so called ‘Old Cultivators’ have a very irritable disposition and often break out into anger at the slightest provocation. This is all due to their wrong approach of opposing, fighting against their original vexations and scattered thoughts, thereby increasing their vexations and creating much internal tension.
A true Ch’an practitioner, however, is not like this. Any obstructing thoughts that may arise or unfavorable environment or conditions that he may be faced with, he handles with non-opposition and dissolves any tension he may have towards it. He never resists or fights with it. What is meant by non-opposition? For example, if you were to run into a person who treats you maliciously you would not wrangle with him but rather you would do everything in your power to peacefully avoid a confrontation with him. If he throws a punch at you, you don’t fight back. Not only should you abandon any thought of retaliation, but you shouldn’t even harbor the hope that he doesn’t hit you again. For such a hope is itself vain and unprofitable. If someone strikes you and you just accept it without resistance, without fighting back, then the opposing party will also be moved to give up his hostility. In this way the objective of dissolving obstructing tensions is sure to be achieved. It’s the same when practicing Ch’an, you needn’t be disturbed by the frivolous scattered thoughts that may arise; if you can refrain from desiring the pleasant and feeling aversion towards that which is undesirable, then your mind will naturally become collected. Ch’an practitioners should maintain this attitude during their daily life, when handling everyday affairs. Never become annoyed when faced with difficulties, to do so would merely amount to adding difficulty to difficulty, thereby further disturbing and confusing your mind. By maintaining a mind of peace and non-opposition all difficulties will naturally be dissolved.


Enso (円相) is a Japanese word meaning "circle". Enso is perhaps the most common subject of Japanese calligraphy. Enso symbolizes enlightenment, strength, and the universe, and is an "expression of the moment".
It is believed by many that the character of the artist is fully exposed in how he draws Enso, and that only one who is mentally and spiritually whole can draw a true Enso. Some artists will draw Enso daily, as a kind of spiritual diary.
Some artists draw Enso with an opening in the circle, while others complete the circle. For the former, the opening symbolizes that the Enso is not separate, but is part of something greater.
Hitsuzendo, or the Art of the Brush, is a method of achieving samaai (unification of individual with the highest reality). Hitsuzendo refers specifically to a school of Japanese Zen calligraphy where the rating system of modern calligraphy (well-proportioned and pleasing to the eye) is foreign, more that the calligraphy of Hitsuzendo must breathe with the vitality of eternal experience.
Inspired by the teachings of Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888), the actual founder of the Hitsuzendo line of thought was Yokoyama Tenkei (1885-1966) as a "practice to uncover one’s original self through the brush."
The Zen symbol "supreme" is an enso, a circle of enlightenment. The Shinjinmei, written in the sixth century, refers to the Great Way of Zen as "A circle like vast space, lacking nothing, and nothing in excess," and this statement is often used as an inscription on enso paintings. The earliest reference to a written enso, the first Zen painting, occurs in the Keitokudento-roku, composed in the eighth century:
A monk asked Master Isan for a gatha expressing enlightenment. Isan refused saying, "It is right in front of your face, why should I express it in brush and ink?"
The monk then asked Kyozan, another master, for something concrete. Kyozan drew a circle on a piece of paper, and said, "Thinking about this is and then understanding it is second best; not thinking about it and understanding it is third best." (He did not say what is first best.)
Thereafter Zen circles became a central theme of Zen art. Enso range in shape from perfectly symmetrical to completely lopsided and in brushstroke (sometimes two brushstrokes) from thin and delicate to thick and massive. Most paintings have an accompanying inscription that gives the viewer a "hint" regarding the ultimate meaning of a particular Zen circle. The primary types of enso are: (1) Mirror enso: a simple circle, free of an accompanying inscription, leaving everything to the insight of the viewer. (2) Universe enso: a circle that represents the cosmos (modern physics also postulates curved space). (3) Moon enso: the full moon, clear and bright, silently illuminating all beings without discrimination, symbolizes Buddhist enlightenment. (4) Zero enso: in addition to being curved, time and space are "empty," yet they give birth to the fullness of existence. (5) Wheel enso: everything is subject to change, all life revolves in circles. (6)Sweet cake enso: Zen circles are profound but they are not abstract, and when enlightenment and the acts of daily life-"sipping tea and eating rice cakes"-are one, there is true Buddhism. (7) "What is this?" enso: the most frequently used inscription on Zen circle paintings, this is a pithy way of saying, "Don’t let others fill your head with theories about Zen; discover the meaning for yourself!"

Eight Awakenings of Great Beings

Dogen (1200-1253)
Taken from Enlightenment Unfolds (Paperback) by Kazuaki Tanahashi "
All buddhas are great beings.  What great beings practice is called the eight awakenings.  Practicing these awakenings is the basis for nirvana.  This is the last teaching of our original teacher Shakymuni Buddha, which he gave on the night he entered pari-nirvana.
The first awakening is to have few desires.  To refrain from widely coveting the objects of the five sense desires is called “few desires.”
 The Buddha said, “Monks, know that people who have many desires intensely seek for fame and gain; therefore they suffer a great deal.  Those who have few desires do not seek for fame and gain and are free from them, so they are without such troubles.  Having few desires is itself worthwhile.  It is even more so, as it creates various merits.  Those who have few desires need not flatter to gain others’ favor.  Those who have few desires are not pulled by their sense organs.  They have a serene mind and do not worry, because they are satisfied with what they have and do not have a sense of lack.  Those who have few desires experience nirvana.  This is called “few desires.”
The second awakening is to know how much is enough.  Even if you already have something, you set a limit for yourself for using it.  So you should know how much is enough.
The Buddha said, “Monks, if you want to be free from suffering, you should contemplate knowing how much is enough.  By knowing it, you are in the place of enjoyment and peacefulness.  If you know how much is enough, you are content even when you sleep on the ground.  If you don’t know it, you are discontented even when you are in heaven.  You can feel poor even if you have much wealth.  You may be constantly pulled by the five sense desires and pitied by those who know how much is enough.  This is called “to know how much is enough.”
The third awakening is to enjoy serenity.  This is to be away from the crowds and stay alone in a quiet place. Thus it is called “to enjoy serenity in seclusion.”                          
 The Buddha said, “Monks, if you want to have the joy of serene nondoing, you should be away from the crowds and stay alone in a quiet place.  A still place is what Indra and other devas revere.  By leaving behind yourrelations as well as others, and by living in a quiet place, you may remove the conditions of suffering.  If you are attached to crowds, you will experience suffering, just alike a tree that attracts a great many birds and gets killed by them.  If you are bound by worldly matters, you will drown in troubles, just like an old elephant who is stuck in a swamp and cannot get out of it.  This is called ‘to enjoy serenity in seclusion.’”
The fourth awakening is diligent effort.  It is to engage ceaselessly in wholesome practices.  That is why it is called “diligent effort.”  It is refinement without mixing in other activities.  You keep going forward without turning back.
The Buddha said, “Monks, if you make diligent effort, nothing is too difficult.  That’s why you should do so.  It is like a thread of water piercing through a rock by constantly dripping.  If your mind continues to slacken, it is like taking a break from hitting stones before they spark; you can’t get fire that way. What I am speaking of is ‘diligent effort.’”
The fifth awakening is “not to neglect mindfulness.”  It is also called “to maintain right thought.”  This helps you to guard the dharma so you won’t lose it.  It is called “to maintain right thought or “not to neglect mindfulness.”
The Buddha said, “Monks, for seeking a good teacher and good help, there is nothing like not neglecting mindfulness.  If you practice this, robbers of desire cannot enter you.  Therefore, you should always maintain mindfulness in yourself.  If you lose it, you will lose all merits.  When your mindfulness is solid, you will not be harmed even if you go into the midst of the robbers of the five sense desires.  It is like wearing armor and going into a battlefield; there is nothing to be afraid of.  It is called ‘not to neglect mindfulness.’”
It is rare to encounter the buddha-dharma even in the span of countless eons.  A human body is difficult to attain. By practicing and nurturing these awakenings, you can certainly arrive at unsurpassable enlightenment and expound them to all beings, just as Shakymuni Buddha did.
The sixth awakening is to practice meditation.  To abide in dharma without being confused is called “stability in meditation.”
The Buddha said, “Monks, if you gather your mind it will abide in stability.  Then you will understand the birth and death of all things in the world.  You will continue to endeavor in practicing various aspects of meditation.  When you have stability, your mind will not be scattered.  It is like a well-roofed house or a well-built embankment, which will help you maintain the water of understanding and keep you from being drowned.  This is called ‘stability in meditation.’”
The seventh awakening is “to cultivate wisdom.”  It is to listen, contemplate, practice, and have realization.
The Buddha said, “Monks, if you have wisdom, you are free from greed.  You will always reflect on yourself and avoid mistakes.  Thus you will attain liberation in the dharma I am speaking of.  If you don’t have wisdom, you will be neither a follower of the Way nor a lay supporter of it, and there will be no name to describe you.
Indeed, wisdom is a reliable vessel to bring you across the ocean of old age, sickness, and death.  It is a bright lamp that brings light into the darkness of ignorance.  It is an excellent medicine for all of you who are sick.  It is a sharp ax to cut down the tree of delusion.  Thus, you can deepen awakening through the wisdom of listening, contemplation, and practice.  If you are illuminated by wisdom, even if you use your physical eyes, you will have clear insight. This is called ‘to cultivate wisdom.’
The eighth awakening is not to be engaged in hollow discussions.  It is to experience realization and be free from discriminatory thinking, with thorough understanding of the true mark of all things.  It is called “not to be engaged in hollow discussions.”
The Buddha said, “Monks, if you get into hollow discussions, your mind will be scattered.  Then, you will be unable to attain liberation even if you have left the household.  So, you should immediately leave behind scattered mind and hollow discussions.  If you wish to attain the joy of serenity, you need to cure the sickness of hollow discussions.  This is called ‘not to be engaged in hollow discussion.’”
These are the eight awakenings.  Each awakening contains all eight, thus there are sixty-four awakenings.  When awakenings are practiced thoroughly, their number is countless.  When they are practiced in summary, there are sixty-four.
It is rare to encounter the buddha-dharma even in the span of countless eons.  A human body is difficult to attain. By practicing and nurturing these awakenings, you can certainly arrive at unsurpassable enlightenment and expound them to all beings, just as Shakymuni Buddha did.                                            
Actualizing the Fundamental Point-
Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.
Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky. The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.

Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?

The following is excerpted from Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? Inspiring Stories for Welcoming Life’s Difficulties by Ajahn Brahm
UNPLEASANT THINGS, like coming last in our class, happen in life. They happen to everyone. The only difference between a happy person and one who gets depressed is how they respond to disasters.

Imagine you have just had a wonderful afternoon at the beach with a friend. When you return home, you find a huge truck-load of dung has been dumped right in front of your door. There are three things to know about this truck-load of dung:

1 You did not order it. It’s not your fault. 2 You’re stuck with it. No one saw who dumped it, so you cannot call anyone to take it away. 3 It is filthy and offensive, and its stench fills your whole house. It is almost impossible to endure.

In this metaphor, the truck-load of dung in front of the house stands for the traumatic experiences that are dumped on us in life. As with the truck-load of dung, there are three things to know about tragedy in our life:

1 We did not order it. It’s not our fault. We say "Why me?" 2 We’re stuck with it. No one, not even the ones who love us most dearly, can take it away (though they may try). 3 It is so awful, such a destroyer of our happiness, and its pain fills our whole life. It is almost impossible to endure.

There are two ways of responding to being stuck with a truck-load of dung. The first way is to carry the dung around with us. We put some in our pockets, some in our backpacks and briefcases, and some up our shirts. We even put some down our pants. We find when we carry dung around, we lose a lot of friends! Even best friends don’t seem to be around so often.

"Carrying around the dung" is a metaphor for sinking into depression, negativity, or anger. It is a natural and understandable response to adversity. But we lose a lot of friends, because it is also natural and understandable that our friends don’t like being around us when we’re so depressed. Moreover, the pile of dung doesn’t get smaller and, what’s more, the smell gets worse as it ripens.

Fortunately, there’s a second way. When a truck-load of dung is dumped in front of our house, we heave a sigh and then get down to work. Out come the wheelbarrow, the fork, and the spade. We fork the dung into the barrow, wheel it around the back of the house, and dig it into the garden. This is tiring and difficult work, but we know there’s no other useful option.

Sometimes, all we can manage is half a barrow a day. But even so, we’re doing something about the problem, rather than complaining our way into depression. Day after day we dig in the dung. Day after day, the pile gets a little smaller. Sometimes it takes several years, but the morning does come when we see that the dung in front of our house is all gone.

Furthermore, a miracle has happened in another part of our house. The flowers in our garden are bursting out in a richness of color all over the place. Their fragrance wafts down the street so that the neighbors, and even passers-by, smile in delight. Then the fruit tree in the corner is nearly falling over, it’s so heavy with fruit. And the fruit is so sweet; you can’t buy anything like it. There’s so much of it that we are able to share it with our neighbours. Even passers-by get a delicious taste of the miracle fruit.

"Digging in the dung" is a metaphor for welcoming the tragedies as fertilizer for life. It is work that we have to do alone: no one can help us here. But by digging it into the garden of our heart, day by day, the pile of pain gets less.

It may take us several years, but the morning does come when we see no more pain in our life and, in our heart, a miracle has happened. Flowers of kindness are bursting out all over the place, and the fragrance of love wafts way down our street, to our neighbors, to our relations and even to passers-by. Then our wisdom tree in the corner is bending down to us, loaded with sweet insights into the nature of life. We share those delicious fruits freely, even with the passers-by, without ever planning to.

When we have known tragic pain, learned its lesson and grown our garden, then we can put our arms around another in deep tragedy and say, softly, "I know." They realize we do understand. Compassion begins. We show them the wheelbarrow, the fork and the spade, and boundless encouragement. Yet if we haven’t grown our own garden yet, this can’t be done.

I have known many monks who are skilled in meditation, who are peaceful, composed and serene in adversity. But only a few have become great teachers. I often wondered why.

It seems to me now that those monks who had a relatively easy time of it, who had little dung to dig in, were the ones who didn’t become great teachers. It was the monks who had the enormous difficulties, dug them in quietly, and came through with a rich garden that became great teachers. They all had wisdom, serenity, and compassion; but those with more dung had more to share with the world. My own teacher, Ajahn Chah, who for me was the pinnacle of all teachers, must have had a whole trucking company with a fleet of trucks delivering dung at his door in his early life.

Perhaps the moral of this story is that if you want to be of service to the world, if you wish to follow the path of compassion, then the next time a tragedy occurs in your life, you may say, "Whoopee! More fertilizer for my garden!"

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November 2006
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