We read the story today of an old woman who asks Buddhist Master Zhaozhou Congshan how she can be free from the world of suffering. He tells her to pray that all things are born in heaven and that you yourself suffer forever in the sea of hardships.
I don’t think she wanted to hear that. It reminded me how once I called one of my favorite teachers and told him that I’d been rejected from some competitive exhibitions. “You must not be any good,” he retorted.
A rabbi was telling us the other day that it takes three to four generations to change behavior, and that education doesn’t help. As we talked more, it became clear that he thought of education as “instruction” and I thought of it as “experience” (à la John Dewey). He then agreed that it might be a little easier to change with experience. In the story, Master Zhaozhou is providing an experience for the old lady. She is taking on suffering for everyone. What she’ll hopefully discover is that she’s not separate from them, and she will be “reborn” (to use a Christian term) in heaven.
I think this idea of suffering for all people is workable. For one, it is all we can do. If you consider suffering is how one responds to life then you can’t really help another. But you can model for others by going into your own suffering and reducing it.
When Buddha was enlightened he said that all beings were enlightened. He realized that we aren't separate. Like with suffering, the real culprit is believing that we are not separate and that we don’t really suffer alone. What the old woman was asked to do wasn’t really possible. Can a finger suffer without affecting the rest of the body?
Perhaps the wise teacher, in telling his student to take in all suffering, was creating an experience where she would focus on good thoughts about others. Perhaps she would realize that she too was born in heaven. Perhaps the Master’s instruction was using a little bit of reverse psychology.
It would take a lot of compassion to suffer for all, as Mary and Christ did. It is the ultimate benevolent act... to take a bullet for a friend (or even for someone you don’t know.)
P.S. Too many credit cards saga: Did successfully cancel one credit card today. Almost did another, but then they offered me $50 if I spend $300 on groceries. How many carrots is that at 99 cents a lb. and bananas at .45 cents a lb.?