Today I planned on doing a quick, 3 mile run during my lunch period. Since it was the first day back after Spring Break and I’m really not enjoying my job this year, I decided I could give myself that phycological and physical refresher in the middle of the day, despite all the paper-work and planning I need to get done. I was in the 4th floor bathroom in the middle of changing when I realized that I had forgotten to pack my running shorts — I’d set them out, but while I’d stuffed wicking underwear, socks, and a technical shirt into my backpack, I’d somehow forgotten my shorts. I might be hard-core when it comes to running, but not hard-core enough to do three miles in pair of ill-fitting jeans, so I just had to settle for being productive instead. Productivity is a poor substitute for running.
After school tomorrow I’m meeting up with M, as she has a doctor’s appointment and I’m going to watch the kids until she’s done. My plan was to run part or all of the way to her doctor’s office, but now the forecast is for pouring rain and thunderstorms starting at 3 am late tonight and not stopping until midnight Thursday. I don’t mind getting wet so much, but then not being able to change into anything dry when I’m done: that’s the kicker. I do think I’m going to try for 4 miles at lunch, rain or no rain. In fact, I’m sort of looking forward to a drenching wet run; as long as its not too cold, running in the rain is sort of fun. I’m going to take my Vibrams, so I won’t have to worry about wet socks, and I’ve already got a towel stashed in the back of my class-room. Running in the rain is like a work-out and the post-work out shower rolled into one!
No running shorts and pouring rain: both are obstacles to running, but both are only actual impediments if I allow them be. I could have run 3 miles today in my jeans. Would it have been pleasant? No, but I could have. I could also look out the window at pouring rain and decide not to go running, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to smile and go out and get wet. The jeans themselves are not the obstacle; the rain itself is not the obstacle — it is my perception of them as obstacles that is the obstacle. Buddhism teaches that there is no objective nature within phenomena, and in fact that all phenomena are illusory and empty.
Running teaches this as well: tell a dozen non-runners that you are going for a three mile run, and they look at you like you are superhuman. Tell it to a long-distance running club, and you’ve told them you’re warming up for a race. The distance itself is neither “long” nor “short,” it is how it is experienced. There is no “good” condition for a run: one can have a good run in jeans as well as technical shorts, in a light spring-breeze as well as a torrential down-pout. Depending on one’s level of skill and devotion, one may want to establish certain conditions that are more favorable to a good run (a comfortable tank-top, good shoes, temperate weather), just as most buddhist practitioners seek out quiet place to meditate, perhaps with incense and a candle. But the conditions are secondary, mere tools that allow those of us who are not yet skilled practitioners to engage successfully in the activity of meditation, or of running.
Of course, this is not to say that everything is possible at this moment if one only imagines it to be so. I cannot sit down at this moment and achieve perfect enlightenment, just as I cannot, at this moment, head out the door and run 100 miles. I have not created the conditions for them to occur, but that isn’t to say they are impossible, or even impossible for me, but merely impossible at this time. The true obstacle then is not the 100 miles, but the movement from this current place of impossibility to the place where it is possible; the true obstacle is realizing that the idea of impossibility has no extant reality, but is in the perception. If I choose not to take any of the steps towards running 100 miles, if I do not put those conditions in place, it will remain impossible.
In Buddhist iconography, many buddhas and bodhisattvas are shown holding a vajra, or lightningbolt, in one hand. This symbolizes their ability to remove obstacles and allow the conditions for enlightenment to arise. In Tibetan Buddhism, one of the most important figures is Padmasambhava, usually referred to as Guru Rinpoche, who not only brought Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet, but is thought to be an emination of Buddha Amitabha. His mantra, known as the Vajra Guru Mantra, is shown above in Tibetan, and is transliterated as Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung. It is supposed to be helpful in overcoming obstacles, and I actually like to hum it under my breath when I am stressed or upset (the tune it is sung to is also my favorite chant from the Chenrezig sadhana). But it is not a spell, and Guru Rinpoche is not going to magically make one’s problems go away, or make running easier. He might, however, remind you that all obstacles are within one’s own mind, and a little extra help from a metaphysical vajra never hurt anyone.