The Buddha talked about two arrows. The first arrow can come from anywhere and, when it pierces your flesh, it hurts.
The second arrow hurts just as much or even worse. The second arrow is the one we gore ourselves with by refusing to let go of the first arrow.
You may have heard the old saying that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. In this vale of tears, as the Buddha taught, sickness, old age, and death are our lot. We humans cannot escape them.
Wishing it were not so will not help. That only adds to the misery.
At this writing, we are seeing an unusual number of deaths in the world from a new source, the Covid-19 virus. Because it is highly contagious, we also see a growing number of stories about people who may not be in the presence of a loved one as that person dies.
Our culture, maybe all cultures, has the well developed story of the family sitting by the bedside of a person when the person dies. Covid-19 has disrupted this story.
So people who are already mourning a deceased relative now have in addition the regret of being unable to attend directly to the loved one as that person dies.
That’s two arrows, unless you cling to one, in which case it’s three arrows, or to both, in which case it’s four arrows.
The Buddha had entered what many Buddhists now call the “deathless,” which does not mean that the historical Buddha did not die. He did. But he did not fear death because he knew he had escaped the vicious cycle of death and rebirth, so he would never return to face the human experience of birth, sickness, old age, and death. We could as well call this the “birthless” instead of the “deathless.”
The Four Noble Truths are:
- Life is full of disappointment (some say, “suffering.” You choose).
- The source of disappointment/suffering is clinging.
- An end to disappointment/suffering is possible.
- The way to end disappointment/suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.
But the pith instruction is to let go of clinging, as Truth #2 suggests. If clinging is the source of the problem, let it go.
At some level, we all choose to cling, although we likely are not aware of having done so. Clinging is a very deeply ingrained bad habit. It is why we are human.
Quitting smoking is very difficult. One good reason not to start smoking is that it is very hard to quit. Once you are trying to quit, you may not remember the first time you smoked a cigarette, but that event must have occurred for you to need to quit. You once made the choice to start smoking, whether you remember it or not.
Quitting clinging is similar. You likely do not remember when you chose to start clinging, and quitting now can be very difficult. But you have to quit clinging if you want to stop the vicious cycle of death and rebirth that keeps you stuck with suffering the two arrows.
So make the choice to stop clinging and escape this vale of tears.