The Samsaric Lives of Cowboys
When riding in a car, the one thing my parents and I can always agree to listen to is A Prairie Home Companion. During my parents’ recent visit, the local NPR station saved us from the otherwise unbearable Los Angeles traffic jam. This forty-year-old radio show is broadcast from the fictional Lake Woebegone, Minnesota (aka, Saint Paul), “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Amongst its many reoccurring skits are “The Lives of the Cowboys,” featuring Dusty (aka Tim Russell) and Lefty (aka Garrison Keillor) and whatever guests they happen to run into on the ‘lonesome’ trail. On February 19, 2011, that happened to be the entire concert choir of the University of Minnesota – Morris, whose, ahem, bus had broken down. Hilarity ensued, along with quite a good description of samsara.
Note: You can listen below or read the entire script here.
EMILY: Excuse me—– but are you homeless?
LEFTY: No, ma’am. We’re cowboys.
EMILY: What’s the difference?
LEFTY: Very good question. We herd cattle, for one thing.
JETHRO: Do you enjoy doing this?
DUSTY: Enjoyment isn’t the word I’d use, no.
LEFTY: The thing is, we get lonesome on the trail and we long for social life so we go to town and once we get amongst people, we gradually come to despise them and then we have to come back to the godforsaken dusty plains to get lonely enough.
JETHRO: Sounds like something we studied in humanities class. Called Existentialism.
As noted in a prior post, existentialism stops halfway, telling us a lot about the problem, but very little about the solution. As a Buddhist, this sounds more like samsara and the energy of the three poisons, desire, aversion, and ignorance.
Naturally, the students saw the solution as creating something else to chase after, something to make and be and do. They wanted to change the situation. Whereas good ol’ Dusty and Lefty had other ideas. They saw things the way they were. They recognized the change that needed to occur was a change in themselves. (Not that they were likely to bother, of course.)
EMILY: So you’re just riding up and down the dusty trail, driving cattle for no particular reason, feeling lonely and miserable, and you go to town and you don’t like that either, so you come back on the trail and feel miserable again. Is that fairly accurate?
LEFTY: You summed it up, darling.
EMILY: You could change this.
EMILY: You need to form a group.
JETHRO: Like Cowboys Anonymous.
DUSTY: We’re all anonymous.
JETHRO: Men Coming To Terms With Their Loneliness.
RHONDA: You need to get together with cowboys who suffer from the same things you do and tell your stories and help each other through this to some sort of solution.
DUSTY: But we don’t like other cowboys. That’s why we carry six-guns.
LEFTY: You lose your social skills out on the trail. You get cranky and ornery and you pile up buried aggressions.
RHONDA: Maybe you need a girlfriend.
EMILY: I hope you find some friends. I really do. That’s why we’re in choir, you know.
RHONDA: You stand shoulder to shoulder with other people and sing in harmony and it really does something for you.
JARED: And it’s the only time you can stand two feet away from a girl and not have to think up things to say.
LEFTY: Good kids, huh? Trying to cheer us up.
DUSTY: Yeah. They needed help and they were trying to help us.
LEFTY: Maybe they were right about finding a group.
DUSTY: You want to go look for one?
DUSTY: Neither do I.
LEFTY: Then let’s not. We owe it to the world to be stubborn nonconformists.
DUSTY: The last unorganized group in America, aside from the Democratic party.
LEFTY: This is the first thing you and I have agreed on in years.
DUSTY: Makes me nervous.
LEFTY: Me too. Well, we got a lot of flapjacks to eat. Better get started.
We live our lives this way, to some extent, running from town to wilderness and back again, thinking this thing or that thing will make us happy. Dusty and Lefty do it to, even if they’re realized and accepted the futility of it. Of course, the choir had a point. That’s why the Buddha founded the sangha, and why it is one of the Triple Jewels in which we take refuge. We’re all walking shoulder to shoulder so to speak, and the meditation hall is where we can be next to each other without having to think of something to say.
However, the buddhadharma gives us a way out. We can stop running and find ultimate refuge. And those of us who try that path are also stubborn nonconformists. We have to be stubborn and persevere, because that’s the only way it’ll get done. And who is the ultimate nonconformist but the Buddha, he who is awake? He who, out of billions of lives and billions of rebirths, gained freedom from samsara. If we want to follow that trail, we better get started, too.