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Tuesday, October 19 2004 19:00
A friend has shared with me a saying of the Buddha. According to tradition, this great teacher of humankind left these words:  “Every human being is allotted ten thousand portions of joy and ten thousand portions of sorrow.”

Immediately, this saying strikes the hearer as intriguing. It summarizes human life in one sweeping sentence. And yet, the more we hear it, the more we perceive the need for reflection on its meaning.

The first part makes the human heart leap up in exaltation. So much joy, who would not want that?

But then the Buddha balances it by affirming that an equal amount of sorrow awaits us all. This seems like a heavy burden indeed.

Perhaps the wisdom of these words lies in their suggestiveness rather than in their literal truth. They amount to a kind of poetry, not a mere prosaic statement of fact. Accustomed to the factual, we can make the mistake of taking the words as precise instead of suggestive.

Thus the number ten thousand does not reflect an actual count of people’s joys and sorrows but rather stands for “a large amount.”  Everyone has a great many chances at the two, the teacher seems to be saying.

The idea of our being given so many opportunities for joy amounts to a welcome message indeed. However, it makes you wonder about those who are afflicted with long-lasting disease or disability. Can they possibly lay hold of an allotment of joy equal to their grief?

And how about those who die young? A friend who died recently at 45 after three years of agonizing illness; can she have known as much joy as sorrow?

Actually, the answer may be yes. She was a person who knew how to celebrate life even when she knew her time on earth would soon end. She found joy in her husband and two young children, along with her legion of dear friends.

A central difference between shares of sorrow and joy, it seems to me, is that we never seek out sorrow, but joy requires an effort of us. It is a gift to which we must open our hearts. Spiritually gifted, my friend knew how to welcome joy into her life despite her narrow prospects for surviving her disease.

Were I asked to suggest ways of opening ourselves up to joy, I might list three.

First, take care of your relationships. Make sure you are not at enmity with anyone, especially members of your immediate and extended family. It is hard to imagine feeling joy in one’s heart while harboring ill will toward other people.

Nothing compares in importance with this first suggestion. Relating to the everyday people in our lives with respect and fairness goes far to make possible a joyful heart. This enables the Spirit to send gifts of joy to us like unexpected flashes of light.

If we can go further and treat others with love and affection, that behavior brightens our chance for joy. Seeing those close to us as gifts that we have received can enhance our lives no end.

A second suggestion: find something to do that you love. Too few of us love the work for which we get paid but, if we can arrange it, that employment can become a source of joy.

If this proves not possible, then we can look for activities aside from the workplace to bring us pleasure.

A friend of mine, recently retired, spoke to me last week with anticipation of a trip to South Africa where he and his wife will observe birds not seen in North America. Birding is not for everyone, nor can everyone travel so far, but everyone can find something that provokes enthusiasm.

Thirdly, cultivate the inner peace that leads to joy. If we dare be silent sometimes, away from the intrusive noises of our society, we will increase our chances of developing a peaceful heart that is the best environment for joy.

In my tradition, joy is seen as one fruit of the Holy Spirit. She, the Spirit of God, is the one who gives this gift that goes so far to make life rich. If this gift becomes our portion, then we may find ourselves better able to deal with the challenges that earthly life always brings.

Richard Griffin