Rohitassa, Rapunzel and Ajahn Brahm's Toothache: a Humble Space Odyssey

How fortunate that there are awesome people in the world who have the resources and energy to do good in whatever way they can. And how lucky that some of them put together the recent online conference, Buddhism in the Time of Covid. I want to express my gratitude to @Deepika and all those involved. Every speaker moved me in some way and was a source of inspiration and a re-direction towards the Buddha’s Path. I listened, often as a member of a small family, and it was a good thing for us to all sit together in this quiet way from time to time.

So here’s a sort of story that coalesced for me…

Rohitassa (SN 2.26) travelled through space endlessly and died in his restless search for distraction and meaning. Eventually in his next existence he goes to the Buddha, who advises him that his search for the end of the world - (no, not Lokanta Vihara) is in this body and mind.

Rapunzel (as Bhante Sujato referred to in his final talk of this online conference) was stuck in a tower, feeling trapped and unfree.

Their journeys were so different, yet both were suffering and restless and unfree.

There are so many versions of the Rapunzel story. In this ‘sort of story’ of mine, she’s a practising Buddhist. (It’s my post, ok? I can make her a Buddhist!)

Anyway, my Buddhist Rapunzel may have looked at the witch like jailer and seen her future in that haggard face and therefore said goodbye to the prince, who while a good sort, is also going to become haggard, and frankly she doesn’t want to waste her human birth! So she decides to use her prison to her advantage. She might have remembered Rohitassa’s futile search without - and so decides to, instead, go within.

Ayya Yeshe, while moderating on the first day, pointed out that we need to be resourced with a strong enough Practice in order to endure suffering. And Ajahn @Brahmali in his talk discussed the sequential nature of the Path and how it is therefore important to have the correct foundation in Right View - one that leads the way correctly and therefore will bring forth the most useful growth and peace possible. This past of our Practice, the Practice kamma we have made, is important.

This Buddhist Rapunzel is somebody who has some kind of Practice past. This she will draw upon to build her current spiritual life in whatever capacity she is able to do.

Perhaps her suffering is intense. Sarah Napthali, during her talk, brought us close to a keen appreciation of existential suffering - the thing we generally try and escape from.

Perhaps Rapunzel’s jailer has died of the virus and no one knows she’s there and so no one is shopping for her - she’ll die of starvation. Or perhaps even though she said goodbye to the Prince, perhaps it tore at her heart to do so; perhaps it led her to face her spiritual and psychological demons in a way she never had to before, and somehow all this makes it all seem more acute. Or perhaps the Witch, her only family - whom she loves and is attached to, is nevertheless difficult to cope with without an opportunity for the previously normal absences - because the witch is of a certain age and so has to stay home and isolate too. Or perhaps she’s grieving the death of this family. Or she’s nursing the poor old lady through her terrible illness. Or perhaps they all get caught together as a strict lockdown is enforced and perhaps at best they become irritable with each other and at worst – the very worst – violence begins to occur. Perhaps defilements – those parts of us that are meant to be there – long denied acknowledgement in skillful ways, emerge unskilfully, in sinister ways that catch each person by surprise. Perhaps she is intensely and inconsolably frustrated by her plans and dreams being derailed - she was going to escape with the Prince and start up a permaculture business. Perhaps she’s being dutiful and “good” and pleasing everyone and suppressing all her kilesas and this makes her ill too; perhaps Practice for her becomes a journey of learning how to open skilfully to these oh so normal forces within herself; perhaps in doing so she learns the value of peace and quiet.

But we haven’t got to that point of personal hope as yet. Because in this intensity of dukkha she sees that she’s going to fall. She feels she cannot cope. She is suffering so much that she doesn’t remember the story of Ajahn Brahm’s toothache; even though she’s heard it often enough! But her old Practice comes back to support her without her even knowing it - like Ajahn Brahm in that moment of intense pain where there was no other help or option – and when in direct contact with the felt experience of emotional or physical pain – she lets go. It might be gradual. It might be momentous. Or it might be quiet. Probably it’s quiet. Suddenly she sees her own weird, uniquely shaped kilesas and suffering and her goodness too. She sees in that quiet, that well used solitude, the way out.

It is a gradual thing, filled with pain and hope and peace, but she learns to value quiet. To challenge her desire for external freedom and exchange it for the internal kind born of solitude alone, of quiet alone. She remembers, the Buddha said, this Dhamma is for one who values seclusion.

Eventually, because there’s an internet connection in her tower, she learns about the now visible blue skies and Himalayas - the little creatures venturing forth in once populous areas. She leaves her screen, a thing she begins to do often, looks out of her window and realises that the noise of overhead engines has ceased; instead she hears the wind in the trees, the little birds and rushing water; the only sky traffic is that of a solitary eagle high in the soaring blue.

I was grateful that several presenters touched on the environment and climate change. I remember, Ven Galkande Dhammananda and Ven Sutadhara brought attention to this and I’m sure others mentioned it too.

She wonders, when this is all over, will people remember what was good about it all. Yes, even with the loss, the pain, the tragedies and betrayals of many by those in power who could have found kinder ways… Despite it all – actually, because of seeing it all, because she sees both sides: the beauty and the ugliness, she finds a sense of goodness settling in her heart and she begins to feel wellness. It becomes possible to witness the terrible things with a little more resilience. Just as she has given herself permission to see this within herself, she sees it without. The goodness she sees, not just in the respite for the planet, but in the kindness, good humor and generosity in evidence in many places. Slowly – and she’s now into things being slow - her relationships, outside of the one between her and herself, begin to transform – through no effort, except the courageous act of embracing solitude.

Again, she wonders, will people remember…?

What will make them remember…? What will make them forget…?

She knows it’s no good relying on institutions, because they’re just made up of single people or little herds of people all moving as one. Even though human laws have personified them, she sees that they don’t have the agency that is often invested in them.

She knows we have all caused this. She knows the only way to not go back to the old painful, separation – not the new one of being ‘isolated’, the old one of feeling disconnected from other beings and our planet - is for each one to find the courage to be simple. She knows this is the only way for things not to return to what was normal.

She can’t decide or act for others. But she decides to be so simple that she wants less and is therefore less of a burden on this planet.

She decides to be simple enough to have faith in the courage to be undistracted by entertainments of the mind or the body. Nibbida arises towards that old feeling of wanting to binge on these things like they’re an anesthetic drug. She wants to be so simple that she can be alone and feel blessed by it; blessed by presence in her nature, just as she would feel blessed by the outside nature of the winds and the trees and the stars and the sky.

Rapunzel wants to be so simple that her heart is open to her own vulnerabilities, her own greed, hate and various mistakes and foolishnesses – and therefore open to her own goodness and beauty; for an open heart has to be kind whether it knows it or not, whether it displays it in extravagant gestures or not.

It is this simplicity, which each being in the fear and agony that this has all brought on, must either face and embrace, or fall down into.

As Venerable @Charlotteannun showed in her talk, it is possible to feel ok, no matter what.

It is this simplicity, which we can only authorise for ourselves, that will create very gently, a new normal. A ‘normal’ where we are at peace with ourselves, each other and our planet. A quieter, slower normal.

Like Bhante Sujato, Rapunzel no longer hopes for massive change – things are too complicated and too many people are glued to screens for too long for that. But she thinks that small pockets might emerge – little sane patches of peace and simplicity that were not there before. Perhaps they’ll grow in time, perhaps they’ll be better able to hold and gently deal with other catastrophes that will certainly come. They will lead the way next time and others will benefit and all will continue to grow. Why not, she thinks – it is only a small possibility, but a real one.

Rohitassa traveled fruitlessly in outer space, that is, until he found the Lord Buddha. Rapunzel travels fruitfully in inner space. She hasn’t found her inner Buddha yet, but her journey is now not so fraught, and she thinks she can bear it and even gradually learn the art of peace and happiness.

She knows this is the only way to create spaciousness on the planet - so we can see distant mountains and blue skies and each other. Inner space in beauty, leading to outer spaciousness and beauty.

Rapunzel doesn’t want things to “go back to normal”. That normal was a collective hurricane heading for despair. Actually she’s training to not want a future, she’s training in peace in the present. (MN 131)

Rapunzel bides her time in quiet. She resolves to use less, to restrain her desires, to live simply. In gratitude, she returns to her favorite meditation posture and does the work that she knows is within her power right now. She smiles, she’s lucky, she thinks, this work is fun and interesting - her humble odyssey in inner space.