Suppose there was a pond with clear, agreeable cool water, transparent, with smooth banks, delightful. If a man [or woman], scorched and exhausted by hot weather, weary, parched, and thirsty, came from the east or from the west or from the north or from the south or from where you will, having reached the pond he would quench his thirst and his hot-weather fever. So, too, if anyone from a clan of khattiyas [warrior and rulers] goes forth from the home life into homelessness, or from a clan of brahmins [priests or teachers] or a clan of vessas [farmers and merchants] or a clan of suddas [laborers], and after encountering the Dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata [the Buddha], he develops loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity, and thereby gains internal peace, then because of that internal peace he practices the way proper to the ascetic, I say. (from MN40, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
The purpose of joining the community of those following the Buddha’s path is to develop the qualities that can free us from greed, hatred, and delusion. As one friend said recently, “I just want to stop being at war with myself.” Once we recognize that there’s a need to train ourselves to develop internal peace, we are on the way.
The lovely sutta above makes the point that if we are walking the same path, trying to move towards a common goal, then it doesn’t matter where we came from. Class, color, ethnicity, age, gender, education, and all the other things that can divide us may be set aside if our goal is important enough.
The image of a cool and inviting place to drink water when we are desperate for it is an apt description of our existential situation. We suffer, and there is relief (the Buddha’s first and second truths). Sometimes we are fooled into thinking that if only the external conditions of our life were different and better, we wouldn’t suffer. If only our partners/families/friends understood us better, treated us with more respect, loved us more, then everything would be OK. If only life weren’t sometimes hard…but it sometimes is very hard. Often enough we make it hard with our unreasonable demands and desires for things and people to be other than how they are.
The first step on the path is to acknowledge that life includes getting what we don’t want, and not getting what we do want. What are we going to do about it? Can we look inward and see that the path of escape from suffering is contained there? If yes, then we join with many, many others in using the Buddha’s path as our guide and applying ourselves to the journey.