I’ve been on vacation. Visiting relatives in Northern California. Had a wonderful time. Now I’m back and catching up on all the news and different things I missed while I was away: Rodney King died. That guy had one troubled life. Hosni Mubarak suffered a stroke and may be brain dead. And Henry Hill, the guy who inspired Goodfellas, also passed away. Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to Europe and finally got her Nobel Prize. And yesterday, on her 67th birthday, she met with the Dalai Lama.
In the UK, someone asked Aung San Suu Kyi how she found the strength to resist the military government in Burma for so long, and she said,
During this journey I have found great warmth and great support among people all over the world . . . So it’s all of you and people like you who have given me the strength to continue . . . And I suppose I do have a stubborn streak in me.”
Stubbornness is not usually considered a positive trait, but all truly great people are stubborn. Unyielding might be a better word for it. I’m thinking especially of my aunt, who is English, and not because she is particularly stubborn or unyielding herself (although she probably is to some degree), but because during one of the evenings I spent at her and my uncle’s house, she told me some stories about her life as a young woman in London during the early days of World War II, when the Germans were bombing the city and the block she lived in was completely destroyed. Thank goodness, the English people were stubborn, unyielding, and refused to knuckle under to Hitler’s onslaught.
There were a lot of stubborn people around that time. Churchill was stubborn, so was Roosevelt, and Gandhi. Stubborn people are real heroes of life. In more recent times, Nelson Mandela was stubborn. After his long years of imprisonment, he stubbornly did not give in to hatred, bitterness, or vengeance. Stubborn people refuse to yield to oppression, or life-threatening diseases. They are the kind of people who do not accept their circumstances in life and want to better themselves, or resist acceptance of the way things are and because they’re stubborn, they work to enact change. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being stubborn enough to just survive.
In this sense, I think stubbornness is good trait for Buddhists to cultivate. I hear many people complain about meditation practice these days. They say, well, you know, Buddhism is more than meditation, and so on. They’re right, and yet, I have the feeling that’s just a rationalization, an excuse. Whether it’s silent meditation or chanting, a daily practice is hard to maintain. Maybe these complainers lack the stubbornness to keep it up.
“Resolution” is another good word for stubbornness. Shantideva wrote:
The thought of enlightenment has two stages: (1) the resolution for enlightenment; and (2) the advancement toward the same. As the holy Gandavyuha says: ‘Rare, my son, in all the world are such beings who make a resolution toward the highest illumination, yet rarer than these are they that have started toward the same’ . . . The first of these, the thought of the resolution towards enlightenment, is produced by the decision of the mind: ‘I must become a Buddha’ for the Surangama Sutra says that the thought of enlightenment produced by actual deception is a cause of Buddhahood . . .”
The way I interpret this is that the “deception” is the notion that there is a final stage, a consummate state called Buddhahood or enlightenment. It’s a deception because, as I always say, enlightenment is a journey, not a destination. Yet, without some idea of an end, we would never begin; we’d never make that decision of the mind to step off on the journey. That’s why I prefer to use the word “awakening” for enlightenment. The “ing” form implies something happening in the present, of “doing.” We don’t become enlightened so much as we are becoming enlightened, we are awakening. And to me, being a Buddhist means having the stubbornness, the resolution, the unyielding spirit to continue the process of awakening no matter what happens.
The Dhammavadaka Sutra says,
You, no less than all beings have Buddha Nature within. Your essential Mind is pure. Therefore, when defilements cause you to stumble and fall, let not remorse nor dark foreboding cast you down. Be of good cheer and with this understanding, summon strength and walk on.”
Having a stubborn streak means to “walk on.” For 15 years the military government of Burma kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. She could not step out of her small compound, yet she walked on. This year she was elected to her country’s parliament. This week she went to Norway and finally received her Nobel Prize, and she traveled to England and finally received her honorary degree from Oxford University. And she, like Mandela, has resisted the temptation of hatred, bitterness or vengeance.
Unyielding. Resolute. We should all have such a stubborn streak.
Suu Kyi/Dalai Lama Photo: Jeremy Russell/OHHDL