Letter from Bodhgaya

Knocked flat? Here’s the cure
by Kabir Saxena

Heartfelt namastes from Bodhgaya where monsoon rains have brought not only hope to anxious farmers but also deadlines to despondent hacks. Verily, one man’s meat is another’s poison, for as the peasants rejoice, other insidious and pestilential humors associated with the rains and karmic justice have just knocked flat this once-intrepid pioneer making him reach nervously, no, not for the Scotch but for Shantideva.

Allow me to clarify. Analyze this, and tell me there isn’t cause for grave concern. At age 47, the subject, male, rediscovers that he has a precious human life but has generated no realizations; is coming to the end of one job and is reluctant to face the responsibilities that will attach to the next one; just wants to be happy but finds the body and mind uncooperative; is basically “a decent sort of chap” (as they say in Whitehall where I might have ended up if I hadn’t been accepted by FPMT), but still has excruciatingly uncharitable and jealous thoughts toward not only George Bush but also my fellow Dharma buddies; has caused dismay to the kind guru and alienated at least one Dharma brother through unskillful speech – the list could go on, but you’re getting the idea.

Then I get sick with the shivers and start feeling just like Dylan’s Joker, unprepared to consider the Wisdom Of No Escape. Whether I watch BBC World News or witness business as usual in Bihar, the human suffering alone seems beyond belief, my inability to do anything a cruel reminder of lack of enlightened ability. Truly there must be some way outta here.

How have other human beings coped with such malaise? I happened to start reading a life of Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century reformer who was one of my teenage heroes in his heroic struggle against the –then-corrupt forces of the papacy and rampant spiritual materialism. He had regular bouts of severe depression all his life and I was most interested in his “three rules for dispelling despondency.”

The first is faith in Christ. That sounds fine to me. The Christ of the Gospels behaves in a pretty bodhisattva-like way, most would agree.

The second rule, however, is to get downright angry. Whether angry at self, at another, or at the delusions is not clear from the text, but it seems dodgy to me. Maybe it’s just a reflection of the times he lived in – rather rough and brutish – but it does seem inappropriate.

The third rule is the love of a woman, which was fine for him as a monk-turned-layperson but off-limits for a man of the cloth such as myself.

The whole thing seemed flawed. Such a great reformer with such a weak arsenal against despair? Was his faith in Christ insufficient or his practice of the Christian life somehow deficient enough to necessitate recourse to anger? Dine, dance, joke, and sing. Make yourself eat and drink, though they may be distasteful. Manual labor helps. Seek convivial company. Thus the Lutheran remedy runs, and though there is much here that will be familiar to Mahayana brethren desperately seeking amelioration of wind-imbalance, your man at the center of the Buddhist universe was not satisfied.

The recipe according to Shantideva

That’s when Shantideva came off the shelf and the matter became ever so clear. Having stated that joyous effort (or heroic perseverance or exertion – take your pick) is delight in virtue, he goes on to say that its opposite is laziness. And what is laziness? A predilection for unwholesomeness, despondency, and self-contempt. There we have it! This lack of hope or faith, which is what despondency is, turns out to be just another miserly, lily-livered subterfuge, an attempt to avoid the work that has to be done – the gradual emptying of samsara. It began to fit together. Inspector Saxena was now hot on the trail of the culprit that was shacked up complacently within his own slothful breast. It became clear that the inner enemy he sought was well known to Shantideva, who had just the right mixture of insight and skillful means to tackle it.

I stood accused of neglecting death, sleeping away this life when even bees and flies can attain awakening if they persevere strongly. In a verse that goes right to the heart of our selfishness he shows how our only accomplishments have been to cause pain to our mothers as they gave birth to us and neglecting the welfare of the frightened and the weary.

However, reading A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life need never be only a self-flagellating exercise in spotting our failure to live up to the highest ideal attainable by sentient beings. Shantideva always gives us the encouragement and the methods to generate great compassion and bodhichitta, exhorting us to take up a wholesome pride that refuses to surrender to delusion’s armies: “Be like a lion among foxes,” constantly practicing the mindfulness that prevents unwholesome thoughts from infiltrating the mind like poison. And, bless him, he has provision for the likes of me when he says to begin with giving food and other small acts of generosity and to keep the donation of one’s very body to others for later. And I think Shantideva would not have judged Luther harshly, for the latter, too, had his bouts and debates with his version of the afflictions: “When I go to bed, the Devil is always waiting for me.” God was not exempt either: “I dispute much with God with great impatience.” Perhaps that performed the same function as analytical meditation does for us. I do feel a residue of sadness for Luther. I’m not sure what he finally gained from his wrestling with God, the Devil, his faith, and depressions.

On the other hand, we twenty-first century Buddhists have got to be grateful, immeasurably so. Not only do we have Shantideva, but we have guides who live his ideals and haven’t even experienced despondency for many lifetimes.

Ven. Kabir Saxena is Indian born, educated in England, and a student of Lama Zopa Rinpoche since 1979. He was ordained in January 2002 and received gelong ordination in March 2003 from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He lives at the Maitreya Project Bodhgaya where he works for the Maitreya Project Universal Education School.

Reprinted from Mandala: A Tibetan Buddhist Journal.
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