Nineteenth-century Tibetan yogi Shabkar sees the impermanence of all things when his mother dies. Never forget we are here for a limited time only, to be washed away like footprints on a beach.
“When they placed in my hands my mother’s bones, I thought, “A ho! Things of this world really are nothing. In the past, my old mother, overwhelmed by affection and thinking of her only son, used to weep bitterly and send me messages and letters begging, ‘Son, come back once again.’ But still I did not interrupt my practice. I still thought of my mother as being young, and thought that, even if I did not see her for a few years, she wouldn’t die.”
“Thus, believing in the permanence of things, I kept putting off my return. I purposely deceived her by continuing to write, saying, ‘Next year…I’ll come to see you next year.’ And, in the end, she died without my ever having seen her again.
“Thinking of my mother, I, her bad son, had just set out on my way back to her from a distant place, pack on my back, staff in my hand. I did not have anything of value to bring for her, but I was coming back to her with many comforting words already in mind that would have brought peace to her mind.
“But my merit was insufficient. My mother had already set out on the infamous road called Death. She is no longer in a place where, if I looked, I could see her, or that, if I spoke, she could hear me. She has gone on to the distant land that is the next life.
“Even if, by virtue of having practiced the Dharma, we meet again in our next lives, we did not have the opportunity to meet once again in this life in order to say a few things to one another that would have warmed our hearts.” […]
Disconsolate, my sadness was fathomless. Weeping, I sang this song of mourning:
Lord guru, enlightened one,
Please remain on the crown of my head.
With compassion look upon all sentient beings,
Each one of whom was once my mother,
Especially, look upon my mother of this life,
Whose fate is now in your hands.
I went off, thinking I’d meet
My mother one more time.
I did not meet her–
I met her bones.
The memory of my mother
Comes to mind. […]
“I have no need to meditate any further on impermanence and death. My mother gave me these teachings, and vanished. Now, if I don’t practice the Dharma–what else is there?”
Shabkar, The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiographie of a Tibetan Yogin
The 4 Noble Truths were introduced by the Buddha at what is considered to be the first sermon he ever gave after his enlightenment. What made the 4 Noble Truths so fundamentally important that he would discuss them at his first sermon?
I will explain this importance now, by relating the 4 Noble Truths to our experiences as human beings, and the everyday occurrences of our lives.
Put aside your current notions for a moment and try on a new perspective.
Imagine that at our core, we all desire to be happy, and conversely, we all desire to avoid suffering. Sounds good, right? It sounds good, because you can feel that this is true.
We can take this idea a small step further. We could state that every decision we make in life is done so to gain more happiness, and to avoid suffering.
Let me state that again:
“Every decision we make is made to bring us closer to what we BELIEVE will make us happier.”
The important point to note here, however, is that most of us in the group of humanity do not know what will bring us happiness. We believe we know, and we base our decisions on this belief, which, as will be discussed, is fundamentally flawed. It is at this point that we make decisions that bring us unhappiness.Our fundamentally flawed awareness affects our decision-making.
And this brings us to the 4 Noble truths. I will state the more modern composition here, as a basis of discussion.
1. There is suffering.
2. There is a cause to the suffering.
3. There is an end to the suffering.
4. There is a path that leads out of the suffering.
Simple really. If you look at it in their most basic forms, these are nothing but two distinct cause and effect scenarios, one bringing about suffering, and one bringing about happiness.
In the first scenario:
1. There is suffering.
2. This is a cause to the suffering.
This first cause and effect scenario could be envisioned in a circular fashion. A vicious circle, so to speak. The causes of suffering lead to suffering, and this suffering leads to more causes, which lead to more suffering, and on and on and on.
In the second scenario:
1. There is an end to the suffering.
2. There is a cause to end the suffering, and that is the path that leads out of the suffering.
This second cause and effect scenario could be envisioned as an ever-growing spiral. By recognizing that there can be an end to suffering, and moving in a path that moves away from suffering, the circle of suffering breaks, and new possibilities open up to us, moving us ever outwards with a positive, generative force.
In ancient India, the concept of the 4 Noble Truths was aligned nicely to the four stages of curing an illness. This analogy still applies today:
1. There is a sickness
2. There is a cause to the sickness.
3. There is a cure to the sickness available.
4. The sickness is relieved by taking the cure.
We could also align the 4 Noble Truths with any myriad of day-to-day sufferings.
In my mind, I have aligned it with a problem I was having with my surf technique.
No matter what I did, I could not reliably take the drop on larger waves. I could not figure it out. It was not my positioning in the lineup, or on the board. I was paddling hard, and giving it all I could. But no matter what, I was only getting about 25% of the drops, and the rest of the time I would eat it sideways off of the board. This was frustrating me so much, and as soon as I started feeling the frustration, it seemed that even that 25% success rate dropped to an all time low of… no waves whatsoever. I just circled around and around in this space of catching little to no waves.
One day, I showed my friend D. what I was doing, and to my relief, she saw it immediately. ”Your hands are too far apart on the board. You need to place them closer to the centre of your chest. And then breathe.” I didn’t believe that it could be so simple. Hands, just a couple inches closer, and taking a breath before the drop?
I lined up for the wave, and paddled as I usually do. As I felt the board get lifted ahead, I very consciously breathed deep, and pushed down as she had recommended, to my intense, over joyous sense of relief as I dropped down and caught a right for a seemingly endless time. I spent the rest of the day, and the day after, catching way more waves than I ever had in any single session of the past, and recognized the importance of mindful learning.
In summary, the 4 Noble Truths occurred to me as this:
1. The was bad technique.
2. There was a cause to the bad technique, which was poor hand placement.
3. There was a way to better technique, which consisted of placing my hands closer together, and breathing before popping up.
4. I applied the recommendations, and my technique immediately improved, along with it, my surfing skills.
Learn to see what really causes your strife, maybe with the help of friends, family, or even a professional teacher! Then search out your true salvation with vigilance. There definitely is a cure for what ails you, out there, or inside yourself, as the case may be.
On occasion, I have had the privilege to fly from Vancouver to Tofino on a small propeller plane. One of those planes that made you wonder if they had serviced in the last few years, and ask how people can travel on these on a daily basis without a proper skydiving training and an eject button under the arm of their seat. Once, I decided to go on a particular rainy and windy day, hoping that things would clear up by the time I boarded the plane.
They did not.
As we were taxiing on the runway and prepped for take off, the wind howled with unrelenting ferocity. It was strong enough to vibrate the wing I was staring at, which was firmly attached to the body of the small plane I was about to embark into the skies with. I began to wonder if I had told someone to take care of my cat in the case of my untimely departure from this physical world.
And the rain. The rain was a sheet of darkness, falling from a seemingly endless well in the sky, making sure that nothing was left dry in the whole coastal part of the province. If you have never experienced the atypical west coast winter day, you must feel the relentlessness of it at least once in order to appreciate the sunny beaches you may prefer to frequent.
”Where is the sun? Where has my beautiful sun gone? ” I thought, knowing full well that we would not see the sun for another 3 months at least.
We took off from the runway with uncertainty, and I could feel the tension of the 9 other passengers mount as they held their breathes for=times that could compete with professional underwater divers. As we flew higher and higher, approaching the source of all this destruction and violence, the plane would drop suddenly, or shift sideways as if skating on an ice rink. It was at this point that I realized the futility the seat belt would pose in saving me from a sudden loss of engine or encounter with an unseen mountain.
As this noise and violence was taking over more and more of my mind, we broke through the cloud, and I saw beauty. I saw the sun behind the clouds, and realized that it had been there the whole time. There was nothing different about the sun. In all its constant life giving warmth and radiant bliss, it had waited for us to break through the darkness below. It was rising, just above the horizon, and was reflecting off the snowy mountain peeks of British Columbian mountains. The light glimmered off the rain drops collected on the wing, magnifying the feeling of peace and serenity after the violence of the seemingly un-ending take off.
In the time leading up to this moment, I had forgotten that the sun hadn’t really disappeared. The clouds merely blocked the sun from my vision.
In the same way, clouds of our immediate experience often prevent us from accessing the innate purity of our selves. The clarity of focus and vision that arise when we set down the noise of the day-to-day to take time to remember what we are really thinking and feeling.
Guatama Buddha, the man on whose teachings Buddhism was founded, taught mainly to see through the inauthentic aspects of our created daily lives so that our real potential, in all its compassion and loving bliss, can shine forth at all times, like the warmest sun above the coldest of clouds.
If you perceive the world as rainy and cloudy, it will be that way for you, in all of its glorious suffering. If you remember that the radiant warmth of the sun is waiting behind the clouds, peace will begin to seep into everything your days bring to you.
Surfing crosses all borders, be it physical, social, or economic. Surfing promotes a sense of connection and camaraderie amongst those out on the ocean. People are out on the ocean waves for the common goal of temporarily harnessing the power of the wave. Through surfing, people learn to read the oceans and swells, and appreciate and respect the environment they are spending so much time in. Surfing based organizations such as Surfrider Foundation teach environmental programs, have beach cleanups, and organize many other events, all centered around the protection of the worlds oceans.
Surfers also discover a deep respect for their own bodies, and develop a much improved self confidence. Their health becomes so important to them, as it takes strength, stamina, and mental agility to be at one with the ocean.
As one man wrote about his physical and mental improvements:
“Surfing really made me quit smoking because I was having shortness of breath when I was trying to catch waves. It burned when I took a deep breath. So it didn’t take me long to realize that surfing didn’t go along with smoking , so I quit. I couldn’t smoke in the water and it was a great place to commune with nature and feed my addictive personality fresh air and sunshine. Also I found that drinking didn’t go well with surfing, I was sluggish and lethargic when I would drink even beer the previous day. So I stopped drinking all together. It didn’t make me feel that good anyway. So I replaced smoking and drinking with surfing. I became healthier and eventually happier. Probably because I was more active and I wasn’t abusing my body as much.”
From a social standpoint, surfing has roots far deeper than many of the sports today. The Hawaiian people integrated surfing into their culture and made surfing more of an art than anything else. They referred to this art as heʻe nalu, which translates into English as “wave sliding.” The art began before entering the mysterious ocean as the Hawaiians prayed to the gods for protection and strength to undertake the powerful mystifying ocean.