Today is Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday). This week is the week of weeks. This is the great reminder for Christians that their streak of 52 Sundays of celebration comes at a heavy cost to somebody.
"Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub; it is the center hole that makes it useful. Shape clay into a vessel; it is the space within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room; it is the holes which make it useful. Therefore profit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there" (Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching, ch.11).
We remember this week that our joys, be they of Beulahland beyond or of God's Kingdom at hand, would not be joy were we never to know suffering. The hardest concept is that of "good" things happening to "bad" people and "bad" things happening to "good" people. Because we're just too comfortable at times with our own tradition and scriptures, I'm hesitant to throw church talk at this concept, which happens to serve as the fulcrum of today's liturgical transition. Let me stir you with a story from ancient Eastern wisdom writings.
While I'm poorly read in the tradition, I do recall a story where a fellow encountered a post-enlightened Prince Siddartha, who was out begging for alms (a spiritual discipline). Three times, the fellow asked him to teach him the Dharma (or the way to suffering's end). On the third request, Buddha says to him,
"...you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will only be the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will only be the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sense in reference to the sensed, and only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, then there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This is the end of suffering."
Oddly enough, Bahiya, the fellow who approached Siddhartha, is later killed by a cow protecting her calf. Now, think about it just a second: this man approaches the wisest teacher known in the East to seek out a way to achieve the end of suffering. Let's shoot straight here. Does anything in our daily lives cause as much suffering as our vanity? Ask the wisest of books in our biblical cannon. I'm almost willing to exchange the phrase "teach me the Dharma (or way to suffering's end)" with "teach me how to feel like my life truly matters." Is it too great a leap to suggest that most of our vices are borne out of boredom, where boredom is simply moments we deem meaningless? In other words, what Bahiya really asked the Buddha was "Will you help me find meaning in my everyday life?" Ironically, even after Siddhartha captures the core of the Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path (or Dharma) in a piffy response, Bahiya's path leads to a death that seems anything but noble.
Siddhartha, upon discovering Bahiya's body, had his monks cremate him and build him a memorial. They couldn't help themselves, so they asked, "What is Bahiya's destination, his future state?" He told them that Bahiya was unbound; that he practiced the Dharma without worrying over issues of the Dharma and, therefore, was a wise man. Thence comes another teachable moment:
"Where water, earth, fire, and wind have no footing: there the stars don't shine, the sun isn't visible. There the moon doesn't appear. There darkness is not found. And when a sage, a brahman through sagacity, has realized [this] for himself, then from form and formlessness, from bliss and pain, he is freed."
If you got lost in the above story, no worries. Those stories were designed to put us in a state of not knowing--the "Don't-Know Mind"--so that we can then discover something new outside of our normal ways of thinking.
Suffice it to say that, today, we will walk away suffering, wondering where our joy went. Why all the doom and gloom? People don't want to attend depressing churches. I thought if I trusted God enough that I'm supposed to see miracles and healings and prosperity and feel better about everything.
Nope. Today is the punch in the gut to remind us that we, indeed, have a gut. It's an imperfect gut, wearing down and in a continuous process of passing away. If we cling to this life, our fate is sealed: we suffer. If we cling to a "big man upstairs" in hopes of a gutless hereafter and beyond, our fate is sealed: we suffer. The end of suffering is the end of all clinging to form and formlessness. We shouted our victorious "Hosanna!" at Jesus because we were clinging to form. We shouted our vicious "Crucify him!" at Jesus because we were clinging to formlessness. It's the ol' pickle; the inevitable ping-pong game of clingy dualism, played with the demon and his seven superiors.
Today, we mindfully let go of all footings. Stars no longer shine now. Rather, they star. The sun is no longer visible. It just suns. The moon doesn't appear. It just moons. The darkness just darks.
Freely, we walk a path today that's neither "good" nor "bad." It just paths. There isn't an evil betrayal. Rather, Judas just does what Judas does. What Judas does leads to Jesus' arrest. Eventually, we see a dead man on a cross. Yet, even here, we don't cling. In this freedom, we realize that behind this suffering lies great joy, just as we realize that behind this joy lies great suffering. Sunday, we'll freely walk to the tomb. Yet, even there, we don't cling. Towards the end of the Paschal season, we'll see Jesus ascend into heaven. Yet, even there, we don't cling.
As we await these next few dark days, maybe Lao Tzu's words will start making sense: "Therefore profit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there."