The hundred-and-eight sorrows

108 sorrows

I am not a Buddhist really. (Just ask Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse about that, and he’ll agree.) But I know some Buddhist doctrine, and it has actually helped me stumble through life.

How many different ways to suffer are there, do you think?

There are exactly one hundred and eight.

There are six senses in the Buddhist world view: smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing, and (the one we Westerners forget) the mind. Suffering can enter through all six of these.

What enters? The six stimuli: things we like, things we dislike, things we don’t care about, things that bring us joy, things that bring us suffering, things that make us feel nothing at all. Things we like may be bad for us (like alcohol). Things we dislike (like bitter medicine) may make us suffer, though they’re good for us physically. Things we don’t care about may be vitally important, but we don’t realize it. Joy is wonderful but it never lasts, and its departure causes suffering. Unhappiness is suffering itself. Indifference can lead to suffering later, through regret.

Six senses x six stimuli = 36.

All six stimuli can be past (remembering the six stimuli), present (experiencing them in the moment), or future (anticipating them).

36 x the three time periods of past / present / future = 108.

These are the hundred-and-eight sorrows.

In some Buddhist practices, there are commemorations of the number 108: 108 prostrations before the Lord Buddha, 108 circumambulations of his statue. Sometimes they ring a bell 108 times at the New Year.

Try this exercise: think of something you do, something you love or hate or don’t care about in the least. It will be one of the hundred-and-eight.



How about smoking? I smoked for fourteen years. I liked the way it tasted back them.



So: (sensation: taste) x (stimulus: liking) x (time: past).



And now I have throat cancer, almost certainly as a result of those fourteen years of smoking. (See also karma.)



The one-hundred-and-eight sorrows go on and on, endlessly, so long as there’s a single unenlightened being in the entire universe.



We need to realize them, and name them, and let them go.



Then we can move on to whatever comes next.



Now that I have an inconvenient medical condition, I think about what I did to cause it. I smoked for fourteen years, knowing that it was a terrible thing for me, knowing that Dad died of lung cancer, as did several of his brothers and sisters. I think about eating badly, and exposure to all kinds of pesticides and chemicals and god knows what over the years.



Also, being superstitious, I think about all the taboos I’ve broken: all the salt I’ve spilled without throwing a few grains over my shoulder, all the ladders I’ve walked under.



Mostly I think guiltily of all the people I’ve been unpleasant to, or actually hurt, either accidentally or on purpose. (Of course I have. You have too. But we’re talking about me, not you.)



But I have had very much happiness in this life – more than I deserve, really. Partner is largely responsible for much of that. But I was lucky to grow up in a place that was as beautiful as Washington state; lucky to go to a funky Catholic-liberal college like Gonzaga in the crazy 1970s; lucky that my first city was Spokane, an easy-to-navigate place that wasn’t at all threatening; lucky to get into Brown for grad school (though I threw it over after a year); lucky to find my way to Providence, my dear dowdy hometown for thirty-five years now; lucky to get into the Peace Corps, and meet all kinds of interesting people, American and Moroccan and British and Tunisian, some of whom still keep in touch with me; lucky after that to work at Brown University, in a job that has mostly been very good for me, and to work alongside people whom I have grown to love and respect.



And then there’s Partner.



I cannot even tell you what he means to me. We met in 1995, and I knew as soon as I saw him that I probably loved him. Does that sound silly? He tells me that he felt the same way, and I respect him too much to tell him that I have a hard time believing that anyone could ever love me at first sight. At any rate, we were living together within a few years. We moved to our present residence in 2002 – a nice little apartment, just right for the two of us. I’ve grown to love Partner’s family – his two sisters and their families – and I think of them and love them as my family, just as I feel about my own family back in Washington.



Partner and I have grown older together. We’ve traveled together. We’ve been angry with each other, and reconciled. We’ve been sick, and taken care of each other. We shop for groceries together, and go to work together in the morning.



I’d be lost without him.



To paraphrase Frank Herbert: My life has been mostly (undeservedly) sweet. But Partner has been the sweetest thing in it.



No matter what happens from here on, I consider myself very lucky.


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