May 31, 2009

Jesus, the Buddha, beautiful weeds and why happiness is so fleeting

Interesting—and brief: Watch Andrew Sullivan interview science writer Robert Wright. The two "blur the lines between Buddhism and Christianity."

In 2003, Tricycle interviewed Bob Wright, who uses natural selection to explain, among other things, why happiness is so fleeting: 

Considering the many thousands of years of evolution that have shaped us, if spiritual practice is designed to counter what comes “naturally,” we face quite a challenge. 
Yes, and I think the scale of that challenge is something that Buddhism implicitly recognizes. Evolution designed us to pursue self-interest and get our genes into the next generation. But it did not design us to be happy. In fact, happiness is something that is designed by natural selection to evaporate. It is designed not to last but to keep you motivated. If you imagine an animal that upon having sex says, “Okay, I’m happy forever now,” that’s an animal whose genes are going to lose out to a different animal that says, “Well, that was fun, but I want to do it again, you know.” This is the reason that gratification is so fleeting, and this is something that Buddhism addresses very fundamentally. Unhappiness - suffering - is a given, and at the very heart of the Buddhist teachings. Buddhism recognizes that it is an illusion to think that the things you desire are going to bring you lasting happiness; in fact, the opposite is true. Once again we will find ourselves in the state of thirst, in the state of hunger, the state of unhappiness. If you think about it, there was a crying need for somebody to diagnose the problem, to stress that happiness is fleeting and just leaves us craving more.

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Alan's picture

The previous interesting comments on happiness that show us the dangers of oversimplification in this area. To this, I'd like to add that the same danger waits for us when we think about evolution and natural selection. It's rather easy to 1) identify one aspect of our behavior ("Evolution designed us to pursue self-interest and get our genes into the next generation."), 2) see how it might make an individual more likely to pass along his or her genes to progeny, and 3) claim that this behavior arose because of evolution by natural selection. Easy, but potentially wrong.

One flaw in this is reasoning is a subtle, but tempting error. Since we are the products of evolution, it looks reasonable to assume that everything we do (for example, "pursue self-interest") is the result of evolution. Wrong. A behavior might be the result of evolution or it might be due to something else entirely. Humans used to ride horses to get around. Today more humans drive cars. It's easy (and wrong) to construct an argument that says car-driving behavior has an evolutionary basis: with a car, a human can travel greater distances, find more mating partners, have more progeny, hence, the spread of cars. Utter nonsense.

The other flaw in the argument ("Evolution designed us to pursue self-interest and get our genes into the next generation.") is that it focuses on individual behavior and fails to consider alternative strategies that might be more successful for the species as a whole. Ants and humans are both social species, but the strategies that have made each species successful (for the time being) are incredibly different. Does an individual ant "pursue self-interest"? The answer is "yes" if one considers that, by supporting the hive (all of whom are genetically related), an ant makes it possible to pass its "genes into the next generation." But, the strategies for supporting the hive successfully (such as, giving up the ability to reproduce and tending a queen who will reproduce instead) are wildly different from the strategies pursued by the individual human.

Ultimately, evolution by natural selection is a theory that is supposed to explain the persistence of species (humans, apes, etc.) and not individuals (J.S. Bach had many offspring, but none of his descendants are alive today). Sullivan/Wright might be right about the evolution of human behavior, but more research (and more careful analysis) needs to be done.

Ted Biringer's picture

While this observation seems accurate as far as it goes, I think it is important to discern between "happiness" and "fun" or "gratification." Also, equating the Buddhist doctrine of "suffering" with "unhappiness" should be done with caution (the notion that Shakyamuni underwent what he did in order to deliver beings from "unhappiness" does not seem to fit somehow).

When I think of what true happiness might really be in light of the dharma, the terms fun and gratification just don't cut it; certain images of the smiling Buddha do. I am not well enough informed about other paths of Buddhism to comment, but the tradition I follow (Chan, or, Zen) was said to have begun with just such a smile. The Buddha twirled a flower before his assembly, Mahakyashapa smiled--thus the transmission of Zen began. While I don't know how much "fun" the Buddha enjoyed after awakening to truth, I have no trouble imagining that he was, and continued to be happy throughout his long teaching career.

While the many teachings and methods of Zen certainly include the understanding of emptiness and various techniques for cultivating serenity, they consistently warn of the dangers of becoming attached to such conditions. The teachings of buddhas and Zen masters direct us to true happiness. Tozan's "Five Ranks" for instance, warn us that if we become enamoured with the condition of the third rank (equality, or emptiness), we will be unable to enact (or be enacted by) the wisdom of the bodhisattva. We will then find ourself in a place that they call a “skull-littered field” where we might as well go hide in a cave for all the good it would do others or ourselves.

The verse for the fourth of the five ranks (Going within Together) says:

Two crossed swords, neither permitting retreat:
Dexterously wielded, like a lotus amidst fire.
Similarly, there is a natural determination to ascend the heavens.
Powell, William, F., The Record of Tung-shan

Here, say those ancient worthies, our discernment and insight into the teachings of buddhas and Zen ancestors becomes smooth and powerful. The more wisdom we realize, the greater our capacity to realize wisdom becomes; the activation of the bodhisattva is in full swing. The “two crossed swords” of Tozan’s verse represent the expression and reception of wisdom, as well as the harmonious dance of emptiness and form, self and other. We are seamlessly engaged with each moment, thing, and event.

This is also revealed by the razor-sharp sword of case one hundred in the Blue Cliff Record:

A monk asked Haryo, “What is the razor-sharp sword?”
Haryo said, “Each branch of coral supports the moon.”

How wonderful to discover that we have been using it all along--who would not be happy?

This kind of true happiness is the inevitable effect of the realization and activation of buddha-nature. Our “determination to ascend the heavens” will manifest as zeal and affirmation for the dharma. This is not the zeal of "fun", "gratification" or even ambition or personal gain. It is the true joyous realm of what Dogen calls self-fulfilling samadhi. It is the “play” (in both senses of the word) of the universe itself. It is ‘dharma enacting dharma’. In the words of the Large Sutra of Perfection of Wisdom:

What is the liking for the Dharma? The wish, the eagerness for Dharma. What is the delight in Dharma? The pleasure in Dharma. What is fondness for Dharma? The appreciation of its qualities. What is devotion to Dharma? The developing, the making much of that Dharma.
Conze, Edward, The Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom

This “developing” and “making much of that Dharma”, the masters tell us, is the life and death of the unnamable void, the life and death of the universe; your own true nature and mine. While the kind of "happiness" that Bob Wright seems to be indicating is certainly "fleeting" and "leaves us craving more", the happiness demonstrated by the Buddha's smile is the developing and making much of the delight in Dharma.

and Happiness...

Kevin's picture

We've misdefined happiness.

James Shaheen's picture

Glad you like it. Here's the link:

Steve Woodall's picture

Wow. This is one of those rare comments that just drills right to the core of understanding.... Thanks for posting. I'd like to read the entire interview.

Stacey's picture

Craving "causes" evolution while aversion attempts to stop it ... yet it is really just a "pause" while our path detours towards ultimate equanimity in this life or the next.