As the world gets crazier and crazier, perhaps a little Buddhist wisdom would help us all cope.
Buddhist monks, like Catholic priests, are supposed to be celibate. One day long ago, an older monk and a young monk were walking along a road toward their monastery. They came to a stream that had to be forded, and on the other side a beautiful young girl stood staring at the swirling water.
Without hesitation, the older monk waded across, picked up the girl and carried her through the water to the other side. Then the two monks resumed their journey, but the older monk noticed that his young companion was sulking.
"What’s wrong?" he finally asked.
"How could you do that?" the young monk said. "How could you pick up that young girl? How could you hold her in your arms?"
The older monk laughed. "I put her down a long time ago, but you’re still carrying her."
One of the points of this story is to deal with the present situation, but then let it go. The same point is made in the wonderful novel "Zorba the Greek," by Nikos Kazantzakis. A mob of superstitious villagers decides to murder a young widow because the people believe she has the evil eye and has caused the death of a young man. Zorba valiantly fights to save her life, but when he fails, he shrugs and goes home. The situation was over. The moment had passed. He let it go.
Lots of people have a great deal of trouble letting things go. Some people go through their whole lives reacting to situations in certain ways because of things that happened to them when they were children or adolescents. Neither past nor future exists except in our minds.
A samurai once advised that serious matters should be taken lightly, and small matters seriously. Really serious matters will occur only two or three times in a lifetime. One prepares for them by taking seriously the details of daily life. To use a martial example, one may not have an occasion to kill another man but once in several decades. However, if you have paid attention to daily practice with your weapon, when that fatal day arrives, you can handle it easily.
There is a great similarity between Zen Buddhism and Roman Stoicism. Emperor Marcus Aurelius said it is pointless to get angry at anyone no matter what he does, because whatever he does, he believes it is the right thing to do. When I first read that as a hot-tempered lad in school, it struck me as foolish. As the years of experience pile up, I begin to see the wisdom of it.
These days, I’m astounded to the point of laughter at how angry some people get simply because someone has an opinion they don’t agree with. Democrats made a stink about the Iraqi prime minister speaking to Congress because he had criticized Israel and not criticized Hezbollah. It was especially funny because the whole business in Iraq has been based on the Big Lie that we care about freedom and democracy. Well, freedom means a man can say he doesn’t like Israel if that’s his opinion. How does one man’s opinion affect another man’s life? It doesn’t, unless the second man allows it to.
Here’s one last tip from an old samurai: "Human life lasts but an instant. One should spend it doing what one pleases. In this world, fleeting as a dream, to live in misery doing only what one dislikes is foolishness."
And here’s a tip from me: You and I are not going to solve the great problems of the world, nor did God place responsibility for the universe and the fate of mankind on our shoulders. Or as I or someone else once put it, remember the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shall not sweat it, Ace.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.