This week Tesshin Roshi related to us the parable of the 84th problem. The story is provided below …
Once upon a time a rich farmer approached The Buddha for help.
“Oh Wise One!” the farmer said, “I have a major problem and I know only you can help me.”
Buddha kept quiet and the man told of his good-for-nothing son who was troubling him
and how he was mad at his wife because she supported her son over him.
The man said, “Do something so their minds change and
they realise how much I’m doing for them.”
“I can’t solve this problem for you,”
Buddha replied and lowered his eyes again, in a meditative state.
The farmer told Buddha how he was worried about the upcoming harvest as the weather
didn’t seem too favourable and the monkeys were destroying his crop.
“I can’t help you with this one either,” Buddha said calmly.
Still hoping in the powers of Buddha, he told him that many people owed him money
and he was having a hard time recovering it.
And that he too owed money to lenders and creditors.
He asked Buddha if the sage could give him any remedy or amulet.
“Hmm…” Buddha said, “I can’t solve this problem for you.”
“What good are you then?” the man yelled.
“Everyone says you are the enlightened one and here you can’t solve any of my problems.
Is there absolutely nothing you can do? I’m tired of my terrible life.”
“You see,” Buddha said patiently, as if he hadn’t heard the man’s ranting,
“at any point in time, you’ll always have 84 problems in your life. The 84th is the key.
If you solve the 84th problem, the first 83 will resolve themselves.”
“Please solve my 84th problem then,” the man said, going back to being humble.
“How do I do it?” he added.
“First, we have to identify your 84th problem.”
“What is my 84th problem?”
Buddha smiled and peered deeply into the man’s eyes that were
full of desire, doubt and anxiety.
“Your 84th problem is,” Buddha said and paused,
“you want to get rid of the first 83 problems.
If you understand that life is never without problems, it won’t look so bad.”
Although, he didn’t get the type of solution he was expecting,
Buddha’s compassionate glance gave him a feeling of peace. Even if temporarily.
Buddha finished by saying,
“Mellow down, be noble.
Learn to see life beyond what you want to see.”
Roshi reiterated the key message of this parable which is that we suffer because we think we can eliminate all of life’s problems. We need to view life not as how we would like it to be, but rather how it really is. Here Roshi reminded us of an earlier talk he gave the group where he said that we all build ideal narratives for our lives. This narrative is another form of clinging and desire. Whether we build positive narratives on social media where our life is glamorous or we build depressing narratives where we are the victim – all of these stories are really false and an illusion.
The Buddha is simply telling us to see reality as it is right here and now. This does not imply that we should be passive and accept a bad situation. Rather it means to be as honest as we can in understanding what is actually going on. It is in our nature to strive for a better life, and this is totally acceptable. However, to get to that better life we need to have an accurate appraisal of where we are and where we can get to. If your narrative is to wallow in self-pity, how can you ever expect to make the first steps to improvement. In a similar way, if you believe that you are “god’s gift” then any opportunity for growth is crowded out by your rather large ego. Lastly, and most importantly, the goals we strive for are so important. If you have just graduated college, it is an unrealistic goal to be awarded a Nobel Prize in the next year. If you do not realize this simple truth, then you will suffer.
It is also an unrealistic goal that we will have a perfect life with no problems. We may go on vacation to an idyllic location and dream of spending the rest of our lives in that one spot. We think that this place will solve all of our problems. However, if you actually move there, all the normal problems start cropping up such as financial stresses, boredom, and conflict with other people. The mistake, according to the Buddha, is thinking that we can eliminate all of our problems by taking a single action. It is never that simple!
Roshi emphasized this exact point by noting that we get locked into narratives which limit our options for happiness and growth. We have the narrative that living in a vacation spot will solve all of our problems. Perhaps the new job or new relationship is the answer we land on. However, if you really think about it deeply, life is much more complicated than this – and building such a simple narrative is simply delusion. Roshi stopped here and pointed out that even our practice can be “abused” this way. Going on a retreat to escape problems is no real solution. Becoming a monk or nun in order to run away from life’s problems is a true recipe for failure and suffering.
So, what is one to do? Here Roshi was clear – sometimes there is no simple and clear answer and the only option is to be present. We build narratives and fantasies in order to avoid this painful truth. This is why our practice is so important. It trains us on how to be present without the ego and all of its stories and biases clouding things. Roshi reminded us that sitting and being present is not the solution, but it is a valuable tool which increases our chances of coming up with the best possible solution.
Roshi wrapped up by relating a personal story. His son is in college and put up a table on campus reminding everyone about the hostages Hamas was holding after their attack on Israel. Across the walk was a similar table defending the Palestinians. As the day wore on, a large group of people supporting the Palestinian position started to gather. By the end of the day, this group became agitated and started attacking the group supporting the Israeli position. Roshi’s son could not understand why this happened and did not know how to skillfully respond? Roshi mentioned that sometimes there is not really a good answer and any action taken based on anger, emotion, and our deeply held biases actually makes the matter worse. You will notice that there is no real solution in this statement, rather Roshi is simply counseling that his son should slow down a bit and try to understand things before acting.
NOTE: Talks for the past 2 weeks were graciously summarized by Alex below….
10/28/23: Unreliable Narrators
Roshi returned to the Book of Serenity’s 30th koan, “Dasui’s Aeonic Fire,” to consider the end of the world as an analogy for the continuous reevaluation of our lives. In the koan, two Zen Masters are asked what happens when, at the end of time, the universe is engulfed by cosmic flames. The first, Dasui, says that the fire sweeps away the very existence of the universe, leaving nothing behind. The second, Longji, contradicts Dasui’s opinion, asserting that the engulfing fire and the universe are one and the same.
We too can feel physically and psychically vulnerable to apocalyptic events, real and imagined. At any moment, we might be capsized by war, disease, financial ruin, among many other calamities. But how final is any given catastrophe? How bad does a disaster have to be, for us to view it as the end of our health, wealth, or sanity?
These personal “red lines” can seem unchanging, bound in narratives that can persist for decades. Unchecked, we can define entire identities through them. A diagnosis can overtake our entire view of ourselves, as might a career decision, or traumatic relationship. But narratives, too, are subject to change. At any moment, our personal mythology can be upended, swept into the inferno of time. Everyone is narrating the story of their own life, and every one of those narrators is ultimately unreliable: Exaggerating, omitting, forgetting key details, and ultimately distorting the reality they’ve experienced.
Roshi concluded by offering some comfort. Despite the immediate tendency to look at this cycle of defining and widening our stories as something negative. Perhaps the Aeonic Fire is a benevolent force of renewal, lit by Buddhas to free us from long-cherished delusions.
11/4/23: Meal Gatha
In Zen monasteries around the world, meals are served in a highly ritualized form known as Oryoki, involving a set of nested bowls which are painstakingly unwrapped, arranged, utilized, cleaned, and repackaged like Matryoshka dolls. As the bowls are opened and laid out, monastics invoke some of Buddhism’s most sacred liturgy, invoking the lineage of ancestral Buddhas and Shakyamuni’s journey to enlightenment.
Why fuss so much about a meal, when everyone is hungry? In many Western homes, families express their gratitude before eating, but in the focused container of the monastery,food is elevated to a position of cosmic significance: Eating is the central act that sustains life toward Buddhahood. Viewed in this light, all the aspects of meals become sacred. The varied tastes of food, enabled by the expert hands of farmers and chefs, open our senses and support our practice. Cleaning our bowls maintains our collective health and hygiene. The growth of the produce we eat is nothing short of miraculous
Roshi acknowledged that, in the midst of our hectic lives, it may not be practical for us to take every meal this way. (although we’re certainly welcome to give it a try!) But creating more space to appreciate the beauty of eating is something available to us even when we least expect it. Can we find a moment to look at what we’re about to eat? To participate in its preparation? To savor its taste? We may find new joy and beauty in yet another simple part of life.