A Zen’s-Eye View: Misfortunes can bring happiness

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All human lives contain both fortunate and unfortunate events. When misfortune appears, it presents us with a wonderful opportunity to exercise the spiritual muscles that meditation and the practice of moral precepts have developed. When events and people don’t act as we want them to, it’s easy to think that they have become obstacles to our happiness. At these times, training for enlightenment is usually the last thing on our minds. We are more likely to be concerned about how we are being inconvenienced, burdened, put upon, attacked, misunderstood, rejected — you name it. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to remember to work for the happiness of others. Generosity goes into hibernation; self-cherishing takes over. We close down, cut ourselves off from happiness and tighten our fists.

But imagine if it were possible to use unfortunate events to unclench our fists and do what we can for the happiness of others. This would be a good thing because there’s no shortage of unfortunate events. Illness, death and loss are unavoidable. Who can think of a time when the world was not filled with suffering? Unpreventable natural disasters such as flood, fires, plagues, volcanoes and tidal waves have always been part of life on Earth. Manmade disasters such as starvation, war and the mindless destruction of the environment have existed since oil-based technologies extended greed’s reach for wealth and power. There are plenty of places to begin our work for the happiness of others, plenty of places to transform mishap into the path of spiritual practice.

This slogan frees us from pretending to ourselves and to others that everything is OK, everywhere, all the time. The slogan also tells us that if we are in the middle of an unfortunate event, we don’t have to wait for things to get better before we engage our spiritual practice. What if, instead of experiencing misfortune as an attack on our lives, we included it in our practice? It is very difficult to hold the mind of meditation, to think, speak and act in keeping with moral precepts, or to work for the happiness of others when we are facing loss. But it is when we face difficulties that we learn the most about applying spiritual principles to everyday life.

Spiritual practice does not make all our problems go away. It does not mean that we will overcome all our difficulties. Nor does it mean that the world will suddenly be free of suffering.

But it does mean that we can include everything in our path of practice. We can include joy and sorrow, fortune and misfortune, anger and compassion, fear and courage. And we can use the tools of practice, mindfulness and loving kindness to transform our relationship to unfortunate events.

Practice suggestion: For the next two weeks, as obstacles arise during the day, pay attention to your immediate response and the assumptions embedded in that response. When do your fists clench, and where do they remain open?

This column is a long series of short essays exploring the meaning of the Lojong Slogans. It is inspired by the work of Judy Lief.

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-3390.