A famous Zen monk was at a Bonenkai (lit. forget-the-year party) dinner hosted by a rich nobleman. The who’s who of the city mingling with each other painted an intimidating color to the party for any casual observer. Stunning geishas, premium sake, wafts of fragrances coursing through the hall and a lavish spread of food drove the five senses to sheer indulgence.
“I don’t mean to offend you, master.” An aristocrat approached the Zen monk with deference and said, “But, can I ask you a question?”
The monk raised his hand a little in response, palm facing up.
“They say that you are enlightened,” he whispered, “that, you have this calming aura and glow. But I could say the same about that geisha.” The aristocrat pointed towards an immaculately dressed woman donning a silk kimono with floral patterns. Every aspect of hers, from her hairdo to her painted toes, seemed like a work of art. “In fact, she’s far more pleasant to look at. She evokes desire and subdues my pride with her mere form.”
“What then,” he continued, “is the difference between you and her?”
“Fair enough,” the monk replied, “I’ll answer your question at the right moment.”
A few cups of tea later, the same geisha came to the Zen master and bowed before him.
“Ah yes, you!” the master exclaimed, “I would like to offer you a gift.”
“Anything from you is a blessing,” the geisha said.
The master picked up a glowing ember with his chopsticks from a small hibachi filled with burning coals.
After a moment’s hesitation, the geisha immediately wrapped her kimono sleeves around her hands, extended them and took the hot coal from the master. She then dashed to the kitchen and dropped it in a pan of water. In the process, her hands remained unhurt though her silk kimono was ruined. She went into the vanity room, changed into a new robe, fixed her makeup and came back to the party hall.
“Thank you for that,” she said to the master. “And, I have a return gift for you.”
The master bobbed his head smilingly. The geisha turned to the hibachi and picked up a burning coal with a pair of tongs and extended it towards him.
“Just the thing I was looking for!” the master said and whipping out his kiseru, smoking pipe, he lit it with the coal.
“Bonenkai!” he hollered. “Don’t just forget the year, forget the past. Let bygones be bygones.”
“Master!” The observing aristocrat leaned in and mumbled, “I’ve got my answer.”
Sometimes, life will offer you burning coal when you are least prepared. Worse, when you don’t even deserve it. Don’t burn yourself with that unexpected offering. Instead, use it to strengthen your position, to forge ahead. It is neither a walk in the park nor does it come naturally to us, but it can be learned and mastered. I say it’s hard work because a momentary lapse of mindfulness is enough to make us forget all the wisdom in the world and we end up grabbing the cinder hurting ourselves and everyone at whom we may hurl it.
Let’s face it, it’s not always easy to be mindful or to maintain our calm. In fact, to maintain an exalted state as that is nearly impossible in our chaotic world, a world where ever-changing circumstances spring up new surprises on us like an expert illusionist conjuring up objects out of thin air. And that’s the thing, you see, the wisdom to know that whatever be the cause of your grief, it’s temporary, it’s not going to be there forever. So, take it easy, take a deep breath, it’s not the end of the world.
Just like our desires and emotions are cyclical, so are the good and bad times in our lives. It is just not possible that each day will turn out the way you expect it to, or that every time only pleasing news will knock at your door. At times, situations are undesirable and unpleasant, but we can’t avoid them. We have to deal with them. As they say, someone’s got to make the trains run on time. Granted, it’s not always feasible to deal with unpleasant situations in a pleasant mood, but it is possible to handle them with patience.
yoga-sthah kuru karmani sangam tyaktva dhananjaya,
siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva samatvam yoga ucyate. (Bhagavad Gita. 2.48)
"O, the finest archer!" Krishna says to Arjuna, "the yoga of equanimity is to maintain your steadfastness in the face of both success and failure, it is to act with a degree of detachment."
Often, I’m asked, shouldn’t we be passionate about our pursuits? Of course, that’s correct. Detachment is not a sense of resignation but the understanding that to make objective decisions, I must now and again distance myself from my pursuit so I may gain a different and a better frame of reference. You get to see the complete picture then, the three sides of the coin: left, right and standing.
Detachment is not laziness or avoidance. If anything, it is razor-sharp awareness and a heightened state of consciousness. When parents allow a child to go far away to pursue his/her dreams, they need a certain degree of detachment to put the best interests of their child ahead of their own preferences. It just wouldn’t be possible without that dispassion. And the good news is that detachment can be learned, you can turn it into a conscious practice by meditating on the impermanent nature of this world as well as the vastness of this universe. It helps you to put things in perspective.
A woman noticed her overweight husband sucking in his tummy while weighing himself on the bathroom scale.
“Hehe!” she chuckled. “That’s not gonna help.”
“Sure, it does,” he said. “It’s the only way I can see the numbers.”
Draw in when you need to. Others may not understand why but as long as you know it, that’s all that mostly matters.
As Shakespeare said, “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in its head.” The gifts of hurt are something like that, they teach us, elevate us, and above all, force us to connect with our highest state of consciousness for answers and solutions. Painful but useful. Inconvenient but inevitable.
In this conditional world, our attachments blind us and crush us, they don’t do us any good. The day you realize and internalize this truth, your life will never be the same again. Don’t take the ember or hurl it. Put it to use. Simply be mindful. It helps.
Be aware that transience and impermanence are the ways of samsara. Let’s be compassionate and graceful while we are still here. It’s worth it.