The two sentences that saved my bacon
The bare knuckle boxer, the Brazilian hunting knife and a close shave.
Part 1. Why worry?
This is my story of how I became convinced by the gloriously straightforward wisdom of two simple sentences from the 8th Century Buddhist master, Shantideva.
Sometime in the late 90’s, in the murky gap between graduation and ‘real life’ I decided to pack a bag and solo trek the 550 km from Paris to a little town called Le Bugue in the Dordogne region of France. My actual destination was Chang Lo Chen, the retreat centre founded by my teacher, Lama Jampa Thaye. Back then it was not much more than an anonymous looking barn in the middle of a field. Every two years, we would gather there and transform it into a hub of Buddhist teaching and practice. (It’s quite different now though of course!)
I had no real plan. I had weeks to get there before the teachings commenced and so I had just set off into France, taking the “Grande Randonne 10”, a popular trekking route marked by little red and white stripes on tree trunks and fence posts throughout France. I followed its winding route through forests, endless fields and country roads, camping where ever I dropped for the day.
I was prepared for the heat. I wasn’t prepared for a series of thunderstorms that circled me for days and days though. There were more than a few times when I had to swiftly erect my trusty little dome tent by a field of maize and hunker down as the fierce winds tried to rip the thing away.
After a few weeks of roaming - subsisting off french sticks brie and coffee I made it to the serene Loire valley.
For the first time in a couple of weeks I camped in the relative luxury of a proper campsite.
It had been a long hot slog that day and as evening set in, I wearily erected my increasingly battered home and had some water heating in a whistling kettle on a stove for a well deserved mug of coffee and a meal of noodles and stale bread.
A commotion attracted my attention.
An argument was taking place in French at the entrance to the site.
A large, muscular, thuggish looking man, bag slung across his back was swearing and flinging his hands around in gaelic disgust. Tattoos snaked all along his arms, neck and face. He had the swarthy black hair and tanned complexion of a Disney pirate.
Eventually the commotion subsided. The ‘pirate’ peeled a note from a massive wad in the back pocket of his jeans and swaggered—like a brooding Blackbeard—into the site leaving onlookers in his wake shaking their heads in concern.
The evening sun sent shadows stretching out from the trees dotted about the campsite. It would be dark soon. The Loire river gurgled behind me. I ducked inside my tent. Just like a bunch of others did, all—I am sure—making the same prayer.
The sound of his slow boots scuffing the dirt came closer. I zipped up the door, leaving the kettle still gently heating water on the outside.
The boots stopped four or five feet away.
There was the horrible metallic clank of tent poles sliding from their bag and hitting the ground. Then grunting and heavy breathing. The thud of a hammer.
The pirate had chosen to pitch next to me.
Unanswered prayer number 40067.
I started wishing I'd spent twenty pounds more for a tent with a back door, so I could sneak out without being seen. I even briefly entertained the fantasy of burrowing under the walls of the tent, leaving it there and getting on the road before it was completely dark. I had enough money to buy another tent. This one was getting frayed and had started to leak anyway.
I winced at the whistling hoot of my kettle outside my door as the water finally came to a boil. If I poked my head out to switch it off there’d be no avoiding him. He’d see my face…
There’s this teaching I memorised by the 8th century Indian master, Shantideva.
As I sat in my tent listening to the whistling kettle and the hammering of tent pegs a few feet away, I remembered two lines from it. Two,lines that blew me away with their simplicity, obviousness and practicality.
‘If there is something you can do about a situation, then why worry?
And if there is nothing you can do about a situation, what is the use of worrying about it?’
Of all the lines of Shantideva's incredible text, these were the two that shone for me right then.
Let those two sentences just sink in for a second…
Now, I'm not claiming that they'll solve world hunger, or uncover a vaccine for the latest virus, but imagine them as the cornerstones of your life. Imagine applying these two simple lines of wisdom to a any number of problems in life. Just as a start... and then see what happens,
So, was there anything to be done about this situation? What was I going to do? Rip a hole in the tent? Stay inside until the dead of night, unpack quietly and leave before the bad man woke?
It didn’t take long to identify my real problem. Not the unknown Captain Jack Sparrow lookalike, not the boiling water now screaming outside my tent.
My problem was within. It was inside my mind, it was in my heart. My problem was the fear, My problem was the worry.
The fear was not out outside my tent. It was inside me.
So I decided I wasn’t waiting around to be robbed by this guy. But I wasn’t going to pack my stuff up either.
So I unzipped the tent.
By now Captain Jack had ducked into his own.
It was dark, there was a flashlight glow coming from inside.
I turned off the stove. The kettle stopped its persistent screeching. Just that alone calmed my jangling nerves.
I tipped a sachet of coffee into a steel camping mug and—my hands still shaking—poured in the steaming water.
I stood, making sure not to scold myself, reached over to his tent and patted the fabric door.
The flashlight stopped moving. A shadow shifted. The zipper on the tent door slowly growled. A swarthy face appeared. He had bruises under suspicious eyes that looked me up and down. His lips parted in a snarl, I wasn’t surprised that a couple of teeth were crowned with gold.
I held out the mug of coffee...
What would happen next?
See you next time for part 2.
It involves a kidnapping, and a brazilian hunting knife.