The Language of Burdens

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Awakened One came to realize that human beings weight themselves down with unnecessary burdens as they walk the path of life. Once a physical or mental phenomena becomes a burden than it naturally becomes a source of discontentment and anguish as one struggles to carry it even when deep in the sub-conscious mind there is recognition that it has little or no value. He used a parable to offer a teaching on those burdens.

Once there was a man on a long journey who came to a river. He said to himself: ‘This side of the river is very difficult and dangerous to walk on, and the other side seems easier and safer, but how shall I get across?’ So he built a raft out of branches and reeds and safely crossed the river. Then he thought to himself: ‘This raft has been very useful to me in crossing the river; I will not abandon it to rot on the bank, but will carry it along with me.’ And thus he voluntarily assumed an unnecessary burden. Can this man be called a wise man?

This parable teaches that even a good thing, when it becomes an unnecessary burden, should be thrown away; much more so if it is a bad thing. Buddha made it the rule of his life to avoid useless and unnecessary discussions. The Teaching of Buddha, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Society for the Promotion of Buddhism), 1966, pg. 106

These are the words that over twenty years ago changed my perspective on how I was living my life, and provided the impetus to transform it. Before these words I felt trapped in a cycle of being that was debilitating, dangerous and destructive. It was my introduction to the Buddhist ideal of craving and attachment but I didn’t discover that until many years later. In that moment an attachment to a relationship that I viewed as necessary for my being manifested as a craving to do whatever it might take to have it continue, even at the cost of the contentment of myself and others, was causing suffering for all involved.

When I recently reread the passage I realized that in the intervening years I’d managed to paraphrase it. Though I’d reworded it, I’d kept the intent that I believe those words were meant to teach. “Even a good thing, once it becomes a burden, must be discarded.” Then until now these words have been a mantra through every situation I’ve been in. In Buddhist philosophy the knowledge that all things, good and bad, arise and fall away due to the impermanent nature of existence is clear. The concept of burdens took some effort to realize. How do you know when something becomes a burden? It was memories of the negative experiences in life that I had been clinging to and using to justify my thoughts and actions were my initial realization of this reality. Burdens were the unnecessary memories that would arise and cause discontent and anguish. They were thoughts that drew me back into past, a past long ago fallen away but that still dominated my thinking process no matter the situation. Whatever was locking me into a cycle “of the past” was realized as burdens. Learning how to rid myself of those burdens was the most difficult aspect of transformation.

The word ‘discarded’ would spring to mind whenever I experienced a burden. In the beginning, no matter what manifested itself as a burden arose I struggled to ignore it, to discard it from my mind. No big surprise that that wasn’t an appropriate action in the majority of instances. Ignoring is not discarding. Ignoring is pushing thoughts into a small closet without a lock on the door. It isn’t long before the thought figures out how to turn the door knob and saunter out, ready to invade the mind again. Eventually the realization that the Awakened One didn’t mean ignore came to me.

It was the mental construct of hatred that fueled the realization that ignoring emotions and dispositions doesn’t work. When the object of that intense emotion was foremost in my mind, then hatred dominated. It would only stay in the closet when that object was absent. Unfortunately that object, what I came to understand later was the genesis of the cycle I was trying to escape from, was driving my responses to the current situation being experienced and so it was always present . . . so the closet door was always open for hatred. To rid myself of that burden would take so much more than simply ignoring; it would take dealing with it in some way. I would need to come to terms with hatred before I could discard it.

Think of this like someone who throws all their trash into the backseat of their car. It might seem like they are discarding it, but in reality it is being ignored. That trash can only be ignored as long as it doesn’t pile up so high it blocks the view out the back window. The trash is still there. The trash is still having effect, the smell, the clutter, and the fact that no one wants to ride with you. Until you take the time and the effort to clean it out and throw it into a trashcan it is an unnecessary burden. It must be dealt with in order to discard it completely. My hatred was like that trash.

Emotions and dispositions like hatred will eventually ‘block the window’. All you can see is the hatred. It dominates all efforts to make better choices. So, the hatred must be dealt with. There must be an engagement of rigorous self-honesty into the who, what, when, why and how such dispositions come to arise and do they have value? This is when the difference between discarding and ignoring becomes crystal clear.

I’d tried to ignore the hatred. For that, all I got was a continuing cycle of discontentment and anguish, psychoemotional (self induced) suffering. Once the reasons for the hatred were uncovered and an honest evaluation of its value was accomplished the hatred was truly discarded. For that, I got a peace-of-mind and a serenity that shook the very fiber of how I was. The burden was gone. There was a bonus to the discarding of hatred that I didn’t expect. For the first time I believe I truly felt compassion for myself and for what had been the object of that hatred.

Applying this same appropriate action, effort and view to other burdens over the years has had similar results.

So many years later, with an entirely different view of myself and the world around me, I rediscovered a part of this teaching that had fallen from my memory. Buddha made it the rule of his life to avoid useless and unnecessary discussions. What had once been an object of hatred would have liked nothing better than to keep the memory alive, to remain an active disposition. Once dealt with though any further discussion, internally or externally, had no value. This doesn’t mean that the experience couldn’t and shouldn’t be spoken of. It does mean that it can and will be spoken of without the extreme emotional context. It is a lesson learned and an experience that can be used to help others who are experiencing the same sort of cycle.

“Even a good thing, once it becomes a burden, must be discarded.” These words will remain a personal mantra because it has proven its value in the intervening twenty plus years. It still holds the intent of the teaching and adds a fresh realization of ‘ Buddha made it the rule of his life to avoid useless and unnecessary discussions’. These final words have great importance in the contemporary practice of Buddhism in Engaged Dharma. Traditional ideals such as rebirth, enlightenment and nirvana come to be burdens for many contemporary practitioners. They expend so much effort trying to come to terms with those exotic concepts that the value of the Four Ennobling Truths, the not-self, impermanence and causal conditioning get ignored or pushed aside. In my experience once I discarded those particular mental burdens I was more able to see clearly the Noble Path.

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2 thoughts on “The Language of Burdens

  1. Much of your life experience that informs your view — or perhaps it’s the clarity with which you speak — seems like my own… My wife, who I think of as my ‘benefactor’ and spiritual friend, and I are facing down a worthy dream labored over for years and invested in as well. It is one that when we retired and bought our home 5 years ago we termed building a community with a monastic path with a heart. Now, after recent months of ‘life happenings’ we are now invited to part with it. Fortunately, we have a small sangha and find ourselves not just, as you said, as former “book buddhists” but “in the stream.” I value your talks very much. Homage to Buddha!

  2. Greetings Feral Librarian,

    First let me say how much I value the librarians here in St. Louis that help me out in so many ways. For your work (at least I figure you are a librarian) I bow deeply.

    We have more in common than just Buddhism. In my experience my lady holds the same deep role that yours does. To them both I also bow deeply.

    It is disheartening that your goal is falling away. Now it is time to perhaps find another path to that same positive goal. For that you, and your sangha, are in my positive thought file.

    I make your sangha an offer. I do ‘virtual’ visits with sanghas (via Skype) and would be happy to meet with yours if you’d like.

    I bow with respect,
    Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi

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