“To study Buddhism is to study ourselves. To study ourselves is to forget ourselves”
I sometimes wonder if losing my parents when I was a teenager has been a contributing factor in my interest in Buddhism. The realities of suffering and impermanence are important concepts in Buddhism. I experienced those realities firsthand as a teenager. I watched each of my parents die slow and painful deaths. That could be why I started thinking about deep questions regarding suffering and the causes of suffering.
The Buddha didn’t experience anything like that, of course. If anything, his experience was the opposite. He was shielded from all kinds of suffering by his protective father. He had every possible joy available to him for his entire life. That’s not something most of us can relate to very well.
The 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen, on the other hand, had an entirely different experience from the Buddha. He was inspired by personal tragedy and I find his story to be something I can relate to and understand. He lost his father at the age of 2 and his mother at the age of 7. He became a young orphan and that is how he learned the realities of suffering and impermanence, just as I did as a teenager. I lost my father when I was 15 and my mother when I was 19. Not nearly as young as Dogen, but certainly before I was ready to become a full adult. I think any child suffers a great deal when their parents pass before their time.
On her deathbed, Dogen’s mother recognized the purity of her son’s heart. She told him to devote his life to benefiting others. My mother told me the same thing on her deathbed. She said to me, “Always be a good person. Be kind to others.”
Dogen’s experience of great suffering inspired him to become a Buddhist monk. He devoted his life to understanding suffering, just as the Buddha had 1800 years earlier. He developed great compassion and an inquiring mind. I developed these as well. Was it the result of personal tragedy? I suppose there’s no way to tell, but his story really speaks to me on a personal level.
Dogen went on to become a very important figure in Zen Buddhism, even founding his own sect. I don’t truly want to compare myself to him. I only wanted to say that I find parallels between his story and my own.