A deeper sense of happiness

by Pankaj MISHRA, Time Asia, March 14, 2007

Buddhism teaches that the mind, not the wallet, is the path to contentment

San Francisco, USA -- WALKING out of a Buddhist bookstore in San Francisco early this month, I heard from the radio of a passing car the voice of U.S. President George W. Bush giving his annual State of the Union speech.

For a second, the word compassion seemed to hang in the clear air. This ideal, greatly cherished by Buddhists, is “one of the deepest values” of America, according to the President.

Immersed in Buddhist literature for the past few years, I have come to know well how words suddenly lose their familiar meanings when encountered in a different society or culture.

I was not surprised when reading Bush’s full speech to encounter his own special meaning of such resonant words as “compassion” and “freedom.”

For instance, his compassion was aimed at “any citizen who feels isolated from the opportunities of America.”

He didn’t specify what those opportunities are. But they can be summed up in four words: the pursuit of happiness. These words describe much more than an individual or collective aspiration.

They describe an ideology, a distinctively American attempt to give meaning to life. But people from older, traditional societies cannot be blamed for finding it a bit strange.

For happiness seems something very private in the U.S., best pursued by what Bush prescribed as a patriotic duty immediately after 9/11.

This view of the good life assumes that we have a birthright to happiness, and that suffering is an unfortunate and avoidable aberration, likely to be removed by political and economic change.

Nothing could be further from the Buddhist view of compassion and happiness. In a famous Buddhist story, a young woman wanders the streets of a town with her dead infant in her arms, asking everyone she meets to bring him back to life.

Someone directs her to the Buddha, who listens patiently and then promises to help if she brings him a mustard seed from a household that has never witnessed a death. The young woman knocks on many doors.

By the time she returns empty-handed to the Buddha, she has begun to grasp his lesson: all things in the world are impermanent, and to be ignorant of this fact is to be trapped in an endless cycle of craving, frustration and suffering.

The Buddha brought consolation to many people as he travelled around North India in the 6th century B.C. This was a time when the old tribal societies were cracking up, a new urban civilization was emerging, along with fast-expanding human desires, and rulers dreaming of empire were waging destructive wars.

The Buddha was one of the many new agnostic thinkers in North India who responded to the suffering of people uprooted from their tradition-bound worlds.

But he didn’t diagnose this suffering in sociological abstractions, as a consequence of social and economic injustice, widening racial or class gaps, or poverty.

He witnessed the emergence of the new rootless, ego-driven individual as it broke free from old close-knit societies and became afflicted with craving, pride, jealousy and hatred while acting upon its newly expanded world.

But unlike such modern thinkers as Hobbes and Marx, the Buddha didn’t assume that a model of society was needed that could contain the rampaging egos of human beings.

He proposed none of the massive restructurings of society familiar to us in our own times: revolution, socialism, democracy, capitalism or regime change. He insisted that suffering is a mental experience, born from desire, attachment, hatred, pride and envy.

These were the “negative emotions” that distort and confuse the mind and lead it into a pursuit of such goals as power, possessions and sensuous pleasures. When thwarted, they lead to frustration and suffering; and even when fulfilled, they can only turn into another source of unhappiness, for the happiness they bring is always fleeting.

Buddhists claim that to realize fully the impermanence of ordinary happiness is to make the first step toward real, enduring happiness. The first step is meditation. To sit still and observe that one is neither identical with one’s thoughts and impulses as they arise continuously and discursively in one’s mind, generating desire, anxiety, fear and guilt, nor indeed limited by them, is to be aware of the possibility of controlling one’s thoughts and of moving toward a new kind of spiritual freedom.

For Buddhists, the highest form of happiness lies in this inner freedom rather than the freedom to acquire and consume. Happiness is determined by one’s state of mind rather than by external events. It is not subject to time and decay, or dependent on the acquisition of things and people.

Today, it is what recommends Buddhism to so many people living in societies built around the endless stimulation and satisfaction of individual desires, but which seem to bewilder and oppress people as much as or more than the simpler world to which the Buddha offered his unique therapy.