Beyond counterirritants

In his brief, insightful poem recently posted here, the Chinese lay monk Shih-Te says,
using one pain to get rid of another
you never get rid of pain

Someone with a knowledge of folk medicine might object to this; since ancient times, it has been a practice to apply irritating substances like pepper oil, menthol or camphor to sore muscles and joints, or to a congested chest, for example, to bring relief. The idea is that the mild inflammation thus produced brings increased blood flow to the area, which should help to heal the problem. But to understand the poem properly, we must recognise what Shih-Te means by pain.

The poem specifically mentions money, the dream of which turns into an iron jail, but that is a symbol that represents much more. He is not warning us only of the dangers of a large bank account, but of all delusion. (He mentions the traditional trio, delusion, greed and anger, but the most basic of the three is delusion; when delusion is absent, greed and anger must also disappear.)

When we grasp at unreality, it inevitably leads to painful consequences. We stumble drunkenly along, striving in vain to make the dream respond to our desires, colliding with life and getting bruised and battered in the process. But the most painful result is simply that we are unaware of our true nature, which is the only happiness that there is. Shih-Te is encouraging us to find that happiness, just as did the Buddha in his last words : Make of yourself a light. Do not rely upon others. Whatever is not our true Self, therefore, is a source of pain, and that is why the poem tells us that no external pain will remove another.

To constantly seek for pleasure is to live in a dream, but to find our self is to discover happiness, as we read in this saying in the Vadan, Chalas:
The reason why man seeks for happiness
is not because happiness is his sustenance,
but because happiness is his own being;
therefore, in seeking for happiness,
man is seeking for himself.

Lest we fall into a further dream of ‘self-ism’ though, we should also consider this saying from Gayan, Boulas : The key to all happiness is the love of God. The Sufi does not seek to know God by first knowing him or herself, but seeks to know Self by first loving and knowing God.

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