This morning, a fire truck went by, sirens blaring. Yesterday, walking downtown, I saw two ambulances and heard another a few streets away. Every time I hear those sounds and see those flashing lights, a part of me wonders, Is it someone I know? Sometimes that feels more abstract, kind of a what-are-the-odds feeling; other times, especially when it’s near my home, my mind rushes to where I last saw the neighbor kids playing, or how I noticed earlier the guy up the street is cutting down trees today.
How many people do you know? How many people are in that circle of concern, where your mind goes to them and you think, Could it be? It’s hard to know how to start. There’s a very short thread connecting me to my partner and kids—even the thought, rational or irrational, of the possibility of them getting hurt does something to me physically. It’s like the feeling of suddenly falling. Beyond them, there’s a tier of people I can’t possibly count but whom I care about. My worry may not go straight to them, but if someone told me it should, I’d feel that same sick feeling. And then there’s everybody else, all the ones I’ve never actually met. When I hear the ambulance, I can’t picture them, but in my mind there’s a collage of faces that pops up, and I wonder if the person who needs help might be someone like this.
On some level, when we hear that siren, we know it doesn’t matter if we know the person or not—or at least, that it shouldn’t matter. But the truth is, points of actual connection feel like they matter. When we find out someone loves the same food we do, we feel something open up toward them; when we learn that a celebrity grew up watching and loving the same TV shows as us, we feel like, oh, there’s a thread here between them and me. We know each other, at least a little.
Buddhism has a lot to say about these points of connection. In fact, you could say Buddhism rests on them—they’re the foundation of the whole thing. The first noble truth is about finding what ties us to everyone else: all experience is characterized by dukkha, or dissatisfaction. All of it. In my experience, most people, when they hear this for the first time, test it on themselves—Am I really dissatisfied all the time? It might take a while to answer the question, and by the time you do—if you do—it might feel like seeing that and addressing it in yourself is the whole point.
But that’s only part of it. The second part is looking up, looking around, and letting it sink in that this is true for everyone. Every single person you meet—in that moment and in all others, they are experiencing some aspect of dukkha. Your doctor, your child, the person crossing the street, the fans in the crowd at the game you’re watching on TV, they all feel, right now, that something is at least a little bit off. If you met them at a party and could find a way to ask them about it—“What, for you, feels off right now?”—you would not only connect over it but you would also feel you know that person in a fairly profound way. It’s a heavy question, one that points to who we are.
Dukkha is by no means the only universal in Buddhism. Just to take up the three seals, we have dukkha, but we also have impermanence and interdependence (nonself). If we recognize those in ourselves, and then extend that recognition to others, the world around us changes, deepens. We see that everyone used to be someone else; we see that everyone is dying; we see that everyone is being shaped by their worlds, in ways they welcome and resent and, for the most part, don’t even see. Just like us.
When that ambulance goes by, we shouldn’t ignore it. We should notice what it represents, that someone is in distress, that they’re experiencing fear or pain or uncertainty. In that first breath after we hear the sound, we can ask ourselves, is it someone I know? We can feel the weight and the worry of that question; we can spin through the possibilities. But then, in the second breath, we can let the simple truth sink in that yes, it is someone I know. It always has been. It will be every time.
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) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.