despair and joy

Listen to this spiritual talk. You may download, but please do not repost.


An article in last week’s newspaper suggested that President Biden establish a commission on loneliness in the United States. It seems that both Great Britain and Japan have already done that, with officially appointed ministers to see to the business.

These ministers are supposed to come up with programs and such to assist growing numbers of people in dealing with loneliness and self-isolation, and the despair these conditions can bring. This sounds like a rather unlikely step for the US to take, given our fabled individualism and self-reliance. But someone has at least publicly noted the problem.

What if there were a way to counterbalance the despair that so many are enduring in these times with some kind of joy – a pervasive and timeless joy that underpins our every waking moment? Of course, you know where I’m going with this.

Here is Case 6 from the Hekiganroku, also known as the Blue Cliff Record. The master in this Case is Unmon (Yunmen, in Chinese), the 9th century master who compiled this koan collection.

Unmon, giving instruction said, “I don’t ask you about before the fifteenth day; bring me a phrase about after the fifteenth day.” Unmon himself answered in the monks’ stead: “Every day is a good day.”

Now, I don’t want to offer any spoilers to any of you who might be working on this koan right now (or may do in the future), so we won’t concern ourselves with the business of “the fifteenth day.” No, the operative phrase here is the final sentence of the koan: “Every day is a good day.” What could Unmon possibly have meant by this statement?

This is simply about being in the present moment – in that time between what has gone before and what is to come. It’s about not judging it, not comparing it with some other time, not putting our own spin upon what is happening now.

So, here you are, in this moment. You’re being evicted. You’re facing an onerous medical or dental procedure. You’ve run out of money, and you have no idea how you’ll replenish your store of funds. You’ve just found out that your partner has run off with someone else. Someone you love is in the hospital, on a ventilator because of Covid-19. These circumstances are, in Christ’s words, “sufficient” unto themselves. (As in, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” – from the Sermon on the Mount, Mt 6:34.)

But are these circumstances us? Do they make up the sum total of our being? Is there not joy to be found in our very ability to experience these circumstances? It may not be the kind of joy that makes us laugh or want to run and bound about like kids in the park with kites on a sunny day. But is there not joy in just being alive at all – to be in these moments?

Yes, I know this may sound like a bunch of Pollyanna-ish horse pucky. And I don’t mean to make light of the intense suffering such circumstances can bring – suffering which, if prolonged, can drag us into utter despair. But the enlightened person sees the joy that lives within this despair.

The awakened person can take joy in the fragrance of flowers, in the reflected light of the moon, in the sight of squirrels scurrying atop fences, in the pink hue of the morning sun or the orange of a sunset, in the silence of a stolen moment away from the turmoil. And in such beauties, the awakened person can find peace of mind – the peace that nourishes and replenishes the spirit, and just possibly, supplies the canvas upon which a solution may paint itself.

One commentator on Hekiganroku Case 6 says this:

Our life is like this: It is easily influenced by outer circumstances, making you either joyful or miserable. But right within it you must get hold of the boat that never sinks, the boat that never rocks even while it is rocking – namely your true self. That makes “every day a good day.”

And where is our “true self”? Who is our true self? Who am I? That is the question in which we live – the question we bring to our practice and which we can, through compassion, share with our fellow beings. At the front and back and bottom of every circumstance is Life, just Life. Bare, unfettered, unadorned.

It’s a hard teaching, which may be difficult to embrace. But that’s why we’re here together, isn’t it? To experience the hard teachings and learn from them how to live our lives fully. To live through despair and loneliness and joy, and to love them all. To love them all.