154. O house-builder, you are seen! You will not build this house again. For your rafters are broken and your ridgepole shattered. My mind has reached the Unconditioned; I have attained the destruction of craving.
This is one of my favourite Dhammapada verses and over the last few years I’ve reflected on it many times. The ‘house-builder’, it seems to me, refers to the sense of self, that within us that wants to create a stable structure, something strong and enduring. It can appear that when life is going our way and we have all of our needs met, that this might even be possible. But in the long run, as the Buddha pointed out, we cannot escape old age, sickness and death.
In the Buddhist Five Things for Daily Recollection there’s a line which struck me right to the core the first time I heard it: ‘All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.’
It’s so starkly simple, so straight to the point. We forget we came with nothing, will leave with nothing, and in the meantime there are countless meetings and partings. That’s the way life is. If we try to hold on, or cling too tightly the we’re the ones that get hurt as life inevitably prises even our most precious possessions from our grasp.
With the greatest respect to this verse and its author, I would like to suggest an updated version. In place of a house I see a tent. When we cling to a sense of self and invest time and effort in having and becoming it’s a bit like sheltering from life in a tent. It’s rather flimsy, and though we might feel that it can protect us at times, it rarely does so comfortably.
Occasionally the tent flap blows open and in those rare moments we can glimpse the reality that there is really no inner, no outer; that all is one. This ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ are just labels for space. Empty space.
And glimpsing this perhaps we start to want to find out more. We begin our journey to the truth. With each insight, we cut another guy rope or pull out a tent peg. We don’t know when the tent will finally blow away, it just depends doesn’t it? But it will happen.
And then we’re left with just life; just this. We realise then that there always has been just this, nothing has changed. When that weight falls from us there is a lightness and a freedom that is felt. Not because we now have perfect control and are the masters of this experience. On the contrary, because we see that there is no control, no controller, just a lot of labels, made in thought.
Such thoughts are a part of this also, but not so very important; just a commentary really. Sketched pictures that can never capture the beauty of what is. We must never surrender the beauty of seeing clearly the moment for the thought that tries to mirror it.
Looking back we realise that the tent was a bit unnecessary. It was never going to last, and to be honest, it wasn’t even that comfortable. So why were we clinging to it so tightly? Why did we spend so much time adorning it? trying to get the very best pitch? Guarding it against every perceived threat of damage? All we did was spoil our inherent freedom and happiness worrying about something that could only ever be temporary.
It’s not that it’s more comfortable outside the tent, it is what it is. The weather changes and it’s sunny or cloudy in turns but that’s okay. That’s life doing what it does. We weather these things as we always have, and having nothing to protect or worry about there is a freedom and a lightness to this, so we just get on with it. Without any flimsy structure blocking our view we can see more clearly now.
Once cast aside we can’t rebuild our tent, nor would we. We wouldn’t trade this freedom for the false promise of shelter. Embracing the changing moment, as part of that which arises in this moment, we finally find peace. Just peace. Looking around and seeing – it is this way.