Ram Dass on Suffering as Grace
Ram Dass: For most people, when you say that suffering is Grace it seems off the wall to them. And we’ve got to deal now with our own suffering and other people’s suffering. Because that is certainly a distinction that is very real, because even if we understand the way in which suffering is Grace – that is the way in which it can be a vehicle for awakening – that is fine for us. It’s quite a different thing to look at somebody else’s suffering and say it’s Grace. And Grace is something that an individual can see about their own suffering and then use it to their advantage. It is not something that can be a rationalization for allowing another human being to suffer. And you have to listen to the level at which another person is suffering. And when somebody is hungry you give them food. As my guru said, God comes to the hungry person in the form of food. You give them food and then when they’ve had their belly filled then they may be interested in questions about God. Even though you know from, say, Buddhist training, or whatever spiritual training you have had, that the root cause of suffering is ignorance about the nature of dharma. To give somebody a dharma lecture when they are hungry is just inappropriate methodology in terms of ending suffering.
So, the hard answer for how you are able to see suffering as Grace, and this is a stinker really, is that you have got to have consumed suffering into yourself. Which means, you see there is a tendency in us to find suffering aversive. And so we want to distance ourselves from it. Like if you have a toothache, it becomes that toothache. It’s not us any more. It’s that tooth. And so if there are suffering people, you want to look at them on television or meet them but then keep a distance from them. Because you are afraid you will drown in it. You are afraid you will drown in a pain that will be unbearable. And the fact of the matter is you have to. You finally have to. Because if you close your heart down to anything in the universe, it’s got you. You are then at the mercy of suffering. And to have finally dealt with suffering, you have to consume it into yourself. Which means you have to–with eyes open–be able to keep your heart open in hell. You have to look at what is, and say Yea, Right. And what it involves is bearing the unbearable. And in a way, who you think you are can’t do it. Who you really are can do it. So that who you think you are dies in the process.
Like I am dealing, I am counseling now, the counselor of a couple who went to a movie and when they came home their house had burned down and their three children had burned to death. Three, five and seven. And she is Mexican Catholic and he is a Caucasian Protestant. And they are responding entirely different to it. She is going in to deep spiritual experiences and talking with the children on other planes and he is full of denial and anger and feelings of inadequacy. And in a way, that situation is so unbearable and you wouldn’t ever lay that on another human being but there it is. And what will happen is she may come out of this a much deeper, spiritual, more profound, more evolved person. And he, because the way he dealt with it was through denial, may end up contracted and tight because he couldn’t embrace the suffering. He couldn’t go towards it. He pushed it away in order to preserve his sanity. In a way, there is a process in which suffering requires you to die into it or to give up your image of yourself. When you say I can’t bear it. Who is that? And they talk about the saints of India as being the living dead, because they have died who they thought they were. And they talk about the saints for whom all people are their children. So that everybody that is dying is their child dying. It’s easy to say “Well, it’s not my child.” or “It’s not my brother or my friend.” This poem is most familiar to most of you here, but it’s still every time I read it I get off on it. I think it’s worth it.
from Earth Prayers, Thich Nhat Hanh
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look at me: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird whose wings are still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope,
the rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing in the
surface of the river.
I am also the bird which, when spring comes,
arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am a frog swimming happily in the
clear water of a pond.
I am also the grass-snake who,
approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
I am also the merchant of arms, selling deadly
weapons to Uganda.
I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after
being raped by a sea pirate.
I am also the pirate, my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with
plenty of power in my hand.
I am also the man who has to pay his
“debt of blood” to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes
flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it
fills up all the four oceans.
Please call me by my correct names,
so that I can hear all my cries and my laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are but one.
Please call me by my correct names,
so I can become awake,
and so that the door of my heart be left open,
the door of compassion.
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