The First Noble Truth is that Life is Suffering. I think a lot of us convert Buddhists come to the path because we suffer. It’s not that Buddhism can be reduced to a simple self help program, it’s just that sometimes people that are having a hard time are drawn to it. Of course, we all have a hard time in life sometimes.
But I think Buddhism has something special to offer in that regard.
Part of the Buddha’s story is that his mother died shortly after he was born. The story tells us that he didn’t really understand that loss, that his father kept all sense of loss and sadness away from him. But I’m skeptical about that. What if the Buddha carried the weight of his mother’s death with him for his entire life?
Zen Master Dogen was an orphan. He lost both of his parents as a kid and that inspired him to seek the Buddhist path as a monk. On her deathbed his mother encouraged him to seek Enlightenment and that’s what he did. He practiced with the Buddhist teachers that he could find in Japan and found them lacking, so he took the arduous journey to China to seek better teachers. When he returned he founded the Soto School of Zen, which has had a considerable impact on Buddhist history.
Zen Master Ikkyu never knew his father. He was an illegitimate child of the Emperor of Japan. He was put in a monastery and raised as a monk so he wouldn’t face the danger that was common for children of royalty. I wonder if he carried that loss with him too. Orphans feel unwanted. Part of his story is that he tried to kill himself after one of his teachers died.
And that’s my story too. I lost both my parents when I was a teenager. I was cast adrift at the young age of 19. Old enough that we legally call people adults, but I don’t think most people are done growing up at that age.
That was the great suffering in my life. The suffering of loss and pain. I learned the truth about suffering and that is what inspired me to seek the Buddhist path.
Suffering and the way out of suffering. That’s what the Buddhist path is all about. Helping ourselves out of suffering, helping others out of suffering.
It’s no surprise that Buddhism here in the west attracts people who are lost and people who are struggling. There are many reasons to enter the path and suffering is only one of them, but I think it’s an important thing to be aware of.
Once in a while someone expects more from us because we’re Buddhist, I think. Sometimes when I’m anxious or upset someone will say, “I thought you were Buddhist. Aren’t you above that?” Or “That’s not very Buddhist of you!” I think that’s nonsense. We’re all human.
I started taking sleeping pills because I was so stressed out during my divorce that I couldn’t sleep. People are shocked when I tell them that. People sometimes seem to expect Buddhists to be perfect. We aren’t perfect. We’re just trying our best, just like everyone else.
Buddhism does sometimes attract people who are needy and sensitive, like me. It attracts the broken and the downtrodden.
The lotus is an important symbol in Buddhism. It represents our Enlightenment. It comes out of water and mud to emerge clean and beautiful. The mud is our delusion and suffering. The blooming of the flower is the way we rise above and attain Enlightenment.
Without that mud underneath the flower couldn’t bloom.
We are, all of us, lotuses.