April 20, 2014

The Eighty-Fourth Problem

This essay is about problems - the kind we all share. Big ones and little ones, problems that we cause ourselves and problems that the world inflicts upon us.

A man once came to see the Buddha because he heard that the Buddha knew how to solve problems. The man had more trouble than he could handle and so he knelt and begged, "Lord, my life is nothing but conflict and sorrow. Help me to find peace."

The Buddha smiled. "Tell me what is wrong, my brother."

"I'm a farmer," said the man, "and a good one. I enjoy farming. But there is always trouble with the weather. Sometimes it doesn't rain enough and my crops die, and my family nearly starves. Other times it rains too much and my crops die, and my family nearly starves. No matter what I do, my livelihood brings me nothing but anxiety."

The Buddha listened quietly as the man continued.

"I have a wife and two children. I love them all, but sometimes being a husband and father is nothing but headaches! My wife nags me so much that if I lived to be a hundred I couldn't figure out all that she wants from me! And my children! They eat my food and spend my money, but they don't respect me or the land. They sit around, useless and greedy."

The Buddha nodded.

"And then there are my neighbors! This one steals my water; that one moves his fence onto my property. Another one drives his cattle across my field. And the worst of the lot has an idiot son who wants my precious daughter. I can't work my crops without having to argue with one of them about something."

The man went on this way, carefully cataloging all his troubles. After an hour or so he was nearly in tears, too agitated to speak. He bowed his head and waited for the Enlightened One to speak the words that would would end his suffering.

The Buddha said, "I'm sorry, brother. I cannot help you."

The man was incredulous."What do you mean, you can't help me?" And then, disgusted, he sneered, "What use are you if you can't even tell a simple farmer how to improve his life?" He stood up to leave.

The Buddha answered, "It's true that I can't help you. And I don't think anyone else can, either. But perhaps I can tell you how to get help from the one person who can help you... yourself."

The farmer sat down and listened.

"You," said the Buddha, "and everybody else who is born into this world of Samsara have been given Eighty-Three problems. You deal with them as best you can. Whether you merely survive them or whether you constructively work to solve them, you find that no sooner do you handle one problem, but another one instantly arises to take its place. That's how life is."

The farmer considered this. "Yes," he said. "but can we solve all Eighty-Three problems in this lifetime?"

"Ah, said the Buddha, "that's the trouble. Once solved, they don't stay solved. They keep coming back, sometimes in different places and sometimes with different people."

"Then, will I never be happy? Will these Eighty-Three problems hound me even to the grave?" Suddenly the farmer was angry. "What kind of teaching is this? What am I to do now?"

"Well," said the Buddha, "You can solve the Eighty-Fourth problem."

"Oh, wonderful!" said the man sarcastically. "Now I have Eighty-FOUR problems! And what might that problem be?"

"The Eighty-Fourth problem," replied the Buddha, "is deciding not to have any problems."

And that's about all there is to it.

Like all of us, the poor farmer had a lifetime's experience with trouble and frustration. Like us, he dreamed of putting an end to his problems once and for all. But like everyone else who comes to Buddhism, he had to progress beyond the First Noble Truth: Life in Samsara is bitter and painful.

The fact is, being a Buddhist doesn't take the problems of life away. A Buddhist still has work and family and traffic jams to deal with. Neither does Buddhism offer comforting, easy-to-digest solutions for each of the bitter problems life puts on our plate.

Buddhism teaches that troubles go with life like wetness goes with ocean. Only the dead have no problems. And certainly we can find no comfort in telling ourselves, "Well, the next life will be better." To be alive at any time and any place is to struggle. Life is struggle. It is our attitude towards life that determines whether or not we regard the struggle as trouble or challenge.

George Polya, that preeminent mathematical problem-solver, said, "A great discovery solves a great problem, but there is a grain of discovery in any problem." And this is Buddhism's approach: to embrace problems great and small and to seek in each of them that grain of discovery. There is great joy in solving a problem when we see that problem as the very source of its own solution.

We tend to lose perspective. We see an obstacle and are blinded to the fact that it is in being alive and in being able even to see the obstacle that we have the ability to surmount it.

Often the closest we come to dealing with a problem is to make it seem less significant than someone else's. We find comfort in cliches. "I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet." But Buddhism says, "Why do you cry because you have no shoes? Stop crying and find a way to get yourself some shoes. Solve the Eighty-Fourth problem first!"

Recently I saw a bunch of guys who had no feet. They were playing basketball in wheelchairs. They were laughing and whooping it up no differently from the way they'd have acted if they had been conducting their offense and defense on two feet each. These men were in that Eighty-Fourth moment, in the game, enjoying life.

The world is filled with men who have two feet but who enjoy nothing and complain about everything because they cannot find that seed-grain of discovery inside a single problem.

The men in the wheelchairs accepted what had been put on their plate and no matter how bitter it was, they let it nourish them. They found a way to solve their problem and to find the joy of discovery in that solution.

And this is what that farmer needed to do. Instead of complaining, he needed to respond to the weather's challenges by acquiring other skills, by seeing to it that he and his family learned trades or cottage crafts so that when drought or flood came they'd be able to continue to prosper. He needed to meet with his neighbors and discuss the solutions of law and mutual respect, of teamwork instead of opposition.

There is joy in discovery, in creating something new and useful, in accepting a challenge and involving ourselves constructively in its solution. We all need to solve the Eighty-Fourth problem first. It is Attitude. It is Grace. It is being grateful to be alive here and now and to be blessed with all life's other Eighty-Three challenges.

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