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By Ven. Chönyi Taylor
There’s the story of the fisherman hanging on to his capsized boat and asking God for help. He turns away a surfer on his board, a jet ski, another boat and even a helicopter saying, “No, God will save me!” After many hours, the fisherman, feeling destitute, pleads to God, “Where are you?” Eventually God looks down from the clouds and says, “I sent you a surfer, a jet skier, a boat and even a helicopter. What else do you expect me to do?”
Of course we would not be like that, or would we? “I’ve been practicing so hard. All those mantras and prostrations and hours of meditation. They’re not working. Nothing is happening. I’m still suffering.”
I remember my early days as a Buddhist when I still imagined that Buddhism was the key to all my suffering (true) and this release from suffering would happen almost immediately (false) because I was being a virtuous practitioner (false). I was making strong requests to Avalokiteshvara that I quickly realize the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation. This is a very powerful practice for exposing our self-cherishing ego (true), but I was strong and could manage the intense purification (false). Suddenly I found myself in the middle of a series of difficult situations, all of which gave me opportunities to practice thought transformation. “No, no,” I said mentally to Avalokiteshvara, “it’s too much. I’ll take my Dharma practice more slowly.”
Suffering is not an obstacle to our Dharma practice. It is our Dharma practice. Or to be more precise, it is only through suffering that we experience our lack of wisdom and compassion and are moved to act so we can change the situation. Removing one form of suffering simply exposes deeper and more subtle levels of suffering, but by this time we have more effective skills to bring into the situation. This remains true right up to the moment before we become a buddha, so there is no point in complaining.
Then there are the immediate causes as well as the root cause for our dissatisfaction with ourselves and our lives. Removing the immediate causes, where it is possible, is like the fisherman accepting the surfer’s offer for a ride back to shore. If we suffer from diabetes, then we can remove some immediate causes through the appropriate diet. When that is not enough, then medication gives us the opportunity to live a full and meaningful life, even if this means daily injections. The same applies to psychiatric medications. If our serotonin levels are down, then finding an effective way to lift them allows us to function more effectively. Unfortunately these are called antidepressants. If we simply called them serotonin boosters, then maybe we would be less likely to have an aversion to them.
Removing an immediate cause to our suffering does not eliminate the root cause, our grasping at a self that does not exist. It can however help us on the way to finding the root cause. We are happy to set up the right environmental conditions to meditate. We are happy to be mindful of the food we eat. Medication is only concentrated food.
We tend not to fuss so much about taking medicine for diabetes or asthma. But we get confused when the disorder is in the brain. Bizarre behavior can sometimes be the result of a tumor or trauma to part of the brain. When we know that, then we excuse the bizarre behavior, maybe try to modify it a bit if we can. When the physical problem relates to faulty neurochemistry, we are not so accepting. There is no identifiable lesion, therefore (we falsely argue) the problem is in my mind and meditation will help more than medication.
Maybe that is true. Maybe the problem has arisen from chronic stress or severe trauma or faulty patterns of thought, and the various interactions between these factors. Calming the mind can and does help, but this may not be enough to change the negative karma which has resulted in a neurological disorder.
Maybe, just maybe, the correct medication is the ripening of your positive karma.
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Mandala Publications is the official publication of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), an international charitable organization founded by two Tibetan Buddhist masters, Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935-1984) and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. FPMT is a vibrant international community, with a network of 160 affiliate centers, projects and services, and members in more than 30 countries.
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