Saturday, April 7, 2012

the search for relief

A Buddhist allegory I have always liked came tiptoeing back and said "hi" this morning. The small encouragement tells of a time when the Buddha (Gautama) ran into a kid who was crying. Gautama held out a closed fist, pretending there was gold within. The child stopped crying. And when Gautama opened his fist, there was nothing there.

The story is enough for a lifetime, I'd say. But of course it is also a hellish seedbed from which weeds and thorns and explanations and beliefs rise up like that stupid TV show, "The Walking Dead." Zombie alert!

I guess one of the reasons I like the story and have it filed away in the 3x5 filebox I call this mind is that when it comes to Buddhism, I really don't give a shit about "Buddhism." I do, however, give a shit about tears. A crying child, like a crying adult, touches my heart ... although, at my age, I can get a bit testy about professional weepers. Tears are wet and warm and human. "Buddhism" is an afterthought.

Sitting on the porch, sipping the first sips of coffee this morning, as the thought-machine cranked into gear, I got to laughing. It didn't last all that long: Laughing when no one has told a joke or you have no company is a bit odd, and the 'oddness' reined in the brief laughing spell. But laughter, like tears, is something that touches my heart. Laughter is easy and doesn't lie ... just like sorrow.

The apparent, though not real, cause of the laughter was this: I was cud-munching about the role that "relief" plays in spiritual endeavor. Is there a spiritual endeavor anywhere that doesn't hold out a fist pretending to contain "relief," or an end to tears or something similar? Christians say you have to drop dead before you find the one true relief. Muslims promise 77 virgins or some other dubious relief. Buddhists wrap their fists around "enlightenment" or "emptiness" or "unexcelled understanding" or something similar. And even non-Buddhists might seek relief from one unfortunate set of circumstances or another. Wouldn't it be nice not to be burdened by these all-too-compelling tears? And you bet your ass it would ... maybe.

But in a very prosaic way, a way not yet dependent on "Buddhism" or any other fine philosophical format, did you ever notice...?" Notice that when seeking relief from some current set of circumstances (a very human and heart-touching hunt), perhaps the goal is achieved: The aspirin does in fact get rid of the headache; the windfall does in fact ease the pains of poverty; and the kindness of one person does in fact mitigate the cruelty of another. Problem solved, relief in hand ... ahhhh.

But what happens then? I think that anyone might admit that relief in hand is not exactly relief because it seems that having been relieved of one burden, the first thing anyone does is to go out and find another burden from which to seek relief. Over and over again. Leaving "Buddhism" or "Christianity" or any other refined philosophy out of it, this seems to be the way ... seek relief, find relief ... but the relief doesn't really put a period on the sentence. If the truth be told, it's a bit scary to imagine what life might be like if, somehow, I stopped praying for relief. This is a tried-and-true habit. I am who I am in part by insisting I need relief from the new tears that are flowing.

Relief is like eating potato chips ... can't just eat one!

But it is also like potato chips in that the nourishment value never seems to rise above the "tentative" level. This relief gives rise to the next needed relief. And if spiritual persuasion is appealing, there's always talk about some final relief ... some perfect surcease ... a surcease that, if I'm honest, scares the shit out of me even as I pretend to long for it.

There is nothing bad or naughty in any of this. Even a single-celled paramecium without a brain cell in sight will flee a toxic substance added to its environment under the microscope. And even a single-celled paramecium, without a brain cell to rely on, will approach what is nourishing... what will bring relief to its existence.

But I think it is worth noticing and considering: Tears are real and heart-rending and sometimes touching beyond measure. The search for relief is a habit in good-standing. But the search for relief is also a half-hearted search, one that sets up barriers to any real relief even as it reaches for the aspirin bottle.

The Buddha opened his hand and there was nothing there. No relief ... but the tears had stopped. Somehow that empty hand, that no-relief-in-sight (see for yourself!) is pretty important. Important and yet easy as laughter, easy as tears, easy as a headache. There's no need to fake it ... laughter, tears, headache ... who in their right mind could escape such things? When the heart aches or breaks in two, when the laughter courses through body and mind ... well, seriously, is there some need for "relief?" Does a dandelion or a maple leaf need "relief?"

Why should we be dumber than weeds or trees?

Maybe it's worth considering.

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