One’s Private Hell

Note: I decided to post this out of order, so a few links might be temporarily until other posts get published.

Nevertheless, this was inspired by two things. First, lately I’ve been enjoying the most recent album by Alice In Chains, Black Gives Way to Blue, and one of my favorite albums on the song is “Private Hell”. You can listen to a sample here. The main chorus of the song is:

I excuse myself
I’m used to my little cell
I amuse myself
In my very own private hell

More on that in a minute. Yes, this is going somewhere. :)

Separately, I was also inspired by a poem I read in the famous anthology Hyakunin Isshu, number 9:

花の色は hana no iro wa
うつりにけりな utsuri ni kerina
いたづらに itazura ni
わが身世にふる wagamiyo ni furu
ながめせしまに nagameseshima ni

According to this website, the translation would be:1

The cherry blossoms
Have faded now in hue–
Gazing emptily
Upon the long spring rains,
I too know what it is to age.

The author of this particular poem was Ono no Komachi (小野小町), one of the six “Immortals of Poetry” in early Japanese culture, also called rokkasen (六歌仙).2 Ono on Komachi was allegedly a very, very beautiful woman. So much so, that many legends and poetry have been written about her, but as you can see from the poem above, she laments the fact that she is aging. Facing aging is something she must suffer alone, and must be especially hard considering her former beauty. It is in a sense her own private hell.

Going back to the song above, it occurred to me each person has their own private hell they live with. Each person suffers in their own private hell, but the feelings of frustration, isolation, misery and dissatisfaction are not unique. Each person tries to amuse themselves as much as possible, and make themselves as comfortable and secure as possible, but the distractions only last so long and one must face their situation again before long.

The basic Four Sufferings of Buddhism, (shiku 四苦 in Japanese) are birth,3 aging, sickness and death. While birth is out of the way, one must still inevitably face the other three. Illness we face all our lives, but eventually one cold or flu may be the one to bring us down, cripple us, or drown our lungs in fluid. Aging of course is something we have to live with every day, until we become crippled and feeble, unable to carry out even basic functions of our day to day lives. Few are the ones who can go peacefully and relatively strong. I am reminded of a quotation from Roger Zelazny’s novel Isle of the Dead:

Nick swore he’d die with his boots on, on some exotic safari, but he found his Kilimanjaro in a hospital on Earth, where they’d cured everything that was bothering him, except for the galloping pneumonia he’d picked up in the hospital.

I remember seeing my grandfather in a nursing home for years after he had a stroke, and as his condition deteriorated. He often pined to go home, but of course he couldn’t. My grandmother missed him terribly and visited him almost daily, but it wasn’t the same as things used to be. When I visited him I would think to myself that this too would be my fate. Like me, he too was once young and strong, a WWII veteran and engineer, but this faded in time and illness, aging and death gradually set in. I too have to face it as my grandfather had to do. No Hollywood ending, just a gradual decline and slow-down in my life, with illnesses to provide further bumps in the road.

So, this is my own private hell. Though in my early 30′s, I am already past my prime in some ways. I have my fair share of regrets from my earlier years of things I can’t take back, or things I should have done but didn’t. Regrets will only accumulate over time, until it is too late to do anything about them. Doors once open are now closed.

Each one of us has this dilemma. We can continue to amuse ourselves as much as we can, and so many of us do until it’s far too late. Or, we can face it head-on as a mature, thinking adult. We must face it as a human, not an animal, and make the most of life until we can do no more. While we are still alive and well, we mustn’t be remiss in our pursuit of the Buddhist path. We cannot run from the Four Sufferings, but if we accept them and let them become a part of who we are, then even in difficult times, we are free. Hell is no longer hell.

One of my favorite stories from the Lotus Sutra is the Chapter of the Medicine King Bodhisattva who ignites his body as an offering to his teacher, creating a fantastic light that illuminated all the worlds. At first, I thought this story was very strange until I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentaries, where he explains that the story is meant to underscore one’s dedication to the Dharma, not importance of the act. For some, the truth becomes so important that one is willing to give up everything, including one’s own body, to attain it.4 Thinking in this light, I think the story is actually quite beautiful and inspirational. Further, the Bodhisattva in Buddhism, is one who sees others and the private hell they undergo, and resolves not to leave them behind even as he or she fights to attain the truth, by teaching, assisting, consoling, guiding or any other means.

As my body ages, and I grow sick and feeble, I only hope that my pursuit of the Dharma does not slacken. Since I am quoting my favorite author, Zelazny, today, I will throw one more in as a closing thought, also from Isle of the Dead:

Earth-son, I greet you by the twenty-seven Names that still remain, praying the while that you have cast more jewels into the darkness and given them to glow with the colors of life.

As long as this body is still good, I hope to cast as many jewels into the darkness I can, and I pray you will too.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 There’s actually a lot more to this poem than any English translation can convey, because there’s two intentional puns in the poem. First, “furu” is one pun, with two valid meanings, as is “nagame”, again with two valid meanings. Also, structure of the poem is slightly non-conventional too, adding to the brilliance. No wonder she’s considered one of the Six Immortals of Poetry (see next footnote).

2 For reference, the other five are:

  1. 喜撰法師 – Kisen Hōshi
  2. 在原業平 – Ariwara no Narihira
  3. 文屋康秀 – Funya no Yasuhide
  4. 大伴黒主 – Ōtomo no Kuronushi
  5. 僧正遍照 – Sōjō Henjō

All are famous for their terrific contributions to Waka, Japanese poetry, but of the six, Ono no Komachi was the only woman. You learn something new everyday. :D

3 Of course, childbirth is a happy time for parents, but from the perspective of the person born, it must be quite traumatic. Child researchers show that it takes months for the child to simply come to grips with the world, sensory input, hunger, thirst, hot and cold temperatures and so on. I never realized this until I had my own children. I am joyous to have such a daughter, but still feel a pang of guilt too for bringing her into such a world as this.

4 Not unlike the story of Socrates drowning a student to test his resolve. Mentioned briefly here.

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