The 84th Problem

There’s a story about Buddha that has stuck with me since the first time I read it. It’s helped me in a number of ways. It’s helped me let go of things that I might have been worried about, it’s allowed me to feel a little more empathy for others and to be a little more accepting of what life throws at me.

The story goes that a farmer approached Buddha looking for help. He said, “I have a major problem and I know only you can help me.”

Buddha kept quiet and the man went on to narrate that his good-for-nothing son was troubling him and that he was mad at his wife because she supported her son over him.

The man said, “Do something so their minds change and they realize how much I’m doing for them.”

“I can’t solve this problem for you,” Buddha replied and lowered his eyes again, in a meditative state.

The farmer told Buddha how he was worried about the upcoming harvest as the weather didn’t seem too favorable and the monkeys were destroying his crop.

“I can’t help you with this one either,” Buddha said calmly.

Still hoping in the powers of Buddha, he told him that many people owed him money and he was having a hard time recovering it from his debtors. And that he too owed money to lenders and creditors. He asked Buddha if the sage could give him any remedy or amulet.

“Hmm…” Buddha said, “I can’t solve this problem for you.”

“What good are you then?” the man yelled. “Everyone says you are the enlightened one and here you can’t solve any of my problems. Is there absolutely nothing you can do? I’m tired of my terrible life.”

“You see,” Buddha said patiently, as if he hadn’t heard the man’s tirade, “at any point in time, you’ll always have 84 problems in your life. The 84th is the key.

If you solve the 84th problem, the first 83 will resolve themselves.”

“Please solve my 84th problem then,” the man said, going back to being humble. “How do I do it?” he added.

“First, we have to identify your 84th problem.”

“What is my 84th problem?”
Buddha smiled and peered deeply into the man’s eyes that were full of desire, doubt and anxiety.

“Your 84th problem is,” Buddha said and paused, “you want to get rid of the first 83 problems.”

It’s true! We all wish we didn’t have any problems. Or we imagine a future where everything is peachy, a time when the sun never stops shining and all our wildest dreams are an everyday reality. Unfortunately, the truth is that we will always have problems, some days we’ll solve a few, but then new ones will bubble up to take their place.

And so the Buddha teaches us to accept this fact instead of constantly fighting it. Like a child that gets upset every evening at bedtime, she cries and fights against it, but every night she must go to bed. Just like we must accept the inevitability that with life, comes problems. But the one problem we can solve right now, is our choice to fight against the inevitability that life always delivers problems. Just as certain as the sun will set every evening.

I find this such a calming idea, it allows me to not take everything so seriously. It also allows me to start to solve my other problems from a place of acceptance, rather than resistance. Just as our former little girl who hates the day to end learns that kicking and screaming doesn’t help. Instead, she will get a lot further if she accepts that she must go to bed eventually, but maybe first she can negotiate a bedtime story, or an extra half hour of playtime before the inevitable.

And one other little bonus I took from this story is that EVERYONE has problems. All those perfect people that seem to have it together, they have their problems too. Even the rich and famous have them, sure Jay-Z has 15 more than the rest of us. So let’s all try to be a little kinder to each other. We all got our own shit to be dealing with.

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