Who suffers who knows

From Piya Tan

Who suffers who knows

Remember that time when we try to tell someone how painful things are for us? But we are dismissively told, “It’s all right!…” Clearly the other person does not hear our cries, nor feel our pain. Try telling someone who is drowning: “It’s all right, don’t drown…”

All right, so we are not really drowning. A problem is somehow solved in the past tense. When we look back, such pains are just a memory, and then we can tell ourselves, “It’s really all right,” because it has passed, and we have learned something from it.

Or, when we tell another person about our problem, this person says, “Oh, I had a bigger problem than yours…” and so we become the captive audience, unheard, but having to hear another round of painful episode pasted over our own pains like some cold “koyok” (medicated plaster) that smarts and reddens our tender skin.

A true friend, a spiritual friend, is one who carefully tries to listen to us. Such a person may be one in a hundred or maybe even rarer. Once, when our family was really in bad financial difficulty that drove me to voice our need at the end of a public Dharma talk attended by about a hundred people.

“Our family really needs help this month: we are unable to pay our rent!” At the end of the talk, no one came forward to even console us. Except for one kind woman: she gently handed me a small donation, with a soft smile. Later I heard, she became a nun.

It is more painful to be told “It’s all right” when it is not; or to hear another’s problem when ours is hanging over our head; or to be unheeded even when we cry out for help. People only seem to be kind and helpful when they hear that we are struck down with a deadly disease or, better, dying, or best, dead.

The good things we say of the dead at their funerals are better practised when they were undead. Funerals and deaths often make hypocrites of the best of us. Oh, it’s all right, our turn will come. Some of those people who have hated us when we lived would say the kindest things as our mortal remains, returning to the elements.

The lesson is clear surely. Our problems are never really as bad as those of others, espe­cially when we know the Dharma. The Buddha does not turn away anyone who comes to him for help. He heals the sick, uplifts the poor, ennobles the foolish, sets right the un­hing­ed, and awakens even drunks and serial killers. We might not have the Buddha’s powers, but we know him by his example, wisdom and compassion.

Our spiritual strength lies in seeing, that is, understanding what we should not do, what we should do, and to do it. This is, in fact, the essence of the three trainings of moral virtue, mental culti­vation and wisdom. Let us now spend a quiet moment reflect­ing on this before read­ing on.

If we think that our problems are the worst, or that we are suffering more than anyone else, we are being false to ourselves. How many people have we really known, and how much suffering has really overwhelmed us?

It is amazing to see how a humble elder rummaging through the refuse bins to collect discarded cans, just for a few dollars a day. He talks to no one, and needs no chatting. He seems happily deep in his routine: he does not seem to be suffering. And we, we are only concerned that he does not mess up our street!

To those who think we are romanticizing the misfortune of others, we could well reply we are trying to see the goodness in the humble ways of those who have less but are more in their courage to do what good that needs to be done for themselves.

My love for the Dharma has over the years gently woken me to the fact that the suffer­ings of others are always worse than ours. The reason is simple: yes, we once suffered like others, too. But we suffered greater because of our ignorance and craving.

Insofar as we are able to see the sufferings of others as being worse than ours, we can say that, to that extent, we are wiser. If we respond to them, then, we are more charita­ble. There is a lot to learn from suffering: it means that we should move on. It means that some good­ness in us and in others has yet be touched.

No matter how much we hear of the sufferings of others, we can never really know them. We can never really know others even through their joys (much as we think we do). We might hear all that another has to say of themselves (if this were ever possible), but we still can never fully know them. The reason is simple: we do not even really know our own selves.

At best, we can only hear the unfinished tales of others. Our mistakes can be disastrous when we try to freeze these flowing formative moments of another, and frame them into a colourless still-life portrait hanging on the wall-nail of our cold comfort. We are never ready or able to hear a person’s full story, and yet we are ever ready to summarily judge them at a moment’s notice. What does that make us?

The ways of compassion are simple, yet deceptively simple. We need to know people, we need to live with them, love them. The Buddha’s teachings are mostly reminders that being true and loving is the best way to heal. The simple truth of joyful reality ennobles us for­ever.

Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer and religious thinker, legendary for his love of goodness but dislike for the church, tells us the story of the Three Questions. The thought came to a certain king that he would never fail if he knew three things. These three things were
·   What is the best time to do something?
·   Who is the most important person?
·   What is the most important thing to do at all times?

Many educated people tried to answer the king’s questions, but they all came up with different answers. The king decided that he needed to ask a wise hermit in a nearby forest. The hermit would however only see common folk, so the king disguised himself as a peasant and left his guards behind, so that he alone went to see the hermit.

The hermit was digging flower-beds when the king arrived. The king asked his questions, but the hermit went on digging hard. The king offered to dig for him for a while. After digging for some time, the king again asked his questions.

Before the hermit could answer, a man emerged from the woods. He was bleeding from a terrible stomach wound. The king tended to him, and they stayed the night in the her­mit’s hut.

The next day, the wounded man was doing better, but was surprised at the help he was given. The man confessed that he knew who the king was. For, the king had executed his brother and seized his property. He had come to kill the king, but the guards wound­ed him in the stomach.

The man pledged allegiance to the king, and went on his way. The king asked the hermit again for his answers. The hermit replied that the questions had just been answered.
The most important time is now. The present is the only time we have.
The most important person is the one we are with.
The most important thing to do is some good with that person.

Yes, we have heard this one, too; now is the time to live it. The Buddha sits patiently wait­ing for us to humanly appear before him.

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