Good Grief

Thursday September 15, 2005

I heard this story ages ago, and cannot be sure if I remember it correctly. Not that it matters. It is a good story, whether or not the version that I remember was the version that I was told, and whether or not the version I was told was the ‘correct’ version.

As far as I remember, the story concerned Marpa, ‘the Translator’, a famous figure in the Kagyu Tibetan lineage. Marpa was the teacher of the famous Milarepa (and here we are talking about figures of legend, whatever their historical prototypes…) and was famously uncompromising. He also had a son, who went by the name of Dharma Dode, and who died prematurely. After his death, Marpa’s disciples went to visit him and found the great translator with his head covered, wailing in grief. They were shocked: here was a man who was supposed to be Enlightened, but who was clearly deeply moved by the death of his son. His disciples were bold enough to reprimand him for his extravagant shows of grief, saying it was unbecoming in such a great master. Marpa glowered at them. ‘Do you not understand, you fools?’ he asked. ‘My son is dead.’

As I said, the story may have been altered a bit in the process of telling and retelling, and it may not even have been a story about Marpa… but it doesn’t really matter, given that we are dealing with legends and not histories. Regardless of accuracy – whether historical or textual – it is a wonderful story.

Buddhism is sometimes presented as a path beyond grief and sorrow. Yet what Buddhist practice I have engaged in over the past years has tended to deepen my awareness of grief and sorrow rather than ameliorating it. The world seems a whole load more sad and sorrowful and tragic than it did when I started out. In fact, the world seems a whole load more everything – both sorrowful and joyful. But shouldn’t I be feeling a decrease in sorrow and grief? Doesn’t the Dhammapada say, ‘From craving springs grief, from craving springs fear. From him who is wholly free from craving there is no grief; whence then fear?’ And didn’t Sariputta claim that there was nothing in the whole world – not even the death of the Buddha – that would cause him grief (see here)? What am I doing wrong? What is going on?

Perhaps, however, I am not doing that much wrong. Could it be that this deeper awareness of grief and of sorrow is itself the result of practice? Because when you look more closely at the Pali texts, you find that they are not entirely free of contradictions. They do not speak with a single voice. Despite the two references above, other texts that make it clear that grief is not, in itself, unwholesome. For example, the Sakka-pañha Sutta (once more, thanks to Access to Insight for the translation) says as follows:

‘Grief is of two sorts, I tell you: to be pursued & not to be pursued.’ Thus was it said. And in reference to what was it said? When one knows of a feeling of grief, ‘As I pursue this grief, unskilful mental qualities increase, and skilful mental qualities decline,’ that sort of grief is not to be pursued. When one knows of a feeling of grief, ‘As I pursue this grief, unskilful mental qualities decline, and skilful mental qualities increase,’ that sort of grief is to be pursued. And this sort of grief may be accompanied by directed thought & evaluation or free of directed thought & evaluation. Of the two, the latter is the more refined. ‘Grief is of two sorts, I tell you: to be pursued & not to be pursued.’ Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

Or, to put it another way, Marpa’s grief is simply natural. The question is not the grief, but how you respond to this grief. If the grief leads to unskilful mental states – hatred, confusion, hankering after impossible pasts and impossible futures, trying to undo the fabric of the world by the force of our futile wishing – then it is not helpful. But if it leads to a greater clarity concerning our human situatation, to a greater gentleness towards things, to a greater appreciation of the transient world, then this kind of grief is to be explored, its depths are to be plumbed.

Marpa is my kind of sage. Not for me the untouched, aloof paragon of wisdom who sheds not a single tear although around him many grow old, fall sick and die. Far more exemplary, to my mind, is to weep copiously at the sorrow of the world, as Marpa did, but to never permit this sorrow to lead to paralysis, cynicism or despair: to allow it to result in an ever deeper apprehension of the bald realities of our existence here in the world.

If there is such a thing as wisdom, and if I am ever to possess even the smallest piece, then let it be a wisdom like Marpa’s. Let it be a wisdom that leaves me capable of grieving.

Image courtesy of

# · Hope

Wonderful post – thank you!

# · dylanvw

what a brilliant piece. I have recently been through something similar to this sage and before reading this piece come to similar conclusions.

for a time grief paralysed me stopping me from functioning or thinking coherently. I felt at one time that the tidal wave was going to crush me. I would be overcome by the disabling pain of the whole situation.

however know I Feel that for the moment the wave has ended. I know feel a great empathy for all human beings. For the how fragile human life is. I feel that my experience will help to enrich the world and that I can help to shape the world into something that my lost loved one would have wanted.

In the end it is not what is in side us that matters it is what we do.

# · Curt

Interesting timing for DYLANVW to draw my attention to this story. Earlier today I was planning on writing a post on on exactly this same paradox that I had noticed about what I percieved was an implication of Buddhism.
This story and Will’s comments address my observation perfectly, at just the time that I was thinking about it.
I wonder if I have done something wrong by pointing out that the timing of finding this story has significance to me. Would that rub some people the wrong way? If I was 30 and read what I just wrote it might have rubbed me the wrong way.
The idea that there could be some kind of extra terrestial intellegence that knows what I am up to would have been an idea for consideration by idiots only.
Not only that to claim that there is some kind of extra terrestial intellegence that takes a special intrest in ME seems arrogant as hell.
I have no defense to this charge of arrogance.
So why point it out? Because that is the way that I see it. Do I have to point out everything the way that I see it? Well if there is a good reason not to. Like if I will be persecuted for pointing something out then I of course I do not have to point it out.
Is it a good idea to carry on a converstation with myself on a famous Buddhish blog? Well Will will decide if it is an abuse of his readerships intellegence or not.
Am I a fool? Assuredly.

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