18. To maintain resolve when everything goes wrong / How to use ruin on the path
When I’ve lost ev-ery-thing; and ev-ery-one / A-bus-es me and treats me with con-tempt,
I’m strick-en by dis-ease and ver-y sick; / On top of that, a de-mon’s in my head,
To take on all the suf-fer-ing of beings, / Com-plete-ly free of all dis-cour-age-ment:
This is the way a bodhisattva trains.
Verse 18 audio above
With verse 18 we move into a new phase of bodhisattva boot camp. Verses 12-17 were about specific, limited situations brought on us by other people, and we trained to respond with taking and sending toward those individuals who harm us through theft, pain, slander, humiliation, ingratitude, and disrespect.
In verse 18 everything in our life goes wrong at once, suffering upon suffering, and there’s no one to blame or forgive. It’s just adversity, pure and simple, and it’s coming at us from every direction. What do we do now?
From the commentaries: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche suggests we start by remembering how much suffering many people routinely experience, often with no hope of relief: “Countless people in this world are deprived of everything — food, clothing, shelter, affection. They can hardly keep themselves alive. Many people are victims of ill treatment or are stricken by serious illness. When you yourself suffer such torments, wish with compassion and courage to take the difficulties and anguish of all beings upon yourself and to give them whatever happiness you may have.”
Even as we apply basic taking and sending in our practice, he also advises us to take our compassion a step further: “Try to provide others with whatever they need in reality.” In other words, look around and identify what kinds of suffering exist around us, and then get out there and help people in whatever ways we can (when we are not actually incapacitated by our own adversity). There are many organizations that can help us direct our efforts toward relieving the plight of people who are deprived of food, clothing, and shelter.
But what about those who are deprived, as Rinpoche suggests, of affection? To take one example, nursing homes are filled with them, and elderly people living on their own in our neighborhood may benefit immensely from a little company. Or we could volunteer at a hospital, or through an organization that provides academic or social mentoring to children who don’t have resources at home. On a smaller scale, we can cheer up almost anyone with a smile or a kind word in passing, or just by being patient when they inconvenience us.
According to Dilgo Khyentse and Geshe Jampa Tegchok, suffering inspires us to study and practice the dharma. When things are going well, our motivation to wake ourselves up can fall by the wayside, and we may become less vigilant about remedying emotional afflictions and avoiding negative actions. In particular, when things are going well, we may fall prey to pride, chalking it up to our unique excellent qualities and skillful actions. Togme Zangpo will address how to respond to overwhelming good fortune in verse 19. Meanwhile, Ken McLeod reminds us that adversity of any kind can strike at any moment, even in the midst of our happy, successful life. “You cannot predict it. You cannot prevent it. You cannot control it.”
Ken also zings us with a reminder that we can be laid low by much more trivial adversity than poverty, abuse, illness, and literal or metaphorical demons: “Be honest. Anything can drive you crazy: a selfish sibling, a car that does not start, an unexpected traffic jam, an overbearing boss, a blank screen on your computer, a hormonal imbalance . . . It does not take much.”
If we are able to practice the advice in this verse — to maintain our resolve and continue practicing taking and sending no matter what happens — Ken says that eventually, gradually, something will change. “What changes is not your situation, nor your pain, nor your misery, nor your confusion. You just stop struggling against them, and that makes all the difference.”
Pema Chodron echoes Togme Zangpo’s advice and adds another note: “Down and out, hard luck — maybe this is the fifth year of hard luck, bad karma ripening again and again. Don’t lose heart. When it gets too bad, it becomes hilarious.”
Indeed, a sense of humor is another tool in our bodhisattva tool box. If we can laugh about our misfortune, even a little bit, we won’t be completely overwhelmed by it, and that space is another place where we find the strength to continue our practice of waking up rather than shutting down, no matter what is happening.
2017 class audio: January 25, 2018
Next practice: Verse 19: to maintain focus and humility when everything goes right
The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)