06 May 2012

About What Cannot Be Otherwise

A lot of the time I find myself coming up against situations or conditions that I wish were otherwise than they are. These aren't the kinds of things for which there is a quick fix, as in "My car's dirty, I wish my car were clean."  If I want a clean car, I can wash it.  No, these are the biggies, the kinds of situations and conditions that involve other people, whether a few or a great many, or that involve my own life on so many different levels, I can hardly begin to count them.

Here's one:

The other day I was going to pick my daughter up from school.  To get there from here, I usually go down Ashland Ave., a major north-south artery in Chicago.  It was one of those wet and chilly spring days, and the wind was stiff enough to make being outside for long downright unpleasant.  As I was stopped at the light at Division St., a woman with a cup in her hand came waking between the cars begging.  She was slight of build and looked old enough to be a grandmother, a babushka if ever there was one.  What got me right then was that, grandmother or not, she was, or at least had been, someone's daughter.

I looked at the passenger seat next to me knowing that in a few minutes my own daughter would be sitting in it.  She's in high school now, doing really well, running on the track team (proud papa moment: she and her teammates took 1st place yesterday in the 4x800s in the city championships), keeping up with friends, and all the rest.  She has her whole life ahead of her, and she has dreams she hopes to realize. But she also has choices to make and conditions to navigate, and it's not clear how anything will turn out.

Maybe the woman had been kind of like my daughter once.

As much as I wish the begging babushka didn't find herself out on the street that dreary day, as much as I wish there were a net that would catch her and everyone else before things got to that point, her situation is the consequence of many choices, large and small, and many circumstances, most of which she and I and everyone else are utterly powerless over.  I can no more fix her situation than I can watch over every decision my daughter will make or shield her from everything harmful or arrange conditions to always turn out according to my idea of well. 

I expect everyone over the age of, oh I don't know, 14 to be able to sense something of the incredible complexity of the world, of our relationships, of our own lives, something of the sheer number of decisions made by this group of some 7 billion of us, each of whom is held sway by the root defilements of greed, anger and ignorance.  I think we all do sense something of this complexity as soon as we look past the ends of our noses.  The question is what to do in the face of it, since, truth in advertising here, it can't be made to respond to my (or anyone else's) bright idea of how much better it would be "if only…."

Here's a possibility: don't look for the fix, but look ever more deeply into the suffering.  See no one's particular fault in it, whether it be the fault of a God who could have done better or the fault of an evil genius who might have done worse.  Don't blame the victim, but don't blame the perpetrator, either (we're not talking a criminal case here, so no need to play prosecuting attorney).  Rather, see all of this as just the state of the world, but be sure to see it as the state of the world with the right eyes.

In the Lokavipatti Sutta, the Buddha taught that the world spins round and round as things give way to their opposites.  Gain follows loss follows gain.  Status follows disgrace follows status.  Censure follows praise follows censure.  Pleasure follows pain follows pleasure.  On and on they go.  Over and over and over and over, sæcula sæculorum.  Such is the world, and it cannot be otherwise without the world not being the world any longer.

But I can change my attitude towards it.  Knowing the conditions of the world to be marked through and through with impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self, I neither have to look for my fulfillment in it nor see it as a threat:
Gain/loss, status/disgrace, censure/praise, pleasure/pain: these conditions among human beings are inconstant, impermanent, subject to change. Knowing this, the wise person, mindful, ponders these changing conditions. Desirable things don't charm the mind, undesirable ones bring no resistance. His welcoming & rebelling are scattered, gone to their end, do not exist. Knowing the dustless, sorrowless state, he discerns rightly, has gone, beyond becoming, to the Further Shore. 
Then, since I am no longer bound to it as before, I can respond to it with compassion for the first time.  The babushka comes by my car window.  I give her a buck.   My daughter hops in the car.  I give her a fist bump for a job well done. 

And that is enough.

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