My wife is a special educator. She tells me stories about kids who are and will be, no matter how hard they work, miles and miles short of successful functioning in our society. I hear about the amazing ways that she confronts them and engages them to draw out even the most basic responses to external stimuli – things like pointing to or grabbing a particular picture that indicates something they want or need, communication in its most elemental forms. My mind spins off into the future for these little lives and I ache. Something in me inclines toward discouragement.
According to Wikipedia, 230,000 people died, in 2004, in the Indian Ocean Tsunami (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_Indian_Ocean_earthquake_and_tsunami), triggered by an undersea megathrust off the west coast of Sumatra. The millions that survived carry the soul etching memory of terror, and the loss of loved ones, places and ways of life that were wrenched irrevocably out of their being. Even from a distance, the collective soul of the earth feels and bears the rip, the wound and the scar.
The Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University (see http://costsofwar.org/article/afghan-civilians) estimated, in February 2013, that between 16,700 and 19,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan as direct or indirect casualties of Operation Enduring Freedom. iCasualties counts 3383 deaths of coalition troops since the war started in 2001 (http://icasualties.org/oef/), not to mention the traumatic head injuries, loss of limbs and suffering of families of the injured.
Life as we observe it and experience it is full of suffering, whether natural, psychological or of our own making. And it is so for the observer and survivor just as it is for the victim.
The Sanskrit term dukkha captures this completely. The Wikipedia article on dukkha (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dukkha) explains it in three categories:
- The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying.
- The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
- A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.
When we choose to stay stuck under the metaphorical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, life is indeed dukkha. We see everything through a lens of a battle to eliminate the pain of our current existence, even to the point of killing others and increasing pain because we think somehow our own security will be enhanced and our dukkha decreased. In reality, we just pile it higher and deeper.
I have a friend, Vern Rempel, who postscripts his emails with these words of his: “The code of the universe is written in beauty.” The Buddha said: “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.” Somehow I think these two assertions are headed in the same direction.
We cannot judge the pain of temporal existence any more than we can judge – as good, bad or indifferent – the unfolding of our universe and the emergence of life itself. It is. It is, it is, it is. To say “it is” is not indifference, but rather acceptance of and wonder at the mysterious whole and trajectory of creation.
The cessation of dukkha is no more nor less than the choice to live under the Tree of Life. It is, I believe, a more complete nirvana, and the essence of the Greek term metanoia, translated in the Christian Bible as repentance. That word has become heavy laden with the trappings of a religion of judgment. More accurately, it simply means to change, or to turn away from.
When we turn away from our judging and fearful view of life under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we find ourselves, simply, under the Tree of Life. We repent of dukkha. We let go of, we turn way from our limited and temporal view of suffering and we engage fully in the ongoing act, the revelation/evolution of creation.
We, in our evolutionary state, have been given at least the level of awareness that comes with observation. And we have been gifted as well with the ability to judge what we observe. We also have the ability to choose our response.
We can willfully try to manipulate life and the world around us, desperately seeking to avoid what we perceive as dukkha. When we do this, we only create more.
Or we can willingly accept and participate in the beautiful and staggeringly powerful onslaught of creation, sharing compassion, soaking in the beauty and mystery, acting in the creative initiative of God/Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source.
There is a tremendous ache, the ache of birth, in the act of creation. We are part of it. The birth, the code of that ache, is the handwriting of the universe. The child of it all, the child of us all when we participate in and do not fight the unfolding, is beauty beyond words and saying.
Come, turn, breathe, care, steward and create. Live under the Tree of Life.
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