The Countess and the City
The Buddha achieved enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi Tree, probably a distant cousin of Prince Andrei’s Oak. According to tradition, as recorded in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha’s first order of business after unlocking this achievement was to share his insights with five of his former ascetic companions. A portion of the sermon he shared with those men that day is now known as the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The First Noble Truth, understood by anyone familiar with Thomas Hardy novels, a close encounter with a TSA agent, or trying to find reasonable discourse on twitter, is that all life is suffering. “This, monks,” the Buddha preached, “is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, disease is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unloved is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not getting what one wants is suffering, in brief the five aggregates of grasping are suffering.”
All consuming suffering is pretty close to Bodhisattva Leo’s presentation of human existence in War and Peace and in today’s chapter Countess Rostova’s anguish over the separation from her beloved Petya serves as a sample of his masterful literary presentation of this truth.
The old lady suffers. That’s for sure. With both her sons off to war her heart is seized with terror. Haunting thoughts plague her mind. She gets no rest. She is irritated even by the presence of Sonya, Natasha, and her husband, people she loves dearly. The root of her suffering is her attachment to Petya. She cannot bear the thought that this earthly attachment could be severed at any moment by a French attack on his regiment.
It seems it’s suffering all around. Tolstoy, however, provides a counterpoint to the Countess in the form of the city of Moscow itself. Like the Countess, Moscow contemplates tragedy. Tolstoy tells us that the Muscovites understand that the city will be abandoned, that the French will occupy it, that it might very well be destroyed. They understand the horrors and deprivations that typically accompany a military occupation. Yet, things go on normally. Tolstoy writes, “As a criminal who is being led to the execution knows that he must die immediately, but yet looks about him and straightens the cap that is awry on his head, so Moscow involuntarily continued its wonted life, though it knew that the time of its destruction was near when the conditions of life to which its people were accustomed to submit would be completely upset.”
The Countess and Moscow both understand that something dear to them can be snatched away at any moment. The Countess bemoans this simple fact of life and suffers dearly as a result of her attachment. Moscow, on the other hand, understanding that its destruction or preservation is wholly without its power, soldiers on. The difference between the two is the difference between continued suffering and the approach to mental tranquility.
For this is the greatest proof of unhappiness and misfortune: I desire something, and it does not happen.
Epictetus, The Discourses