kindling for hell


As I watched with awe and pride as my wife completed a sprint triathlon this weekend, I was reminded of the promise I made to myself a year ago that next year (this year), I would compete in the triathlon as well. Yet there I was, fully clothed, not an ounce of lycra on my body, standing on the wrong side of the plastic rope with the little colored flags on it. As my beloved sprinted towards the finish line, urged on by our children shouting, “Go Mom! Go Mom!”, I was elated for her, but the little voice of failure in my head reminded me of my broken vow.

The body is an unruly, rebellious companion. We attempt, on a daily basis, to get it to bend to our will, but its flabbiness mocks us from the bathroom mirror, saying, “What have you done for me lately?” We try to stay on track with our exercise regimen, but every ache, wrinkle, fold, crease and bulge remind us of the painful futility of our efforts. Some of us are gifted with athlete’s physiques, flat stomachs, and endless stamina. You are the lucky ones. The rest of us struggle against the maddening effects of gravity, lethargy, pain, and boredom. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, there are many faiths that condemn the indolent. But I just can’t help it. I love the word “indolence.” I’m not sure what Webster says, but I think the word implies a kind of smug laziness, a perpetual inertia. An indolent person says, “I only run when someone is chasing me.” But the indolent deserve at least a small measure of our pity. They can’t help themselves. Maybe it’s genetics, bad karma, or, in Ayervedic terms, an aspect of their dosha (elemental body type).

To quote the monk Saicho, the founder of Tendai Buddhism in Japan, in his “Letter of Resolve” (Ganmon), “If we do not create good during our lifetime, at death we will be kindling wood for hell. The gift of human life is difficult to obtain but so easy to lose. Good intentions are hard to develop and easy to forget. Sakyamuni Buddha compared the difficulty of obtaining human birth to locating a needle sunk in the greatest ocean and threading it with a piece of string lost on the highest mountain.” Saicho then goes on to list his resolutions for his own enlightenment, vowing not to come down from his mountain retreat until he has “attained the Dharma” for all living beings. I mention Saicho and his vows because I am reading a great book, The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei by John Stevens, published by Shambhala. I can’t comment on the book in its totality because I’ve only just begun to read it, but it tells the story of a group of Japanese Buddhist monks who as part of their training run 100 marathons in 100 days, through heat, rain, or snow, barely stopping to eat or sleep. Now that’s commitment! In their case, this hard-won human body, through grueling effort, becomes an instrument of awakening.

Can I make a vow, perhaps not as stringent as my brother monks, to train and care for my body so that I might be prepared, 364 days from now, to swim a half-mile, bike 12 miles and run 3? Maybe I need to write my own letter of resolve, to take my own vow. I think I’ll start tomorrow with a bowl of Cheerios and a brisk walk. This time, I vow to at least try.


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