Rimpoche Palden Gyatso was one of many Buddhist monks imprisoned during the Chinese invasion of Tibet. For thirty-three years he was tortured on a daily basis before he was finally released. After he made his way to India, he was asked by the Dalai Lama, “What was the worst thing you experienced while in prison?”
After considering the question for a moment, Palden Gyatso replied, “The worst thing was that I almost lost my love and compassion towards my brothers and sisters from China.”
(Rimpoche Palden Gyatso)
Each time I think of his response my mind shatters with awe. It is remarkable that Palden survived thirty-three years of torture, but it is even more unbelievable that he survived with his practice of lovingkindness towards all sentient beings intact.
I think of all the little grudges I hold on to day in and day out, the minor annoyances I refuse to overlook. How did Palden manage to remain true to who he was? Was this monk born especially kind and forgiving? Or did his years of Buddhist training, begun when he was a small boy, develop within him a strength and fortitude that was unbreakable even under the harshest conditions?
Viktor Frankl was a German psychiatrist who studied these very questions. His firsthand experience during the five years he was held prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp allowed him to analyze the qualities and characteristics that enable humans to endure hardship and survive with their souls still whole.
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote that he could tell which of the prisoners would be psychologically sound upon being released and who would not. He said, “Everything you have in life can be taken from you except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. This is what determines the quality of life we’ve lived–not whether we’ve been rich or poor, famous or unknown, healthy or suffering. What determines our quality of life is how we relate to these realities, what kind of meaning we assign them, what kind of attitude we cling to about them, what state of mind we allow them to trigger.”
Frankl found that how well we survive and thrive does not necessarily depend on external sources. And it isn’t some extra special personality trait built into our genetic code. Instead, Frankl came to believe that our ability to survive has to do with how we view that which is happening to us, and how we choose to respond.
Wrote Palden of his prison experience, “You are receiving the anger and hatred and exchanging it with your love and compassion to that ignorant person who is torturing you… Whatever I learned (as a monk) I put into practice during my severe torture.”
When everything was taken away from Palden, he made the choice to use his years of lovingkindness training as a foundation for his survival. But a foundation is only useful if you make the choice to stand on it. Each individual has to choose how they are going to use that which they are given, and how to make the most of it. Each of us has to determine how we are going to view the world.
Wrote Frankl, “Man does not simply exist, but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”
Fortunately, it is unlikely that you or I will ever have to endure the inhuman treatment suffered by Palden, Frankl, and millions of others. Their stories are hard to hear, but the insights gleaned from their experiences are ones we can carry into our own lives. We each face our own hardships, large and small. Can we find a way to exchange anger, ignorance, and pain with love and compassion? Can we find our own sources within to help us rise above daily irritations and small disasters? Who will I choose to become in the next moment? Who will you choose to be?