Today, Aussie and I broke the law and walked to the reservoir in adjoining Lake Pleasant. The sign prohibits access, but every once in a while, I break the law and take her there. We still have lots of snow on the ground, including ice on part of the water that’s by the main road, so imagine my surprise when we made our way down the hill and saw the large reservoir completely clear, blue-green, with ducks swimming on the opposite shore. No leaden gray surface as it’s been for a long time, just white clouds reflected in the water.
Aussie was happier, too, and I realized that dogs are probably as affected by weather as humans. She pranced around, stopping only to contemplate going into the cold water. Rain starts tonight and will go into tomorrow mid-morning, I’m told.
What am I thinking of this morning? I think of Kisagotami. The old Buddhist story is straightforward:
A young mother in old India loses her baby. She goes crazy from grief, holding the baby’s corpse in her arms and not letting go. Finally, she goes to a teacher she’s heard of, the Buddha, and begs him to bring her baby back to life. He agrees on one condition. First, she has to visit the houses in the village and find one that had suffered no loss, take a mustard seed from them, and bring the seed back. Kisagotami does as she’s told, only to discover that not one house has suffered no loss; they’ve all suffered through illness and death, many losing children, parents, friends. She returns to the Buddha, picks up the dead baby, gives it up for cremation, and becomes a follower of the Buddha.
In the beginning of my years in Zen Buddhism I couldn’t understand this story. Who finds solace for a personal tragedy in the suffering of others? Doesn’t it exacerbate it? Or at least, wouldn’t you feel your own grief denied when someone you describe it to says: That’s terrible. Now let me tell you what happened to me.
As the years passed, and especially recently, the story has deepened for me. As the scholar Peter Hershock described in his book Liberating Intimacy, what happens to Kisagotami when she knocks on doors in search of a home with no loss? The woman of the house answers. The young, grief-stricken mother tells her why she’s come.
“Come in,” the woman says. They serve her tea and listen to her tell the story of her baby—how beautiful it was, how healthy, how it brought her such joy, and the catastrophe of its illness and death. They nod, commiserate, urge her to drink more tea. Then they tell her about their grief. About the father who had a work accident. A daughter who died at childbirth. How they couldn’t take good care of parents because of the lack of money. Kisagotami sips her tea and listens. No mustard seed here, so on she goes to the next house, where the same thing happens.
Finally, she understands the significance of the Buddha’s teaching that life is suffering. Rich or poor, Brahmin or not, suffering is part of being human. You try to build a life of meaning and love, you get old and sick, look back and wonder if it was all a dream, and then die. What a crazy way to live! All life is fragile, no wonder we try to be on top of things, no wonder we’re fearful and impatient. The fragility of being human is what binds us to each other, including the lack of solution and control.
Contrary to what our parents and media tell us, we’re not living in a context of no problem, everything’s good! (with the implication that if your life is different there’s probably something wrong with you). Disappointment, heartbreak, and loss are essential parts of this life–as are laughter, ducks swimming on the water, sneaking our way around the reservoir overjoyed by the blue skies. If we don’t recognize that, we become over-protective and defensive, trying every which way to control things, and when shit happens anyway, we feel like failures. Or at the very least, that something wrong happened.
I’ve seen this in the US more than in any other country, specifically among more affluent white people. I think it’s what causes our fearfulness in one of the securest countries in the world. I can’t begin to count how many people I talk to, upon describing the weather, losing power due to a storm, or a bad work experience, say: “It’s scary.”
It’s all I can do to not say: “What’s scary, life?”
We hear of parents who’ve lost children to illness or violence. Many are dogged by this catastrophe forever, even divorce because their marriage can’t survive the tragedy. And there are a few who find their hearts opening to other children who are at risk, other children who are sick. They’re the ones who start foundations to help other children, who advocate on behalf of a medical cure, who open their hearts to the grief of others. Their personal grief widens to include the grief of others.
I used to think that the word healing meant that you bring an end to someone’s pain. I am not sure any longer. The word is related to whole, and maybe the job of healing is to acknowledge that accidents, illness, violence, death are all parts of the game. They’re part of the wheel of life, co-existing with us, even calling for our attention, a way to live with rather than against all the time. Not fight fight fight cancer or drugs but see how everything has its place.
Which doesn’t mean I don’t seek a cure for cancer, that I don’t protect the people I love, that I don’t care for those without homes or food. I do whatever I can do while recognizing that everything has a cause, that the fullness of being human asks me not to worry so much about good and bad or right and wrong, but rather see that we all occupy the same space, share the same DNA, and one way or another, we also share very similar struggles. Nobody’s outside of that circle, without exception.
The Buddha could have told Kisagotami that death is part of life; he could have given her a teaching. Instead, the Great Physician sent her out to discover this for herself. I feel right now that we’re all Kisagotamis, sent out into the world to bear witness to the breadth and fragility of humanity, admit our interdependence and kinship, and out of that take care of the world.