Continuing the commentary upon Summary of Faith & Practice, part 32
TEXT: This knowledge of our condition is part of the essential basis when it gives rise to contrition
We have already spoken about contrition in relation to an earlier section of the text. Here the meaning is that we feel contrite simply in relation to our humanity. It is not that we fall below some achievable standard, it is that simply by existing we put a load upon others and upon the planet. In some systems of thought, contrition is essentially a goad toward reform, the idea being that when you feel sorry enough you will change. That, if you like, is the first level of contrition, but there is a deeper, more existential core.
Buddhism has the concept of “the great grief”. There is much inherent in our situation that is lamentable yet unavoidable. We have to eat something and in the process we destroy. Almost everything we eat was a living thing. In order to grow plants to eat we not only kill the plants, we change the landscape with knock on effects for many other species of life. We build roads and dwellings, cutting into the earth.
The young Siddhartha Gotama’s first spiritual stirrings came when he, as a boy, witnessed the spring ploughing festival. His father, as the leader of the tribe, cut the first furrow to mark the start of this phase of the agricultural cycle. As Gotama watched he saw the earth cut and turned, and as worms and insects were brought to the surface, birds flew down and ate them. The plight of the small creatures touched the heart of the young Buddha-to-be. He crept away and sat under a rose apple tree. In due course he was missed and a search took place. When they found him he was in a rapture of reflection, considering the nature of this life. He already knew that his own very birth had occasioned the death of his mother. Life is both wonderful and terrible. To feel grief for it is sometimes natural.
In the modern world we have become a bit more aware of all this as a result of climate change and concern with eco problems. However, the emphasis upon how to fix the problem, worthy as it is, still overlooks the more existential aspect that must also be a part of spiritual life. We should use the power we have in order to make things better, but we must also face our ultimate impotence. This should not make us apathetic, it should make us a little more humble.
The idea that this planet was made especially as the home for humans and that all the other species and things on this little world are there basically for our pleasure and consumption remains an implicit widespread belief. This attitude is not enshrined in Buddhism. We are fortunate beings, but we are not the masters of the universe and we are not here simply to exploit. In this short life we have the chance to receive the Dharma and be secretly, inwardly, transformed in an act of faith and humility. This transformation is the essential basis of true religion. This is what the Buddhas transmit to us and it is the seed from which flowers that great compassion that feels sympathy for all life everywhere.