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The Beauty and Grief of Being Alive

Photo by Erika Fletcher  

It can be difficult to reconcile the deep grief and broad beauty of this world.* The death of a beloved teacher, fighting and warfare in so many places, loss of connection with friends or family, destruction of habitats and species. All of this alongside the simple pleasures of making cookies with a child or feeling the breeze blow through tree branches in early spring. The grief and the beauty, the beauty and the grief—two sides of the same coin of being alive.

When things are very challenging in our own lives, or in what we witness in news from around the world or within our own communities, we may feel too paralyzed to act, or guilty for enjoying the positive aspects of our own lives. This is the paradox of being human in a world full of beauty and suffering. Buddhism addresses this in many ways, especially through the different kinds of practices in Vajrayana Buddhism, such as pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and subduing activities. Whatever kinds of practice we engage with, whatever the visualizations may be, there is something for every kind of circumstance. These practices encapsulate the contradictions inherent in being human that we are always experiencing: dark and light, positive and negative, high and low, joyful and sorrowful.

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy

The relief of finding refuge in Buddhist practice is the relief of engaging with an activity that is neither geared toward making us happy nor to reinforcing our unhappiness, but to going beyond this dichotomy to realize the interconnectedness of all beings beyond ups and downs. Through love and compassion, we engender care for all beings, whether near or far. The reason we return to the foundational practices in Buddhism, whatever our school or lineage may be, is because taking refuge again and again is the very heart of all subsequent practices. We notice in our ordinary lives that we continually rely on false refuges—media, entertainment, sex, alcohol, food, travel, and whatever distractions we can use to avoid resting in the true nature of reality and our buddha-nature.

Once we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha—these precious three jewels that never fail—there is a sense of relief. We hand over the continual tension the ego feels to maintain knowing something or being something or having a handle on anything at all, when in fact we just do not. This human life is frail and impermanent, and the ego evades letting go into the embrace of true refuge. But once it does—like an exhausted child curled in her mother’s lap—the ego can find true rest. Truth is all we really have: the nature of life, interleaving joys and sorrows, the path of aging and dying. These truths are what sustain us deeply and connect our heart-mind and ego in a healthy partnership to navigate the challenges of being alive.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

As practitioners, we are familiar with the concept of spiritual bypassing as well as the misuse of Dharma teachings to reify our own opinions—our own ego’s games. As we progress on the path, these become increasingly subtle and we have to investigate these subtleties of mind more deeply so that we do not fool ourselves into thinking we are doing just fine. We need to let go repeatedly into the true nature of all, including the tremendous beauty, sadness, and losses that beings experience in daily life.

How does our heart react when we walk through town and see someone hungry or hurting, or if we see an insect or an animal fearful or lost? How do we react to our own emotional upheavals and changeability? Starting close in, we may notice that the ways we treat our own tender heart, our own confusion and uncertainty, very much bely the ways in which we will treat others. In moments of feeling completely overwhelmed or flattened, or avoiding what we hear, see, and experience in the world, in our immediate sphere or through media, we must return to the subtlety of the relationship between our heart and our ego and put a little more tenderness, care, and attention there. Enough so that we are nourished and can therefore be a source of nourishment for all beings.

Photo by Danie Franco

Kindness is one of the most powerful forces on earth. Kindness is one power that is so often underestimated. It has so many forms and can be wielded so precisely. Kindness as a facet of warriorship is rarely told about in stories, movies, and comic books. Perhaps it is because, so few people have experimented with it enough to appreciate how much wisdom and mastery it takes, how heroic it truly is.*

Kindness begins with ourselves, spreading outward to all beings. It encapsulates the genuine heart of sadness, and of rejoicing for one’s own and others’ good fortune.

This is the foretold Dark Age when beings around the globe experience myriad kinds of maladies, sickness, famine, war, and all kinds of suffering. There are two main categories of activity that Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike can practice. On the one hand, we need to pray and practice to avert negativity and obstacles. On the other hand, we need to engender, visualize, and enact the peaceful, calming practices that soothe beings and the planet.

In this prayer, given by Chatral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche, we find strong language to dispel the negativity of our time. Although it was specifically given as a prayer to avert nuclear war, this prayer can be useful in addressing any kind of warfare and conflict in the world:

We are beings born at the sorry end of time;
An ocean of ill-effects overflow from our universally bad actions.
The forces of light flicker,
The forces of darkness, a demon army, inflames great and powerful men.
And they rise in conflict, armed with nuclear weapons
That will disintegrate the earth.

The world is filled with uncertainty,
But there is no means of stopping it, nor place of hope,
Other than you, undeceiving Three Jewels and Three Roots,
(Buddhas, Teaching and Spiritual Community, Lama, Deity and Dakini)
If we cry to you like children calling their mother and father,
If we implore you with this prayer,
Do not falter in your ancient vows!
Stretch out the lightning hand of compassion!
Protect and shelter us defenseless beings, and free us from fear!**

Photo and text by Mari Andrew

We feel grief due to our inherent love for truth and beauty and the wish to be freed from all delusion and suffering. Buddhist tertons (treasure revealers) of centuries past foretold these times and gave us methods to cope. Contemporary teachers give us countless prayers, practices, and support. All we must do is utilize them with heartfelt faith!

Photo by Mike Labrum

* Written on Losar, 3 March 2022, the year of the Water Tiger. May the coming year bring peace to the hearts of all beings, quelling animosity, greed, ignorance, and fear to spread peace like a soothing, joyful grove of all buddhas’ purelands. With a special heartfelt prayer of longing for the swift rebirth of Our Lord of refuge, Dudjom Yangsi, Sangye Pema Sheypa Rinpoche. May His emanation return to this world for the benefit of all sentient beings.

** Joy, Sorrow & Everyday Warriorship (Ngakpa International)

*** A Prayer to Avert Nuclear War by Chatral Rinpoche, an excerpt (Buddhist Library)

Related features from BDG

Subduing War, Pestilence, Evil, and Fear – The Vajrayana Way
Where There Is Grief, Let There Be Compassion
The Wisdom of Grief and Anxiety – Building a Life of Meaning Outside of the Social Media Trap
Buddhistdoor View: Seeking Refuge in a Post-COVID World

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Otto Heinrich
Otto Heinrich
2 years ago

With the advent of the internet and social media, our sub conscious has been attacked with more information than we can ever process. The results is that we find ourselves concerned with issues that do not directly affect us. Life in this existence can be cruel. Nature can be even crueler. No one ever said life was fair.

Dogen wrote much about “reality being right in front of you”. I’ve read too many articles written by people that appear to be completely clueless as to the true message of the Buddha. Kindness is the byproduct of a rational mind and is an act of volition. Only those living in reality, in the moment, of as Ram Dass stated, “Be Here Now”, have the cognitive to act in a logical manner.

Many sects of Buddhism have literally perverted the message of the way. If the practitioner of Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, can’t find them self, how can they possibly have the mental resources to think about the problems of the world as a whole or attempt to help others alleviate suffering? All the pretty words and “band aid” talk is non sense to those existing in a dualistic false sense of being. Until reality is actualized, all the details are meaningless.

Buddhist philosophy is a lifestyle intended to address the questions in life and hopefully provide answers. Buddhism in the West has become a “feel good” trendy proposition followed by those that are being swallowed by mindless materialism and consumerism and various addictions to fast food, video games and Netflix. Buddhism was NEVER intended to be an escape for the shallow in character. Rather, it is an outlet, an opening for individuals to explore the nature of their existence. Something the author of this article appears to not have grasped.

Sarah C. Beasley
Sarah C. Beasley
2 years ago
Reply to  Otto Heinrich

Hello Mr. Heinrich, It’s ironic that everything you have written here proves my every point. I accept your point of view, even though you have missed mine for sure. It’s not a problem. But it is fascinating to me that when I have received the rare derogatory comments in this forum, it is always from apparently white, Western, privileged men. Despite your negativity, I wish you very well. Until each of us reach enlightenment at death or in future lives, we are all doing the best we can for sure. Take care.

2 years ago
Reply to  Otto Heinrich

You have certainly missed my point, and even proven mine with what you have written. But no matter, Herr Heinrich, I still wish you well.