Friday, April 06, 2007

Life is Hard...Then You Die

Good Friday 2007

Today, Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus on a cross of wood. Most crucifixes which represent this gruesome death are not as graphic as the photo above which I've borrowed from Mel Gibson (except perhaps in Latin America where Latinos emphasize the blood and gore), but I chose it to make a point and raise some questions.

Movie suffering is nothing compared to the real thing. People are dying horrible, painful deaths daily, hourly, in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe. Perhaps falling down dead from a heart attack while mowing the lawn, or dying peacefully in bed, is rare. However we go, that's it. Life is terminal. (Save your exceptions for later)

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and prophet, proposes four lessons that people must learn in order to become fully mature humans: 1. Life is hard. 2. You are not that important. 3. Your life is not about you. 4. You are not in control. 5. You are going to die. He does this in the context of initiation rituals for young men (Adam's Return, 2004), but I think these lessons are important for everyone. If you're like me, you instinctively recoil from each one of them. And our culture, in fact every culture, devises innumerable answers to these lessons that will assuage our existential anxiety.

Life is not so hard if you're white, wealthy and live in a western country. Make it easier with a college education, a good job, the perfect spouse. Of course I'm important! How could MY life NOT be about me. And if I do the right things and work hard enough I can control almost everything that affects me. As for death, well, what is heaven for?

Very different answers are provided in the Buddhist tradition. Our small meditation and study group, Sangha Shantivanam, has been studying Buddhism for several months, listening to talks given by a member on the Tibetan perspective and reading texts which speak of suffering as a spiritual path rather than as a result of sins or simply bad luck.

One of them is Enlightened Courage (Snow Lion, 2006), an analysis by the late Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche of an 11th century text by Chekawa Yeshe Dorje based on an oral teaching from the Indian master Atisha even earlier. I immediately recognized the practice of tonglen from my reading of Pema Chödrön's wonderful book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala, 1997). Pema's counter-intuitive wisdom about suffering is to "lean into it," accept it, and this was strangely comforting during a very difficult time in my life. Tonglen is the practice of taking the suffering of others upon oneself in meditation and returning back to them healing energy.

The conclusion to the root text we studied gives a thumbnail sketch of the Buddhist practice:
Having roused the karma of past training,
And feeling powerfully inspired,
I disregarded suffering and censure
And sought out the instructions to subdue my ego-clinging;
Though I may die, I shall now have no regret.
This sound like pretty good responses to some of the lessons posed by Rohr. Other suggestions offered in the ancient teachings include: "Consider all phenomena as a dream," "Place all setbacks on the path of liberation," "Do not have opinions on othther people's actions," "Do not take advantage of suffering," "Always meditate on what is unavoidable," "Do not expect to be rewarded," and -- best of all -- "Don't take what you do too seriously."

Another text we studied was "Turning Suffering and Happiness into Enlightenment" by Dodrupchen Jikmé Tenpe Nyima, which is available online. Dedicated to the Buddha of Compassion, who refused enlightenment until everyone entered nirvana, it offers the advice that "we need first, to get ride of the attitude of being entirely unwilling to face any suffering ourselves and, second, to cultivate the attitude of actually being joyful when suffering arises." Suffering, the author says, can be used for training in renunciation and compassion, for overcoming arogance, and for purifying harmful actions, among other values. Suffering teaches us to cherish others more than ourself and helps to dilute the poisonous power of the ego.

Choosing to accept suffering (which must be distinguished from the martyr's choice of suffering for the sake of itself) sounds a little like the "no pain, no gain" mantra of athletes and body builders. But another way to put it is: Pain is inevitable (in life), suffering is optional. Buddhism teaches that running after pleasure and avoiding pain is the source of suffering that can be relieved; pain is the inevitable consquence of a life that includes sickness, old age and death.

All of this helps me to understand a little bit the suffering and death of Jesus we remember today. The metaphysics of atonement, by which his death somehow wipes away the sin of humanity caused by the Fall when Adam ate Eve's apple, makes no sense to me. I cannot believe in a God who needs a scapegoat. But I can understand and admire the wonderous power of a Jesus who takes the sufferings of others upon himself, and then in some sense spreads healing energy in return. Jesus is a Bodhisattva whose Gospel message is one of compassion and whose culminating act was to save us rather than himself.

But my understanding, like this blog is a work in progress. I still need to respond to the five lessons of Richard Rohr.

Above is Salvador Dali's crucifixion. Below is the wonderful Yellow Christ by Paul Gaugin:

No comments: