Actually, Life Doesn't Suck
This week's column is about Buddhism, honest. You're going to have to sit through the story of my week first, though.
My day job had a furlough this week, a little "innovation" by a lot of high-tech companies to get some unpaid vacation off the books and make some financials look better, as well as theoretically saving on utilities, coffee service, and so on. The truth is that I usually hate vacations -- basically, the things I like best are writing and messing about with computers, and unless I actually go to Club Med or something I spend my vacation time primarily messing with computers and writing. Which is fine, as it's what I like to do, but it just screws up the flow of the week.
I had some errands that needed to be done, however, so I figured I'd get things done and write and take it generally easy for a few days. One of the things that had to be done is that my "new" car had to be taken in for the EPA-mandated emissions testing. You can't sell a used car in Colorado if it doesn't pass the emissions test, so the dealership, Sprinkler Used Cars in Longmont CO, gave me a voucher that had to be used within three days. And yes, I'm naming the dealership on purpose; Sprinkler Used Cars sucks.
I drove up to Denver to have lunch with a Facebook acquaintance, and stopped at the emissions test place on the way home. While I was in line to get the test, the car blew up.
The nipple on the radiator failed, the big radiator hose fell off, and prodigious clouds of steam came from the car while gouts of green antifreeze spilled on the ground.
Needless to say, the car did not pass the emissions test, even though the car clearly had lots of emissions.
I went to a nearby auto supply store and got a screwdriver, and more antifreeze, hoping to at least patch it together. At the auto parts store I learned my debit card had demagnetized; I paid cash. I tried getting the hose back on, it wouldn't go, so I had to have the car towed home. In the process, I saw how the nipple had broken off. The remnants weren't in the hose. In other words, it had already failed and the hose -- which was new -- had been jammed on the remaining fragments in the hopes that it would hold for long enough.
Talking with the tow truck operator, it turned out he was from my old home town, Pueblo. In fact, we have about a million mutual friends and acquaintances, and in fact had probably met a few times -- he's about 13 years younger than me, so it wouldn't have been often -- and that he had been to the family music store many many times. He gets the car home, and looks at my old Mercedes' body damage. He also does body work, and thinks the body damage can be repaired relatively easily. A commercial body shop would have charged me something like $3000, which was more than the car was worth, but he was very hopeful of doing it for much less. Since the best option I'd had so far was selling it to an auto salvage, that seemed good -- either I'd have two elderly Mercedes, or I could sell one and probably net a lot more than I would have gotten from the auto salvage.
Got home, and after the tow and everything I had $2 in cash and a debit card that wouldn't work, not that I could get to an ATM machine anyway -- I live more or less out in the country. This was on Wednesday the 3rd.
I called the dealer, Sprinkler Used Cars (which sucks), and they arranged to tow it back to their shop. But there's no one to work on it, being late on Wednesday and of course they can't work on it on the Fourth.
Friday, they call me and tell me it needs a new radiator.
"It'll cost $300," they say.
"That's not my worry. You can't sell it until it can pass an emissions test and this one failed. Dramatically. Either fix it or give back my money."
"I guess we'll have to fix it," the guy at Sprinkler Used Cars (which sucks) says.
That same morning, Jeff Mitchell from the Denver Bookcase came over. (Here's their Amazon storefront.) He's been working through my books -- I have a plethora of boxes of books in the garage from when I moved here almost two years ago, and I finally decided if I hadn't moved them inside in two years, maybe I didn't really need them -- and we made a major effort to finish sorting them. He took away a couple hundred books that were sort of pick of the litter, and paid me $560 for them.
Jeff's a good guy. He sells online and you should buy his books. Definitely not like Sprinkler Used Cars, which sucks.
We interrupt this column now for an old Taoist story. There was an old farmer who had worked his fields for years with the help of his old farm horse, a stallion who had grown gray along with the old man. The old horse was not only his work horse, he was the old farmer's oldest and best friend. One day the horse ran away. The old man's neighbors came over to commiserate, saying how sorry they were about his loss.
The old farmer said "We'll see."
The next day, the old horse returned, leading three wild mares. The old man's neighbors then congratulated him on his good fortune: not only was his horse back, but he now had three new horses, and -- from the way the old stallion was acting -- probably would soon have colts as well.
The old farmer said "We'll see."
A few days later, the man's son was trying to train one of the mares to harness. She bucked and reared, the son fell, and broke his leg. Once again the man's neighbors commiserated, and once again the man answered "We'll see."
A few days later, the Emperor's press gangs came through to conscript strong young men to work on the Great Wall; those conscripts, everyone knew, rarely returned. But since the old man's son has a broken leg, he's not taken. The neighbors once again congratulate the old man for his good fortune (no doubt with some resentment for the young men who were taken.)
The old farmer said "We'll see."
After Jeff was done, the car dealer calls me and says the car is ready. Up to this point I'd been like the old farmer -- I was able to just say "well, that happened," and not let it damage my calm.
The dealership wants me to come pick up my car. I point out that I don't have a car and so can't get there. Silence. I finally get a cab to the dealer -- another $40 -- and when I want to pick up the car, the guy says "How do you want to settle up on the radiator?"
I tell him to cut me a check, we'd never completed the sale and I wanted my money back.
The upshot, he said, embarrassed, was that I finally gave them their $300, because I didn't really have another good choice. At least I had the cash, thanks to Jeff's visit. But I promised them a scathing review on Angie's list, and didn't mention that I was also going to express my opinion of them elsewhere. The google results for "Sprinkler Used Cars" in a few days should be very interesting.
Now what, you may ask, does this have to do with Buddhism? (Told you we'd get there.) The answer is, having talked about the First Noble Truth last week, I wanted to talk about the Second and Third Noble Truths today. The First Noble Truth, you may recall, is "Life sucks. Everything is frustrating and worrisome and there seems no cure." The Sanskrit word is "duhkha," which is often translated as "suffering."
The Second Noble Truth is that duhkha arises out of desire or craving; we want good things to happen and bad things not to happen and we want to not have to worry about bad things happening in the future. This is called samudhaya in Sanskrit, and after some thought I think the best translation for samudhaya is "addiction." We're addicted to our fantasy of a world in which nothing bad ever happens and we're happy all the time. Like all addiction, this has a big component of denial. The alcoholic says "I can quit drinking any time I want" and the drug addict says "just one more hit and then I'll stop" and we, in our day to day lives, say "if I can just get a new job or a new relationship or another cat, everything will be fine."
Denial, we'd say in Buddhism, arises from ignorance (Sanskrit avidya): we don't understand the way things really are, and so can maintain the illusion.
The Third Noble Truth is that the addiction can be removed when we remove the denial, the ignorance, of the way duhkha comes about. Once we understand the reality that we really are powerless to make the universe do what we want, because finally we're not separate from the universe, then we can overcome our addiction to our fantasy world.
I've made an analogy to AA, and I think it's a good one -- I think there's a strong connection between the Twelve Steps and the Eightfold Path. The first of the Twelve Steps is "We admitted we were powerless over (our addiction)-- that our lives had become unmanageable." The second is "we came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." The Second and Third Noble Truth say "our suffering arises from our addiction to a fantasy; if we cope with the addiction and understand the reality, then we can eliminate our suffering."
"Ah-ha!" I hear my Christian readers saying, "but you're leaving out that Power greater than ourselves!"
Except, ah-ha, I'm not.
The Venerable Brad Warner, Dharma Heir to Nishijima Gudo Wafu, punk rocker and author of many books on Buddhism, is probably my favorite living writer on Zen. (I hope he reads this column, as I can imagine him twitching at the "Venerable". But Nishijima-sensei calls him that in his translation of Shobogenzo and you can't do anything about it, Brad.) His most recent book, There Is No God and He Is Always with You: A Search for God in Odd Places, makes an attempt to reconcile the Buddhist notions with the Western concept of God. I'll write a fuller review soon, but the gist of the Buddhist answer as Brad (and I) see it is this: it's not productive toward freeing ourselves from suffering to see the Higher Power as something separate from ourselves, whether hairy thunderer or cosmic muffin. But through having the right intentions, tying our actions to our intentions, and quieting our minds until the fantasies themselves fade out, we can see that we are already essentially in contact, or rather never separate, from the universe, from natural law, from the Higher Power. When the illusion that we are separate from natural law and should be able to control it dissolves, then the cause of our addiction dissolves, and the suffering that arises from our addiction dissolves.
This week, I've had plenty of examples in my own life (as everyone has plenty of examples in their lives). The car troubles made me mad, but it was transitory, and I was actually quite conscious as I messed about with hoses and burned my hand on a hot radiator cap that it was annoying at the time, but I was none the less reasonably cheerful. This happened, okay.
On the other hand, as I wrote about in yesterday's 13 Weeks column, I had some experiences that I did find disturbing, because they interacted with a sense that I ought to be somehow more perfect, be someone other than who I really am.
This disturbance is duhkha; it arose from the fantasy that I could remain "myself" and still be someone else who wasn't like me, and from the fantasy that if I just "tried harder" somehow I could be the perfect paragon I imagined.
The Buddha's guide to how to escape from our fantasies and see the reality is the Eightfold Path, which is the Fourth Noble Truth.
Stay tuned for the next episode.
image courtesy shutterstock / GuoZhongHua