Returning home from work or from a morning of household errands, we pause on the front porch, holding bags and packages in one arm while trying to work the door key, so absorbed in daydreams that we hardly know what the body is doing—when we hear the telephone ringing within. At once, our automatic motions are speeded up until, hopping and stumbling, we shove our way inside and drop our burdens on top of the table in the hall. There really is no time for reflection, but somehow, in the agitated moment before we seize the telephone on the table, we feel a worrisome sensation of coercion or dependence, as if we were not acting out of our own will at all but being pushed, being accelerated incomprehensibly through a series of habitual motions. Neither looking nor listening with any attentiveness, we have arrived home today just as a thousand times before, and now when the telephone signals us, we are not to any degree awakened but only stung to a quicker obedience. The ringing occurs and we lurch to answer. Why?
Let us allow ourselves a beat to consider. There is need; there is desire. We pace through weary, routine days, and any tiny irregularity, any promise of newness, is enough to make us start up, for under the surface dullness there runs the fiery stream of dissatisfaction, endlessly twisting and searching. We are always wishing, we dimly realize, for things to be different, to be better, to be fresh and free. This day and every day we go out and come back again with the old disquiet, looking for some long-desired message, for the urgent intelligence that will marvelously remake our lives and launch us into unguessable adventures. Blessings and opportunities might fall within our reach; answers to desperate inquiries might at last relieve our fears. Then, too, we have not entirely shaken off apprehension of troubles—the application turned down, the rejected request, the rebuff to our hopes, the new danger to our security and comfort. Will the universe not stop its fitful harshness toward us? Will we not at some definite culminating hour, if not this one, find our deserved fulfillment?
The telephone shrills, and even as we take hold of it, there runs through us this sense of the up-and-down, unappeased commotion of life, the surge and retreat of our longings, the inconclusiveness of our efforts, the happiness that laughs and disintegrates and will not stay. This telephone call, this communication about to happen, might be the beginning of certainty, of assurance of fortune without pain; and although, realistically, we doubt it, we cannot quell the twinges of hope and fear. What if we should be surprised with joyful new—a fabulous gift, an unlooked-for promotion—or with shocks and disasters? In either case, time rages on unchecked, and there will be no conclusion to our wandering. Across the imagined future, we see no place where change may not overtake us, where agitation must of necessity cease. We have, indeed, no justification for supposing that the world must ever conform to our preferences, however much we wish it would.
We have the telephone in our hands; we lift it eagerly. A voice comes through—and then we relax into another mode of habit. The telephone call is ordinary, and we summon up a sprightly tone, the one we all use to assure each other that we are cheerful and competent managers of our lives. “Ah, yes, just fine! It sounds wonderful. I look forward to it. Thanks. Fine, see you then!” And now, with the telephone down again, we look around, a little vaguely, for some new idea or promise from fate, as we feel hope and apprehension still alternating slowly within us.
Outside this unquiet mind, and apart from our subjective notions, is this world really a paradise, or a wreck? To properly evaluate any object, from a mosquito perched on our wrist to a whole flowering landscape, we surely need both descriptive facts and the skill to read through them to principle. We could sit down and tabulate abundant horrors of this human realm, certainly, and abundant beauties as well; but we do not know how far our personal view necessarily distorts our computation, and we do not even know whether anything really is to be gained by pronouncing the world lovely or hideous. Let us pause, then, and consider how the Buddha describes this ambivalent world.
In the largest terms, as we know, he sees it as dukkha, unsatisfactory, fundamentally untrustworthy. But this world is not, therefore, to be spurned as meaningless, for within it there can be found the means to liberation: the revealed dhamma and the innumerable signs and evidences, which we might use to awaken our understanding of this dhamma. What makes the world so maddeningly hard to measure is the prevalence here of eight “worldly phenomena” (lokadhammas): gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. These volatile phenomena upset our predictions and our longing for stability, bringing now happiness, now affliction, oblivious to our welfare; and amid their uproar we labor on wretchedly, trying to disentangle the desired from the undesired.
Sages endure the same mundane circumstances as we, but their wisdom sees past the incidental to the universal, to the certainty of change that is best coped with by equanimity.
Why, we might inquire, should we not have gain and no loss, honor without loss of honor, timely praise and unbroken pleasure? This is the way the world should be, should it not? We rebel against an empty, unexplanatory sky, sharpen our craft, scheme for a fantastic fortune—while triumphs and calamities succeed one another, applause and jeers are heard, some speculators gain and some lose, and for all our urgency, no satisfactory end to anxious uncertainty appears. But are there not, we plaintively ask, some few who are especially favored—those sages free from bad luck and failure— and should we not be able, somehow, to share their luck?
We would have security and ease; but before we can claim them, we must have knowledge. Now let us look. Where exactly are the lucky enjoyers of one-sided fortune? Let us reflect over space and history until we can realize that, in fact, there are none at all. Sages, too, endure the same mundane circumstances as we—they fall sick, suffer injuries, meet with unwelcome changes—but their wisdom sees past the incidental to the universal, to the certainty of change that is best coped with by equanimity. Wisdom does not alter the world; it lets the sage transcend the world. Anxious pain strikes only those who cannot understand the impermanence of all these desired and feared states, and who cannot extricate themselves from the profitless flux of desire and aversion. Real independence is the result of reflection and disciplined, honorable behavior.
From Longing for Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life, © 2002 by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.