This was going to be a simple blog post. Just about one of my daily Buddhist emails that expresses how I feel about the past week.
Daily Words of the Buddha for September 12, 2021
Good are friends when need arises;
good is contentment with just what one has;
good is merit when life is at an end,
and good is the abandoning of all suffering.
Dhammapada 23.331 The Dhammapada: The Buddha’s Path of Wisdom, translated from Pāli by Acharya Buddharakkhita
Then, given my OCD, I began to question the translation. I won’t bore you with all my reasoning, but this is how I would translate the passage.
As the situation arises, friends are joys;
Being satisfied with whatever is, that’s joy;
At life’s end, having done good deeds is joy,
The joy of leaving behind all dissatisfaction, unease, and pain.
In going back over the whole chapter in the Dhammapada in which this passage appears, I saw a another connection to what happened this week. The quote gave voice to my feelings about all the love that family and friends showed me this week. The opening of the chapter touches on what happened yesterday in my Buddhist book group.
As an elephant in the battlefield withstands arrows shot from bows all around,
even so shall I endure abuse.
There are many, indeed, who lack virtue.
A tamed elephant is led into a crowd, and the king mounts a tamed elephant.
Best among men is the subdued one who endures abuse.
We are reading a book that epitomizes the feel-good, Buddho-comfort-food that I have criticized before. I’m participating because of two dharma-buddies who love the book. Most of the sessions have been good exercises for me to pay attention to my attraction to my own views, and to listen to what others are really saying. I even restrained myself from commenting on these lines.
How wonderful I am in my being
I delight I am here
I take joy in my good fortune
May my happiness continue.
The author is twisting the Buddhist virtue of the joy of appreciating the good fortune of others into a panegyric to me-myself-and-I.
But I kept quiet. Even when others went back to that segment repeatedly to express how much it comforted them. During the follow-up conversation I just kept quiet. I know from comments made in the past that a member of this book group was a victim of abuse. Some of it must have been physical because I witnessed extreme recoil when our taiji teacher touched an arm to correct the posture. As people were talking, I tried to understand why this kind of comfort-talk helps overcome the wounds of having been abused.
Then, I realized that I have been in abused in a number of situations in my life. The most recent was three years working for a mayor who used the most foul language to criticize everything I did. Even though I understood that she was torturing herself as much as she tortured others, I had to leave to maintain my sanity.
I’ll always remember how I felt when I started on my next job. I was pleasantly surprised that I was capable of doing the job. Deep down, in response to three years of daily, scathing attacks I was beginning to doubt my own competence. As in many abusive situations, doubt becomes associated with feelings of shame and guilt. Thinking about this experience helped me understand why people who have been abused might get comfort from ego-building language.
I haven’t fully worked out why I don’t seek out that kind of comfort. Perhaps it’s because of two coping mechanisms that I’ve used in a number of abusive situations: the turtle and the fox. Very often in the midst or the wake of the mayor’s tirades, I would just shut down. Crawl into my shell and not listen, dragging myself forward under my heavy armor. But still heading in my own direction.
That’s where the fox would come in. I could be very devious about doing what I wanted to do without letting the mayor or all her spies know what I was about. It’s said, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” I think it’s the other way around. A child who knows he’s going to get hit for doing something quickly learns how to dodge and dissemble to avoid the usual consequences.
In any case, as I was thinking through my own experience, the book group moderator called on me to say something about our reading, since I was the only one who hadn’t spoken. Because the reading also included “gratitude,” another theme for feel-good Buddhism, I talked about thanking people this past week for all the help they had given me. Since most of them had dealt with a lot of complaints about how the floods were handled, I could tell that these words of thanks meant a lot to them.
I was going to leave it at that, but one of the other participants asked if I was saying thank-you’s for Rosh Hashanah. I had absolutely no idea of how that connection was made, unless it was confusion with the atonements of Yom Kippur. In any case, I then had to go into what happened in the flood and how these people had helped me. That, of course, elicited many offers of sympathy and help from the group. And that’s why I stay and refrain from starting arguments. As the chapter in question says towards the end,
If for company you find a wise and prudent friend who leads a good life,
you should, overcoming all impediments,
keep their company joyously and mindfully.