(From the December 2015 Priory Newsletter)
By Rev. Leon
In the traditional story of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, there is a scene from just before the time when the Buddha sits down for his final effort. After realizing the futility of ascetic practice and already understanding that indulgence doesn’t help either, he has taken a bath and eaten a meal provided by a local woman. He cleans his bowl and it seems that a question arises in his mind: will I be able to do this ambitious thing that I have set out to do? Thinking this, he throws the bowl into the middle of the river and says, “If this bowl floats up stream, I will awaken to the Truth”. And the bowl does in fact float upstream.
That floating upstream is worth paying attention to. For each of us, there is an element in our practice of the Dharma that is like floating upstream against the current, the current of day-to-day events, the current of social pressure, the current of getting things done. But mostly it is the current of our own mental forward momentum. For myself, an aspect of training my mind (going against the current of my mind) is cultivating the willingness to be with what is difficult to bear, a thing that I would mostly like to avoid, whether it be a difficult relationship, an unavoidable obligation or some aspect of our own selves.
I often feel a little overwhelmed by the number of sweet things that are available at this time of year (because, of course, I find myself eating more of them than might be best) and I was reminded of an idea that I understand comes from Chinese culture: what they call eating bitter. This is not usually the literal eating of bitter things, but more a way of teaching how to relate to adversity or to things that are difficult to bear.
(Before I go much further, I might add, as a sort of disclaimer, that someone once said that in order to be successful in the long term as a monk, you must become a connoisseur of bitterness. I suppose, in my mild way, I am becoming that connoisseur, and I am not suggesting you should become one in turn.)
So, I think many of us find that the holidays can be a mixture of things we enjoy and things we might like to otherwise avoid and I find that each year I have to brace myself with a little encouragement to be extra willing to practice making the offerings of patience and kindness. Normally, it seems that when we think of practicing patience, we think of the aspect of enduring an unpleasantness, looking forward to the time when it will be over. In the context of meditation practice though, I find it helpful to think about it in a bit different way, more along the lines of patience as “being with” what is difficult. This is like digesting some bitter thing, difficult to swallow.
The thing about this idea of eating bitter, is that we allow what is bitter to affect us and, in doing this, it becomes a part of us. While this is generally good, it needs to be handled carefully: in this sense, the Dharma is like a digestive enzyme that helps us to see clearly how to handle what is difficult and digest it. The “how to handle it” is mostly just the being with it and not trying to do something about it or with it: just let it arise and pass away, seeing it as clearly as we can. Sometimes, from this place, we might get an insight or sense of some thing that we could do to help the circumstance and often that is good to follow up on, always returning though, to the adequacy of “just being with.”
This “being with” is how we bring compassion into the world and into our own hearts. The word compassion, when you break it down into its root parts means with (com-) suffering, (-passion, from its old meaning and Latin roots). So just being willing to be with whatever difficulty arises either in us directly or in those around us immediately, or in those farther from us, is to bring compassion into our immediate life. To be still and aware and to have an attitude of open-handed letting go, is what allows us to digest what is bitter without getting stuck with it or becoming bitter ourselves.