16 February, 2021

The Eighty-Fourth Problem

A friend I've known for more than ten years remarked on the lightening he recently noticed in my overall perspective. He attributed the shift to Buddhism, which I started practicing a couple of years ago. I didn't argue, even though adopting the label "Buddhist" was only a recent formalization of ideals and precepts that evolved from a decades-long chain of life events. I might not have been reading sutras, sitting zazen, or reciting mantras, but practicing mindfulness, mental discipline, and moderation has carried me through twenty years' imprisonment pretty well.

The question comes often enough: How do I cope? You won't understand unless you live it, and even if you did (which I hope never, ever happens), that understanding will be yours, not mine. Only certain mundane similarities between them will exist. So, what possible answer can I provide, except to say that I just do. The way out is through.

There's an old folk tale about the Buddha traveling with his followers to a farming village. He was sought out by a farmer there, who asked him about some personal problems. The farmer complained that whenever he wanted to plant, the rains fell without end, and when he finally did sow his crops there wasn't enough rain.

"I can't help you with that," the Buddha said.

The farmer realized that the Enlightened One might not control the weather, but other problems should be possible to get help with. So he said to the Buddha, "Other things have been bothering me, too – my wife, for one. She complains all the time. I feel like nothing I do is ever good enough for her. And my kids, they're too lazy to work in the fields. And my son drinks too much. And I have a neighbor who's making threats because my cows get into his fields all the time."

Gently, the Buddha held up a hand to silence him. He said, "I can't help you with any of those things."

"Well, what good are you, then?" the farmer spat.

The Buddha replied, "Everyone has eighty-three problems. When one of them gets better, another gets worse. It goes on and on like this forever. You haven't even mentioned that you're going to die someday and your land will go to your troublesome children. Everything you have ever worked for will be lost. Those are your eighty-three problems."

"Can't you help me with any of them?"

"I might be able to help you with the eighty-fourth problem."

"What's that?" the farmer begged.

The Buddha gazed with perfect equanimity. "The eighty-fourth problem is that you want not to have any problems."

This equivalent to a Buddha mike-drop ends many popular Buddhist stories.

I consider institutionalization a dirty word. For the same reasons as I refuse to call my housing unit "home," or to rely on the prison to provide me everything, I reject any suggestion that I'm less than vigilant against becoming institutionalized. It takes tremendous, continual effort not to let imprisonment define me. Still, by seeming not to let being locked away trouble me, by refusing lease to bitterness, by not letting myself get mired in self-pity, I defy people's expectations of how an innocent person in prison acts. My thinking is simply that, wrongful conviction or not, I'm here. Why make it worse by stewing over the hand I've drawn?

There's another Buddhist tidbit – this a little more official – in a Pali text called the Sallatha Sutta ("The Arrow," or "The Dart," as English translations have it). In it, the Buddha's speaking to his followers about how pleasant, neutral, and painful feelings are all felt by the untaught layperson and the well-taught disciple alike.

"When an untaught worldling is touched by a painful feeling, he worries, he grieves, he laments, he beats his breast, he weeps, distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feelings, a bodily and a mental feeling. It's as if a man was pierced by an arrow and following the first piercing, he is hit by a second arrow."

He goes on to say that the well-taught follower of the Noble Eightfold Path, given the same circumstances, won't fall into throes of woe.

"It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one but not a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by an arrow who was not hit by the second one, following the first."

This sutra is also sometimes called the Sutra of the Second Arrow, and it's a prime example of what Buddhism teaches: shit's bad enough without us making it worse by dwelling on it. It's not about indifference or being callous, just about acceptance – which is not the same thing as surrender. These are fine distinctions to make, but I trust that you have at least an inkling of what I'm trying to get across.

Problems are going to come along, no matter who you are. That's living. There will be arrows shot at us. Some will pierce their targets, while others will miss. When they hit us, it'll hurt. Paying attention to how we respond to that pain, realizing that we have some choice of how we react, can be life-altering, which is precisely what my friend believed he saw at work in me.


Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.