Jul 20, 2020
Jenny Hall

Verse from the Dhammapada 271

Loneliness is the 21st Century 'malaise' for the first world. Can the Buddha's teachings help us if we are facing this problem?

Woman standing solitary in a park



‘Not… by a solitary life can one obtain release.’

It has been estimated that nine million people in the UK suffer from loneliness. It is not only the old who are affected. Despite the possibility of instant communication through the internet, many young people also complain of feeling isolated.

We feel lonely because we believe we are ‘separate’. The Buddha, however, taught that there is no such thing as a separate ‘I’. Like all forms, it is made up of impermanent, interdependent components. Modern science confirms that the earth is an organic, interconnected entity.

Take a chair for example. When we look at it closely we can see the whole universe in it. The wood came from a tree. The metal originally came from exploding stars. The sun, rain and soil helped to grow the tree. Many people contributed to the creation of the chair. A woodcutter chopped the tree down. A carpenter fashioned the wood. A lorry driver transported it to a shop, where a shop assistant sold the chair. The chair provides support and comfort in our home.

Over time the wood gradually deteriorates. Perhaps a leg drops off. Eventually it provides us with fuel for the fire. The chair is our ‘friend’. Usually, however, we are blind, not only to this relationship, but also to its connection with all that exists.

This ignorance is reflected in the folk tale of the old woman and her pig.

There was an old woman who found a six-penny piece. With the money she went to market and bought a pig. On the way home they came to a stile. The pig refused to jump over. The old woman met a dog. She told it to bite the pig to make it jump. The dog refused. She met a stick. She told it to beat the dog to make it bite the pig. The stick refused. She met fire. She told it to burn the stick to make it beat the dog. It refused. She met water. She told it to put out the fire. It refused. She met a horse. She told it to drink the water. It refused. She met a rope. She told it to lasso the horse. It refused. She met a rat. She told it to gnaw the rope. It refused. She met a cat. She told it to scare the rat. Much to the old woman’s surprise, the cat replied “All right, but you must give me a drink of milk.” The cat lapped up the milk. It then scared the rat, who gnawed the rope, which lassoed the horse, who drank the water, which put out the fire, which burnt the stick, which beat the dog, who bit the pig, who jumped over the stile. They returned home happily.

Like the old woman giving her orders, we try to take control by pursuing our own agenda regardless of others. We ignore the fact that everything is connected. Our council has decided to leave some grass verges in the town uncut. In this way, plants such as ox-eye daisies, clover and buttercups flourish. This encourages bees and butterflies. However, some residents have complained about untidiness. Dogen said: “If we don’t practise with all beings, it is not Buddha practice.” This is because we practise with all beings in the recognition that the welfare of all trumps ‘my’ personal wishes, as the latter does not see beyond themselves.

The Zen training leads to this inclusive relationship with all beings. These beings may be people, objects, situations or emotions.

In the story of the old woman and her pig, everything starts playing its part harmoniously when she gives the cat a drink of milk.

Our teachers show us that it is in giving ourselves away that communion with all can open.

When sitting by ourselves feeling lonely, we are encouraged to greet and give ourselves wholeheartedly into the sadness. The energy is transformed into the open heart. I am given away and there is no sad separate self anymore.

When ‘I’ give myself away into polishing the chair there is just the polishing. Gratitude for the chair arises. The newly polished chair smiles back. When we are in communion with the chair, its needs are seen and responded to. We help to fulfil its function. We don’t put our feet on the chair. We don’t leave a pile of unwashed clothes on it. The chair is cherished. We don't throw it out when it becomes slightly worn. When ‘I’ am emptied out of all my plans, the chair will ‘tell’ me when a new one is needed. In this way the world’s resources are safeguarded.

When ‘I’ am emptied out, kindness, tempered with wisdom, flows naturally from the open heart. All action is appropriate. All benefit. There is friendship with all. In Krishnamurti’s words: “The observer and the observed are one.”

…Copyright to Jenny Hall.……………………….

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