Verses of the Dhammapada
Why do we fear change so much? Jenny Hall looks at what happens when we face that fear.
"From love of the changing is born fear and sorrow. He who knows this is free from both".
At the start of the new year, it is perhaps natural to reflect on change.
"From love of the changing…”
The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed the undeniable truth of perpetual change. The first sign of being taught by the Buddha is change (anicca). Physicists tell us that all matter is made up of constantly whirling particles. Everything in the universe is continuously being born, is growing, deteriorating and then dying. Not only our bodies but our thoughts and emotions are also in a perpetual state of flux. The uncertainties and insecurities of change frighten us.
We react in two ways. We may attempt to cling to what we have judged as beneficial for me. What we consider as unsatisfactory we may attempt to push away. Both responses involve creating static mental pictures from ephemeral phenomena. These pictures are the building blocks making up "me" and "my" world. Through them we seek security.
A few years ago, my sister and I took a train to Brighton in order to revisit the scenes of our childhood. We were surprised to discover that many had completely vanished. Many had altered beyond recognition. The flat we had lived in and the school we had attended appeared much smaller than we had remembered. Not only had Brighton changed but so had we. The pictures we had cherished differed widely from reality.
An Inuit myth tales of a miserly old man and his daughter Loona. They stole the moon and locked it away in the chest filled with their other treasures. Hidden away, the moon was unable to wax or wane. One day a raven heard them whispering about the secret hoard. He decided he would like something out of the chest. He changed himself into two leaves hanging onto the branch of a tree. Whilst Loona was fishing on the riverbank, the branch brushed against her mouth. In surprise she opened it and the leaves dropped in and slipped down her throat. Not long afterwards, Loona discovered she was pregnant. She made a crib from fur and placed it on a rocker made from whalebone. When the baby was born it had a nose like a beak and black beady eyes. Loona placed the baby in the crib. The baby started to cry. She rocked it. She fed it. She gave it toys. She took the baby for walks. Still the baby cried endlessly day and night. The old man began to feel very tired. He could not sleep for the noise. He longed for peace. Loona showed the baby the sea. The baby continued to cry. Finally, Loona and her father decided to show the baby the moon. They unlocked the chest and took out the moon, brighter than the silver stars. Immediately the baby stopped crying. Loona threw the moon into the air. The baby laughed in delight. The old man threw it even higher. Suddenly the baby was transformed back into the Raven. He flew up into the air and caught the moon in his beak. He disappeared through the smoke hole and carried the moon back into the night sky. Now every month it changes to a sliver and then waxes huge, white and beautiful.
“Is born sorrow… “
Loona and her father resisted the changing cycles of the moon by stealing and hoarding it. The baby’s constant crying points to the sorrow we experience when we also attempt to cling to the impermanent. Eventually Loona and her father lose the moon. This release of the Moon by the raven reveals the wisdom of non-attachment. The baby stops crying. Attachments bring sorrow to everyone. They create a barrier to clear seeing and hearing. They take the form of a mental running commentary composed of judgements, opinions and prejudice.
Communication is blocked which leads to conflict and unhappiness.
“Is born fear.”
Fear of change and its uncertainties fuels our efforts to push "what doesn't suit me" away. Reality is often very different to how we have imagined it. This makes us both angry and anxious. Dramatic changes to our way of life occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of us resisted the lockdown by refusing to comply with the rules. Many tried to ignore the emergency by immersing themselves in endless TV, video games or alcohol.
“He who knows is free from both.”
The Zen training shows us how to meet the fear and desire behind attachments. We are encouraged to meet the emotional energy that creates the pictures that make up "me". We invite it to burn "me" away. The energy then becomes the wisdom and warmth of the Buddha nature. The one who knows is the empty heart free from any trace of "I". There is a oneness with all, as it comes to be and ceases to be.
Unquestionably, many people died, suffered and lost their livelihoods during the pandemic. However, once the fear was faced, there was the opportunity to give myself whole heartedly into a simpler routine. There was more time to communicate by phone, zoom or letter with relatives and friends. There was a warm response when volunteers were required to assist the old and vulnerable. There was the realisation that we were not alone. There was deep gratitude and delight in local green spaces. Wildlife reclaimed the urban landscape. The skies were filled with birdsong.
On the visit to Brighton, our last port of call was a little churchyard where we used to play. The rusty iron gate was still there. The squeak of the hinges was the same squeak that we heard as little girls. This "clear knowing" is always here. In all the changing vicissitudes of life it is our refuge. Whatever 2023 brings, there is nothing to fear.
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