PBS recently re-aired their two-hour program on the life of the Buddha. Somewhere around here I still have a battered copy of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which can be read in about the same amount of time. It is a novel about a man who is not Siddhartha Gautama (Gautama Buddha), but who meets the Buddha and whose life in some ways parallels the Buddha’s. I was very inspired by it back in high school. I had become fascinated by Buddhism and Eastern philosophy in general. But, like Hesse’s character, I was not altogether sold on the totality of the Buddha’s enlightenment. I didn’t know the term at the time, but I was already working my way toward humanism.
The revelation of the Buddha, as portrayed in the documentary, can be boiled down to four words: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Our worries spring from the activity of our minds; when we just let ourselves groove on the wonder of what is, we can be joyfully at peace.
It’s a good trick if you can master it. We lay people are not expected to function exclusively in this state of bliss, but at least we can know it is available through meditation and go there periodically to restore balance. Indeed, we wouldn’t have much of a functional society were everyone to devote themselves to seeking inner peace all the time. My impression of history’s most celebrated spiritual and intellectual leaders is that they were either destitute or privileged. They may have been supported by their followers, or taken care of by people in their employ or family members whom their personal wealth could support. You will not find a lot of working stiffs in this elite club.
And so I have always had a bone to pick with the Buddha. In order to seek enlightenment, he left his wife and newborn son, and didn’t look back or have a regret on that score for seven years. He started out in privilege, surrendered all worldly goods, then worked his way back around from asceticism to a less severe form of piety that nonetheless denied materialism. In other words, he successfully skirted that reality zone where most of us must abide of necessity. He left the daily worries of life to others. Dropping in on the wife surely would have disturbed his equanimity: “Oh, look who’s back. Mr. Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy. And meanwhile who’s raising your son?”
At the end of the Buddha’s seeking, he returned to the ascetics whose path he had traveled for a time and gave his first teachings to them. He did create a place for women in his schools and a role for them in the practice of his philosophy, which was unusual for the time (circa 500 BCE). And, what do you know, he did go back to his hometown and extended family – just long enough to swipe the kid and take off again. Go ahead and run a search for “Buddha’s son” to check out the various ways this family abandonment followed by paternal kidnapping can be spun. There simply are no easy answers to balancing personal freedom with devotion to family. Even the Buddha flubbed that one.
I often wonder why the words “genius” and “guru” may be applied to characters who are singularly incapable of the routine necessities and niceties of daily living. How easy for them to think deep thoughts when someone else is making their soup and washing their socks. (True, Einstein, the Buddha and Jesus didn’t wear socks; but whatever they did wear, you can be sure someone else washed it.) “Don’t worry, be happy” is not the wisdom of a Jewish mother. “Be careful, do good, have fun – in that order!” is the practical philosophy I grew up with.
I am inspired by the Buddha and other spiritual and intellectual figures, but I think they all get too much credit for their supposed philosophical or psychological paths to well being. Copping out on romantic love and family relationships is kind of cheating one’s way to bliss, if you ask me. How can these characters be proper teachers or role models for the rest of us when they simply abdicated responsibilities that we take quite seriously? An objective examination of what is indicates that, much as we may groove on it, “the Universe” is in no way concerned with humanity. It’s up to us to take care of each other.
We who were born to worry have a healthy respect for the perils of the world. If most of the things we worry about never come to pass, all the better. No, I don’t think that my worrying literally prevents bad things from happening, but it is inextricably linked to feelings of empathy, compassion, responsibility and caring. My worries are for others as well as myself. Further, my immediate worries are mainly practical in nature and as such are motivating. I am appropriately concerned about things like health and financial security, and so am spurred to take needed actions. I do not want to go through life with a begging bowl like the Buddha did (though I worry that trying to support oneself as an artist has become sadly akin to that). I think it’s wise to plan ahead a little bit, or at least look ahead.
The Buddha never put a banana in his pocket for later. He collected one meal per day in his begging bowl as he traveled from place to place sharing his teachings. He didn’t worry about tomorrow. Mystics, by definition, set aside mundane concerns and put their faith in faith. They surface in times of strife to offer liberation via separating mind or spirit from physical suffering. It is good to be at peace in one’s mind, but it would be better to actually fix the problems that cause the suffering. (Bananas all around!) That is the humanist philosophy: Peace of mind comes from working rationally, constructively and lovingly to improve conditions – not from denying the problems or simply accepting them as inevitable or expecting the solution to come magically or karmicly from some higher power.
I will grant you that all of society is a superficial construction, that our minds create our reality, that nature will persist with or without humanity, that we are but specks in the vast arc of history, that “this too shall pass” and that life is but a dream. But my existence feels pretty darn real to me, and your existence feels real to me too. And I worry about us, I really do.