The Gate of Sorrow

October 1, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


There is a Buddhist story about Kisagotami, whose first-born son died. She was so grief stricken that she roamed the streets carrying the child' s dead body and asking for help to bring her son back to life. A kind man took her to the Buddha.

The Buddha told her, I will bring your child back to life if you will fetch me a handful of mustard seeds. The woman immediately set off to find them. But as she was leaving, the Buddha added, "But wait. The seeds must come from a family that has not known death."

Kisagotami went from door to door in the whole village asking for the mustard seeds from those who had not known death. At every house, someone said, "I would like to be able to help you, but just last week we buried my father." Or "We are sorry, Kisagotami, but here we have known much sorrow and death." She could not find a single household that had not been visited by death. Finally the grieving mother returned to the Buddha and said, "I understand." And her heart was filled with a compassion that was as strong as her grief. In the words of Buddhist writer Jack Kornfield, "This is the way to freedom through the gate of sorrow."

It is the same in every community. If we went door to door seeking a mustard seed from the home that has not known suffering and death, we would search for a very long time. Maybe forever. It is not generally our practice to do this, at any rate. It is more typically our way to find out where there is suffering and death, and to make a casserole or write a card and to reach out to help that person or that family. This is a good and compassionate practice. And yet, while holding the utmost compassion for the suffering of others, when suffering comes to us, we often clench our teeth and set our jaw and roll up our sleeves and say to ourselves, "This hurt, it is not so bad. Someone else has it much worse. I will focus on them today. I, myself, will be fine."

It means something to our bodies and spirits when we respond to our own suffering in this way. It gives our souls a message, and that message is, "Because someone else is having what I would judge to be a worse experience, my experience is not going to be fully respected here."

This is how a lot of us live. And this can add pain to pain.

Someone I don' t know very well said to me jokingly this summer, but not so jokingly, "How can I have a nervous breakdown when I have it so good? I could be living in a refugee camp in Darfur!"

Of course she could, but that is not how it works. That isn' t her life. We only live our own lives. We only have our own suffering. When she went in for treatment, one of the painful realities this woman had to confront was that, because she was trying to hard to respect the profound suffering of people she had never seen, in a country she had never visited, she had cut off a part of her own truth and cast it from her. She was ranking her suffering against that of someone else, and finding hers unworthy of respect.

This is most inhumane. Suffering is not a competitive sport. While it is an important coping technique to keep our own suffering in perspective, and to try to find reasons for gratitude even while we are suffering, that does not mean that we should forever weigh and balance our painful experiences against those of others, and find ours too puny to be honored. To do this is to commit a kind of spiritual amputation on our souls, and to drain a tremendous amount of meaning from the story of our lives.

At the end of our lives, when the book of our story is closed (but of course the story goes on) -- how many chapters would there be without the episodes of suffering? And how much would we, the protagonists, heroes and heroines of our own stories, have missed if those chapters were torn out? Notice what happened to Kisagotami when she learned that everyone else in the village had also known the pain of death: she did not dismiss her own, but allowed that knowledge to fill her with compassion and understanding. She did not dismiss her own pain as insignificant in comparison to anyone else' s. She gained understanding. And she was able to go on, even with her grief.

Suffering is not pretty. It is a brutal reality, and it can distort the human soul just as surely as it can strengthen and enlarge it. Perhaps this is why we clench our jaws against suffering and assure ourselves as we hold it at arm' s length that someone else has more cause to hurt: we are afraid of becoming paralyzed by it, embittered by it, warped by it, poisoned by it. We are terrified that if we open the door and let suffering in, it will take up permanent residence within us. We will be choked by it, suffocated and diminished. We would so much rather be defined by our accomplishments than by our suffering. Of course truth is, to endure suffering is an accomplishment. Not one we choose. Never one we choose. But yet it is.

The Bible story of Job is one of the world' s most famous tales of unimaginable suffering. It was written probably 500 or 600 years before the Common Era, and it involves an upright, successful and very faithful man who has the bad fortune to get caught in a wager between God and Satan, and who lives through some truly tragic events before he again experiences good fortune.

The wager goes like this: Satan and God get together one day, and God says, "So Satan, where have you been?" And Satan says, "I' ve been here, I' ve been there. I' ve been around." And God says, "While you were abroad on the earth, did you happen to get a look at my faithful servant Job? Is he not terrific?" And Satan says, "Sure he' s terrific. Why wouldn' t he be? He' s got an amazing life! If you take all that away, I' m sure he won' t be so faithful and upright, praising you quite so enthusiastically." And God says, "You' re on."

So Satan (the Adversary) works against Job. His children die in a terrible accident. His many servants get killed in raid after raid. His livestock are stolen or killed in freak accidents or natural disasters. But even after all that, Job expresses his faith in this famous words, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." I find this very moving. Even within all this tragedy, this man is affirming the sanctity of life and acknowledging his understanding that as a vulnerable human being, he is not in control. Life gives, life takes away, let us still praise the Source of Life.

So Satan works at Job some more. He figures, "Okay, he' s still got his faith, but all those losses happened around Job, while he' s still healthy. Let me get him in his own body, and that will break him." So Satan covers Job' s body with horrific, open sores from head to toe. Job is a walking disaster of a man. His friends who come to visit do not recognize him. His wife says, maybe trying to be helpful, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die." But Job shoots back at her, "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?" And again, I give him immense credit for his. He is not one of those people who only affirms the sacred when things are rosy for him. He is wise and mature enough to accept that faithfulness is not a matter of convenience or comfort, but of reverence and awe that persist despite the twists of fate and fortune.

We read that Job' s friends sit in silence with him for seven days and seven nights. What a loving thing to do. It' s too bad that they ruin everything by opening their mouths later and giving Job all kinds of advice in subsequent chapters, driving him even more deeply into hysterical despair. These three characters are the poster boys for how not to be present to friends who are suffering. Let that be a warning for all of us compulsive advice-givers! Better sometimes to just sit in silent solidarity.

One of the reasons the story of Job has been beloved for close to 3,000 years may be that, as things get worse for Job, he gets to have an all out, knock-down, drag out argument with God. It begins when Job has finally had enough -- he is profoundly depressed and suicidal --and he curses the day he was born. This goes on for hundreds of beautifully composed phrases about the hell he is in, and about God' s great unfairness.

Here is some of it:

"Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,

and are their days not like the days of a laborer?

…I am allotted months of emptiness,

and nights of misery are apportioned to me.

When I lie down I say, "When shall I rise?"

But the night is long,

and I am full of tossing until dawn.

…My days are swifter than a weaver' s shuttle,

and come to their end without hope."

The gist of Job' s physical agony is easy to see: he has endured terrible losses, he is an oozing mass of flesh. But the gist of his spiritual agony is that although he knew that life was hard for all human beings, he had mistakenly believed that life would inevitably work out well if he was a virtuous and faithful man. Somewhere deep down, he got the idea that God operates on a kind of fee-for-service basis: if you' re faithful and obedient, you will be rewarded with a good life. If you' re badly behaved, thinking the wrong thoughts or doing the wrong things, you will suffer.

This was a common worldview in ancient times, but people still retain vestiges of it today. As irrational as it is, they think that a series of beliefs or actions or affiliations will stave off suffering, will keep them and their loved ones from harm and pain. Every time something awful happens to someone they know, they wipe their brow and say, "PHEW" as if they' ve dodged a bullet. And then they go home and say what they hope are the right prayers or think the right thoughts, or put in a new alarm system or take new vitamin pills and do all those things that we do – superstitious things, even – to keep suffering from happening to them. Of course there is no magical way to totally avoid pain, so when they get hit with some loss, their spiritual pain is as deep as their emotional or physical pain. They are doubly devastated, and even ashamed. Instead of holding themselves in compassion, they into all that white-knuckling stuff: "Could be worse, could be worse, could be worse."

Of course it could be worse. But what are we doing for ourselves, exactly, when we put our focus there? Grinning and bearing it, or stoically insisting someone else is suffering more intensely has very limited value. The Book of Job hints that perhaps it would be more fruitful, and more of a blessing in the end, if we just went ahead and railed against the impermanence and vulnerability of human life.

For this is exactly what Job does. First, he stops being pious. Then he just plain crumbles in despair. Finally, he accuses God of being a terrible, unfair, brutal God. He really gives it to God. And whoever wrote the Book of Job composed some dialogue for the character of God that gives it right back to Job. When Job rails at God for not preserving him from such agonies and grief, he does so for a long time and then finally:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements – surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone

when the morning stars sang together

and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?...

Have you commanded the morning since your days began,

and caused the dawn to know its place…

Have the gates of death been revealed to you,

or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?

Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?

Declare, if you know all this.

It goes on and on like this for one hundred and twenty four amazing verses. It is beautiful stuff. Majestic and breath-taking. As you can imagine, Job is humbled. I am too, reading it. But what does it mean? I don' t know for sure. What I take it to mean is that when our suffering, like everything else that happens to us, is part of creation. Therefore (and interestingly enough, this is very Buddhist – it' s a Jewish story with a very Buddhist message) suffering is not something we should take personally. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" In other words, there is an enormous creation happening here. You' re only responsible for your own tiny part in it, so don' t expect to make sense of all of it.

Do you find a measure of peace in that, and compassion?

I do and I don' t. Even though I think this story has a lousy premise – that God and Satan might choose to mess around with your life in some form of cosmic gambling– I am ministered to by the Book of Job' s larger message that suffering is a part of the whole of creation, and that we should not interpret that as a punishment but rather part of what simply is. God doesn' t say, "You were bad and so you suffered" or "You thought the wrong thoughts and so you suffered," or "Quit griping – someone else has it worse than you." God says, "You asked about suffering? Behold the mystery of creation."

In a popular television show, a grieving character asks a funeral director, "Why do people die?" And he answers, "To make life important."

Why do humans suffer? I don' t know. I am only sure of one thing; that suffering is not random punishment meted out by a capricious God or by malicious minor deities, but is part of the fabric of creation itself, and has something to do with the fact that we alone of all creatures have the ability to contemplate our own mortality and the fragility and finitude of all that we cherish.

Why do we suffer? Because we' re human. To bond us one to the other. To make the sweet times sweeter. To teach us a compassion that we otherwise would not have to learn. Can we live with that? We have to.

May we have faith today that, in the words of our prayer, we and our suffering are held in an immense peace beyond all pain. May it soften our hearts, and may we move together to freedom through the gate of sorrow.