The people who wrote the gospels and letters of the New Testament saw that the glory they recognized in Jesus was not the opposite of suffering: it was the fruit of his suffering. We should realize the truth of this, because the way of the cross doesn’t just belong to the life of Jesus. If we live the kind of life that Jesus lived – the contemplative life of keeping the eyes continuously on the vision and of then translating that vision into everyday action – we will inevitably end up on the cross. We may be reluctant to accept this, but in fact there is no bypass. This is just a basic law of life.
We can either feel anxiety because we don’t trust that life is a good gift, or we can exchange that anxiety for a positive kind of suffering, which is a growing pain. This second choice is the suffering of compassion.
In an essay entitled “The joy in the Thought that it is not the Way which is Narrow, but the Narrowness which is the Way*,” the nineteenth century Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard argues that the spiritual journey is not separate from the way it is traveled. The way doesn’t exist in the same sense that a road exists, regardless of whether anyone is traveling on it or not, but it is the “how” of the traveling that makes it the path. When we speak of life as a way, the real question is, how am I to walk on that way; how am I to live my life. Kierkegaard quotes Jesus: “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life….” (Matt. 7:14). Again, “narrow” is not an adjective, describing the path; narrow is the path. The name of the path is narrow. Therefore, when life is narrow, we know it is the path. An alternative term frequently used in the Bible is “tribulation,” which literally means “threshing the grain.” The chaff flies away, and the grain falls through. We can’t avoid tribulation; we can’t avoid narrowness. It is a joy to know this, because then we know what we must do: we must suffer. And according to Kierkegaard, as we go along, we suffer more and more.
I would like to quote a passage from the prologue of The Rule of Saint Benedict which may at first seem to contradict Kierkegaard. Saint Benedict writes:
Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.
Is the way only narrow at the entrance, or does it become increasingly more difficult, as Kierkegaard suggests? I believe this contradiction is a superficial one, because once we discover that narrowness is the way, we participate in the joy of understanding that it is so, which is also the “inexpressible delight” referred to by Saint Benedict. Life is a gift. We haven’t bought it or earned it. Therefore we have a choice of two attitudes, both of which are painful: We can either feel anxiety because we don’t trust that life is a good gift, or we can exchange that anxiety for a positive kind of suffering, which is a growing pain. This second choice is the suffering of compassion, which is the joyful suffering of going with the grain, of realizing that it is narrowness that leads to life.
When His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited the United States in 1981, someone asked him, in a small audience, how it was that Buddhists have developed such a wonderful path for overcoming suffering, while Christians have been wallowing in their suffering for almost 2,000 years. The Dalai Lama responded by saying, “It is not as easy as all that. Suffering is not overcome by leaving pain behind; suffering is overcome by bearing pain for others.” And that is one of those answers that is as Christian as it is Buddhist. It is the basic statement that comes out of the fact that narrowness is the path.
Reprinted with permission from Speaking of Silence: Christians and Buddhists in Dialogue [© 2005 by Vajradhatu Publications (Second edition)]. Speaking of Silence is available directly from the publisher at www.shambhalashop.com.
* Kierkegaard’s article appeared in Edifying Discourses: A Selection, trans. David F. and Marvin Swenson (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958).