This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia.
I’ve been reading a book of stories by the Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm called Opening the Door of Your Heart (previously published as ‘Who ordered this truck-load of dung?’).
It’s a lovely book, full of short stories, some of them re-telling Buddhist fables and tales and others recollections from Ajahn Brahm’s life. The chapters are all very short, and the whole book is alive with warmth and humour. I think it's well-suited to people who have an illness and might have trouble concentrating or reading.
I found one of the stories particularly moving and enlightening. It's the story of a man who’d been in the British Army in World War 2 (and later met Ajahn Brahm). The man had been on patrol in the Burmese jungle when the scout from his patrol returned to tell the captain that somehow they’d stumbled into the middle of a large number of Japanese soldiers. They were surrounded, with no way to move out. The patrol expected to be ordered to advance, and even if none of them survived at least they might be able to kill some of the enemy.
But instead, the captain told his men to stay where they were, sit down, and have a cup of tea. The man who told the story to Ajahn Brahm said that they all thought the captain had gone mad. But, they were in the army and they had to obey him.
“They all made what they thought was to be their last cup of tea. Before they had finished drinking their tea, the scout came back and whispered to his captain. The captain asked for the men’s attention. ‘The enemy has moved,’ he announced. ‘There is now a way out. Pack your kit quickly, and quietly – let’s go!”
The man told Ajahn Brahm that he felt like he owed his life to his captain, and not just for saving him in Burma.
“Several times in his life, it was as if he was surrounded by the enemy, completely outnumbered, with no way out and about to die. He meant by ‘the enemy’ serious illness, horrendous difficulty and tragedy, in the middle of which there seemed no way out. Without the experience in Burma he would have tried to fight his way through the problem, and no doubt made it much worse. But instead...he simply sat down and made a cup of tea.”
After reading this story I put the book down and lay there for a while, just listening to the sounds of the Australian bush on a summer’s night – the crickets, and the rustling of the gum trees outside my caravan. In my mind I saw an image of me, surrounded by my enemies of fatigue, pain, despair, fear and depression. I saw them all around, surrounding me in the dark night, lurking in the trees and bushes outside my caravan.
What was my inclination? Was it to sit and have a cup of tea? Or, was it to hurl myself headlong at these enemies – hoping to fight my way through and emerge at the other side, wounded but alive?
Of course, it was the latter. But, for the first time in my life I could see that there was another option. I didn’t have to throw myself on my enemies and wrestle them to the ground in an adrenalin-pumped fight to the death. I could just sit, have a drink, and say, ‘who knows?...let’s wait.’
I started making a little meditation around this. I allowed the difficult feelings to arise, and imagined myself sitting down, drinking a cup of tea, and shrugging my shoulders...just waiting. This was a completely new way of relating to these feelings. Immediately I could feel the some of the huge responsibility I’d taken for all these ‘enemies’ slip away. They were still there – but it seemed they weren't totally my fault, and totally my responsibility to fix. I saw that it wasn’t my job to destroy myself fighting them. I could be aware of them, without blaming myself so much for them being there.
Often people with an illness are encouraged not to 'play the victim.' We're encouraged instead to take responsibility for our situation, to heal our own bodies, to investigate why we have 'dis-ease.' In itself, this isn’t a bad thing, but I wonder sometimes whether the pendulum has slipped a little too far one way and whether we are being urged to take on too much responsibility for what is happening to our bodies. Ajahn Brahm’s story made me realise I’ve taken on far too much responsibility for my illness. It has been a profound realisation, and one that I know I’ll be working with, and deepening, over the next weeks and months.
One of the huts at Santi Forest Monastery