Two Arrows Striking

Pain and bliss, love and hate, are like a body and its shadow;
Cold and warm, joy and anger, you and your condition,
Delight in singing verse is a road to Hell, But at Hell’s gate – peach blossoms, plum blossoms.
–Ikkyu 1394-1481

Yikes! The times of the world that we are living in! I do not need to point out the earth-shaking issues. When the current world-wide pandemic of Covid-19 came into my awareness, my naïve self wanted to contain it; this was what we needed to address, this is it! And yet, life did not stop, Covid-19 only became a part of this very life and complicated everything.

One of my favorite sayings by my Dharma brother, Dharma-Joy, was “What is next? Locust infestation, frogs dropping from the sky?” I whispered to myself, “Well, I have just been diagnosed with stage three cancer.” This diagnosis certainly threw me into the unknown, forcing me to bear witness to the changing aspects of my life, what I believed, my conditioning, my loved ones, and deeply, my practice. All plans for the future just seemed lost in the moment.

As I accepted this diagnosis, ”Not Knowing” revealed the ingredients of this very life that I could muster up, realizing the shifts that would lessen suffering as I have journeyed through this diagnosis, treatments, and pain.

This diagnosis certainly threw me into the unknown…

I have been meeting many people who have loved ones in serious life/death circumstances and are not allowed to see them in the hospital, not allowed to participate in the meetings with the doctors about serious diagnosis, and as a patient, it has been a lonely experience. As a spouse or caregiver, it is very difficult, feeling dismissed from major life decisions. Although phone connections exist, it is not the same as being present for these crucial conversations. The personal connections have been lost.

There is a sutra in the Samyutta Nikaya called “The Arrow.” It says that in life, two arrows strike us. The first arrow is the unavoidable pain of life. No one escapes being struck by this arrow. Not one of us escapes the pain of life. It comes with having a physical, impermanent body of a human living among other physical, impermanent bodies. This first arrow also includes feeling pain such as the grief of loss, the death of someone we love, our own deaths, and sadness with all of the social injustices we are witnessing in our country, past and present.

Then the second arrow comes – the arrow of suffering! The arrow of suffering penetrates the mind and leads the pain to our ongoing need of “storyland.” Why me? Life isn’t fair! What did I do to deserve this? I just can’t handle the pain anymore, I’m feeling grumpy. So, as our practice points to — find an upaya that creates shifts. I was able to create a beautiful morning Gratitude Practice. I set up an altar with many gifts offered to me throughout the years. I felt love and gratitude with the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha flooding throughout me – no separation. It was a rich and healing time each morning as I maneuvered through these difficult treatments.

Not one of us escapes the pain of life.

The second arrow is the source of wanting to escape the pain of the first arrow, allowing us to get really engrossed in the stories we create to save us from our own pain, to want to escape it. This is the suffering we can free ourselves from. This is the First Noble Truth – dukkha – stress, discomfort, unease, dissatisfaction, illness.

As I understand the Buddha’s intent, he began the first turning of the wheel of his teachings in Deer Park with unpleasant and often painful experiences. He did this because humans spend so much time trying to deny them or make them go away. It is this relentless effort to escape what we cannot escape, and to change what we cannot change that leads us to be dissatisfied with our lives. Trying to make dukkha go away is trying to make life go away. Receiving it, accepting it, is in a way, no longer dukkha. “It just is this!” Our Life as it is!

Impermanence could be most devastating. Could it not also be beautiful, if received with equanimity? When we’re dying, (which I have thought a lot about recently), this mind-habit of pushing it (death) away will cease. It’s inescapable. One way or the other, we’re going to have to deal with it. So don’t you think it’s good to get a head start?

Delight in singing verse is a road to Hell,
But at Hell’s gate – peach blossoms, plum blossoms.

Sensei Faith-Mind is on partial medical leave but continues to serve ZCLA as the Abbot.