There is the story of a woman who lived in the time of the Buddha, named Sona. She had ten children, to whom she was entirely devoted and for whom she lived all her life.
Both she and her husband practiced goodness and tried to live a moral life. In that time, they began to hear about the teachings of the Buddha; and when their children were grown, Sona’s husband decided to leave the life at home and went to become a monk.
So Sona was left alone, and although she felt deserted and lonely with her husband gone, she admired his decision, and decided to follow his example and live a more pure and simple life, dedicated to working on herself.
However, she did not want to become a nun, because she so loved her children that she wanted to stay close to them.
Now, when her husband left home, he turned over all his wealth to her, so that she could live a very comfortable life if she wished. However, because of her decision to practice a simpler life, she did not want to keep the money. Instead, she gathered her children together with their wives and husbands and shared the wealth between them, asking them to just provide her with her basic needs in return.
At first, her children cared for her as she had asked, but it didn’t last long. They began to see her as a burden, and they were ashamed of both their parents, not understanding their decision to give up their life of pleasure and their high standing in the place where they lived. Instead of showing gratitude for how she had looked after them for so many years, they laughed at their old mother and neglected to take care of her.
To see this lack of love, gratitude and respect in her children was a knife in the heart of Sona. She was now completely abandoned by everyone and had nowhere to turn. A great bitterness and resentment began to grow in her heart towards her children, who had been at once her greatest love, and her source of comfort.
Seeing this in herself, she was shocked at the result of all the energy and effort she had spent in cementing her attachment to her children. What was it all for, finally? For what had she lived her life, for what had she grown old, for what had she sacrificed herself? What she had taken as her refuge had failed her utterly.
What she had thought was pure love finally seemed to be something else, something that turned sour easily, into sorrow and anger.
Seeing this, and thus becoming entirely fed up with her life at home, she decided to leave her home and her children, and went to become a nun. She was late in life becoming a nun, and it was difficult for her to change and learn to meditate – already her habits were very deeply settled in her; already, she had expended a great deal of her energy in having ten children and bringing them all up. She was often criticised and mocked by other nuns for this reason.
Yet she refused to give way to self-pity, despair or anger – she used their criticism as a spur to correct herself worked continually harder and harder. Finally she not only saw Dhamma, but became an Arahant. The Buddha later spoke of her as the nun who had shown the highest quality of energetic courage out of all of the nuns in the Sangha.
In every story of somebody who once led an ordinary life, but then changed and used their life to go higher than they could ever have imagined, there is a hidden secret. In this story, the secret lies around the question: What does it take to renounce?
The most interesting aspect of this story is the mind of Sona after she is abandoned by her children. When I first read it, it recalled to the mind for me a very similar story I had heard when I arrived here first as a volunteer with the fruit tree nursery. It was the story of an acquaintance of Erics, who had just been through a divorce; (her husband had left her for a younger and prettier woman); and who had been betrayed by her two children, who wanted to take her house for themselves and were trying to make her leave. Unable to bear the pain, we heard at the dinner table, she had just killed herself.
The stories of these two women are extremely similar, and yet they have such entirely opposite ways of responding to what happens to them. Faced with exactly the same event, one woman kills herself, unable to bear the pain, and another woman understands something that leads her to find the way out of all suffering for herself. Quite a large gap, is it not?!
It is therefore worth our while trying to understand a bit more thoroughly the difference between these two women, and what is it exactly that one of them understands and sees, and the other does not. What did Sona realise, such that she did not simply stop and cry, or kill herself, but went to work right then without ever relenting?
The secret is in her ability to turn her mind back towards herself. We all have the habit of seeing our suffering as the fault of outside circumstances; putting the blame on somebody, or someone, who in our eyes has caused us this suffering. The natural reaction of most human beings to being abandoned by one’s children is to fall into anger towards them, suffer depression, and drown in bitterness, resentment and grief. Having lost the only thing that gave meaning and pleasure to your life, what is left but to kill yourself?
Look, then, at the cleverness of Sona: she is looking, not out at her children, but inside at the nature of her own attachment. Hers is the quality of someone who is working on herself, who is searching to be moral and pure. She is more concerned with the ugly thoughts and emotions in her own mind than with the actions of her children. The resentment and bitterness stirred in her by this event is like a red light signalling “DANGER! DANGER! Something is wrong here!”
She is able to ask herself questions. If it were pure love I had for my children, could it be so quickly and so easily transformed into anger in this way? What was it all for, all this energy and care I poured into raising children, all this I invested? Why was I so dependent on something that can turn against me so easily and cause me so much pain? I considered my children as part of me, an extension of myself, and now they are against me. So was it right to consider them as part of myself, or was that a mistake, an illusion, a wrong idea?
The castle to whose building I have dedicated my life, that I loved so much, on which I depended for shelter – when it suddenly collapses under my fingers at the slightest touch, now I have a choice. I can bewail its loss, grieve for it, and regret that little touch that caused it to fall – or I can look down at the material from which it was built and see it as it is – there is nothing left but a heap of sand. Finally, this castle that once seemed so wonderful was nothing but a sandcastle, built to fall. The material was no good. Now am I going to try and build another one? Or do I decide to stop now?
On hearing the story about the woman who killed herself after being betrayed by her two children, Ajan’s only comment was the following: “This is what happens when you depend on the love of others.” I remember thinking at the time that it sounded very harsh, I was so unused to this way of seeing things.
Yet of course it is true. When you depend on the love of others for happiness, when you depend on that to survive, you are going to suffer, because the love of others is not something dependable, it is something that you are guaranteed to lose. It is a sandcastle that is certain to fall, either when they stop loving you, or when they die, or when you die. One or the other will happen sooner or later.
Whatever we consider part of us, whatever we love and depend on, can and will turn against us at some point, and it is therefore a source of suffering. The most fundamental example is the human body, which is your friend as long as you are young and healthy, but that so quickly and so easily becomes a source of pain and the seat of disease, and that eventually kills you.
But why is it that we do not see this? Why is it that practically nowhere in the world will you find somebody who faces the collapse of their world with the wisdom of Sona; indeed, everybody stubbornly continues to build sandcastle after sandcastle, watching them all fall, crying, and then starting to build a new one, expecting this one to hold up? (The sandcastle could be anything – your family, your career, your house, your children, your fame, your reputation – anything on which you depend, to which you are attached, you consider part of you.)
It is because we always blame the object, not the attachment. Always we blame the wicked person who comes along and knocks down the sandcastle, rather than blaming the material of the castle for being unstable, and ourselves for being stupid enough to try to build something out of this material and expecting it to last.
We are trained and conditioned to see the problem outside us, to see ourselves as the victims of our suffering, never responsible for it. It’s never our own behaviour that is to blame, it’s never us that has to change. It’s always something outside that we have to modify, to allow our misguided actions to continue just as they were.