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On pain, Buddha and enlightenment

Our human destiny is to have suffering. (Shunryu Suzuki Roshi) When we start with Yoga, or practice meditation, we think that it is a healing art, which will lead us away from pain and misery. We think that when we do it correctly, we will be super flexible and carry a smile on our face all day long. We will stay young forever, become immortal and invincible. We imagine ourselves as picture perfect calmness and serenity. Or maybe that was just me 17 years ago. I did have all these images. When the mosquitoes were hungry biting me, I thought I didn't meditate well enough. And when I did experience an illness, or wasn't as flexible, I thought that I had failed the essence of the practice. Each day I kept trying, giving my best. But I failed my own idea of Yoga and meditation. One day I realized that I was trying to get away from pain and misery. I was using the practice to get away from myself to reach a better place. I took a deep breath and decided to embrace my pain and suffering. I embraced it like a loving mother. Tears washed through me and said that it's ok to feel pain. It's ok to be stung by mosquitoes and it's perfectly ok to be in a stiff body. None of that defines me. Not if I choose otherwise.

Pain has the ability to bring us right into the moment. We have to be very careful and precise with movements, and usually there is just one tiny spot inside of our center, where we can handle the pain. Sometimes this tiny spot dissolves in the intensity of the pain and all we can do is to be aware. Pain can be a great teacher if we allow it to be. Did you know that Buddha was sick and had severe back pain (some assume a herniated disc) after he was 60 years old? Sometimes his students had to finish his speech, because he was in so much pain. When Buddha was 70 years old, a relative of his, Devadatta suggested that he himself should take over the leadership of the Sangha. Buddha declined. From then on, there were several attacks on Buddha. In his last year of life with 80 years, he was seriously ill but survived with pure willpower. He died only after he had clarified with his followers how they could continue his teachings. They should follow the teachings (Dhamma) only, and not a particular teacher. (From Hans Wolfgang Schumann "Die großen Götter Indiens: Grundzüge von Hinduismus und Buddhismus." p. 170-172) That was a big surprise to me. I had no idea that Buddha had back pain ... what a relief, he was human! There is another amazing story about an awakening that Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (a well known Zen master) experienced. It absolutely changed my idea of enlightenment. „In early July Shunryu was hanging out on a Sunday afternoon with his friends Kundo and Araki, playing go, sweating and fanning himself. He was a man now, over twenty, the age of majority in Japan. But they were still kids in school. Now they had only to concentrate on their studies. Shunryu suggested that he go liberate a melon from the cold-storage room in the basement of the kitchen. His fellow monks heartily agreed. Shunryu switched on the light for the basement, then for the storage room. He went in, closing the door behind him. Beneath the low ceiling were shelves filled with tubs of tofu, barrels of pickles, boxes of vegetables, fish, meat, and fruit. He picked a nice ripe melon by the wall at the end. Then he froze: footsteps were coming down the stairs. There was no place to hide. A voice called out. Silence. Then a click and another click, and Shunryu was holding a melon in total darkness. He waited a moment, then started walking back toward the door. Suddenly there was a piercing pain above his left eye. He jerked and screamed, dropped the melon, quickly got his balance and reached up. He felt sharp, cold steel and blood. He had snared himself on a hook hanging from the ceiling. He couldn’t extricate himself, and every move he made worsened the situation. Finally his breathing slowed down and he stood there in pain like a statue, unable to budge, blood dripping down his uniform. He waited for over an hour till he heard someone coming down the steps again and called out for help. No one was angry at him for his escapade. Like him, they were worried that he’d blinded his left eye. He hadn’t. The hook had gone in through the eyelid and out over the eyebrow. He lay in his bed that evening, stitched up and bandaged like a pirate, and reflected on the events of the day. He ached, but something wonderful had happened. All that he would say later in his life is that he had had an important awakening experience. He wanted to return to the clear, inexpressible, and timeless calm he had felt as he stood there, dripping blood. At the time he thought it was the great enlightenment. He would learn later that it was just a little one, and he would find that he could not re-create it: that was then and this is now. For the rest of his life he would have a nifty little arch above his left eye.“ (From David Chadwick „Crooked Cucumber. The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki.“ page 40-41)

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