Have you ever wondered why the Buddha offered Four Noble Truths? Why not just Two—Suffering and the Way Out? Better yet, why not skip straight to the point: The 8-fold Path out of Suffering? Did the Awakened One stretch out the explanation because he lived in a leisurely, pre-literate culture and didn’t have access to the many examples of Steps to A-New-You that abound on the internet and bestseller lists?
No, the Buddha knew that liberation takes place in the wild and woolly space between the recognition of suffering (in one of its infinite guises, even mild boredom at our unrelieved success) and our conscious awareness of stepping on a clearly defined path. Awakening—or the movement towards awakening—takes place in those times when the bubble of ego is popped and you are in pieces and overwhelmed. The work of awakening takes place in that wild interval of not knowing.
“Those times, when you absolutely cannot get it back together, are the most rich and powerful times in our lives,” teaches contemporary Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. In such moments we look at life and ourselves in a kind of detached wonderment–and sometimes we are met by another kind of awareness that seems to take mercy on us—a free attention from another level. It can feel as if we are being seen and embraced by a higher consciousness that is there all the time (inside and outside) only we are too caught up in our little world to notice. Madame de Salzmann called it a “look from above.” At certain moments, we are joined by this attention in our efforts.
In the “Burning World” issue of Parabola, Rafe Martin retells “The Brave Little Parrot,” a traditional Buddhist Jataka tale—or past life story of the Buddha. Here is my retelling of his retelling: A little grey parrot lived in a green forest. One day a storm sparked a fire that set the forest ablaze. The little parrot reacted in the usual way, flying away to safety. Yet because of her past efforts and many other factors in her conditioning, she couldn’t forget the sight of the trees and animals that couldn’t escape. When she reached a river where many of the other animals were huddling, she didn’t fly on to safety. She dipped her wings in water and flew back to the burning forest to shake a few drops on the blaze. The other animals thought her effort was ridiculous, pathetic—such a tiny effort against such an out-of-control fire. But she flew back again and again. Finally, her brave effort attracted the gaze of a god—who wept at her sincerity (or in other versions banged clouds together and made it rain). With this special help from above, the fire is put out.
At certain moments in life, we cannot deny our suffering. At certain moments we see all the way down to root of it—that we are limited and usually in ignorance of the forest in which we dwell. We spend our time and efforts desperately wanting things to be other than they are, blind to immense fact of our conditioning—we live in an inextricable web of causes and conditions, just like that parrot in the forest. Yet sometimes, instead of trying to fly away and relieve our suffering as quickly as possible—we dip our wings in the living water of understanding. We turn back and bring the cool water of understanding to our situation. And sometimes making the brave effort to be in the fire—to see and feel the heat of our situation– attracts help from above. It might even attract help from below—or transform the way we look at our lives.
“If you are working inwardly, Nature will help you,” taught G.I. Gurdjieff. “For the man who is working, Nature is a sister of charity; she brings him what he has need of for his work.” From the perspective of awakening, a forest fire is not a calamity but a crisis that brings the ultimate healing, liberation from suffering.
And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.
―Wendell Berry: “A Spiritual Journey”
Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”
―Wisława Szymborska from her Nobel Lecture: “The Poet and the World,” 1996
Parabola magazine www.parabloa.org