There are at least twenty things that are hard for human beings

buddha of happinessOne of my (and perhaps many others’) favorite texts is the following translation by Chu Ch’an from The Sutra of 42 Sections:

The Buddha said: “There are twenty things that are hard for human beings:
“It is hard to practice charity when one is poor.
“It is hard to study the Way when occupying a position of great authority.
“It is hard to surrender life at the approach of inevitable death.
“It is hard to get an opportunity of reading the sutras.
“It is hard to hear lust and desire (without yielding to them).
“It is hard to see something attractive without desiring it.
“It is hard to bear insult without making an angry reply.
“It is hard to have power and not to pay regard to it.
“It is hard to come into contact with things and yet remain unaffected by them.
“It is hard to study widely and investigate everything thoroughly.
“It is hard to overcome selfishness and sloth.
“It is hard to avoid making light of not having studied the Way enough.
“It is hard to keep the mind evenly balanced.
“It is hard to refrain from defining things as being something or not being something.
“It is hard to come into contact with clear perception of the Way.
“It is hard to perceive one’s own nature and through such perception to study the Way.
“It is hard to help others towards Enlightenment according to their various needs.
“It is hard to see the end of the Way without being moved.
“It is hard to discard successfully the shackles that bind us to the wheel of life and death as opportunities present themselves.”

We might imagine earnest schoolteachers giving this text to their students and proposing they come up with a twenty-first thing, or a thing for the twenty-first century. The other day, after a frustrating experience, I tried my hand at such an exercise, proposing to a few select colleagues:

It is hard to discuss something thoroughly in a meeting, think some quite modest decision has been made, and then discover that the decision is to put off any decision pending further, unnecessary study.

One of my colleagues, bless her heart — such exchanges break the monotony of twenty-first century life — replied with another quote from the Buddha or his ghostwriters: “If you propose to speak, always ask yourself — is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?”

Deflecting such passive-aggressiveness as may have been couching in that reply, I returned: “If I asked myself that, . . . I might never speak?!”

“Lol who would speak…?” was my happy reward.

“We might say,” I would propose, “only those who did not know what they were saying.”

  — William Eaton, Zeteo Executive Editor



Various translations of The Sutra of 42 Sections (and variations on that title) may be found in various books and online. For example, Ohio State University’s Huntington Archive offers a rather different and intriguing translation. Different, that is, from the one given above, which I may have found, years ago, in John Blofeld’s edition of the Sutra in 42 Sections.

The “is it true, is it kind” line seems to be a reduction of various things that the Buddha was long ago reported as saying. Or we might say that this is something the Buddha has been rather recently reported as saying. See “Bodhipaksa’s” very interesting blog, Fake Buddha Quotes. There he proposes, inter alia, that the quote in fact comes from Miscellaneous Poems, by Mary Ann Pietzker, published in 1872 by Griffith and Farran of London (at the “corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard”). He also offers some excerpts from more canonical Buddhist texts, texts that may have helped give rise to the “reduction” now in circulation. For example, from The Patimokkha, as translated by Ñanamoli Thera:

And what other five conditions must be established in himself [i.e. a bhikkhu who desires to admonish another]?

“Do I speak at the right time, or not? Do I speak of facts, or not? Do I speak gently or harshly? Do I speak profitable words or not? Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious?”

One comment

  1. Daniel D'Arezzo

    This is surely a more thought-provoking list than anything on the Letterman show but it is subject to questioning, the authority of the Buddha notwithstanding. And I question the first “hard thing,” because the poor are often more charitable than the rich. The widow gives her mite without any thought of having her name on a building or getting a tax deduction. What we see in the rich today is a tremendous sense of entitlement and a ferocious will to dominate government policy for their benefit.

    I question the third hard thing as well, only because I have a friend who willingly gave up life support because life had become a fate worse than death.

    Hard thing number 12 is somewhat enigmatic: I think it is addressed not to “human beings” but to acolytes who are not up to snuff. This is the sort of thing that The New Yorker used to refer to as “inside baseball”–too esoteric for the general public.

    Hard thing number 14 is paradoxical: defining something, by definition, is to say it is one thing and not the other.

    But, of course, the Buddha is not dispensing practical advice, as Confucius might have done. Paradox is part of the religious tool kit, so it is useless to object to it in this context.

    A secular list of hard things would look very different:
    It is hard to master an art without putting in long hours.
    It is hard to understand quantum physics without long hours of study.
    It is hard to run for Congress without at least a million dollars in your campaign fund.
    It is hard to eat just one potato chip.
    And so on.

    The notion that it is hard to speak the truth would be at home on any list of hard things.


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