TRAVELS WITH NINA

is the online portfolio and journal of Australian travel writer Nina Karnikowski.

Chapter Nine

“Life is suffering. This is the basic premise of Buddhism”

Super uplifting way to start class BD (yep, I’ve given Bodhidharma a nickname).

“Who here has, at some point in their life, experienced suffering of some sort?”

Slowly, we all raise our hands. Four years working at Aspire can definitely be classed as suffering.

“You see we all know deep down that suffering is unavoidable, and yet we rail against it. Someone close to us passes away, we lose our job, a close friend gets ill and we immediately get angry, sad, depressed. In reality, there’s nothing we can do about it, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling these emotions and spiraling downward. Today, I’d like to investigate this notion by discussing the central philosophy of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. Does anyone know anything about these?”

Silence from the group, which seems to have become even more sombre and depressed since the last time we met. There’s a guy picking his nose in the corner, and that Ricky dude seems to be doing some kind of yogic exercises in his chair or something, twirling his wrists around and tucking his chin into his chest over and over. Weirdo.

“They’re said to be the main framework for all Buddhist thought, and they focus on this notion of suffering, anxiety or stress, or what we call dukkha in Sanskrit. Buddhists look at its causes, and ponder how it can be overcome.”

And there I was, thinking that dukkha was just a Middle Eastern spice. Speaking of which, I’m starving. Maybe I should try to cook something with dukkha tonight, lemon chicken rubbed with dukkha maybe… No! focus! I tune back into Bodhidharma.

He’s stroking his chapped chin with his left hand and nodding his head ever so slightly. Damn, I must have missed something totally profound. I hope he didn’t just tell us what the meaning of life was or something. He reaches for a blue texta on the chair next to him and starts writing on the little whiteboard.

LIFE MEANS SUFFERING.

He looks around the circle like he’s searching for some physical sign that it’s sunk in. It just seems kind of depressing to me, but maybe I’m missing the point.

“This is the first noble truth. That life is suffering, or dukkha. Which means, by extension, that birth is dukkha. Ageing is dukkha. Illness is dukkha. Death is dukkha. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair, it’s all dukkha. Dukkha, you could say, points to the basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of life, because of the fact that all forms of life are impermanent and constantly changing.”

Jesus Christ, should we all just top ourselves now or what? This is all getting a little too dark and deep for me, and my mind starts trying to escape back to dinner. Maybe salmon with dukkha would be the better option…

CLAP!

Bodhidharma jolts us all back into the room by slapping his hands together. It’s kind of a dull clap, which makes me think his hands are clammy. Eeew. He’s really getting excited, but judging by the number of glazed eyes goggling out of the heads surrounding me, the rest of us are mentally hanging ourselves.

“That’s the concept we need to get our heads around first: that nothing in life is permanent. It’s really incredible once you start to properly understand it.” He pauses, most probably clocking all the comatose looks in the room. “Ok so here’s a question. Can anyone in this room tonight think of one thing in life that is actually permanent?”

A few hands pop up around the circle.

“Yes, Ricky?”

“Well, I’d say most objects are permanent, yeah? Like this room. The brick walls, the glass windows, the wooden ceiling, they’re not going anywhere. I’d say that makes the room pretty permanent, right?”

“Ahh,” says Bodhidharma, waggling his knobbly index finger back and forth. “Just think about that statement for a moment. Do you think that in five hundred years this room will be standing here, just as it is? Surely someone will bash it down eventually, white ants will start to erode the wood or a cricket ball might smash one of the glass windows. So in actual fact it’s not permanent, is it?

“Well what about like… No. Or isn’t a… Nup, not that either, shit!” Ricky claps his hands over his mouth. “Ahh fuck, I was trying to be way more Buddhist and not swear but it’s really fucking hard.”

The room erupts into giggles and BD grins.

“Don’t stress Ricky, remember you’re only human. And besides, swearing itself isn’t really non-Buddhist, it’s just the frustration behind it that’s not really in line with our way of thinking.” He gives Ricky what I think is meant to be a wink but looks more like he’s having a stroke.

“So can anyone else think of anything truly permanent?”

I’m not even going to try. BD and Buddha himself have clearly made up their minds on this one already. An entire two minutes of awkward silence follows. I count every second of it on the shitty Casio wall clock.

“Well,” says BD, bringing his fingers into an apex at the base of his chin. “The reason you can’t think of anything is because nothing in life is permanent. Not the food you eat, not the books you read, not the houses you live in and certainly not the people you love.”

Well that’s one I figured out a long time ago. People don’t stick around, no matter how much you might want them to. And, by the looks of Anne, who’s clutching her thighs so tight her knuckles are turning milky white, she gets it too.

“I know that sounds like a bleak way of looking at things,” says BD, “but it’s reality. Life blooms and life withers, that’s the true nature of things. And the sooner we can come to terms with that, the sooner we can see ourselves as we really are. As beautiful sentient beings, like all others on this planet. As important as an ant, a leaf, a cloud. No more, no less.”

Suddenly, before I can even begin to talk myself out of it, my hand is in the air and BD’s asking me what’s up.

“It’s not that I want to argue with you,” I hear myself say. “It’s just that, well, if we’re no more important than an ant, or a blade of grass, then why can we talk? Why can we shop? Have you ever seen an ant walking around with a David Jones bag? No. So if we’re all the same then why have we evolved while ants have continued scurrying around in weird lines for a gazillion years?”

“Hmm, I see where you’re coming from Margaux,” says BD, “but I’m not trying to say we’re exactly the same as ants, all I’m saying is that we’re no more important than them. I like to think of it like this: Buddhism gives us freedom from any delusions of grandeur.”

“But some people and things really are better than others!” I say, realizing as I do that I actually really mean it.

“I think what you’ll find as we go on, Margaux, is that that’s merely a social construct. We’re all beings of equal importance on this planet, according to Buddhism, which is why the Buddha teaches things like non-violence to all sentient beings, including insects.”

“Wait, so you mean Buddhists can’t even squish cockroaches?” asks Ricky, incredulous, as he wipes his nose on his sleeve. BD chuckles.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying, Ricky. But it’s actually more to do with the mindfulness that takes place behind that than the actual act. But look, I think you’ve probably been given more than enough to chew on over the next few days so let’s leave the discussion there for now. Now I’d like to lead the class in a group meditation session.”

I groan inwardly, then realise I actually did it a little outwardly too, but close my eyes anyway and let the inane thoughts grab hold of my mind.

After hopping around between potential outfits for next class, what movie I might want to watch tonight and what Bodhidharma might look like naked (shudder), my ridiculous brain spins around to Peace. And to India. She can’t seriously expect me to go there with her. To just turn up on my dad’s doorstep, as if I could ever even find it, and expect him to welcome me with open arms after two decades of completely ignoring me. Mum’s told me a hundred times not to even bother, reminded me of the things he said the day he upped and left, completely out of the blue. I need to be free. I can’t be tied down. This life is no longer for me. “This life” included me, of course. My existence wasn’t enough to keep him with us, and he simply didn’t love us enough to stay.

The craziest part of it all, though, is that I still love him. And, if I’m going to be honest with myself, I really do want to see him again. I guess I still hold out hope that everything will just… make sense when we’re together again. That seeing him will make me feel like a whole person for once in my life. But then it doesn’t really feel like the right time. Plus I just bought that hideously expensive Marc Jacobs bag last week. The one I may have dipped into our mortgage savings to buy because I thought it was a worthy investment, which of course it is. Ryan doesn’t know about it but Peace sure does, so where she imagines I might get the money for plane tickets on top of that particular splurge I can’t imagine. And even though me leaving Sydney would actually work out rather well right now seeing as I’m currently meant to be in Paris by my dying best friend’s bedside, I couldn’t go. Not when I’m meant to be putting my CV together and getting my career sorted and working out the meaning of life and everything.

I banish all thoughts of the trip from my mind, but let images of exotic bazaars filled with coin jewelery, bejeweled fabrics and feathered fans slide through my mind – just for fun of course – for what’s left of the meditation session.

“Okaaaay,” comes Bodhidharma’s voice eventually from somewhere in the ether. “Sloooowly bring your attention back into the room.”

I have no idea how many minutes have passed. I take a quick sneak peek of my phone and see that a whole 25 of them have been magicked away. And I didn’t panic. Not even one tiny bit. No tightening of the chest, no spinning of the head, nothing. I give myself a mental high five and boob jiggle as I open my eyes. That’s one small step for Margaux.