I encountered the following tale in Steve Hagen’s Buddhism Plain and Simple, a delightfully straightforward, streamlined yet penetrating, survey of the essential perspectives of this ancient tradition.
There’s an old story about a man who came to see the Buddha because he had heard that the Buddha was a great teacher. Like all of us he had some problems in his life, and he thought the Buddha might be able to help him straighten those out.
He told the Buddha that he was a farmer. “I like farming,” he said, “but sometimes it doesn’t rain enough, and my crops fail. Last year we nearly starved. And sometimes it rains too much, so my yields aren’t what I’d like then to be.”
The Buddha patiently listened to the man.
“I’m married too,” said the man. “She’s a good wife…I love her, in fact. But sometimes she nags me too much. And sometimes I get tired of her.”
The Buddha listened quietly.
“I have kids,” said the man. “Good kids, too…but sometimes they don’t show me enough respect. And sometimes….”
The man went on like this, laying out his difficulties and worries. Finally he wound down and waited for the Buddha to say the words that would put everything right for him.
Instead the Buddha said, “I can’t help you.”
“What do you mean?” said the astonished man.
“Everybody’s got problems,” said the Buddha. “In fact, we’ve all got 83 problems. Each one of us. Eighty-three problems and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you work really hard on one of them, maybe you can fix it—but if you do, another one will pop right into its place. For example, you’re going to lose your loved ones eventually. And you’re going to die someday. Now there’s a problem, and there’s nothing you or I, or anyone else, can do about it.”
The man became furious. “I thought you were a great teacher,” he shouted. “I thought you could help me! What good are your teachings, then?”
The Buddha said, “Well, maybe it will help you with the 84th problem.”
“The 84th problem?” said the man. “What’s the 84th problem?”
Said the Buddha, “You want to not have any problems.”
I think a lot of people have the misconception that Buddhism is pessimistic or grim. On the contrary, in my experience it’s quite realistic and pragmatic, teaching that everything is impermanent, that we all lack and/or lose things we love and get and/or get stuck with things we don’t want. It’s not just Buddhism teaching this, by the way: host of nonsectarian self-help books, such as Byron Katie’s Loving What Is (which I highly recommend, by the way), focus on the wisdom of recognizing and accepting reality as it emerges in each moment.
As you might guess, being a writer I’m rather fond of the rich storytelling tradition within Buddhism. (I encourage you to check out the other Zen stories I’ve posted in this blog.) Avoiding the 84th problem can be liberating and empowering: not passive resignation, but rather a necessary precursor to taking whatever action might be available. Once you stop resisting reality (a fight that, as Byron Katie says, you’ll lose—but only 100 percent of the time), you can begin adjusting to and working with it.
Try it some time. Of course, it might take some practice—say, a lifetime’s worth. But how much better it is to live this way than to keep fighting.