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By Ven. Thubten Gyatso
In the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, custom calls for a young girl to be selected as the representative of a goddess and kept in a palace away from her family and friends. Her hair is never cut, and her feet are not allowed to touch the ground. She is finally released when she begins to menstruate – the “curse” becoming her savior – and another girl takes her place. People believe these little girls are fortunate, but my godless Buddhist mind is saddened by the isolation and loneliness they are forced to endure.
Some think that being a celibate Buddhist monk is an equally perverse situation. On my last day of work in Australia, before flying to Nepal to become ordained, in accordance with hospital tradition I went to the local pub with my fellow doctors for a farewell drink. There I was, the prospective Buddhist monk, sitting at a table with a cigar in my mouth, a jug of beer in front of me, and my arms around two young lady doctors. Echoing my own doubts about whether it was possible to live the rest of my life alone, one of them asked, “But won’t you miss the cuddles?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “but I think it’s worth trying.”
Loneliness was no stranger to me. A few years earlier, I had left my love in Australia and gone to England for post-graduate study in medicine, and, let’s face it, for adventure. I found it all: adventure, friends, interesting work and study, but when her letters arrived and memories invaded my mind, swinging London became the loneliest place in the world. I yearned for her to be with me and share my happiness. …
Many Buddhist practitioners have encountered feelings of loneliness. According to Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Online Advice Book, Rinpoche once heard a monk comment that he felt people didn’t want to be with him and were avoiding him. Rinpoche offered this advice:
That is no problem at all. It is good, because you waste so much of your time if people are interested in meeting you. Then, no meditation, no study, nothing, just blah, blah, blah, blah. That is why Milarepa achieved enlightenment in a brief lifetime during degenerate times. Why did he go to meditate in very high mountains? That is the whole point. He did it in order not to waste his life. … Buddha said that as long as one follows desire, one will never get satisfaction. Satisfaction, here, means peace of mind, but in a broader way it also means to understand that as long as one follows desire, there is no liberation and no enlightenment.
BUDDHIST IN THE TRENCHES
By Sarah Shifferd
An early spring evening: Portland, Oregon. Externally, I walked past exquisite, flowery gardens and immaculate Craftsman houses, lit from within against the twilight. Internally, I clunked and clattered around in dark misery. A check from a client hadn’t come and I was nearly broke. My work that day had been irritating, stressful drudgery. I’d thoroughly convinced myself, based on my most neurotic of neuroses, that I wasn’t fit/assertive/interesting/creative/wild enough for a woman I was interested in. A friend had canceled our evening get together. Feeling the blackness engulfing the edges of my mind, I’d assumed a light tone and texted a few other friends, suggesting we get a cheap Mexican dinner or catch a movie. They all had other plans, other people to see, other things to do. To top it all off, my odd little black cat, Drolma Jangsem, had taken it into her head to live in the driveway rather than the house.
As I turned the corner onto Hawthorne Avenue and into New Seasons Market, I calculated what necessities I could and could not afford. The golden light of the store seemed oppressive, the flower display garish, the stock boy overly friendly. I selected a carton of eggs, a pack of tortilla chips, a pound of carrots.
I was pondering almond butter when the song started. First the sappy synthesizer introduction, then the iconic bass line. I froze. “No, no,” I begged the universe in general. “Please don’t play that song.” The universe played it anyway. The resonant baritone of The Walker Brother’s lead singer Scott Walker boomed over the produce.
Loneliness is a cloak you wear…
I gritted my teeth and clenched my entire body. My urge to rip out the speakers and throw them through the plate glass window was quelled only by the fact that I didn’t know where they were.
The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore,
The moon ain’t gonna rise in the sky,
I grabbed my almond butter and a few apples and headed to checkout. The clerk was the little French guy who never wanted to talk to me. I watched him meticulously place each apple on the scale and key in the code.
The tears are always clouding your eyes,
When you’re without love!
The safety of the street. The automatic doors clicked shut behind me. The bus I hoped to catch whooshed by. I ignored the guy selling newspapers for the homeless and stomped irritably towards my alternate bus stop, two blocks away. My mind played the bit of song I’d walked out on.
Girl, I need you
I can’t go ooo-on…*
I let the song play in my head for half a block. When the chorus came, I sang along under my breath. I grimly resisted the smile that niggled at my gloom. But by the time I reached the bus stop, I was laughing hard enough to invite inquiring looks from my fellow Tri-Met riders. I swallowed my giggles, heaved my bags onto the bench and pretended to look for the bus.
I love when the outer world so perfectly mirrors my delusions; or I should say, when I can actually see that the outer world is so perfectly mirroring my delusions.
Dictionary.com defines “lonely” as: affected with, characterized by, or causing a depressing feeling of being alone; destitute of sympathetic or friendly companionship, intercourse, support, etc.
We all know the feeling. Loneliness perceives division and separation at every possible turn. Like its dark cousin Depression, it lives in a narrow little world, the edges of the picture blurry and rounded, like in a dream sequence on TV. And like Depression, it has a single cause: the self-cherishing mind.
Loneliness is all about “Me”; it is obsessively turned towards the self. And not just any self, but a completely and utterly mistaken one. The delusional mind stubbornly insists on telling a single story and taking everything that occurs as evidence to support it. When the delusion is self-cherishing, when we cling to the mind that sees “Me” as the most important (or sees “Me” to the exclusion of anyone else), the suffering comes fast and furious. And when the suffering comes fast and furious, we can’t even see what we’re doing or where our minds have gone. When we can’t see what we’re doing or where our minds have gone, taking that slight step to the left, simply walking around the original mistake, becomes almost impossible.
Loneliness is a lie. The truth is, we can find its opposite whenever our hearts are open to the beings in front of us – rescuing a drowning insect from a swimming pool, stopping to pet a cat on the sidewalk, truly talking with the mentally challenged man on the bus, helping someone with a project, even sitting “alone” at home, reading the New York Times. The truth is, whether we are lonely or not doesn’t depend on the behavior or attitudes of others, it depends entirely on our own.
Scott Walker didn’t just jolt me out of my delusion with his song, he also showed me a basic teaching in a completely new way. He was right. The tears will always cloud our eyes when we’re without love. But the missing love that causes our suffering, our loneliness, is not the love of another person. It’s the love we find in our own hearts, our unconditional love for others, that makes the sun (of compassion) shine and the moon (of wisdom) rise in the radiant and pure sky of our own minds. As countless beings have shown over and over again, we truly do not need anything more.
Sarah Shifferd is a freelance writer, editor and movie subtitler. She lives in the often bizarre and continually enlightening world of Portland, Oregon, U.S.
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If you listen to the advice of the Buddha – who has only compassion for sentient beings and no trace of self-centred mind; who is perfect in power, wisdom and compassion; whose holy mind is omniscient – all you get is benefit.
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