Taking Obstacles Onto the Path
About two years ago we suffered the sudden loss of family member due to suicide. It really rocked our family. For the most part, everyone in the family handled the loss with tremendous grace and fortitude. One family member, however, reacted with a lot of negativity and anger. Often times when families suffer the loss of a loved one, the initial anger and shock of the loss leads to a behavior known in western psychology as scapegoating – the desire to place blame or channel one’s suffering into someone or something else. To my unfortunate surprise, this negativity and anger turned toward me and for various reasons I became the recipient of this person’s unwanted pain and anguish. I would like to say that a decade of meditation had prepared me well for this moment, and in many ways it had. But my equanimity was unseated. My thoughts throughout the day were filled with arguments, mostly self-defensive monologues, and at night I waded through a great deal of grief. After several weeks of dragging myself through the mud of my mind, I decided that I had had enough. I recognized that if I did not take this obstacle onto the path with me, I was going to continue to suffer with it.
Working with Obstacles
We often hear a lot about avoiding, overcoming, and purifying obstacles on the path. From a basic perspective, I perceive avoiding obstacles as practicing the ten virtues, maintaining any lifetime precepts I have undertaken, and renunciation. My experience has shown that this can take me quite a long way, but when it comes to the tough stuff, I often need something more. To this end, the Mahayana concept of transformation as alchemy, or ‘eating the poison as medicine,’ has been most helpful. While this concept is still quite mysterious to me, I think it encourages us to take our obstacles onto the path—to make them very path itself. After all, we can practice perfect conduct and still obstacles will arise. Politicians we oppose will get elected. Our loved ones will catch a physical illness and die. People caught in deep delusions of the mind will strike out and kill their brothers and sisters for having a different skin tone. We will lose our jobs, our homes, our savings, and many relationships. No one is impervious to the ills of this world. So, what are we to do?
If we take the obstacles onto the path, there is the real possibility that those very obstacles can become our greatest blessings. When considered from the viewpoint of buddha-nature, such obstacles often reflect opportunities to grow spiritually. Reginald Ray speaks to this matter in his book Secrets of the Vajra World:
The tantric journey is directed to uncovering the buddha-nature within, and this is not an easy or painless process. It has been said that, in the journey to awakening, buddha-nature does not particularly care what our personalities have to go through or how difficult the process may be. Our deepest nature is uncompromising and will not let any of us stray very far from the path. It will ultimately put up with nothing short of enlightenment. Meditation is a way of ‘sacrificing to the gods,’ of making a positive relationship with the buddha-nature so that the journey, while painful and challenging, at least continues in the direction of awakening and takes advantage of each turn in the road.Ray, Reginald A., Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, Shambhala Publications, 2002, p. 106
Opening Up Our Hearts
When I decided to take the pain and anger of loss and grief onto the path with me, I had to open my heart to the fullness of the pain. I made a conscious choice to make it my daily practice to open to that suffering, welcome it, and practice compassion and loving-kindness. I utilized tonglen as a method for transforming my relationship with this person who had harmed me. After a year of practicing in this way, I found that my compassion had grown, my confidence in my own buddha-nature had concretized, and I had a profound experience of deep gratitude for the person who had harmed me. I had been given the gift of realizing how our enemies can be our greatest teachers, as taught in texts like The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva and many others.
Right now, we are in the middle of a global pandemic, political unrest, financial loss, and climate disturbances. Some of us are facing seemingly insurmountable losses and hardships. I want to encourage us all to open our hearts even wider in the face of these obstacles and challenge ourselves to relax any aversion or desire for things to be otherwise. How might we instead use these obstacles to deepen our awakening, and grow our hearts and minds? What are your unique, and shared, obstacles here to teach you?
About the Author
Jamie provides mental health counseling to the community in Carrollton, Georgia, where she works in private practice, serves as the clinical director for the Carroll County Drug Court program, and works part time at the University of West Georgia. She has been practicing meditation for approximately 10 years, under the guidance of Bhante Gunaratana and Phakchok Rinpoche. Jamie lives with her husband and two small children.
In this blog, Jamie mentions the use of tonglen in taking obstacles onto the path. You can find a variety of teachings on tonglen and related topics at Samye Institute. Here are a few:
Note: This advice is not meant to take the place of mental health professional guidance. Mental conditions are complex and people differ widely in their conditions and responses. If you suffer from serious anxiety or depression, we suggest that you seek the services of a trained mental health professional.