Buddhism teaches us: No matter what happens to you, no matter what’s going on, you always have some degree of choice about how you respond, what you do next. At those critical, precious moments when your perspective widens and you become more aware of yourself, you can act in accordance with your aspiration to relieve suffering for self and other. This is what practice is: Taking advantage of our moments of choice, which arise countless times throughout the day and night, never losing faith that each of those little choices matter. We do our best to maintain our faith that we can always do something to relieve suffering and move toward greater wisdom and compassion, no matter what is happening.
The Tragic Story of Kisagotami
(In the Pali canon, this story is attributed to the nun Kisagotami, while the Pali commentaries attribute it to the nun Patacara.)
“Pregnant with her second child, [Kisagotami] was returning to her parents’ home, along with her husband and small firstborn child, to give birth. Along the way, a great storm blew up, and she asked her husband to provide shelter for the family. As he was cutting grass and sticks to build a shelter, a snake bit him and he died of the poison. Unsheltered, and wondering at her husband’s long absence, Patacara gave birth and had to spend the night sheltering both her children against the rain and wind with nothing more than her body. The next morning, she found her husband dead.
“Distraught, she decided to return to her parents’ home. However, a river — swollen from the rain of the previous night — ran across her way. Unable to carry both children across the river, she left her first-born on the near bank and waded through the raging current carrying her baby. Placing the baby on the far bank, she turned back to fetch her first-born. A hawk, seeing the baby, took it for a piece of flesh, and swooped down on it. Seeing this, Patacara raised her hands and tried to chase it away, but to no avail: The hawk picked up the baby and carried it off. Meanwhile, her first-born — seeing his mother raising her hands — took it for a signal to cross the river. As he jumped into the raging current, he was carried off to his death.
“Overwhelmed with grief, Patacara returned to her parents’ home, only to learn that it had burned down from a lightning strike in the previous night’s storm. Her parents and brother were at that moment being cremated on a single pyre. At this point, she went mad and began wandering around half-naked. Only on coming into the Buddha’s presence did she recover her senses. He taught her the Dhamma, and eventually she ordained and became an arahant.”[i]
Later, Kisa Gotami wrote these verses:
“Going along, about to give birth,
I saw my husband dead.
Giving birth in the road,
I hadn’t reached my own home.
Two children deceased,
my husband dead in the road
— miserable me!
My mother, father, & brother
were burning on a single pyre.
‘Your family all gone, miserable,
you’ve suffered pain without measure.
Your tears have flowed
for many thousands of lives.’*
Then I saw,
I the midst of the charnel ground,
the muscles of sons being chewed.
With family killed,
despised by all,
my husband dead,
I reached the Deathless.
I’ve developed this path,
going to the Deathless.
Having realized Unbinding,
I’ve gazed in the mirror of Dhamma.
I’ve cut out the arrow,
put down the burden,
done the task.
I, KisaGotami Theri,
my heart well-released,
have said this.”[ii]
[This was what the Buddha said to Kisa Gotami in her grief.]
Exploring Kisa Gotami’s Practice
Kisa Gotami’s story: Pinnacle of human suffering. Can imagine other equally tragic stories, perhaps, but they are unlikely to surpass this.
Such unimaginable confluences of bad luck are rare, but in this world not at all unheard of
Most of us are spared such agony, but we are well aware of others who are not, and always aware that our lives, too, could – in an instant – be torn apart by circumstances. People threatened by the CA fires, whose lives and livelihoods were impacted by the recent land hurricane in the Midwest, people personally impacted by Covid-19, or by our economic recession…
It’s important, then, to carefully examine how Kisa Gotami practiced with her circumstances.
(In another version of the story, she loses her son and wanders around with his body looking for medicine to cure him, the Buddha says he can create such a medicine if she collects mustard seeds from all the houses in the area which have never experienced a death – as she goes from door to door she has a realization of impermanence and comes to her senses.)
To explore Kisa Gotami’s practice: What choice did she have?
Certainly, she couldn’t do anything to change her tragic losses.
Did she find a moment of choice where she could shut off her emotions? Where she no longer cared about her family, no longer loved her sons? Where she was able shut down, through force of will, the mental, physical, and emotional trauma she had experienced?
I don’t think so. This kind of emotional suppression, we know, either doesn’t work, or doesn’t last, or has long-term negative consequences. We’re told that Kisa Gotami really awakened, really attained liberation. She didn’t just “get over it” temporarily so people wouldn’t judge her for her grief.
So how did Kisa Gotami practice? What choices did she make?
Kisa Gotami’s Choice
We can’t know for sure, but it looks like, in a moment of clarity, she was able to see two possibilities.
She could continue in her madness, justifiably overwhelmed with the most terrible grief she could imagine. In her situation, in ancient India, her life was also probably ruined in terms of any kind of comfort or status. We’re told she wasn’t beautiful, that she was lucky to have ended up with a loving husband. After her loss, she was probably facing a life of loneliness, extremely low social status, and poverty, without family or children. She could succumb to depression and live out her days in abject misery.
In another section of the Pali canon, there’s a longer version of the teaching the Buddha gave to Kisa Gotami. Here he speaks in terms of transmigration, or the ancient view that we are born over and over again:
“Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a mother. The tears you have shed over the death of a mother while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans.
“Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a father… the death of a brother… the death of a sister… the death of a son… the death of a daughter… loss with regard to relatives… loss with regard to wealth… loss with regard to disease. The tears you have shed over loss with regard to disease while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans.”[iii]
Not important to believe in transmigration here… pointing to inevitability of loss. And before that loss, we delude ourselves into thinking our luck will last, or that the loss won’t be that painful… but that isn’t true. When we’re really face to face with old age, disease, loss, death, injustice, etc., it’s more painful that we could have possibly imagined.
The second possibility Kisa Gotami faced was to work on changing her own mind, body, and heart. How could she hold, respond to, the brutal reality of her loss, in way that gave her some sense of peace? Or, at least, made the pain bearable? A way to feel relatively sane and free despite what had happened to her?
The Buddha’s teaching points toward a larger perspective, recognizing death and loss as being an inevitable part of being human. Embracing tears and loss but also seeing everything that happens as part of a cycle… Kisa Gotami had the joy of her family and losing them did not negate that joy. She was bigger than her tragic circumstances, part of a larger human drama, and her life could be dedicated to the process of awakening.
Choices Moment by Moment Over Time
Stories of awakening from the Buddhist literature tend to make it sound like someone deeply caught in delusion instantly woke up when hearing a particular teaching or having a particular interaction with a teacher.
This is a narrative device. In reality, the work of practice is much slower… Kisa Gotami’s transformation, her reclamation of her life, probably happened moment by moment. Given her trauma and loss, she probably had to make the choice to work toward acceptance and peace at painful moments, hundreds of times throughout the course of every difficult day. In reality, it probably took her months or years to transcend her utter despair. But her work paid off.
This is what we’re asked to have faith in as Buddhists: The practice itself. Not an external force, or even some teachings. We’re asked to have faith that no matter what happens to us, we can make choices that lead us away from suffering toward greater wisdom, peace, and compassion. We’re asked to have faith that our choices matter, even if – in a given moment – they may seem small.
Our practice is about what we do with our moments of choice throughout every day. We can’t do anything about the time when we’re rather oblivious, caught up in our karmic patterns, distracted or obsessed. Or, that is, we can’t do anything about them directly. We can do something to increase the amount of time we spend aware of our lives, but only by taking advantage of the moments of choice we do have.
Examples of Practice Choices
Here are some examples of moments of choice:
You realize, going about your day, that your mind has been wandering, you’re on autopilot and hardly aware of what you’re doing. Your aspiration is to be mindful. You can choose to:
- Think, who cares, this particular moment doesn’t matter.
- Think, crap, there I go again. My practice is so weak. I’d better pay attention.
- Celebrate your moment of awareness and take advantage of it to breathe, look around, take stock of your situation, and appreciate mindfulness for as long as it lasts
You have a disagreement with someone. You find yourself getting stressed and upset, making your case repeatedly. Even when the encounter is over, your mind rehashes the other person’s sins over and over and rehearses the brilliant things you’re going to say that will make them see the light. As you lie in bed, trying to fall asleep, you can choose to:
- Stay on the karmic path of anger, stressing yourself out, losing sleep, developing a stomachache, getting irritable with your loved ones.
- Feel bad about being angry and keep arguing with yourself, telling yourself to get over it.
- Embrace everything that’s going on with awareness, including your own feelings and whatever it is you feel a need to protect with your anger, and perhaps do metta for the person in order to break the cycle of anger, realizing it will make everything work out better in the long run.
You find yourself depressed, lacking energy, seeing no hope, nothing to be excited about. As you find yourself once more turning to sleep or distraction to avoid the pain, you can choose to:
- Indulge in the sleep or distraction anyway.
- Berate yourself for feeling depressed, dwelling on how weak your spiritual practice must be if you feel this way.
- Seek out an activity you know will counteract the energy of depression, such as exercise, counseling, or checking in with a good friend.
This isn’t about what we should do. This is about what we actually choose to do in any given instant. It’s entirely up to us.
Experimentation with Choice
Of course, we don’t know, at first, which choices we can make that will work – those that will actually relieve some of our suffering, or the suffering of others. Which choices will lead to insight, or transformation, or a shift in our way of being that allows us to operate with great wisdom and freedom.
Practice takes creativity. Even if you stick with purely “Buddhist” practices and teachings to guide your choices, there are still countless practices and teachings to choose from!
Through experimentation, personal experience, we learn what actually works for us, our own body, mind, and heart.
This is what we’re asking one another about when we say, “How’s your practice?” Sure, we might answer that question with information about how often we’re meditating, or what Buddhist text we’re reading, or how often we attend Sangha meetings. But just as important is, “How goes your process of experimenting with choices, so you find greater peace, wisdom, and compassion in each moment, and over time? What luck have you had recently finding new ways to respond to the circumstances of your life?”
My example of dealing with my experiences of irrational, out-of-proportion rage at little setbacks like dropping something on the floor and it breaks, or getting caught at a red light because someone in front of me has been driving obliviously and has slow reaction times: Not trying not to feel angry (that didn’t work) or arguing with myself that this was irrational (that didn’t work). Put hand on heart, embraced my whole experience, didn’t try to change it, just looked carefully at it, felt it. Noticed: I explode in little episodes of rage when I’m really stressed out and overwhelmed in my life. It really has nothing to do with the particular circumstance, it’s a symptom. If I acknowledge my stress, sadness, and overwhelm and summon some compassion for myself, much of the anger dissipates.
We Always Have Choice, Others Always Have Choice
We can feel constrained by circumstances, external and internal
“There’s really no choice here, because things are so shitty.”
“There’s really no choice here, because I’m so weak/limited/lazy/etc.”
We may also feel pity for other people who have such awful circumstances, concluding that practice is really about making a decent life nicer, but doesn’t apply when things get really bad.
But that’s not the message of Buddhism. The Buddha, before he was a Buddha and was just Siddhartha, set off from the palace in order to find out whether human beings were simply doomed to suffer because of the inevitability of disease, old age, and death. After his enlightenment, his answer was a resounding, “No.”
Now, we should never suggest to other people that they wouldn’t suffer from their experiences of loss, illness, pain, injustice, poverty, etc. if only they practiced. This is terribly arrogant, uncompassionate, and unhelpful. It can also sound like we’re saying unjust and harmful circumstances don’t need to be changed.
At the same time, we should never conclude that people can’t practice because they’re suffering so much.
We always have choice, no matter our circumstances, no matter what happens. Our practice is noticing our moments of choice, being willing to explore alternatives, experimenting with different choices.
Our own obstacles are an opportunity – not just for learning and growing, but for generosity. Whatever we manage to learn, whatever successes we have in transforming or transcending our obstacles, we are a resource to other people with similar obstacles. This can make all the difference to someone.
Example: Darlene Cohen, Zen teacher who lived with rheumatoid arthritis for more than 20 years. She wrote Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with Physical and Emotional Pain. Her book and her teaching is full of suggestions for choices you can make even if you are faced with chronic pain. In the following passage she describes an approach you can take when the pain is really bad and so is your attitude:
“Even though it’s an ideal time to ‘embrace the suffering’ or learn to ‘dance with disaster,’ you don’t care. Furthermore, you don’t care that you don’t care. You’ve had it with trying to expand your consciousness. You hate your life and everybody in it. Nobody else cares; why should you? You’re at the end of your rope. It’s time for down’n’dirty comfort. What you need is whatever will get you through the next few hours.
“I think when things get this bad, you might have to start with refuge, a place to which to retreat when you can’t copy – just to find out what relief feels like. Once you know what relief feels like, you want to learn how to repeat it at will. When I first started to work on my healing, my therapist suggested that I look all over my body for a space that didn’t hurt. When I protested that every part of me hurt, he insisted that I find a place without pain to which I could go when I needed to. I finally found it in my chest. Whenever I became overwhelmed with my pain or despair, I went to that spot in my chest and curled up into it as a cat lies down in the sun. So I started my healing process with a refuge, a port from the storm, a place to which to retreat when things got too hard. I think that if you can pay enough attention to locate your refuge, you can learn to locate your personal resources as well.”
[i] From the commentary by Thanissaro Bhikkhu on “Kisagotami Theri” (Thig 10), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.10.01.than.html.
[ii] “Kisagotami Theri” (Thig 10), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.10.01.than.html.
[iii] “Assu Sutta: Tears” (SN 15.3), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn15/sn15.003.than.html .
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