Tricycle speaks with scholar B. Alan Wallace about the quintessential pursuit.
The existentialists understood that we pursued happiness in vain. How does the Buddhist take differ? In Buddhism, pursuing happiness is not just a moving away from one thing—the acquisition of external objects—but moving toward another, dharma practice. It’s extricating yourself from the actual sources of dukkha, which are internal, and moving toward greater freedom, greater mental well-being, greater balance, greater meaning. In existentialist philosophy, this is referred to as “living authentically.” Moving away from the true sources of dukkha toward the true sources of happiness—that is basically the whole Buddhist psychology right there.
We have a misperception that if we can get everything to work right, we’ll find the happiness we’re seeking. Then there comes a point when you say, “I see. This has never worked. It’s not working now, and it will never work in the future.” That’s what a lot of the existential philosophers recognized. Camus, Sartre—they refer to the vanity, the futility, the fundamental meaninglessness. Buddhism, like the existentialists, sees the vanity, the futility, the emptiness of the Eight Mundane Concerns. But it doesn’t just say, “Here’s a problem and there’s nothing we can do about it.” It says, “Those are the mundane concerns, and then there’s the dharma. Having some faith would be helpful, but if nothing else, you still have the practice.”
You argue that practice keeps us in the world, and that’s a great challenge. For instance, many of us follow the news, and it’s easy to get pretty depressed. How can we stay in the game without being brought down by it? The first thing is to recognize that the news is not all the news that’s fit to print or to broadcast. It’s taking place in a one hundred percent commercial context. They’re broadcasting the news because they’re paid for it by their advertisers. And they are giving us the news that sells, that they feel that people would want to watch. It’s a very selective slice of what’s going on. This is not to say that there are no people in the media who are trying to perform a public service, but the system itself is commercially oriented.
In Buddhism, we say yes, there is an ocean of suffering. So it’s not bad to show that there’s anger, hatred, delusion, and greed in the world. In a way, the media are presenting some very important facts. Given that, we can look for different emotional responses in ourselves. We can get out of the rut of our cynicism, depression, anger, and apathy by cultivating the Four Immeasurables. When we see suffering and the causes of suffering, then it’s time for compassion. When we see people striving diligently to find happiness, that’s a time for lovingkindness. That rare coverage where they show something wonderful that has happened is a time for mudita—for empathic joy, for rejoicing in other people’s happiness and in virtue. And then there are circumstances like natural disasters. When we see there are responsible people and institutions doing their best to alleviate the suffering, we can decide to maintain equanimity and then do the practice of tonglen—taking in the suffering of the world and offering back joy and the causes of joy. The Four Immeasurables are extraordinarily powerful ways of engaging with reality. And they balance each other. They’re like the Four Musketeers: when any one goes astray, the other ones leap in and say, “I can help you.”
So if you’re feeling indifference instead of equanimity, then compassion will balance that? Precisely. Or if you’re really hunkered down into attachment and anxiety, that’s a time for equanimity.
This alternative route to happiness seems to require a leap of faith, and that can be scary. If I let go of all the externals, what will become of me? We don’t need to jump into the deep end. The Tibetans call that “hairy renunciation.” It’s like suddenly getting an infatuation and saying, “Oh, the whole of society is a pit of blazing fire. I can’t stand it. I’m going to go off to the bliss of practicing Buddhism.” It’s called hairy because I’d better shave my head to show I’m serious. Then, of course, in a day or two or a couple of weeks, you say, “Oh, this is not so much fun, and where is that girlfriend I left behind, anyway?” It’s like a fling.
So what’s required is not a sudden, abrupt, and total abandonment of the eight worldly dharmas—the Eight Mundane Concerns—and practicing only the sublime dharma. It’s like taking a child into the water to teach him how to swim: you don’t fling the kid into the deep end and see what happens. You take him from the first step into the shallow end. So have a trial period. Try meditation for a session in the morning and a session in the evening. See how that impacts the rest of your day. Then, as you start to get a taste of dharma, you may say, “Well, this is actually tapping into my inner resources. This feels good. And it’s not just good, it’s also virtuous, and what’s more, I’m engaging with reality more clearly than I have in the past. If I want to bring something good to the world, I’m in a better position to do so.” It is a gradual shift in priorities until eventually your primary desire, your highest value, is living a meaningful life, devoting yourself to dharma. The Eight Mundane Concerns—they’ll come and go. In fact, when they’re there, they can even support you in your life. As grist for the mill? They’re not necessarily grist for the mill, but adversity does provide us with an opportunity if there is a wise engagement with it. For instance, one of the greatest obstacles to a meaningful life is arrogance. Well, it’s really hard to be arrogant when you’re encountering great adversity. Then there’s that unease we’ve spoken of. If we view that with wisdom, it can arouse our curiosity or maybe even be a very powerful incentive for transformation, for uprooting the underlying causes giving rise to such distress. If you’ve gone through terrible interpersonal strife, or a loss, or a financial crisis, for example, you could look at it and say, “How did that happen? What did I contribute to it? And why am I suffering so much now?” These are messages—symptoms of an underlying discord, a disengagement from reality, coming out of delusion, hatred, and craving. I think the Three Poisons are as important for understanding the human situation as the three laws of Newton are for understanding the physical universe. And when you see how important dharma is in the face of adversity, then it becomes a priority. You let it saturate your life. That’s when dharma really takes on its power—when it’s not confined to a meditation session here or there.
Which brings me to your view that the culmination of the Buddha’s practice was not enlightenment under the Bodhi tree but service to others. I believe the Buddha achieved something utterly extraordinary under the Bodhi tree, but he recognized that if this event was to be as meaningful as possible, it had to be shared with others. Enlightenment isn’t something just for yourself: “Now I’ve got the good stuff, and therefore I’m finished.” Entire civilizations were transformed by this one man’s presence, but it wasn’t just the forty-nine days sitting under the Bodhi tree that did it. It was the next forty-five years, engaging with courtesans and beggars and kings and warriors—the whole range of human society—and having something to offer to everyone. So if we go back to the four aspects of a meaningful life, what happened under the Bodhi tree is clearly the culmination of virtue, happiness, and truth. And for the next forty-five years he was out there, bringing something good to the world. So I would say the Buddha is the paradigm of a meaningful life.
Image 1: Untitled (Mandala # 407), Bill Arnstrong, 2001, chromogenic print, © Bill Armstrong, courtesy of Clampart, New York City
Image 2: Blossom, Polly Apfelbaum, velvet and dye, detail from an installation that is 18 feet in diameter, © Polly Apfelbaum, courtesy of D'Amelio Terras