The Second Arrow -
A Parable for Helpers and Activists

Ken Jones

When afflicted with a feeling of pain those who lack inner awareness sorrow, grieve and lament, beating their breasts and becoming distraught. So they feel two pains, physical and mental. It is just like being shot with an arrow, and right afterwards being shot with a second one, so that they feel two arrows.(1)

Thus the Buddha explained the distinction between pain – an affliction – on the one hand, and, on the other, our suffering from pain, — how our experience of pain can discomfit, frustrate or agonize us. This is an extremely important distinction whether in helping ourselves, in offering help to others, or in trying to do something to remedy the injustices in the world. This distinction is a growing point for wisdom and compassion. Let us explore it first on the personal level which the Buddha evidently had in mind. This is about helping ourselves and offering help to others individually.

In our high-resource, high-tech culture it has become more difficult to perceive this distinction between the two arrows because as soon as we are discomfited we are able in most cases to reach for some external fix to remove or alleviate the affliction. In traditional cultures, without the quick fix mentality, there was more opportunity to reflect on how an affliction was experienced, and from such reflection evolved magic and spirituality. Let us consider two present-day examples, of a person diagnosed with cancer, and an old age pensioner suffering from poverty. The cancer may be fixed by treatment, but perhaps still not curable. The poverty may be reduced by welfare payments for which the pensioner had not known she was eligible. But in both cases the second arrow may continue to be felt.

“Suffering I teach, and the way out of suffering” was the Buddha’s fundamental teaching. The ancient meditative practice of bare awareness (or mindfulness) which he taught can enable us to experience our afflictions at least so they feel less acute and more manageable. And more, it can enable us to work with our afflictions so that we begin the experience the whole of life in a radically different way – the “way out of suffering”.

For a start, we can develop a positive frame of mind for this work by reflecting on how illogical it is for this self to be so unique and special as to expect to be free from affliction. We can then determine to make a transformative use of our suffering, instead of just being a confused, complaining victim.

The next step is to identify and then hold in attention our favourite ways of evading our afflictions. These may include outright denial, rationalising and explaining away our situation and trying to push our feelings into the background, trying to do this by preoccupying ourselves with external fixes (like becoming an expert on one’s illness), projecting our anger onto others, manipulating them with our self-pity, torturing ourselves with guilt, and so on.

We have to practice becoming familiar with the physical nature of our reactions to affliction, to identify them and experience their gut feeling. This requires a middle way of neither giving vent to suffering nor suppressing it, but holding it in naked attentiveness and trying to remain in that place. Once familiar with our evasions we can become more intimate with the deeper feelings we seek to evade, like rage, fear, despair and shame. To stare these in the face requires courage and determination.

A radical turnabout occurs as we begin wholeheartedly to accept our situation as just how it is. Here there is a profound sense of relief, of liberation, which is also the freedom from self-centredness which opens us to the needs of others.

If we work with others who are also suffering – and preferably in the same way as we are — this can, in turn, help our own awareness practice. For example, if you suffer from loneliness and despair then volunteer to work with the Samaritans.

When we befriend others as equals, hang out with them and share and feel what they are going through, a wondrous chemistry can take place. Together there grows warm and positive acceptance of our suffering human condition, releasing a new sense of possibility.

For Buddhists working for peace and social justice the parable also has great value.

The first arrow is the underlying angst of being a vulnerable and mortal human animal. Throughout history people have struggled fruitlessly to fill this sense of lack by banding together by race and gender and as clans, nations, states, social classes, ideological movements, political parties, and a host of other groupings. This sense of belongingness identity has been boosted by strongly differentiating between us and them, and by projecting the “Three Fires” of rage, greed and fear-driven ignorance upon alien groups. All this tragic folly is for humankind the “second arrow”. Both history and experiment have shown that this antithetical bonding can kick in at the slightest pretext sometimes with murderous consequences.

Buddhist activists need to summon up all their intellectual and, especially, their emotional awareness if they are not to be caught up in the push and pull of this process. The analyses, theories and policies required by any movement for social change need to be distinguished from the tendency for these to solidify in self-affirming dogma and ideology -and their subtle variants. Similarly it is necessary to distinguish between mutual support and the belongingness which breeds a uniformity of outlook and erodes individual judgement.

It requires a trained emotional sensitivity to detect and avoid these often quite subtle evasions and to sustain an authentic spirit of inquiry and independence. Thereby we expose ourselves to the elusive and complex nature of social realities and must find the courage to act resolutely amidst uncertainty. Further, it can be deeply unsettling to open with empathy to the feelings and views of our adversaries, beyond the black-versus-white mentality of many people with whom we may be working.. And when we see through the often self-serving illusions about the effectiveness of radical movements we then expose ourselves to previously masked feelings of powerlessness and frustration.

All this may precipitate a mood of despair similar to when we open in full awareness to some personal affliction. And, similarly, this practice can gift us with the same calm clarity and the same inner strength. We become more effective as activists but also we begin to experience self and reality in a radically new light.

For Buddhists, the standpoints of, first, pacifism; secondly, non-violence; and, third, peacemaking provide piquant examples. By pacifism I mean a dogmatic belief that peace and justice can invariably and only be achieved through non-violence – a belief commonly supported by highly selective historical evidence. Second, I refer to the position of “non-violence” here simply to mean an absolute ethical stance of refusal to condone violence in any circumstances whatsoever. “Peacemaking” is the term I use for a broader and situational ethic which condones a resort to appropriate violence as a final resort in order to prevent a much greater violence being perpetrated. For example, had the United Nations Dutch conscripts at Srebenica used their weapons they could have saved thousands of innocent people from a cruel death. Although I have much respect for the second position, that of non-violence, it is only the “peace maker” who faces the painful moral dilemma exposed by total clarity and is free to act out of an unqualified compassion. This problem I have explored more fully in an essay entitled “Buddhist Pacifism”.

Socially speaking, then, the second arrow is a metaphor that encompasses the huge historical follies which are, at bottom, humanity’s response to its existential frailty. And the great emancipatory movements for social justice, insofar as they have been flawed, incomplete and problematic partake of those follies. Participating in these movements, Buddhist activists need to subject them to a positive critical awareness analogous to the inturned gaze and questioning of their own personal practice. And to speak and act accordingly.

(1) The Buddha’s parable of the two arrows can be found in the Samyutta-nikaya, xxxvi.6 (the Sallatha Sutta), from which this is a free translation