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Author of this essay:

Yin Cai Shakya
(December 20, 2009)

Buddhism In The Time Of Blizzards
by Yin Cai Shakya

While walking along the road one afternoon, the Buddha met a man who was suffering. As the two talked, the Buddha learned that the man had been a farmer, and that his crops had been ruined by drought, his livestock had been stolen by bandits, his dear wife had been lost to sickness, and his sons, in service to the king, had all died in battle.

The Buddha said to him, "Sir, I can empathize with you. You have many earthly problems which, if I may say so, I suspect are due to your not having solved the Ultimate Problem. Solve that problem, and you will not suffer any longer." The exasperated farmer looked at the Buddha and, with the last flicker of his soul's hope gleaming in his glassy reddened eyes, he replied, "Please tell me, World Honored One, what is the Ultimate Problem that I must solve?" And the Buddha answered him, "How not to have any problems."

When the farmer wanted to know exactly how this could be accomplished, the Buddha told him there were many ways, but the most important one was to remain aware of ourselves so we do not become part of the problem. "In all things, be like a wave on the ocean," he said, "involved but still on top of the problem." The Buddha was fond of these "multi-faceted maxims," as I have come to call them.

The life of a Buddhist, regardless of whether new or old to the religion, can be filled with problems and stressful situations. If he only takes a single deliberate moment to compose himself, he'll think of a maxim, a cliche, or the line of a song that will prevent him from succumbing to the problem's chaos.

It is awareness of ourselves and our attitudes that can keep us on top of the action.

Moses, too, under circumstances that would surely demoralize even the bravest of positive thinkers, when asking the Burning Bush, "Who are you?" was answered with the Buddhist dictum, "I am that I am." And that was enough to satisfy and sustain him.

However much these little maxims can help us, it often happens that we don't look to them for guidance. When we discover (a day late and a dollar short) that our wife can no longer stand us and would very much like a divorce, or, when we lose our job due to the most recent in a very long list of mistakes we've made, and our friends, families and enemies, in any combination, look on, expecting us to be Zenlike in response, we forget those little words of wisdom entirely. It's as if our capacity for Buddhist thought exists only when our blood pressure is stable, our stomach full, and the game is coming to us in high definition. The moment something in our environment makes our cheeks flush and turns our stomach into a bowling ball of weapons-grade uranium, we forget to remember the Buddha's words. The wise messages are not delivered to ears that need to hear them.

When I came to Zen Buddhism, it was with one specific goal in mind: How Not To Have Any Problems. I'm not entirely clear about where I was previously, but I know it was always filled with problems. Unfortunately for me, by the time I made it to Zen I had become so bitterly cynical that those little maxims meant very little to me, or worse, they outright annoyed me.

Monotonously repeating them in my head had no effect at all on my mood when I would later go through a stressful time. Even if I remembered to repeat them at that time, they were meaningless. And when I was being scrutinized by others who expected me to be Zencool, I would discipline myself and try to appear to be composed; but sitting still and affecting the persona of peace and contentment was an ordeal -- one that repeating those phrases didn't help.

And then, in a peculiar and unexpected way, I finally got the message.

I woke up on Sunday morning to behold the results of The Blizzard of 2009. White Christmas was playing, faintly, somewhere, but as I wiped my eyes and stared out the bedroom window, my heart wanted to go on vacation. Tahiti came to mind. The driveway -- which now looked to be the size of Wrigley Field, was covered by a foot and a half of snow. That's a foot and a half of snow I would have to shovel by day's end. This was the first snowfall we'd had while living in this house. I hadn't shoveled snow since I was a kid. Although I liked doing it then, this was now. I groaned. It wasn't how I wanted to spend the day.

There is a uniform that goes with working in the snow, a uniform of layers. A red union suit complete with a rear flap, then gray Dickies pants, a shirt, then gray coveralls, three pair of socks, sneakers, galoshes, a zip-up hooded sweater, pea coat, woolen beanie, and fur-lined gloves -- and I was ready to go. "Clothes make the man," my wife said as I headed for the door. I gave my wife an indignant look and grumbled, "I'm going to shovel the driveway. Don't page me."

It was well below freezing. The snow had a crust like marble on it. It needed to be quarried more than shoveled. After ten minutes, I understood why so many men have heart attacks while shoveling snow. I quickly blended together the two worst states of mind a person can have in such a situation: I was angry and I was in a hurry. I had a lot to get done before the games started. Nothing was going right. Shoveling requires a plan. I had none. The faster I worked, the more frustrated I felt until, out of breath, I leaned on the shovel and panted like a husky. The cold air was cutting through my lungs like frozen silica. I surveyed the enormous white blanket that I hadn't touched yet, and I reached my boiling point.

And then it occurred to me... "I'm working against myself." And suddenly a voice inside my head said, "You're also working against everything else. And you can't do that." I wish I could say that the snow lifted itself back up to the sky or parted like the Red Sea, spilling itself onto the neighbors' lawns, leaving me to watch it all go away while I happily watched with renewed optimism, but none of that happened. The pause was just sufficient for me to take a deep breath and engage my brain.

The problem wasn't the snow on the driveway. I was the problem, THE ONLY problem. I re-evaluated my position and decided it would be far better to view the snow on my driveway as an opportunity. To do what? Well, I was headed toward giving myself a stroke and I felt disinclined to do that. I remembered some prison advice I had heard on TV: "You do the time. Don't let the time do you." The opportunity first required that I take an inventory of my resources: one shovel and an hour's worth of energy. I'd be lucky to have enough energy to walk up the stairs back into the house.

Another pause, another long breath, and the drip of a melting icicle hit my nose, cueing me to start "organized" shoveling. The sun had come out, and as I rhythmically worked, humming along with the music I listen to when meditating, I could only faintly see my breath as I exhaled. "Ah!" I thought, "Looks like I'll have the sun for a while this morning." That was just what I needed. And with that, I set out to move some snow. My attitude had radically altered. The job didn't overwhelm me since I had determined to shovel only those paths that absolutely needed it.

I extended my shovel-time allotment to two hours; and as I spread rock salt over the driveway I realized I was relaxed and comfortable. I had solved the problem of myself. Attitude is everything, I discovered. When we add our hostility to the problem we must solve, we create an impossible situation. When I re-entered the house I announced, "I shoveled the snow. The snow did not shovel me. I am going to peel off a few layers, eat some breakfast, turn on the TV, become a Dos Equis man, and watch Brett Favre. In that order."

Later I started to think about the Eight-Fold Path, and the story of the Buddha and the farmer, and I began to realize how much the Buddha was a living example of this Wisdom. Nothing more, nothing less. Had that farmer asked Him, "Who are you?" he very well could have answered, "I am that I am." And that would have satisfied and sustained the man.

The practice of Zen helps us to think constructively. We just have to take a moment to see ourselves and our desires for what they are. Problems are easily solved by proactively viewing the circumstances in which we find ourselves and seeing them as opportunities for practice. In doing so, a little bit of Enlightenment dawns on us.

The next morning, we'll still have a sore back and a few blisters, but it won't ruin the day.

Humming Bird