Recently I had a few experiences that brought home to me the meaning of a saying by the Buddha:
What’s the laughter, why the joy,
When the world is ever burning?
Plunged into darkness,
Won’t you look for a lamp?
This saying is one of those that sound a bit curious to a Western ear. It is almost as if the Buddha was against fun or humour. However, we all are familiar with the Buddha’s depictions where he smiles. The canonical texts also bear witness to the Buddha’s smiling.
It has become clear to me that the Buddha points here at the preciousness of the limited time we have in this human life. In short, he was saying that suffering is not a laughing matter, and life is not a joke.
Time is running out – the message that is even more relevant today, as it relates now not only to each of us individually, but to all of us as a species.
A woman I knew passed away recently. I was told that she was put in the coffin wearing her high heel shoes, because she liked them when she was younger and because it was in her character.
Another woman I know is pregnant now, and depressed. She told me: “You know me, no one and nothing will bring me up from being down. It is all self-inflicted and only I can help myself.” She also told me: “I am such a weakling, I cannot quit smoking even for the sake of my baby.”
When we are young, it might seem like fun wasting a night or two being wasted. It might seem fresh to drop out of school. It might look adventurous to get into fights or unprotected sex. Tragedies ensue even then, with young rebels finding their final resting place in cemeteries. But these seem like exceptions.
When, on the other hand, we get to the point in life when death becomes more of a real possibility: due to age, or due to potentially life threatening situations such as chronic illness or complicated pregnancy – our attitudes change. Or they should.
The picture of high heel shoes on the feet of an old woman’s body, the woman who had not been out of the house for years made me ask a question: “What is the point?”
What’s the point of liking high heel shoes if you choose to cut yourself off of the world, as that woman did, to break off old friendship ties, and to lead a strictly biological existence of eating, sleeping, and watching TV? What is the point of having an exuberant character in your younger years, when, once this youthful energy is spent, nothing is left to uphold the structure of your personality?
What is the point, turning to the second woman I know, of admitting that your suffering is self-inflicted, when you choose not to do anything about it? In her younger years, it was her own business what she was doing to her body, but when she got pregnant with her first child, and now her second, things have changed. But she is unwilling to. This woman is staying “in character” and continues to harm herself with smoking, while harming her children as well.
This is why “What’s the laughter?” by the Buddha has sounded to poignant to me in the recent days.
Enveloped in the darkness, women put their energies into causes that harm them and deny them of their true potential. The norms of capitalist society urge us to consume first and to think about anything else after that.
The worth of older women in capitalist society approaches nil: they cannot be sexual objects anymore. Money or status cannot be earned from exploiting them. The value of Motherhood is actually negative in capitalist society: a pregnant and a breastfeeding woman disrupts the production cycle.
Knowing all this, women give up. Even if they don’t realise it on the intellectual level, they see very clearly that they have no value in our capitalist world. So they fall back on the only thing they know: their character. Character in most cases simply means urges, likes and dislikes.
Societal norms, including the style of wake speeches, point us in the wrong direction of: “Oh, she was a character!” She was. So what?
There were a countless number of characters in history, but it is only the individuals who saw their goal clearly and took life seriously who changed our lives for the better. Suffragists could have been characters, but they were also visionaries, moral leaders, and fighters.
It is only those who consciously start “looking for a lamp,” who add true value to their character.
Oxana Poberejnaia is a frame drummer, writer and an artist at http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and had been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention. Oxana is exploring the Sacred Feminine through frame drumming, working with her menstrual cycle, and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Her frame drum band can be found here.