Joe Jencks


Marley, Emerson, & The Buddhist Monks

Marley Emerson amp The Buddhist Monks

The sunset in my driver's side mirror. On I-80 east of Cheyenne, WY.

Of late, I have been chewing on three very different but connected bits of wisdom. One is a quote from Bob Marley, another from Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the third an old Buddhist story.

Bob Marley once said, “Truth is, everybody is going to hurt you. You just gotta find the ones worth suffering for.”

WOW.  Isn’t that the truth! Everyone we love, everything we love will cause us pain eventually. Most likely unintentionally, but nonetheless it/they will cause us pain. It is the flip side of loving.

We love someone and then that person travels or moves or dies. We experience the pain of loss. We love a car, and it is stolen. We love a musical instrument, and it is broken. We love a flower, and its beauty is transitory at best, destined to fade. But is it worth loving in the first place, knowing that this inevitable angst is part of the deal? Well, of course! Loss makes way for newness. The coming winter will make way for the spring. But still, it gives us pause. It is in fact worth considering what and whom we choose to love. Because in the long run, some form of pain will come into the picture, some sword of discernment will slice through our lives, and we will question where our time, money and energy have been going. So why not choose in the first place?

I love chocolate and bacon. No necessarily together. But I limit my intake of both. Likewise I love good science fiction. And thanks to Hulu and Netflix, I can watch as much of it as I want. All the time! But that really is not in the best interest of maintaining strong relationships and paying the rent, and developing my art. SO I limit the time I am in service to my Sci-Fi cravings. Because there are only so many hours in the day, and if I want to be in service to other things and people, I need to make the time.

The second bit of wisdom is from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He wrote, “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

Again, WOW! I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately. And I have been wondering what it is that I am in service to in my life, both consciously and unconsciously. What do I idolize? Where does my mind wander off to when I am in “screen saver” mode? What gets the most of my time and attention? As a touring musician one might get the idea that our nations interstate system is a sacred pathway for me. Perhaps that is true. The journey is sacred.

I have made so many good friends along the way. I have learned more about myself, and humanity. When the TV blares about how dire things are, I disagree. I live in a hopeful world. A world where people help each other, feed each other, support each other’s art and gather weekly in the temples of our homes and cafés, concert halls and festivals; and we celebrate. We mourn. We think and feel. We welcome the new ones and venerate our elders. We are a community. However disconnected physically, we are a community. You are my community. And you are worth suffering for.

But I have a home too! And people there I wish to be in service to. How does one balance the two agendas? We all ask this question no matter what our work may be. How do we balance career, community, and family?

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t buy into the whole “suffering for your art” thing. I think we love our art, we love our work, and we love our families. Or we don’t. And if we do, it is reflected in the way we conduct ourselves. If we don’t love what we are in service to, that also is reflected in how we act. But the idea that art necessarily requires suffering is silly to me. We will suffer some for anything we love. But art no more so than athletics or academics or any other path of our choosing. In fact, I think the extent to which we choose our path, is the extent to which we transform our suffering into meaningful service. And there is a massive difference between unnecessary suffering and chosen service.

Bob Marley is right. So is Emerson. We can choose what we are in service to, or we can make decisions by not choosing. Then we are in service to things and people by default. That is what leads to unhappiness as far as I can tell. Being in service to the things we choose is a whole different matter. Being in service to a child we chose to have? Beautiful. Intentional. Being in service to an ideology broadcast as propaganda on a “fair and balanced” “news” service? Questionable.

This brings me to the Buddhist parable called “The Two Monks And The Woman,” as told to me by Rev. Bill Darlison. Bill is the Unitarian Minister at the Dublin Unitarian Church in Ireland. I met Rev. Bill while I was on tour there a few years ago.

An elder Buddhist monk and his younger companion were walking between two monasteries one day. They came upon a river, where a young woman was trying to cross. She was terribly afraid of trying to cross the river. She did not know how to swim, and was fearful for her life. But she needed to cross the river. The elder monk offered to carry her across. She carefully climbed up on his shoulders and he carried her across, leaving her dry and safe on the other side.

The young monk was outraged. As the monks continued on their journey, the younger chastised the elder for his actions. Did he not remember that their order forbid the monks to touch a woman? Especially one so young and beautiful! Was he not aware of the sacred oaths they had taken? What would others say and think about them for this transgression. The younger monk pontificated for several miles.

Finally the elder monk could take no more. He turned to his younger companion and said, “Brother, I left the woman behind at the river bank. Why are you still carrying her?”

What burdens do we carry, unconsciously? What grudges? How often do we shoulder loads that we need not, unaware that it is ours to choose what to carry and what to release? It is ours to choose what we will worship. It is ours to choose who we will love, and for what we are willing to suffer.

For my part, as I begin my 11th year as a full-time touring musician, I am clear about my choices. I choose community every time. Family. Spouse. Friends. Church. Synagogue. Band-mates. Co-Workers. Fellow Musicians and Travelers. I choose all of these communities, because they share the journey and lend meaning to the sunrise and sunset. They help mark the passage of time and offer collective meaning to the experience of being alive.

Who do you choose? What are you willing to be in service to? What are you no longer willing to be in service to? How can that awareness of suffering vs. service lead you to other, perhaps better or more transformative choices?

Sisters and Brothers, it is a pleasure to share the journey with you. Thanks for making it a great decade. May the next one be even better!

In Gratitude & Song…

-Joe Jencks