Recently I was reminded of the Serenity Prayer and was struck by how Buddhism speaks to it. Here’s the version we hear most often:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
“The serenity to accept the things I cannot change”—that’s Buddhism’s starting place. Siddhartha’s own spiritual journey began with waking up to the inevitability of sickness, aging, and death; today, 2500 years later, many people’s spiritual practice is really about coming to terms with those same things. What makes the Buddhist approach unusual is that it doesn’t offer a way out. Faced with the things we cannot change, we aren’t offered a way to appeal to any other power to alleviate our suffering, or to reward us for our suffering, or to punish others for causing it. Instead, we’re taught to just be with it, to keep our eyes wide open, and to work from that honest place.
Buddhism also really comes through on “the wisdom to know the difference.” Wisdom (prajna) can sound like a really big deal; in spiritual contexts, especially, “wisdom” can sound like it involves a special way of seeing, even something like omniscience. But it’s less exciting than that. Wisdom is more like what we assume comes—or should come—with old age and experience. It’s a mature view. For that reason, prajna is sometimes translated as “discernment”—not a magical, all-seeing eye, but clear judgment about what is this, and what is that. As we grow in our lives, we usually see that wisdom manifest in the form of “don’t sweat the small stuff.” With time and age—and loss—that progresses to an acceptance (not necessarily an embrace, but an acceptance) of what is beyond our control. Sickness, aging, and death are the classics. But the fact is, in the moment something is happening, it’s already beyond our control, at least in that moment. To know that is to know the obvious, but for most of us, most of the time, it doesn’t feel obvious at all. So we call it wisdom.
Where I think this prayer gets complicated in its intersection with Buddhism is in the second line, “the courage to change the things I can.” It’s a failure of Buddhist marketing, in my opinion, that so many people read these teachings and come to the conclusion that they’re supposed to just be at peace with everything. I am asked all the time, “Isn’t Buddhism kind of saying we should give up on trying to make anything better?” But I get it, too—that acceptance message is strong, and that can be confusing. And here’s why the discernment part matters so much: not everything we face is something we cannot change.
It is a symptom of twenty-first century life that we are constantly in the presence of things that are too big for us to properly comprehend. From the internet and social media, to systems like capitalism, to systemic issues like institutionalized racism and sexism, we are, in most moments of our lives, a part of things we know are there but can’t quantify and can’t see, at least not in their entirety. And that can make them feel like sickness, aging, and death, as if we’ve expanded “death and taxes” to be “death and modern life.” It’s overwhelming. It is for me, at least.
Buddhism has a lot to say about this. It’s subtle, and it can be a little confusing, but this part matters, a lot. For example, there’s the clarity we can’t change this moment—but we can, in this moment, be on a trajectory toward making change in the next one. There’s also interdependence: if my life is informed by (and informing) everything else, then I’m a part of the internet, I’m a part of the systems that cause so much harm, I’m a part of whatever it is that is bringing me down or feels like too much. That can feel like bad news—it’s hard to fight on the front lines of me. I can’t just walk away from me. But that, maybe, is the point. Because we are a part of these things (like it or not), we can change ourselves, and in doing so, we can change them. Maybe that means change in an active way, a reshaping from the inside; maybe it means stepping away, consuming less of whatever that thing is. But if we don’t have that discernment, if we can’t distinguish between what is inevitable and what is simply too big to wrap our heads around or hide from, we will fall into believing that it is all inevitable, that there is no other path we can take, that Buddhism means there’s nothing to be done.
There’s a lot to be done.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.