A Theme Park of Life

Not so long ago I went to the theme park Knottsberry Farm with some friends (you know who you are!). It was a fun day, a full day spent going from one ride to another. Most of the rides I went on were roller coasters. I didn’t know that there were so many of them at this park. Maybe one mistake that I made was to take a ride while my lunch was not completely digested. Thankfully I only started to feel queasy in the final stages of that ride. Up to that point, the ride had been a lot of fun. It was spinning me around at tremendous speeds, and I was enjoying the thrill of it. But what had started out as fun gradually turned painful as my lunch started to cause discomfort. The ride was now something that I wanted to get off as soon as possible.

It’s a bit like life too, isn’t it. When we get into something new we feel the thrill and joy of doing something new. It’s exciting, whatever it may be, a new job, a new relationship, or even going on a vacation. However, the joy felt at the beginning is always on the wane, till eventually suffering takes its place. I heard on the news that it is thought that people who are in relationships are suffering more than those who are single. I talked to a friend recently who is married with a beautiful home and two children. I have known her for years and it has always been her dream to have a family. She asked me how I was doing and I was telling her some of the woes of being single, and she said to me somewhat dejectedly “I guess married life isn’t that bad after all”. The point is not what is better married life or single life, but that I thought she had the perfect life. Of course, as those of us who follow the Buddha’s teachings know that when suffering is new we call it pleasure, and when pleasure gets old we call it suffering.

After spending the entire day at the park I had a great time, but it was time to leave at some point. Imagine if I could have staying as long as I wanted and go on all the rides I wanted without any waiting. What would I have felt? At first blush one might think that it would be wonderful and that we could keep doing it day in day out. For a while maybe. But even such fun would become boring, and the rides would lose their thrill the more times we went on them till eventually they would become something we didn’t want to go on anymore. A song that we love when we hear it for the first few times we think how great it is, and we can’t get enough of it. But inevitably that wonderful tune loses its magnetism with the repeated number of times listened to. All things in life are no different. Joy fades over time. Buddhism confronts this reality as it is.

While the others were watching Snoopy on Ice at the park, I took my final ride of the day on the intimidating Xcelerator rollercoaster. In all honesty I didn’t really want to get on this ride as it seemed a pointless exercise in scaring myself. But out of curiosity I went over to it to see what it was like. I stood at the fence close to the take off point for the cars. When I saw the long line queuing up to get on, I was for sure put off going on. It was cold, and I was wet from the water ride we had just been on. I had napkins taken from a café stuffed inside my jumper to soak up the water, while I stood by the fence waiting for take-off. The cars took off at the speed of a rocket. So fast they took off that the riders were warned about the impending take off by a series of colored lights, from red to amber to green, as is seen in Formula 1 racing. The cars blasted off at lightening speed towards the giant loop, but squeals from the riders echoed from the five cars almost the instant of take-off, such was the speed. I was mesmerized watching from the side, the speed which I later found out is from zero to 82 mph in 2.3 seconds. While watching the ride from outside the fence, hearing the screams of the riders and seeing the speed of the cars, I couldn’t help think that this is what it is like to fall into the afterlife, carried along without choice when we die. Once we die it is freefall, and anyone’s guess to where it goes. Once this spirit leaves the body it feels like it is something no longer in my control and in the hands of something else, destiny probably.

Nonetheless after watching three such launches, I found myself moving towards the entrance, and then down the long passage until I arrived at the tail end of the line. As I walked that passage I asked myself if I was going to be OK doing this. I wasn’t sure. But I found myself moving on regardless. Thankfully the line moved steadily, this in part to the short circuit of the ride, which was about a minute it seemed. Two young girls joined the line behind me. They looked no more than 12, and I was amazed they had the guts to take the ride. One said she had been on it before and wasn’t afraid, and she didn’t look afraid either. It was the other’s first time, and she told me she was doing it because she wanted to get over her fear of it. Maybe I was doing it for the same reason. More and more people joined the line, and the line moved forward. I began to feel like livestock in line at the slaughterhouse, unable to turn back, its destiny getting ever closer.

Fortunately by the time I arrived close to the front of the line, my fear had gone and I was excited to take the ride. To keep myself at bay, I hadn’t looked up at the cars for the past few rides, but now I was ready.

I sat myself down in a car, buckled myself in and pulled the safety bar up. The starting lights turned on: red, amber 1, amber 2, green. Wooooooooosh! As far as I can remember screams went out almost instantly. The speed was exhilarating as the cars went flashing down the 158 feet of track towards the 205 foot loop. It was a blur. I didn’t have time to think or be fearful of shooting up the loop that went almost vertical at 90 degrees. We were there before we knew it. After that it was easy to the end, and after a few sharp twists and turns the ride was zooming towards the finish, and it was over.

Buddha said that life passes quicker than the speed of someone running to gather four arrows shot off at the same time from four different directions. Maybe such a person would have to run 82 mph in 2.3 seconds or faster to catch all the arrows before they fall to the ground! The riders were there one moment, and the next they were gone. Gone in a flash. In life we are here and then we are gone. Gone as though we never existed. A year ago I visited the home of a friend in Ireland, as I usually do each time I am there. We sat and talked for a few hours, and said goodbye. Just a few days ago I got news of his passing. I never imagined the last time I saw him would be the last. Life is like sitting in a boat talking while headed for a waterfall, not knowing how close the edge is. For those who know the real Buddhist teaching, thankfully we have an opportunity to switch boats to Amida’s great ship before it’s too late.

Frank Costelloe, USA

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #36 | 2014, A Theme Park of Life

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