the following is a letter i wrote to my grandpa.
my grandma recently passed away. they were married for fifty one years. that's a long time. everyone was very sad. especially my grandpa. sometimes when something sad happens, it is hard to know what to do.
i thought a story might help.
this is the first letter i have ever written to you.
i want to share something with you.
it is a story.
in sharing this story, i hope it can help you find a little meaning in what the physical form of it represents.*
(* i sent a small token of something along with the letter.)
it is the story of the Buddha.
the Buddha was a man who lived in India over two thousand years ago.
it is important to understand that he was an ordinary man.
he was not a god, or a prophet, or claim to be any such divine being.
he was just a regular human being, with all the same hopes, dreams, fears and suffering that you and i live with in our own lives.
he began his life in considerable privilege.
he was a prince!
he was very rich, belonging to a well-respected family with lots of power, living in the opulence of the fantastically wealthy, entirely shielded from the horrors of everyday life like disease, death and hatred.
one day, he grew bored of his privileged life, and decided to venture out past the walls of his paradise garden home and into the real world.
what he saw shocked him.
he saw people killing people. he saw liars, thieves, rapists, murderers, the terminally ill, the drunken, the proud, the hateful, and the mournful.
he saw that life is suffering.
he decided he wanted to think about this.
but he was too distracted.
there were too many temptations in his privileged life to distract him.
there was ladies-in-waiting and gigantic feasts that tasted wonderful, but left him feeling bloated, lazy and just too tired to think.
so he left his possessions, his wife and child, and his entire opulent lifestyle behind to move into the forest.
he lived alone in nature without a home or money.
he depended on the kindness of others to give him enough food to live.
he just wanted to be alone to think.
for six whole years, that's what he did.
he sat alone and thought.
the more he sat and thought, the more he began to see suffering as a disease.
he saw that all suffering is the result of attachment.
- attachment to material things, to emotions, to ideas, to desires, to cravings, and even to the self.*
(* the concept of "I" or "me" describes whatever our consciousness represents as a distinctly seperate from the world around it. the Buddha called this attachment to the ego. he saw that much suffering arises from holding the concept of "mine" too dear.)
he called these attachments delusions.
he called them delusions because he saw that no matter what it is, everything that has a beginning has an end.
he believed that attachment causes our suffering because we cling to it, even as it slips away from us.
in refusing to accept that nothing is forever, including ourselves, he saw how much we get bound up in a lot of pain by tying ourselves to ideas to the contrary.
this is how he saw suffering as a disease.
if suffering is a disease, he asked himself, then what is the cure?
why do we insist on suffering if it can be avoided?
he reasoned that we suffer because we simply don't know any better.
that is all.
suffering is caused by ignorance.
fortunately, he saw ignorance is easily cured.
if ignorance encourages attachment, and attachment causes suffering, he saw that it is cured by better understanding.
obtaining this "better understanding" is part of what is meant by enlightenment.
it just means coming to realize how silly it is to suffer by running in circles, chasing your own tail.
he outlined four steps to "curing" oneself of suffering.
the first step is to recognize when suffering exists.
for example, sometimes we are sad and we don't admit we are sad.
we might tell others, "i am fine" and even come to believe it ourselves.
but if we are sad then it is a delusion to insist otherwise.
this kind of denial inevitably causes us a lot more suffering.
we may begin to believe that our suffering state is the only state that can now exist for us.
to use the tired analogy, we get so caught up staring at one tree crossly we forget about the forest it is in.
the second step is to recognize the cause of that suffering.
for example, sometimes we know perfectly well that we are sad because we can see ourselves doing unhealthy things like drinking excessively, but we don't let ourselves think about why we are sad.
facing that can be painful, exhausting, frightening, or even maddening.
but like a sore tooth, it is a painful problem with a painful solution that is better addressed than left to fester and get worse, maybe even eventually killing us.
the third step is to cease that suffering.
once you know the root, you can pull it out.
this means to letting go of the attachment.
of course, that is something much easier said than done. without the painful introspection of the first two steps, letting go is impossible.
if we don't seriously spend some time alone in the darkness of the problem, at the very deep heart of it, as hard as that might be, any attempt to let go of it is premature.
at best, we are just faking it again.. creating the delusion that we've gotten over it when we have clearly not.
the first two steps are very painful, but like a cleansing a fresh wound, it is completely necessary to clear the way for letting go.
the final step is to choose a better path.
instead of the path that causes the suffering, there is always an alternate route that does not have to involve it.
but seeing this path - let alone being able to accept it - is once again impossible unless the first three steps are addressed in order, each on their own.
the good news is this cure is completely within your own power, without the help of any medication, "professionals" or even appeals to God.*
(* but none of these other options are ruled out, of course.)
the Buddha was not born a Buddha.*
(* meaning "awakened" or "enlightened one.)
he was a human man with human problems.
he defeated his suffering by sitting alone in a forest with only one tool: his thinking mind.
he simply thought about problems, thought about why they were problems, thought about what caused them to be problems, and thought about how to cease having problems.
finally, he thought about what a better way to go would be.
when he finally realized this way, he at that moment became a Buddha.
he had found a way through a difficult climb in the mountains of human suffering, and the map for that path he taught to others is what is known as Buddhism.
the core of Buddhism not religion! it is a philosophy for a way of living.
it is simply a process of rational problem-solving for the troubles of life.
in some forms there are seemingly religious ideas involved, but these have been laid over top just as Christ's core message was one of goodness, before the institutionalization of the Church added much more to it.
Buddhism does not require the external help of God or gods to be effective, but happily, nothing about it excludes this.
in sharing this story, i want you to be able to feel the ideas within are accessible to you, and not threatening to anything you might currently believe.
i guarantee that none of its ideas are the least bit exclusive or incompatible with what you might already hold dear.
i encourage you to continue to hold those believes dear, as they are a precious source of comforting strength.
the ideas of Buddhism are capable with all beliefs, especially Christian ones. there is nothing exclusive or contradictory about them.
if Christianity is a church building, Buddhism is just the empty space inside and around it.
nothing about the church in invalidated by the existence (or not) of this space, but one's better overall perspective is perhaps richer in understanding how both this church and the space around/in it exist.
the Buddha statue is not for worship. it is simply a vivid means for paying respect.
the statue exists to be a reminder of the original Buddha's journey.
if he made it, and so can we.
you can see him sitting in the half-lotus position with his spine straight, at the moment of his enlightenment.
the forces of his temptations and sufferings and delusions dance around his head, trying to distract him, but in this last moment before the first one in his life as a Buddha, he reached down and touches the earth with one hand, realizing that he is a part of it as it is a part of him, and in doing so, he obtains full enlightenment.
in looking at the Buddha's image, or studying the symbolism of his posture, it is possible to appreciate the qualities in ourselves that can help us overcome our own suffering and reach our own inner peace.
i'd like to suggest some of those qualities.. feel free to add your own as you see them.
i see concentration. the personal conviction to not just give up in the face of difficulty and drive ourselves mad in a downward spiral of frustrated self-pity, but rather to decide to face the roots of our problems, however painful they might be, and overcome them because overcoming problems is just part of what it means to be alive.
i see understanding, that as difficult as those problems must be to face, only we that have faced them can really understand what it means to suffer through them...
and because of this, it is only us who can truly help that suffering, as hard as it may be.
i see compassion, for our loved ones who want to help us but don't know how, or who feel so helpless they simply elect to turn the other cheek and ignore, not because they hate us or don't love us, but because they, like us, are too frustrated to know what to do.
i see forgiveness; that is, an openness to accept others, even our enemies or our estranged sons.
and finally, i see laughter.. a quiet smirk in knowing that life is a silly game we spend our lives trying to figure out the rules to, only to die realizing it was all a cosmic goof.
if we can't honestly laugh at the moment, i would like to ask now, as the Buddha did thousands of years ago...
just what have we lived for?
the Buddha said that everything that has a beginning has an end. Christ's message was the same: "I am the Alpha and the Omega." (Rev 1:8).
in living, we have been born. in being born, we must all one day die.
it need not be any more complicated than that.
we live to die... so die well by living well.
to die well, i think, is to laugh at that last instant.
regardless of what happens after death, clearly the very last moment of life is a very important one.
it is entirely possible that in some way we don't understand, life continues after death. if it does, then that last thought is really the first thought of a new life. in heaven, perhaps... or maybe back on earth in another form.
the good news is there seems to be a gentlemen's agreement with all the major religions of the world that life does go on after life.
there is also a general agreement that the moment of death in this life makes a huge impact on the next one. so if i may say it again...
live well to die well...
if we suffer in life, chances seem high that we'll probably suffer in death.
if we learn to conquer our suffering in life, then we give ourselves the opportunity to have a wonderful death free of that suffering.
this is the core of the Buddhist approach to death. it is one that i believe is applicable to every belief, as much to Christianity as to those who say they "believe in nothing".
i have written this letter partly because i wanted to thank you, but also because i believe that you may find something in the stories i've told above to help you in this time, this life, right now.
find hope in the them by finding humour in them. occasionally, when you need to (even in secret!), don't be afraid to look at the Buddha...
if he could, he'd wink at you. but since he can't, i will instead.
good luck, Grandpa.