In the last few weeks I have experienced a series of delays, disappointments, setbacks, and obstacles in both my working and personal life that remind me, as always, the difficulty of living a lifestyle of patience and forbearance… of making gentle, sincere peace with failure and let down. In other words, actually trying to do the things that the Buddha advised in everyday life is not easy. It takes a particularly strong and consistent Buddhist – perhaps someone like a British Buddhist is capable of this – to take all of the less-than-satisfactory things in life on the chin and still stay smiling and tranquil. The world-weary, resigned British tolerance of disenchantments, compromises, and frustrations seems to match remarkably well the Buddhist adage, “life is suffering.” And just as timelessly, “life is permeated with dissatisfaction.”
Let’s up the ante on the personal drama: not even death can be celebrated as the panacea to travails minor and severe, for if you believe the tale we’re going to be hurled back here, thrown again into the world to experience the same monotony and the same unhappiness, all over again in a series of mediocre and often painful lifetimes. The Romanticists would have been shocked. If death is also suffering, as much as life, where can refuge be possibly found? And if I risk appearing embittered and cynical, I should at least point to that nugget of truth in the Daily Mash’s spoof about “Keep Calm” posters: drawing meaning and positive lessons from misfortune is important, but not if it’s done at the behest of silly posters that were probably once a decently witty idea but have been over marketed to the point of retch-inducing tackiness.
…I have officially joined the ranks of people who want to turn weather talk into an artistic aesthetic…
Of course, one could simply respond with a generous offering of optimism, that no matter how much rain persists in drenching the summer mood this year, there will always be that occasional sunbeam peering down shyly from the empyrean. After all, when all is said and done, the London climate is far from the worst Mother Earth has to offer. It is cool, moderate, at times refreshing, and perhaps even beautiful on particularly good days. British weather is a microcosm of the Buddhist universe (saṃsāra) – more or less an unpleasant place, but with more than enough glimpses of the Beautiful and the Good, which spurs us to live another day, to get on with it, and God forbid, cradle a little bit of hope (I have officially joined the ranks of people who want to turn weather talk into an artistic aesthetic). An ancient story goes that after being enlightened, the Buddha was more inclined to not bother teaching the beings of the world, because he feared no one would understand him. But the spirits urged him to look on the bright side, so to speak: humanity is like a constellation in the night sky, enveloped by darkness but with just enough glimmering stars to breathe a sigh of wonder and faith.
Acknowledging one’s suffering and dissatisfaction is not pessimistic. It’s probably fair to say that every Buddhist, living and dead, subscribe to the idea of life as suffering while also managing to live by the crucial First Precept of not harming life. This might just be the irony of bad luck, bad weather, and a world saturated by all the badness we see on the news. We grumble and moan and share our woes, but we do so precisely because we hope that the pain can be transformed into something good. It’s not about changing the horrid weather, but coping with it and enjoying the good days. Śāntideva said that we can’t carpet the whole world, but we can help our feet out by wearing shoes.