Many years ago, when I was either in college or high school my
father was the manager of a theater in Valley Forge Pennsylvania. So
I got to see a lot of broadway plays for free. One of the plays was
called “Stop the World I Want to Get Off.” Unless my memory is
playing tricks on me, what I remember about that play is that the
lead character at different points in the show would shout this
phrase. This is interesting to me as a Buddhist, since Buddhism
refers to the world as the Wheel of Birth and Death (a modernized
version of which is on the opening page of Dharma Flower) and the
purpose of Buddhism is to get off the wheel. Basically, Buddhism is
saying, “Stop the world, I want to get off!”
But really, is that what we are after? I don’t know about the rest
of you, but most of the time I really like it here. I actually heard
a song sung by Marlena Dietrich called Kisses Sweeter than Wine
which kind of sums up what I think of as a kind of healthy embrace
of life’s pains and pleasures. I found the lyrics to a version of
this sung by Jackson Brown and Bonnie Rait in 199:
(Performed by Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt on the Pete Seeger
tribute album Where Have All The Flowers Gone;1998)
Jackson:
When I was a young man I’d never been kissed;
I got to thinking about what I had missed.
I found a girl. I kissed her and then…
Oh Lord, I kissed her again.
Together:
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Bonnie:
He asked me to marry and be his sweet wife;
We would be happy — all of our life.
He begged and he pleaded like a natural man, and then…
Oh Lord, I gave him my hand.
Together:
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Oooooh, kisses…
Jackson:
I worked mighty hard and so did my wife;
Working hand in hand to make a good life.
Corn in the field and wheat in the bins, and then…
Oh Lord, I was the father of twins.
Together:
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Oooooh, kisses…
Bonnie:
Our children numbered just about four
And they all had sweethearts knocking on the door.
They all got married and they didn’t wait, I was…
Oh Lord! A grandmother of eight!
Together:
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Oooooh, kisses…
Jackson:
Now we are old and ready to go
Thinking about what happened a long time ago.
Bonnie:
We had lots of kids and trouble and pain, but…
Oh Lord, we’d do it again.
Together:
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Oooooh, kisses…
Oooooh, kisses sweeter than wine.
Oooooh, kisses…
And so there you go: “We had lots of kids and trouble and pain,
but… Oh Lord, we’d do it again.” The song is saying, yes, life is
suffering, but it is also worth it because of all the other things
that it is as well. This is one reason why one of my favorite
sayings of Nichiren is “Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what
there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life
and continue to chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo no matter what happens.”
What I hear in that phrase is this: “Don’t expect life to always be
pleasant, accept it all and in the midst of it all see and embrace
the Wonderful Truth that makes it what it is.
But now it would seem we are moving away from what the Buddha was
teaching – getting off the wheel of birth and death. Shakyamuni
Buddha did not deny that life also had its pleasures. But he also
saw that they were impermanent, not capable of bringing permanent
happiness. He also saw that those leading relatively safe and
comfortable lives (like that described in Kisses Sweeter Than Wine)
are few and far between. The vast majority of people lead lives of
want and misery. So for instance, I was just seeing in the news that
there are 25 million people dying of AIDS in Africa today. When you
consider that quite a small percentage have the good fortune of
living above the poverty line in first world countries, and that the
overwhelming majority of people live below the poverty line or in
developing countries, or under oppressive regimes, or in the midsts
of natural disasters and epidemics (like the Japan described in
Nichrien’s Rissho Ankoku Ron – it is no different in many places
today) then one must really consider the reality of the little
bubble of safety, security and relative material happiness that most
of us who are able to read and post here have achieved. What the
Buddha taught was not “there but for the grace of God” but “there
but for the temporary unfolding of your karma, and who knows what
lies in store for the future.” This was not just a scare tactics but
a tactic of waking us up to all the possibilities and to our
solidarity with the misery of all those others that we have only
temporarily escaped. The teaching of karma and rebirth reinforce
this solidarity because together they mean that unless we change our
views and way of living, we will eventually fall into those states
of misery through either complacense or through active wrongdoing.
So I would love to be able to sing Kisses Sweeter Than Wine
wholeheartedly, but then I think of the deaths that are reported
each day due to terrorism, war, disease, and of course old age,
sickness and death, and it turns me back towards “Stop the World I
Want to Get Off.
But Mahayana Buddhism proposes something different than just a naive
embrace of the world or its outright rejection. Mahayana Buddhism
proposes that the bodhisattva should be the ideal. The bodhisattva
is someone who purposely stays in the world and accepts it as it is -
but for the purpose of compassion and not just self-indulgence.
Let’s set aside Buddhist jargon and not call them “bodhisattvas” but
rather “compassionate beings” or “enlightening beings” (in that they
are on the path to enlightenment and strive to enlighten others – so
they are enlightening beings). The compassionate being embraces life
but does not cling to it. Deals with all circumstances without being
lost in them. They flow gracefully into every corner, raise
families, or become monks or hermits, or remain quiet craftsmen, or
maybe engage in politics or who knows. Whatever is needed they
become – like the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin who takes on 33 different
forms to save all beings as described in chapter 25.
The compassionate being does not just want to stop the world to get
off, but neither is the compassionate being fooled into thinking
that the pursuit of personal happiness or any kind of mundane
happiness enough. The compassionate being brings in an all embracing
view and acts on it in the midst of job, family, local traditions,
etc…But it is not an easy balance to find. I think it is this
balance of being engaged but not clinging, loving without
attachment, acting without ego, which is one of the fruits that we
hope to cultivate in our daily Buddhist practice.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,
Ryuei