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Crowded and Dusty

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It was 1985. I was having breakfast in the kitchen when my mom came in with the newspaper. She dropped it on the table. 

“Well, that does it,” she said.

“What’s wrong?” 

“They passed a law that states that shops can now open on Sundays.”

“And that’s bad?” I asked.

She looked at me with weary eyes. “It means my week will never end.”

I didn’t understand at the time, but I quickly learned what she meant: there would no longer be a day in her week when everything would stop, when errands could not be run because everything was closed. The week would last right through the weekend until the next week began. It was a disaster because my mom knew something about the human condition that I had yet to appreciate: that if we are not forced to stop running, we most likely won’t. She would be running errands forever. 

I have thought about this moment often—the day shops were declared operable on Sundays. It was pivotal in our history, declaring as it did that Canada was not an exclusively Christian society, but a country committed to diversity and secularity. Sunday could not be withheld as a holy day anymore. 

But it also reaffirmed something else, something that I don’t think we were prepared to parade as blatantly: it also reaffirmed our commitment to consumerism. Canadian citizens could now shop anytime, any day of the week, and no holy day in our collective calendar would get in our way. Although I appreciate the decision for its statement about diversity and secularity, I must admit that I am not a fan of the other part of this equation. Something has been lost, despite all that has been gained.

Until relatively recently, “holy time” was a central feature of every calendar in the world. Every community knew to set time aside for prayer and contemplation—as an individual act and as a collective one (a significant generalization I realize, but I stand by it). People needed time to congregate and see themselves as part of a greater whole; as members of a community and not just isolated individuals trying to get by. Communities have always known how important it is to set time aside for something other than the mundane. We knew that we need time for stillness, and we sought these moments out as individuals and as a collective entity.

But we don’t seem to know this anymore. The community we have become in North America—a community of contemporary consumerists—doesn’t know how to stop. Or we don’t want to. In the world of contemporary consumerists, we rush until we collapse. Individually, this isn’t always the case, but as a collective it is pretty much what we’ve done. We rush, collapse, take a breath, and then rush all over again. What is wrong with us?

There is a line in the Pabbajja Sutta of the Sutta Nipata in which the Buddha describes palace life as having been “crowded and dusty”—so much so, that he felt he had no choice but to make his Great Departure. He could not contemplate with any seriousness in a household filled with obsequious servants, dancing girls, and material luxuries. He had no choice but to leave.

He was, after all, no ordinary individual. He was a future Buddha on the very cusp of awakening, and he needed just the right conditions to finish the journey he had begun thousands of lifetimes earlier. The dancing girls alone would have been a distraction. He needed space.

But here is the scary part: I am willing to bet that anyone today would find his palace life incredibly spacious (if not downright boring)! On numbers alone, we would be overwhelmed by the difference: the world population is estimated to have been around 25 million in the Buddha’s day. India might have had no more than 2 million inhabitants. Compared with the world we inhabit, his life could not have been very crowded. Imagine if he had accidentally wandered into New York City’s Times Square, or if he had suddenly landed in Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing. I think his head would have exploded. 

Safe to say, the Buddha had nothing on us where “crowded” is concerned.

And dusty? He had servants for that. So what exactly was he worried about? There was no pollution in those days—at least nothing close to what we have created—and as a prince, there was nothing he himself had to clean or organize. And yet, he deemed his world too crowded and too dusty to concentrate. He needed to heed the call of the forest if any kind of spiritual advancement was to be made.

These comparisons are depressing. Our lives are so crowded and so dusty that we can hardly breathe. There are almost 8 billion people on this overheating planet, each of us trying to carve out a little nook of space to call our own. Our lives are unbearably oppressive and our shops are open on Sundays. Our weeks don’t end; we don’t stop, we run errands and answer emails until we die. Our lives are lived in the extreme—very far from the kinds of limitations the future Buddha felt himself trapped by. If his world was too crowded and dusty to be conducive to spiritual advancement, what in all the gods’ names would he have thought of our world?

I suppose I’m in danger of sinking into a quagmire of despair here, but perhaps there is a role for (temporary) despair to play. Without these comparisons, we run the risk of convincing ourselves that our current conditions are inevitable, that the way we are living is how we are meant to live. We forget how to stretch our intellectual muscles and we lose access to our imaginations. We do not see what might be possible because we are too committed to what is. 

But if we try to remember that the Buddha declared his home life to be too crowded and dusty a place to prepare for awakening, then we are bound to question the lives we are living right now. The future Buddha lived without emails to write, pollution to navigate, and far fewer people with whom to share his world. He probably did not have to run errands, juggle a full-time job with children to feed and noses to wipe, and he didn’t have an information overload perpetually hammering at his doorstep. If his (virtually) pre-historic palace life was too much to deal with, our lives are downright insane. We are bursting at the seams and the dust is swirling. Our shops are open on Sundays.

My point is not to sink in despair, but to draw comparisons to wake us up. Or (if I am to be honest), to try to wake myself up just a little bit. To find the courage I need to nudge myself out of my own accepted doctrine of mediocrity. Maybe if we do that, we might (metaphorically at least) close the shops on Sundays again. We might find the courage we need to create new conditions for ourselves, so that—every once in a while, at least—we actually stop moving. We shut down our computers, put away our phones, ignore the ever-available shopping opportunities, close our eyes.

And just stop.

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