FEATURES|COLUMNS|The Ordinary Buddhist
Suffering and Rainy Days
As I write this, a steady downpour of rain is beating against my window. As rainstorms go, this one is moderate—violent enough that I can see small floods in my backyard, but gentle enough that branches aren’t falling off of trees. It’s the type of storm that makes outdoor work impossible. And it arrived right when I have lots of outdoor work to do.
The grass is longer than I would like, it’s time to turn the compost pile, and I only have two weeks to finish building our chicken coop before our fast-growing chicks are ready to be moved outside. When I went to sleep last night, it was a given that these problems would be solved today. I went to bed early, double-checked to make sure all of my tools were where they needed to be, and I scheduled my day out in 15-minute increments.
But now that it’s raining, my carefully laid plans have turned to mush and I’ve nothing to do but write and a few odd jobs around the house. Days like this make me think of Buddhism’s first noble truth, which states: “Life is suffering.”
It’s fitting that this simple statement was the first teaching offered by the Buddha after he realized enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Because it’s the most difficult one to learn. This is especially true for Westerners who’ve been taught that any physical or mental discomfort in life is a sign of failure—proof that we aren’t good enough or smart enough to bend the world to our will.
And while I’d never try to improve upon the Buddha’s teachings, I wonder if the message could be made clearer if the first noble truth said: “There will be rainy days.” Like suffering, rain is ubiquitous and inescapable. Even the Sahara Desert, one of the hottest and driest places on Earth, receives some rainfall each year. And like suffering, rain can be destructive or useful depending on how we interact with it.
Case in point, the same rainstorm that’s stopping me from cutting the grass and turning the compost pile is watering my garden. If I look closely, I can see the squash and zucchini plants growing before my eyes. The mint is standing up a bit straighter and my cabbage is having the time of its life.
Of course, I’m not the first or only person in history to use rainfall for my benefit. For thousands of years, humans have used irrigation systems, water mills, and rain catchment systems to take rainy days and transform them into something life-affirming.
This doesn’t entirely mitigate the flash floods, downed power lines, and wet basements that might occur due to a storm. But it does ensure that the negatives are counterbalanced by positives. That said, the only reason humanity can use rainfall so skillfully is that we accept it as a natural part of life.
We don’t try to control the weather or create a life where rainstorms never occur. Instead, we accept it is as an inescapable part of life and we react appropriately when rain arrives.
The first noble truth is the Buddha’s attempt to help us treat suffering like rain. As humans, we are of a nature to be born, to age, to get sick, and to die. Thus, suffering is inescapable. No matter what we do life is suffering, but that doesn’t mean life is bad.
Buddhism gives us tools such as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which act as an instruction manual for life. In the same way that a farmer might teach an apprentice how to build a rain catchment system, the Buddha teaches us how to use the unsatisfactory moments of life for good. He shows us how to transform our suffering into joy in much the same way that my garden transforms rainstorms into vegetables.
He does this by instructing us on the causes of our suffering. That’s why the second noble truth of Buddhism states: “Suffering is caused by desire.” However, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean all desire is bad. When Buddhists state the second noble truth, we do it in the same tone of voice as a meteorologist saying, “Rain storms are caused by warm, moist air rising into the atmosphere, colliding with colder air.” It’s not an accusation, it’s a statement of fact.
In this moment, even as I watch the rain feed life into my garden, I have many desires. I want to go into town to buy groceries, I want to work on the chicken coop, I want to cut the grass. And each of these desires carries a tinge of dissatisfaction because I’m not in a position to make it happen.
Thus, this rainy day would be a miserable one if not for the compassionate teachings of the Buddha, which help me to see the world more clearly. Thanks to him, I don’t hate the rain for what it’s taken from me. Instead, I appreciate the rain for what it’s given me, a healthy yard, a garden full of food, and some much-needed rest.
Thus, my suffering is alleviated through acceptance and skillful means, which let me sit on the porch peacefully, listening to the rain splatter against my roof.
Namu Amida Butsu
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