A reader wrote:
“I have been asked by my non-Buddhist friends (mainly Christians) as to why Buddhists have such a glum view of life. They say that on the practical side we Buddhists do not celebrate life or life’s achievements: birth (there is no christening); birthdays, marriage (Buddhist monks do not attend weddings); no singing or playing of music in the Buddhist temples (unlike in churches)… churches run colleges and schools that teach children all the life skills – such as presenting themselves well in the wider world, sports, management and oratory skills.”
(end of edited question)
This is a variant on a common accusation that Buddhism is not life-affirming. But what does that mean, exactly? For Buddhists, accepting that each life is not a happy flight plan designed to fulfil our desires is the same as acknowledging the first ennobling truth – that suffering and struggling are part of being alive. By recognizing this truth, and learning how to have equanimity with it, including all of life’s ups and downs, we can develop a deep form of happiness that is not dependent on current circumstances, and is ultimately more life-affirming than any worldly reward.
In my experience, people of any religion who take their religious life seriously and practice their beliefs/precepts every day, do become more grounded and happier with themselves and the world. Sometimes it’s a revelation and an inspiration to meet such a person.
One has to wonder whether the purpose of spiritual life is to support material success, or to encourage people to look beyond that goal.
There are many areas in which Buddhists and Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and atheists (and others) could easily agree — for example that killing, stealing, and harming are bad, and kindness, generosity, and hard work are good.
While the Buddha did emphasize the importance of living a moral life, a life of non-harming, of generosity and compassion, he also said that life as we know it is not all there is. The possibility of liberation exists here and now; the possibility of freedom from all forms of suffering, from clinging, from greed, hatred and delusion. This liberation is not granted by an all-powerful other, but arrived at through our own efforts, through training our minds. The frame of reference goes beyond that of any other religion; it is not limited to the planet we live on or the galaxy or the physical universe. Hard as it is to imagine, liberation is beyond all that we can name.
The Buddha described ordinary life as the eight worldly conditions:
these conditions among human beings are inconstant,
impermanent, subject to change.
Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.
His welcoming & rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end, do not exist.
Knowing the dustless, sorrowless state,
he discerns rightly,
has gone, beyond becoming, to the Further Shore.
— from AN 8.6, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
(full translation here: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.006.than.html)
You could say that rather than being optimistic or pessimistic, the Buddhist world view is realistic. You could also say that the goal of Buddhism is beyond material success, or at least on a different trajectory. You could be the richest, most successful person in the world and still be in spiritual poverty.
All conditioned things (everything we can know through our senses) are subject to rising and passing away. Understanding this, the more we attach to things that will change and pass away, the more we will suffer. The more expectations we have – for material success, for comfort, for exclusively happy relationships – the greater our inevitable disappointments.
More about the eight worldly conditions in upcoming posts…