A Jar of Beach Water

By: Joe Pettit

Fill a jar with water from the beach just where the waves break on to the shore.  The water will be very cloudy, filled with what you know is sandy water, but you cannot see either the sand, or the water distinct from the sand. All you see is motion.

Now, place that jar of water on a shelf and come back 24 hours later.  The water will be still and clear.  The sand will be separated.  Individual grains will be clearly visible.

The water as you gathered it is your suffering mind.  Your desires and your anger churn the water.  Its cloudiness is your ignorance.  Looking through this water, you are blind.  You cannot tell up from down.

The water after 24 hours is your enlightened mind.  Where before there was only cloudy ignorance, now there is clear insight.  Before you lacked direction, but now your path is clear.

This analogy comes from a Buddhist author, but, at the moment, I cannot remember who it was.  Interrogating the analogy, helps me to think through what I find compelling in Buddhism, and it reveals where I might finally disagree with it.

What I like most about the image is the idea that my mind’s natural state, or rest state, is enlightenment.  If this is correct, we all have the capacity for enlightenment (whatever that is).  Enlightenment is not reserved for the special few, but rather is available to all.  Each of us just has to become who we already are.

Likewise, we only have to look to our minds to solve lots of our problems.  In Buddhism, much suffering is self-caused.  To be clear, suffering here is not agony, but rather dis-ease, unhappiness, fueled by ignorance and producing even more ignorance, which then produces more suffering.  When it comes to suffering, Buddhism says that I am my own worst enemy.

At one level, I find this very compelling, and it has proven true in my own life in countless ways.  For example, when I am stuck in traffic, I yell at the cars, as if this will cause them to move faster.  When I am late, I grab the steering wheel ever more tightly, as if this will somehow make me less late.  My ignorance compounds my suffering, and my suffering compounds my ignorance, increasing the likelihood that I will make a mistake while driving, or at least that I will yell at my kids.  I churn the beach water in my jar, making the way ahead ever more cloudy.

My default assumption is that my suffering is self-caused.  As a result, I look to myself to fix it, not to others.  But is this conclusion yet another example of my inner wealthy white guy talking?  Isn’t it clearly wrong to tell those who are impoverished, oppressed, abused, or neglected that their suffering is self-caused?

To be fair to the Buddhists, they will insist that situations such as these are very likely to give rise to suffering and so we should do everything we can to eliminate these situations if we are committed to reducing suffering in the world.  Additionally, it can be very empowering to remind people that regardless of what they have suffered, they still have the freedom to decide how they will respond.

But isn’t it nonetheless still on each person finally to eliminate her or his own suffering.  Isn’t the jar on the shelf always a single jar?  Here, I think the analogy, and maybe Buddhism, breaks down.

The problem as I see it is that my natural state is always connected to others, and, ultimately, to an Other.  I cannot be still in isolation from others because I am always connected to others.  If they are in motion, I am in motion.  Buddhists agree with this, to a degree.  That is why they say we must always be vigilant in our awareness of the many ways we cause suffering in others.  It is also why reducing suffering in our own lives is never purely selfish, as it is often a good way to reduce the likelihood that we will cause more suffering in others.  Other-care is self-care, and self-care is other-care.

Yet, while Buddhists grant that we are massively interdependent, they counsel an ultimate detachment not only from others, but ultimately, and perhaps most basically, from oneself.  If the self can dissolve, it will no longer churn the waters of ignorance, clinging, and desire.  When the water is still, it has no identity.  It is just clarity.

But what if the value of clarity is to reveal light?  What if light is what we really are?  Light is, by definition, not isolated.  Rather, it radiates.  It links up with other sources of light.  To live with others is to see the light within them, to respect the light within them, and to help remove all that might block that light.

We fail in so many ways today to see the light in each person and to respect that light.  The light I am talking about is not measured in pixels per inch, although too many people are seeking that light, instead.  The light I am talking about does not need validation from others.  The light I am talking about does not need to be made; it is already there.  Our light is our natural state.  My light is not better than your light, although one of us may better reveal it.

Where does this light come from?  I think my light and your light are somehow part of an endless Light.  If it does not come from this source, if there is no source, I fear light is only a mirage.

And, yes, I’ll admit it…by light, I mean love.

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