Eating A Candy Bar
A Dharma Story
Dad comes home from work just before dinner to hear Mom yelling at their 14-year old son for eating a chocolate bar when it’s half an hour before dinner. The mother is enraged; the father doesn’t see a problem.
What this story tells us is that eating a chocolate bar isn’t good or bad. It isn’t a right or wrong thing to do. Why? Because eating a chocolate bar doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning. If it did, it would always be the same to everyone, regardless of the conditions. But that is not the case; otherwise the couple would be in agreement: they would both see the incident as bad, leaving them both infuriated, or they would both see it as good, leaving them patient and calm.
What the dharma tells us is that eating a candy bar can be either good or bad because eating a candy bar isn’t intrinsically anything, it is “empty.” When the dharma says something is empty, it isn’t denying that it is real. It is simply saying it is meaningless until we assign it a value. So in this example, it wasn’t good or bad until the parents imposed their ideas on it. And they could only impose their ideas on it because it was empty.
A further look at the incident reveals that the boy was hungry as dinnertime approached and so snacked on a chocolate bar. He was tired and worn down after basketball practice that afternoon; he saw eating the chocolate as a good choice. Mom became infuriated because she had spent an hour that afternoon shopping for dinner, another hour preparing a “healthy” meal for the family, and there was her son, ruining his appetite on a bar of sugar and fat. It was bad, wrong, disrespectful, unhealthy, and so on. Dad comes in the door, having had a great day at the office, and can’t see anything to get angry about: it’s just a chocolate bar.
What makes something right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, fair or unfair, is simply whether we define it as something we like or don’t like. Things we feel an affinity for are right, good, just and fair; things feel an aversion toward are wrong, bad, unjust and unfair. Once those feelings arise in us, we fabricate “stories” to explain and justify the feelings. Then we take ownership of the stories and identify ourselves by them: “I’m the kind of mother who becomes angry when the boy misbehaves and her husband is unsupportive.” And that’s the problem.
It is always our “stories,” our skewed relationship with what’s happening not what’s happening, that causes our suffering–never the people, places, things or events that are happening.
This is a key understanding of the dharma, that everything is empty and that we are the source of our own suffering.
What this means is that if we stop telling stories we will end our suffering. It is that simple. The great way is easy; just stop the stories as Sengcan tells us. Unfortunately, we are great storytellers and we love our stories. It’s hard to see that giving them up will make us happy and even harder to give them up. But storytelling is the source of all suffering.