Shambhala Sun | September 2013
A Beautiful Wish
Our deepest and most beautiful wish is to become a better person. Just follow the wanting itself, says Zen teacher JOHN TARRANT. That is the gate. Part of "You Are the Sun Not the Clouds," a special section on the Buddhist approach to becoming a better person.
Student: I’m reaching for the light, please help me.
Teacher: Forget about the light. Give me the reaching.
The desire for a more beautiful life is ancient and enduring. In medieval times it meant dressing in bright silks and having long and colorful processions; the desire was poured into objects, too, into paintings and cathedrals with stainedglass windows. Inside the desire for a more beautiful life is the desire for a more beautiful character. We all have the urge to be better people, and behind all our self-improvement there is a profound impulse. Self-improvement is a gateway, the first step in a quest, a clue to a deeper life. The most beautiful form of the beautiful life is inner freedom, the awakening taught in the ancient spiritual traditions.
We can start anywhere
Everything alive has desire. The amoeba improves its life by swimming to the nutrient- rich side of the pond. The shopper improves her life by getting mousse that will hold her hair up really, really high for the wedding. A list of my Amazon purchases would reveal that weird medieval texts, Galactic Light Blasters (“colors may vary”), and Japanese chef ’s knives will improve my life. Unreasonable desires are universal.
I just have to look through my credit card statements or Amazon purchases to see how desire becomes unwieldy, chaotic, and self-contradictory, running wild like vines in spring. Will that chocolate I gave my friend require the purchase of a weight-loss book to counter its effects? Did that Galactic Light Blaster, with its flashing colors and weird noises, make us happy at the party? And then the deeper question, full of yearning: “What would I be like if I were happy more often?”
The spiritual path starts with a simple impulse like this. We can start anywhere, go through any gate. We begin by noticing, by becoming curious about reality. “What do I want?” is a gate. That’s what a spiritual path is, a series of queries about reality. It’s not an admonition—“You ought to lose fifteen pounds” or “You should be calm” are not yet curious or compassionate. The quest is more likely to begin with a question that we are immediately interested in, such as “Will the mousse really lift my hair up?” and “What will get me through this day?”
Suffering is sometimes a good thing
Self-improvement is a beginning of something profound. We are starting to embrace the problem of suffering, which, in basic form, appears to be endless: I lack something and struggle to get it, and I’m still unhappy. This is something Buddha was interested in, and that is different from, say, physical pain. While pain is just pain, suffering comes with meaning; it touches on who we think we are.
Here’s a way to think about the difference: My border collie has an enthusiasm for bacon and gophers but she has no interest in a weight-loss program. In a sense, digging for gophers is a weight-loss program but that’s not why she does it. Her motives are pure. She might grow obese from bacon and have a shorter life than otherwise, but that’s fine with her. A dog can be miserable, she can be in pain, her hips will stop working if she weighs sixty pounds, but she doesn’t wonder, “Will my butt look fat if I eat this gopher?”