An ancient set of Buddhist slogans offers us six powerful techniques to transform life’s difficulties into awakening and benefit. Zen teacher Norman Fischer guides us through them. Illustrations by Keith Abbott.There’s an old Zen saying: the whole world’s upside down. In other words, the way the world looks from the ordinary or conventional point of view is pretty much the opposite of the way the world actually is. There’s a story that illustrates this.
Once there was a Zen master who was called Bird’s Nest Roshi because he meditated in an eagle’s nest at the top of a tree. He became quite famous for this precarious practice. The Song Dynasty poet Su Shih (who was also a government official) once came to visit him and, standing on the ground far below the meditating master, asked what possessed him to live in such a dangerous manner. The roshi answered, “You call this dangerous? What you are doing is far more dangerous!” Living normally in the world, ignoring death, impermanence, and loss and suffering, as we all routinely do, as if this were a normal and a safe way to live, is actually much more dangerous than going out on a limb to meditate.
While trying to avoid difficulty may be natural and understandable, it actually doesn’t work. We think it makes sense to protect ourselves from pain, but our self-protection ends up causing us deeper pain. We think we have to hold on to what we have, but our very holding on causes us to lose what we have. We’re attached to what we like and try to avoid what we don’t like, but we can’t keep the attractive object and we can’t avoid the unwanted object. So, counterintuitive though it may be, avoiding life’s difficulties is actually not the path of least resistance; it is a dangerous way to live. If you want to have a full and happy life, in good times and bad, you have to get used to the idea that facing misfortune squarely is better than trying to escape from it.
This is not a matter of grimly focusing on life’s difficulties. It is simply the smoothest possible approach to happiness. Of course, when we can prevent difficulty, we do it. The world may be upside down, but we still have to live in this upside-down world, and we have to be practical on its terms. The teaching on transforming bad circumstances into the path doesn’t deny that. What it addresses is the underlying attitude of anxiety, fear, and narrow-mindedness that makes our lives unhappy, fearful, and small.
Transforming bad circumstances into the path is associated with the practice of patience. There are six mind-training (lojong) slogans connected with this:
- Turn all mishaps into the path.
- Drive all blames into one.
- Be grateful to everyone.
- See confusion as buddha and practice emptiness.
- Do good, avoid evil, appreciate your lunacy, pray for help.
- Whatever you meet is the path.
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