Dhammapada Verse 184
Verses from the Dhammapada
The key to emptying the heart is not just patience, it’s patient endurance.
"Patience and long-suffering make the best training. Nirvana is supreme say the Buddhas.”
This verse points to the importance of patiently meeting suffering in the Zen training. This is illustrated in the ancient story called Nachiketa and the Lord of Death.
Nachiketa, after experiencing many troubles, was determined to meet suffering face-to-face. He removed himself from society. He entered the deep forest. He sat motionless under a tree. He experienced hunger, physical pain and utter exhaustion. After many days and nights, he found himself in the realm of Yama, Lord of Death. Yama’s three assistant’s Pestilence, Famine and War suddenly appeared. They told Nachiketa that Yama was away collecting rents and would be a long time. Nachiketa said he would wait. Eventually Yama returned. He was so impressed by Nachiketa’s patience he offered him three boons. Nachiketa requested the ability to forgive, the ability to meet the inner fire and the secret of immortality. Yama agreed to the first two. He said to find the secret of immortality, it is necessary to look into oneself. He handed him a mirror. He told him to look beyond body and thought. As pictures of his enemies arose in his head, Nachiketa forgave them. As the fires of hate and desire flared, he met them. Following Yama’s instructions, he wholeheartedly emptied himself out and reached Nirvana, the deathless.
The Buddha taught the first noble truth that there is suffering. Nachiketa had many troubles. These troubles take many forms. Even happiness contains the seeds of sorrow.
Waking up recently, the sunshine was streaming through the bedroom curtains. It was the perfect weather for a planned spring morning walk with a friend. Suddenly the phone rang. The friend was in tears. Her brother had died during the night. Later, a neighbour knocked on our door. She was calling to say "goodbye". She was moving to Ireland and we wouldn't be meeting again. That afternoon waiting for the dentist a little girl came out of the treatment room crying. She had just had a tooth removed. The dentist told me that many elderly people, since the Covid pandemic, were nervous about keeping appointments. She enquired after my husband’s health. She then confided that, as she got older, she often worried about losing her partner.
Such examples make up the reality of all our lives. There is the suffering of both mental and physical pain.
The Buddha taught that everything is in a state of flux. Suffering arises when we attach to the ephemeral, when we regard everything arising as a permanent entity. This includes myself. He said clinging to this false sense of self is the root cause of all our suffering.
Ajahn Chah likened that root cause to a splinter. He said it is like getting a splinter in your foot. It may be so small that you don't feel it all the time. However, every now and then you step in a certain way and it causes irritation. The thought then arises "I must do something about this". Then you forget about it until the irritation returns. Eventually you decide something needs to be done. You can't put up with it any longer. Finally, you dig it out.
This deep looking and digging is what Yama instructed Nachiketa to do. The Buddha taught that afflictions themselves don't create suffering but it is our attempts to escape them that do.
The first boon Nachiketa requested was forgiveness. Our first response to suffering is often one of anger and irritation. This is especially so when we are under attack when we don't get what we want or when a personal situation frustrates us. Not only do we need to embrace these persons and situations in a spirit of friendship and forgiveness, but also the emotional response that they engender.
There is a well-known Buddhist analogy which points out that if you wish to protect your feet from thorns it would be wasteful to cover the surface of the Earth with leather. All you have to do to protect yourself is to cover the soles of your feet. In the same way, it is more efficient to combat difficulties with forgiveness and patience rather than wasting precious energy in attempting to fight them.
However, even when we believe our response is one of patience, very often we are just waiting for change. We are gritting our teeth and enduring. Patience only opens when the desire to change or improve the situation is met. Nachiketa’s second wish was the ability to meet the inner fire. This inner fire is the hot, churning desire and anger. When this emotional energy is greeted and invited to burn ‘me’ away the Buddha nature, choiceless awareness, opens. This is Nirvana, also called the Deathless, which opened when Nachiketa emptied out his heart. Then, like the mirror in the story, the empty heart reflects whatever arises. Patience, compassion and wisdom flow for the benefit of all.
All suffering, when truly met, leads to Marcus Aurelius’ admonition:
”Love nothing but that comes to you…
For what could more aptly fit your needs?”
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