Life: Cycles and Growth

Life: Cycles and Growth August 19, 2009
A monk at Yingshen Pagoda 應身塔, Southern Wutai Mountain 南五台山 (August 5, 2009)

A couple years ago in Washington D.C., a man sparked up a conversation with me and a friend while we waited in line. The man looked and sounded as though he had lived a rough life and was still not quite out of the dark. But at one point a clarity came across his face and he held out his hand, palm up, and said, “life is like this.” He pointed at the center of his palm. Then, tracing his finger around and around, he continued, “we go in circles. And every once in a while we break the cycle and our world gets a little bigger.”


For all that I love about Missoula, it is very much a place of cycles for me. It is very much a land of plenty: plenty of wonderful people, plenty of entertaining things to do: in the city, in nature, and in nearby wilderness, plenty of opportunities to live fairly easily for those such as myself blessed with a decent upbringing and education. “Peter Pan Land” is how one of my professors, Albert Borgmann, once described it as we discussed the pros and cons of this wonderful community.

The quality of life here is very high. But when one digs under the surface, one finds the same truth of dukkha experienced here as everywhere else. But who digs under the surface? Not most people, I’m afraid. Most are content in the cycles of entertainment and toil, excitement and let-down, daydreams and drunkenness.

Think of the story of the Buddha’s own life. Missoula is, in many ways, the palace his father constructed for young Siddhartha, brilliantly hiding old age, disease and death; filling it with beautiful people, pleasing fragrances and entertainers. I imagine that most places and most people spend their lives striving to build such palaces. And yet Siddhartha did catch a glimpse of these three things, and a fourth: the wandering ascetic. And he left. A newborn child, a wife, friends, all the sensual pleasures and comforts one could imagine, all left behind.

None could understand why he would leave all of this behind. Even he wasn’t completely sure, only knowing that all of this was still not enough when one knows that it still ends in old age, sickness, and death. The intuition that there is something more out there drew him forth from the palace walls.

“Of this saṃsāra, a single lifetime constitutes only a tiny and fleeting fraction; hence to be able to comprehend the first noble truth of universal suffering, one must let one’s gaze rest upon the saṃsāra, upon this frightful chain of rebirths, and not merely upon one single life-time, which, of course, may be sometimes less painful.” (Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist Dictionary)

I don’t think we need the idea of rebirth to understand the depth of dukkha, or universal suffering. We can just as easily, or perhaps more easily, look laterally: across the world here and now. While I sit, sipping coffee in my palace, countless millions of human beings toil each waking hour just to survive. How many others give up, bodies broken under malnutrition and lack of shelter, to experience just a few more fearful breaths before dying?

Rebirth or not, the truth of suffering is readily apparent to all but the most naïve.

And yet we are all “the most naïve” a majority of the time, myself included. No need to feel bad or point fingers. It’s simply reality, our starting point on this journey, should we choose to accept the call. For those who do not, and this is most people, there is the palace, the entertainment, the intoxication, the pleasures of this world.

And while I am sure I will sneak into the palace from time to time, I know that I now must go forth. Just where, and just how, I know not yet. Perhaps the journey is solely inward: more meditation, more library time, more silence. I’ll keep an eye out for that divine guide though…

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