In the darkest cold of winter we all take comfort - take refuge - in the thought of the returning warmth of the spring. This refuge can take - usually - one of two forms: depression from the fact that it’s not here yet and we still have to deal with the cold and the snow and the dark or we can use it as a guiding light in the darkness, letting the thought of spring simply be a goal as we continue to live in the existing reality of the winter. I’m sure you know which I’m going to say is the Buddhist way….
From my office window at home I can see my magnolia tree and the future blooms of spring are already set as bulging buds in the fall. This view inspired me a few winters ago to write this poem:
Buds on the trees
Do not oppose the winter
The spring flowers do not fight against the winter but accept it and are indeed strengthened by it. The future simply is, yet the tree still believes in it enough to set buds in the fall that will become flowers in the spring.
Will all of the buds survive? Perhaps not. Will all of our plans for the future come true? Probably not. Yet the tree does not let this truth stop it from setting buds and we should not let it stop us from making plans for the future. Some people - even Buddhist teachers - say that Buddhists should simply accept whatever comes their way. This is true but only applies to the present moment, not the future.
This teaching does not mean that we don’t make plans for the future nor that we should stop working toward making those plans a reality; it only means that when the future becomes the present moment we must put away clinging to our visions of what we wanted it to be and accept what it has actually become.
I’ve said many times that Buddhism is not a passive religion - no matter what the perception in the West may be. The Buddhist actively works toward making the world a better place for all beings; but they also accept what the present moment actually gives them rather than becoming despondent that the moment doesn’t meet their expectations. To passively accept that the future will be what it will be and that we cannot change it is to abrogate our commitments from the Bodhisattva Vow. To refuse to accept what the present is when it appears out of the future is to increase dukkha in ourselves and those around us.
These are not contradictions, they are corollaries. If you think about it, plans for the future - if they are to come to fruition - must be based on the reality of the present. If you don’t start your work from where you are you’ll never get to where you want to go; so the very act of working toward a goal in the future depends on accepting the present reality as it actually is. Likewise, if you don’t plan and work to make the future better you are condemning yourself to live trapped in an unchanging past that just continues to repeat itself. Either way leads only to dukkha not to liberation.
Is thinking about the warmth of spring going to make the winter go away? No; but it can offer a glimpse of light to make impermanence more apparent to us when we may think that darkness and cold will never end. Another of my winter poems reads:
Blanketing the world in changeless white.
Moonlight on green grass.
In heat of summer see the coming frost; in the cold of winter the coming flowers.