When I was a schoolteacher, my attention was drawn to the student in my class of thirty who came bottom in the end-of-year exams. I could see that he was depressed as a result of his performance, so I took him aside.
I said to him: 'Someone has to come thirtieth in a class of thirty. This year, it happens to be you who has made the heroic sacrifice, so that none of your friends have to suffer the ignominy of being bottom of the class. You are so kind, so compassionate. You deserve a medal.'
We both knew that what I was saying was ridiculous, but he grinned. He didn't take it as such an end-of-the-world event any more.
He did much better the next year, when it was someone else's turn to make the heroic sacrifice.
Unpleasant things, like coming bottom of our class, happen in life. They happen to everyone. The only difference between a happy person and one who gets depressed is how they respond to disasters.
Imagine you have just had a wonderful afternoon at the beach with a friend. When you return home, you find a huge truckload of dung has been dumped right in front of your door. There are three things to know about this truckload of dung:
- You did not order it. It's not your fault.
- You're stuck with it. No one saw who dumped it, so you cannot call anyone to take it away.
- It is filthy and offensive, and its stench fills your whole house. It is almost impossible to endure.
In this metaphor, the truckload of dung in front of the house stands for the traumatic experiences that are dumped on us in life. As with the truckload of dung, there are three things to know about tragedy in our life:
- We did not order it. We say 'Why me?'
- We're stuck with it. No one, not even our best friends, can take it away (though they may try).
- It is so awful, such a destroyer of our happiness, and its pain fills our whole life. It is almost impossible to endure.
There are two ways of responding to being stuck with a truckload of dung. The first way is to carry the dung around with us. We put some in our pockets, some in our bags, and some up our shirts. We even put some down our pants. We find when we carry dung around, we lose a lot of friends! Even best friends don't seem to be around so often.
'Carrying around the dung' is a metaphor for sinking into depression, negativity, or anger. It is a natural and understandable response to adversity. But we lose a lot of friends, because it is also natural and understandable that our friends don't like being around us when we're so depressed. Moreover, the pile of dung gets no less, but the smell gets worse as it ripens.
Fortunately, there's a second way. When we are dumped with a truckload of dung, we heave a sigh, and then get down to work. Out come the wheelbarrow, the fork, and the spade. We fork the dung into the barrow, wheel it around the back of the house, and dig it into the garden. This is tiring and difficult work, but we know there's no other option. Sometimes, all we can manage is half a barrow a day. We're doing something about the problem, rather than complaining our way into depression. Day after day we dig in the dung. Day after day, the pile gets smaller. Sometimes it takes several years, but the morning does come when we see that the dung in front of our house is all gone. Furthermore, a miracle has happened in another part of our house. The flowers in our garden are bursting out in a richness of colour all over the place. Their fragrance wafts down the street so that the neighbours, and even passers-by, smile in delight. Then the fruit tree in the corner is nearly falling over, it's so heavy with fruit. And the fruit is so sweet; you can't buy anything like it. There's so much of it that we are able to share it with our neighbours. Even passers-by get a delicious taste of the miracle fruit.
'Digging in the dung' is a metaphor for welcoming the tragedies as fertilizer for life. It is work that we have to do alone: no one can help us here. But by digging it into the garden of our heart, day by day, the pile of pain gets less. It may take us several years, but the morning does come when we see no more pain in our life and, in our heart, a miracle has happened. Flowers of kindness are bursting out all over the place, and the fragrance of love wafts way down our street, to our neighbours, to our relations, and even to passers-by. Then our wisdom tree in the corner is bending down to us, loaded with sweet insights into the nature of life. We share those delicious fruits freely, even with the passers-by, without ever planning to.
When we have known tragic pain, learnt its lesson, and grown our garden, then we can put our arms around another in deep tragedy and say, softly, 'I know.' They realize we do understand. Compassion begins. We show them the wheelbarrow, the fork, and the spade, and boundless encouragement. If we haven't grown our own garden yet, this can't be done.
I have known many monks who are skilled in meditation, who are peaceful, composed and serene in adversity. But only a few have become great teachers. I often wondered why.
It seems to me now that those monks who had a relatively easy time of it, who had little dung to dig in, were the ones who didn't become teachers. It was the monks who had the enormous difficulties, dug them in quietly, and came through with a rich garden that became great teachers. They all had wisdom, serenity and compassion; but those with more dung had more to share with the world. My teacher, Ajahn Chah, who for me was the pinnacle of all teachers, must have had a whole trucking company line up with their dung at his door, in his early life.
Perhaps the moral of this story is that if you want to be of service to the world, if you wish to follow the path of compassion, then the next time a tragedy occurs in your life, you may say, 'Whoopee! More fertilizer for my garden!'
This article was excerpted from Opening The Door Of Your Heart, ?2004, by Ajahn Brahm. (Forthcoming North American edition, "Who Ordered this Truckload of Dung?: Inspiring Wisdom for Welcoming Life's Difficulties" published by Wisdom Publications, www.wisdompubs.org )