The 84th Problem

Cartoon by Brian Narelle (

A once well-to-do farmer had heard that the Buddha was a wonderful teacher and went to see him, seeking resolution to a set of distressing problems.

“I’m a landowner,” he told the Buddha, “And I love to watch my people working in the fields and to see my crops grow. But last summer we had a drought and nearly starved. This summer, we had too much rain and some of my crops did poorly.”  The Buddha listened and nodded compassionately.

“I have a wife too. She’s a good woman and a wonderful wife. But sometimes she nags me. To tell the truth, sometimes I grow tired of her.”  Again, the Buddha nodded.

“I have three children. Two are basically good, and I am very proud of them. But sometimes these two refuse to listen to me or pay me the respect I deserve.  My oldest son is not so good.  He drinks far too much and now he’s wandered off .  He’s been gone a year and I don’t know where he is or even if he’s alive.”  The man began to cry and the Buddha’s face filled with compassion.

The farmer carried on like this for another hour.  When he had exhausted himself, he turned to the Buddha and said, “Please tell me what to do,” fully expecting to receive an answer that would solve all his problems.

“I cannot help you,” replied the Buddha.

“What do you mean ?” the farmer retorted.

“Everyone has problems,” the Buddha replied. “In fact, everyone has eighty-three problems. You may solve one now and then, but another is sure to take its place. Everything is subject to change. Life is impermanent. Everything you have built will return to dust; everyone you love is going to die. You, yourself, are going to die someday. Therein dwells the problem of all problems, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

The farmer was chagrined. “What kind of teaching is this? How can it possibly help me?”

“Perhaps it will help you with the eighty-fourth problem,” answered the Buddha.

“What is the eighty-fourth problem?” asked the farmer anxiously.

“The problem of not wanting any problems,” replied the Buddha.

It seems every goal we seek is matched by a set of problems.  Goals necessarily involve a multitude of steps. Drop a stitch and the whole thing can unravel.  A good example is the process of buying a house.  Could there be more steps, more deadlines, and more papers to read and sign?

Our goals also require decisions.  Decision-making, itself, demands answers to a wide range of questions, from mundane to critical. What color, how long, what size, how much, is this really what I want, is there a better way of getting it, can I afford it, is this the right decision? Often our indecision is the result of how overwhelmed we feel with all that our goals entail. It can make the process feel interminable, which is another characteristic of goals.  Goals are largely future-oriented; they represent a plan toward which we are working that fixates our mind out there somewhere, instead of here and now.

When I was younger, I believed— without ever thinking it through—that when I reached all my goals, I would experience the peace that surpasses all understanding. I got this notion from my mother.  She would say:  When my ship comes in, eveything’s going to be different. My ship never came in, or if it did, it left port quickly.

Like so many of us, I was trying to keep a number plates in the air all at once.  I was never able to reach that perfect balance I fantasized. It seemed that every week a new plate got added, often causing one or more of the plates I had going to crash to the ground and shatter.  This, of course, created the added problem of having to fix the one that crashed.  As silly it sounds to me now, for much of my youth I took it personally, as if the world was conspiring to thwart me and make me miserable.  Ultimately, I understood that the world is as impersonal as the law of gravity, and just as unyielding.  The very nature of the world, I concluded, was to give me problems, not peace.   If I really wanted peace, I’d have to find it within.

Fortunately peace is very simple; so simple it sometimes eludes me.  Peace involves only one step—the step I am taking. It is concerned with the only time there is—this moment right now. And, as I face problems, peace asks only one question aimed at one decision: Do I want to experience peace or fear?

Acknowledgement: Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now