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Inside, the light from the lamp provides the clarity to distinguish between, say, a chair, a bed, or a carpet. As it peeks through the shades or shutters we may experience the light of wisdom sometimes as intuition, what some people describe as a “gut level” feeling about a person, situation, or event.
Loving-kindness and compassion shine through the shutters in those moments when we spontaneously give aid or comfort to someone, not out of self-interest or thinking we might get something in return, but just because it seems the right thing to do. It may be something as simple as offering people a shoulder to cry on when they’re in pain, or helping someone cross the street, or it may involve a longer-term commitment, like sitting by the bedside of someone ill or dying. We’ve all heard, too, of extreme instances in which people, without even thinking about the risk to their own lives, jump into a river to save some stranger who is drowning.
Capability often manifests in the way in which we survive difficult events. For example, a long-time Buddhist practitioner I met recently had invested heavily in the stock market back in the 1990s, and when the market fell later in the decade, he lost everything. Many of his friends and partners had also lost a great deal of money, and some of them went a little crazy. Some lost confidence in themselves and their ability to make decisions; some fell into deep depression; others, like the people who lost money during the Stock Market Crash of 1929, jumped out of windows. But he didn’t lose his mind, his confidence, or fall into depression. Slowly, slowly, he began investing again and built up a new, solid financial base.
Seeing his apparent calm in the face of such a terrific downturn of events, a number of his friends and associates asked him how he was able to retain his equanimity. “Well,” he replied, “I got all this money from the stock market, then it went back to the stock market, and now it’s coming back. Conditions change, but I’m still here. I can make decisions. So maybe I was living in a big house one year and sleeping on a friend’s couch the next, but that doesn’t change the fact that I can choose how to think about myself and all the stuff happening around me. I consider myself very fortunate, in fact. Some people aren’t capable of choosing and some people don’t recognize that they can choose. I guess I’m lucky because I fall into the category of people who are able to recognize their capacity for choice.”
I’ve heard similar remarks from people who are coping with chronic illness, either in themselves, their parents, their children, other family members, or friends. One man I met recently in North America, for instance, spoke at length about maintaining his job and his relationship with his wife and children while continuing to visit his father who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. “Of course it’s hard to balance all these things,” he said. “But it’s what I do. I don’t see any other way.”
Such a simple statement, but how refreshing! Though he’d never attended a Buddhist teaching before, had never studied the literature, and didn’t necessarily identify himself as Buddhist, his description of his life and the way he approached it represented a spontaneous expression of all three aspects of buddhanature: the wisdom to see the depth and breadth of his situation, the capability to choose how to interpret and act on what he saw, and the spontaneous attitude of loving-kindness and compassion.
As I listened to him, it occurred to me that these three characteristics of buddhanature can be summed up in a single word: courage—specifically the courage to be, just as we are, right here, right now, with all our doubts and uncertainties. Facing experience directly opens us to the possibility of recognizing that whatever we experience—love, loneliness, hate, jealousy, joy, greed, grief, and so on—is, in essence, an expression of the fundamentally unlimited potential of our buddhanature.
Though the Buddha didn’t speak explicitly about buddhanature in his teachings on the third noble truth, the principle is implied in the “positive prognosis” of the third noble truth. Whatever discomfort we feel—subtle, intense, or somewhere in-between—subsides to the degree that we cut through our fixation upon a very limited, conditioned, and conditional view of ourselves and begin to identify with the capability to experience anything at all. Eventually, it’s possible to come to rest in buddhanature itself—the way, for instance, a bird might rest in coming home to its nest. At that point, suffering ends. There is nothing to fear, nothing to resist. Not even death can trouble you.