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Buddhadharma : Spri 2007
buddhadharma| 35 |spring 2007 WheN I WrIte about living with pain, I don’t have to use my imagination. Since 1976 I have been afflicted with chronic head pain that has grown worse over the decades. this condition has thrown a granite boulder across the tracks of my meditation practice. Pain often wipes a day and night off my calendar, and sometimes more at a stretch. the condition has cost me a total of sev- eral years of productive activity. because intense head pain makes reading difficult, it has at times even threatened my vocation as a scholar and translator of buddhist texts. In search of a cure, I have consulted not only practitioners of Western medicine but also herbal physicians in remote Sri Lankan villages. I’ve been pierced countless times by acupuncture needles. I’ve subjected my body to the hands of a Chinese massage therapist in Singapore, consumed tibetan medicine pills in Dharamsala, and sought help from exorcists and chakra healers in bali. With only moderate success, I currently depend on sev- eral medications to keep the pain under control. they cannot extricate it by the root. I know firsthand that chronic bodily pain can eat deeply into the entrails of the spirit. It can cast dark shadows over the chambers of the heart and pull one down into moods of dejection and despair. I cannot claim to have triumphed over pain, but in the course of our long relationship, I’ve discovered some guidelines that have helped me to endure the experience. First of all, it is useful to recognize the distinc- tion between physical pain and the mental reac- tion to it. although body and mind are closely intertwined, the mind does not have to share the same fate as the body. When the body feels pain, the mind can stand back from it. Instead of allow- ing itself to be dragged down, the mind can simply observe the pain. Indeed, the mind can even turn the pain around and transform it into a means of inner growth. the buddha compares being afflicted with bodily pain to being struck by an arrow. adding mental pain (aversion, displeasure, depression, or self-pity) to physical pain is like being hit by a second arrow. the wise person stops with the first arrow. Simply by calling the pain by its true name, one can keep it from extending beyond the physi- cal and thereby stop it from inflicting deep and penetrating wounds upon the spirit. Pain can be regarded as a teacher – a stern one that can also be eloquent. My head pain has often felt like a built-in buddha who constantly reminds me of the first noble truth. With such a teacher, I hardly need to consult the sermon in Deer Park at benares. In order to hear the reverberations of the buddha’s voice declaring that whatever is felt is included in suffering, all I have to do is attend to the sensations in my head. as a follower of the dharma, I place complete trust in the law of karma. therefore, I accept this painful condition as a present-life reflection of some unwholesome karma I created in the past. Not that I would advise someone who develops a painful illness to immediately resign themselves to it. although it may be the inevitable fruit of some past karma, it might also be the result of a present cause that can be effectively eliminated by proper medical treatment. however, when various types of treatment fail to help with an obstinate and defi- ant condition, one can be pretty sure there is a kar- mic factor. Personally, I don’t lose sleep trying to figure out what this past karma might have been, and I would advise others against succumbing to such obsessive concerns. they can easily lead to self-deluding fantasies and superstitious practices. In any case, by trusting the law of karma, one can understand that the key to future good health lies in one’s hands. It is a reminder to refrain from harmful deeds motivated by ill will and to engage in deeds aimed at promoting the welfare and hap- piness of others. Chronic pain can be an incentive for develop- ing qualities that give greater depth and strength to one’s character. In this way, it can be seen as a blessing rather than as a burden, though of course we shouldn’t abandon the effort to discover a rem- edy for it. My own effort to deal with chronic pain has helped me to develop patience, courage, deter- mination, equanimity, and compassion. at times, when the pain has almost incapacitated me, I’ve been tempted to cast off all responsibilities and Bhikkhu Bodhi, an ameri- can Buddhist monk, was ordained in sri Lanka in 1972. he has transLated severaL important works from the paLi canon, incLuding the Sumyatta Nikaya (the CoNNeCted diSCourSeS of the Buddha, wisdom puBLications). he currentLy Lives at Bodhi monastery in Lafayette, new Jersey. built-in buddha Bhikkhu Bodhi on the stern but eloquent teachings of chronic pain. (opposite) Life Wants to Live, 1983 (detail) Installation, the Kitchen, New York