Grief occurs in many ways in our lives. It could be when we are young, middle-aged, or old. Grief strikes us in many forms too. Sometimes it’s due to the loss of a loved one. At other times it could be due to a loss of a treasured possession. Whichever way it happens the loss is tangible to most. We feel it deeply and profoundly because of the attachment we have. Most of us give in to grief, and don’t know how to deal with such unpleasant and painful situations in an intelligent manner. The Supreme Buddha says, being struck by grief is like being struck by a poisoned arrow in the heart, and teaches us how to face such situations consciously by asking us to pull out the poisoned arrow struck in the heart to heal one’s self.
The Supreme Buddha has said that there are five absolutes in this world that are unobtainable by an ascetic, a brahmin, a god, the Mara, the Brahma, or by anyone else. These are universal laws of the world and apply to every living being without discrimination. The Supreme Buddha compares how an ordinary uneducated person and a noble disciple conducts themselves in the face of these unobtainable situations.
An uneducated, ordinary person in this context is a person who did not have the opportunity to listen to the dhamma, appreciate its true value and put it into practice. An educated noble disciple on the other hand is a person who is fortunate to have heard the dhamma, appreciates its benefits and practices the teachings.
The first of the five absolutes that the Buddha has stated is the attempt to stop the process of ageing.
People usually say “Oh, I wish I could stay young forever” which is an impossibility. We grow old each second of each day. The only way to stop the ageing process is to stop time. Which is impossible.
The uneducated, ordinary person who isn’t aware that it’s not possible to prevent ageing will become sorrowful, wail, and lament. He is unable to think that ageing is constant. That it is a part of life. Thinking constantly about ageing, he loses his mind, his appetite, and neglects his responsibilities. Many people these days try to stop the ageing process by getting cosmetic surgery or by applying different cosmetics. No matter what they do or how much money they spend, they can’t stop the ageing process or time.
On the other hand, an educated noble disciple who has learned Supreme Buddha’s teachings will not give in to emotions but think attentively to face the situation. This person reflects on ageing as per the teachings of the Supreme Buddha. It is unobtainable. All living beings will age as time goes by. A noble disciple would look at this objectively. This is not happening only to me, it’s universal. Then, if I were to grieve because I’m ageing and neglect my responsibilities, my work wouldn’t get done. Therefore when someone who is liable to age, grows old there’s no reason to grieve. It is part of life.
The second absolute is the hope that people have to be eternally healthy.
In reality, all living beings fall ill at some point in their lives. An uneducated, ordinary person will become sad or depressed when they become ill. This person doesn’t realize that becoming sick is universal to all living beings. Thinking over this situation unwisely, this person will lose his mind, his appetite, and neglects his responsibilities.
An educated noble disciple thinks according to the dhamma he had learned. He knows sickness comes to everyone living in this world. Understanding it’s universal, this person doesn’t give in to emotions. He thinks “There is no need to grieve, becoming sick is part of life and it is a certainty.”
The next absolute is about eternal life.
The Supreme Buddha has said “What is subject to death will die. All living beings must die one day. No one can prevent it.” An uneducated, ordinary person who hasn’t listened to the dhamma will not be able to control his emotions due to the death of a loved one. This person will grieve the life that was lost. This person is unable to understand that dying is true to everyone in this world. Thinking about this situation unobjectively, this person loses his mind, his appetite, and neglects his responsibilities. He loses his physical appearance. Seeing this his rivals will be encouraged and his friends would be disheartened.
On the other hand, an educated noble disciple of the Supreme Buddha thinks according to the dhamma that he has learnt. He reflects wisely upon death. He understands that everyone that is born will die one day only to be reborn again elsewhere, continuing the cycle of rebirth. He understands that grief is a futile effort and the dead will not come back to life.
Decay is the fourth absolute that we have no control over. What is subject to decay will decay.
The Supreme Buddha has said that this is unobtainable. An ordinary uneducated person who is not aware of the teachings will grieve seeing the decay in himself, of a loved one, or of possessions that he loves dearly. Overtaken by emotions, he is not intelligent enough to understand that it is a universal law. He hasn’t listened to the dhamma and due to ignorance expects it to stay the same over the years without decaying.
An educated noble disciple of the Supreme Buddha, on the other hand, is well aware of the teachings. He understands that what’s subjected to decay will decompose. He doesn’t mourn it knowing that it’s a futile effort.
The final absolute is the hope that what is subject to perish may not perish, the Supreme Buddha has said.
Here again, the uneducated, ordinary person laments seeing someone or something being destroyed. He wants a life and possessions that have endurance. He wishes that this doesn’t happen to him and his loved ones. He has not learned the teachings and is unable to make up his mind that this is something he cannot obtain and it is universal.
However, the noble disciple, having listened to the teachings, understands that anything subject to impermanence befalls on everything and every one. It’s not just me who will be destroyed by impermanence. Whoever and whatever is destined for destruction will be destroyed. There is no power in the world that can stop impermanence. This is the teaching of the Supreme Buddha. Therefore I don’t have to lament over it by beating my breast or becoming dazed. I am not the only person facing this situation. I don’t have to neglect my work and mortify myself in the presence of my rivals.
Although grieving can bring a little comfort in a sad situation, indulging in grief to the extent of losing one’s mind in the above unobtainable situations has no useful purpose in life. When faced with one of the above situations, we spend a lot of time trying to find comfort ourselves lamenting. As a result, one loses his appetite, neglects his obligations, and lives in a mindless state overcome with emotions. The Supreme Buddha says that your rivals will be delighted to see you in this state. Such a person is said to be ‘struck by a poisoned arrow in the heart’.
As opposed, the noble disciple knows none of these situations can be stopped or reversed by any power seen or unseen in this world. He faces the situation intelligently, understanding the reality. His emotions cannot take him over. He is sad over what has happened but instead of wailing or lamenting to the extent of losing his mind, he applies his knowledge in the dhamma and understands that these situations are unavoidable. Unshaken by what has happened he acts in a mindful manner. On seeing this his rivals will be dismayed. This person is said to have the ability to ‘pull out the poisoned arrow struck in his heart’.
Ref: Anguttara Nikaya – AN 184.108.40.206 – Soka Sallaharana Sutta