Buddhism 101: Happiness is not the goal; non-sadness is…


Statue of Buddha in Kandy, Sri Lanka

Anybody who thinks he’s getting the hang of Buddhism by ‘following his bliss’ is probably seriously deluded. For one thing, Joseph Campbell, the author of that statement, came to regret the hedonistic message with which it was taken. Secondly, he died almost twenty years ago, and if the concept wasn’t dated by then, it certainly is now. This ain’t the Sixties. Letting your freak flag fly should not necessarily be at the top of everyone’s ‘to do’ list in 2015.

And Campbell wasn’t Buddhist, anyway. That’s his buddy Alan Watts, who’s quoted with similar statements, but whom I also admire as a rigorous intellectual, not some purveyor of New Age-y no-brainer psycho-fluff. Most importantly: Buddhism has nothing to do with bliss, much less the ‘ecstasy’ that many people refuse to stop short of—Hinduism maybe, but that’s different.

I love Hinduism as the starting point for Buddhism, same same Judaism as the starting point for Christianity and Islam, but find it too cult-specific and full of historical baggage, wars and battle scars overlaid onto the DNA. In both instances there is a move toward monotheism, so as to define and refine the message, and to avoid a useless multiplicity. Philosophically Buddhism is all about the Middle Path between extremes.

Even happiness may be asking too much, certainly the American Disneyland style of happiness, mouth wide open and eyes ablaze with excitement. That’s okay, but it isn’t Buddhism. IMHO no American has much reason to smile, anyway, much less laugh, while people are dying in the streets at the hands of public servants and surfeits of violence, or dying inside by the private slights of anti-social media. Wipe that silly smile off your face, Gringo, Gaijin, Farang, Yank. It’s time to start paying it back.

Amerika is defined by its dance crazes, not enlightenment. Most western adherents of Buddhism seem to opt for the Zen flavor, apparently trying to access ‘other worlds’ inside—nice try, but I doubt it. Any Zen master will tell you that the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Path come first. But isn’t that so American, to want to ‘get something’ out of simple meditation? That’s counter-intuitive and counter-productive. But it’s ingrained in our culture, down to the structure of our language, possession and control.

In what other language will you ‘have’ gone somewhere or ‘have’ done this or that? Vietnamese, maybe. Future perfect indicative? It doesn’t sound very perfect to me. Why do I ‘have’ to do anything? “We are an ownership society,” said George W. Bush in one of his more lucid moments, though the speech was likely penned in the pen of another’s brain pan. For once he nailed it, though I heartily disagree with the promotion of it.

What you just might ‘get’ out of Buddhism is reduced stress, a lowered level of frustration, and less anxiety. The primordial Buddhist conundrum is how to deal with desire, and the suffering that may arise from lack of fulfillment. You can kill yourself trying for it, or you can cure yourself instead. An American would ‘go for it’, guns blazing. A Buddhist would realize that he really doesn’t need it much, anyway.

For many westerners, Buddhism is what you do instead of heroin, suicide, capitalism, or Christianity; alcohol, murder, homelessness, or the military. Buddhism is what you do when you grow tired of a dualistic existence and, rather than swinging between two extremes in a seesaw back-and-forth monkey-in-a-tree mentality, you decide to opt for something more like a permanent Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and hopefully synthesis to wend your way through life.

And isn’t that the hardest thing to accomplish really, to tiptoe your way through doctrines and dogmas without stepping in anything too sticky or too icky or getting stuck in some half-baked narrative that only slightly resembles truth? The two are not the same, Democrats and Repubs notwithstanding, Muslim or Christian not left standing. The truth always lies between the extremes of competing narratives. Don’t get caught looking the other way…