I recently attended a family event where all the activities were outdoors. We ate under a canopy provided by our host and walked to the lake for a swim. In general, everyone had a good time. The only negative was the weather.
It was hot, like in “Don't walk barefoot on the sidewalk or you'll burn your feet”, hot. At one point, someone looked at me and said, "You probably don't mind this heat since you were in the Marines."
It was a strange comment, but I understood where they came from. People often assume that military service members learn secret mind tricks that make us immune to extreme heat and cold.
But this is not true. We hate being too hot or too cold as much as anyone else. The only difference is that we have learned to suffer in silence. More than that, we have learned that we can suffer and still be well.
For example, whenever we did live-fire drills, which required us to fire live ammunition at targets while moving and communicating with others, we wore heavy boots, long pants, long sleeves, and a host of protective gear, such as Kevlar helmets, tactical gloves, and bulletproof vests.
This served to protect us from all the bullets and hot brass flying around during training, while protecting our arms and legs from scratches when we ducked behind rocks and trees for cover.
Unfortunately, it also made us extremely hot. Carrying all that gear in the middle of summer sucked. There were days when I could literally feel sweat running down my legs and pooling in my boots.
I suffered a lot at that time. But I also learned something important: suffering is not the end of the world.
During training, I was hot, tired, and hungry, but as long as I stayed hydrated, my body wouldn't break down. I could be unhappy and do my job well. I could suffer and be fine.
I often think of this in relation to the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, which states, “Life is suffering. It is a frightening and pessimistic worldview. But he's also honest.
Our lives are filled with the inevitable sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. We lose friends, gain enemies, lose things we want to keep, and gain things we would rather lose.
The Buddha referred to these life experiences among the "eight winds".
In other words, every day we live will either be too hot or too cold. There will never be a day when something unpleasant doesn't happen, whether it's losing our car keys or arguing with our spouse.
This reality can either crush us or make us stronger. Depends on whether we learned or not how to to suffer.
Once we learn that suffering is okay, that we can experience it without the world collapsing. Then it becomes easier to bear and we can live happy and fulfilling lives amid these unpleasant experiences.
More than that, when we stop trying to avoid suffering at all costs, when we accept it as a natural part of life, we can find healthy ways to work with our suffering.
That's what my friends and I did in the Marine Corps when we focused on hydrating during training instead of complaining about the heat.
Certainly, there are times when our Buddhist practice will help us avoid suffering altogether, helping us to develop the wisdom needed to make healthy and positive life decisions.
However, in those times when inconvenience cannot be avoided, our Buddhist practice teaches us to suffer well. This can take various forms.
Maybe we take several deep breaths when we lose our keys so we don't panic. Maybe we spend a few minutes singing before going to work so that we can greet our colleagues with a calm demeanor. Perhaps we study the sutras to find out how Buddhist patriarchs and matriarchs reacted when they experienced similar problems.
When we practice like this, our relationship to suffering changes. He becomes less scary, like a snake that has lost its fangs. And we become empowered to move through the world without fear.
We are able to do this not because we think that suffering will never darken our door. On the contrary, we lose our fear because we are confident that no matter what happens, we will be able to endure and overcome the challenge through the use of various tools and techniques that we find in the Buddhist texts.
Like a Marine who learned that getting hot and sweaty isn't the end of the world, we can learn that sometimes being a little uncomfortable and a little miserable doesn't have to ruin our day.
Namu Amida Butsu