A Coin has Two Sides

By Desmond Yeoh SC

The enlightened master, the late Ajahn Chah used to say that a coin has two sides. What he meant was that everything or anyone who brings us happiness can also bring suffering. There is no exception to this. This true story told by Ajahn Amaro, a disciple of Ajahn Chah and currently the Abbot of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in California, clearly illustrates this point[1]:-

An American monk who used to be in our community in England was a champion wrestler when he was in high school. This is what they call “Greek wrestling”; this was not World Wrestling Federation — TV wrestling with smoke bombs and rock music and enormous guys with very, very angry looks and lots of costumery. This was a serious sort of Olympic-type wrestling.

Anyway, he was extremely gifted. He came from Tennessee and was the Eastern States champion twice when he was in high school. I remember when we were monks in Thailand and he was telling me the story of his going to competition after competition, winning and winning, and finally he won the whole championship of the eastern states of the USA. And he felt so good, he said it was incredible. There he was at the top of the heap, “I did it, I won! This is great!” Most interestingly, he said that there was about ten minutes of complete and utter happiness at having won the championship, becoming the big hero and at having made it after so many hours of training, with so much hard work. And then he started to notice the other guys out in the audience looking at him saying, “Next year… just you wait, you reckon you’re so smart but just you wait. Next year I’m going to get you.” So then his delight at victory and success suddenly became the cause for fear, “Oh no, I’m going to have to do it again.”

Ever had that feeling? Suddenly we feel we have to repeat the same thing and live up to other people’s expectations. So victory and winning — it was sweet, it was really sweet and perfect and good but it could not sustain itself. It was only sweet for so long and then it became, “Oh dear, now they’re going to want to get me. They know I’m the winner and they’re going to be looking out, gunning for me in particular”.

When we talk about something like victory over birth and death, what we are talking about is learning how to find a place of understanding, a place of peace in relationship to all of these cycles, these up and downs that we experience. And this doesn’t just apply to sports, as you might have guessed. This has to do with all other aspects of our life. When we get hired for a job — yay! Then we find out who we have to work with — aaarrrrgghhhh! We think we want a promotion, so then we get promoted, “Yay! I’m the office manager” and then, “Gee, I gotta look after these people” and then, “Why does everyone think I’m supposed to be responsible here?” “Well, because you’re the manager.” “Oh, that’s right, I actually have to be in charge of things and take responsibility.” That’s the rider that goes with it.

When things come together and it’s successful, it feels so sweet. We get promoted. We fall in love. We get married. It’s very sweet and delightful. Then it gets difficult, it gets strained and then becomes hard work. In many of our lives, things start out so hopeful, so sweet and beautiful, but then it can easily turn into bitterness and difficulty.

When we are unwise, then we just keep going through this cycle of hope and disappointment over and over again. When we get disappointed we just look out for the next hope, “Oh, that one didn’t work out. Ok, let’s try the next one. Try a different competition, a different job, a different relationship, a different school, a different subject, a different monastery, a different Buddhist tradition, go back to the Christians, join the Hindus, go back to the synagogue, get back to England, “That’s the answer! Go back to Thailand.” We never learn, we just keep going from one thing to another, “Well, that didn’t work out. Ok, let’s try something else . . . try something else.”

The cycle of birth and death goes around and around: one hope, one disappointment, and then another hope, another disappointment. We never learn that there’s a pattern there. We never see that we’re not ever finding any kind of contentment or any kind of settled-ness within ourselves — we never find any ease — we’re just riding on one wave of hope after another and we’re not able to deal with disappointment.

One of the things that is the most precious and helpful in Buddhist tradition is that we find, if we pay attention, it’s often the difficult things, the painful things of life — when we are disappointed, when we lose someone that we love, or when we get fired from a job, or when our relationship goes sour, or our monastery falls apart, or we come second to last in the first heats of the competition — these can teach us a lot. Furthermore, and strange as it may seem, we often learn better from painful experiences than we do from pleasant ones. Our teacher, Ajahn Chah, used to say, “If all our experience is happiness and success, we just go to sleep. We end up snoozing through life. Oftentimes it’s only the difficult and painful things that get our attention. It’s then that we wake up.” In the trade, this type of experience and mode of practice is called ‘the suffering that leads to the end of suffering’.

We don’t go out looking for trouble, we don’t go looking for pain and difficulty, we don’t deliberately lose races or break up relationships or get ourselves fired or disappoint our friends, but these things happen on their own in the natural course of things. We don’t go out looking for trouble but we can rest assured that trouble will come on its own. The trick is learning how to see those painful situations, to know them for what they are and to see that they’re an intrinsic part of nature — that life is always this way. There are always going to be difficult and painful things as well as sweet and pleasant and neutral things. If we’re wise, then even when things get difficult or painful, those experiences will help us to learn. We’ll find a quality of peacefulness and ease, a quality of understanding that we wouldn’t find if we were just snoozing our way through life.

When we stop to look and examine life, we recognize that, even when things are successful, it’s a case of, “Well, it’s only success to a certain degree because I remember what happened last time. The last time I was a big winner it just made people more determined to beat me the next time around.” Yes, it was pleasant to win, to be a success, for things to go well, but there were also many difficulties that came along with it. Along with the wedding, you got the responsibility of having to take care of someone. Along with the ordination, you found you had all these extra rules to keep. Along with the delight of having a fancy beautiful new car, then you had to worry about parking it in a place where it was safe and not going to get damaged. Or acquiring a fine new camera and then finding you had to put it away ever-so-carefully and make sure it didn’t get bumped, stolen or damaged.

[1] From the Book, “Like a River – The Life of a boy named Todd”

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