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February 23, 2004 - Some of us think life is a bit too dukkha these days, but some of us don't.













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As some of you know one of he constant arguments I have with my good friend "the conservative" centers on attitude.  As I understand his position he maintains the one and the key determining factor in any kind of success in life his having the right attitude - a positive one, assuming things will work out for the best, and denying doubts.  Never believe things won't work out.  I argue sometimes they don't or even can't work out.  Contingency planning is good, not defeatist.  He says negative thoughts will produce negative results.  We go round and round on this.  And drink heavily.  He claims I'm so damned European in this, and I say he's doing his "Babbitt" number - the delusional, blindly optimistic na´ve American.  No one wins. 

Next time we get into such talk I might mention this item by Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun who wrote a short biography of the Buddha (Penguin Putnam 2001).  This little essay here is quite curious.

 
See Look on the dark side of life: 'Positive thinking' can be a route to spiritual and political disaster
Karen Armstrong, The Guardian (UK), Saturday February 21, 2004

Armstrong begins with a discussion of children's literature, particularly the work of Jacqueline Wilson.  But it's no matter if you don't know the realistically dark Wilson, the main point comes after that discussion:

 

... the best children's classics have always evoked the dark side of life.  Alice's Wonderland reveals the arbitrary demands and heartless craziness of the adult world from a child's perspective.  The sinister menace of the Wild Wood is a constant threat in The Wind in the Willows.  In the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, children are regularly abandoned, bereaved, neglected and ill-treated.  Some parents would prefer their children to read books that are more upbeat, but Wilson's success and the endurance of these classics remind us that children know instinctively what is best for them, and find that their worst fears become more manageable when they are made explicit.  It seems that many children have not yet succumbed quite as fully as adults to the "positive thinking" that is fast becoming a social orthodoxy.

 

So what's this particular social orthodoxy she sees? 

 

Increasingly it is becoming unacceptable to voice legitimate distress.  If you lose your job, become chronically ill, or fall prey to loneliness or depression, you are likely to be told - often abrasively - to look on the bright side.  With unseemly haste, people rush to put an optimistic gloss on a disaster or to suggest a patently unworkable solution.  We seem to be cultivating an intolerance of pain - even our own.  An acquaintance once told me that quite the most difficult aspect of her cancer was her friends' strident insistence that she develop a positive attitude, and her guilt at being unable to do so. 

Every evening the television news beams images of anguish from all over the world right into our homes - we live on constant terror alert.  We naturally want to keep what distress we can at bay.  But while it is important not to succumb to despair, it is also dangerous to deny the suffering to which flesh is heir. 

As TS Eliot said, humankind cannot bear very much reality.

 

Yes, but what kind of balance between mindless optimism (denial) and despair can we achieve?  Where do we turn for guidance? 

Religion? 

 

Some forms of religion encourage us to bury our heads in the sand to block out the suffering that surrounds us on all sides.  The rich man in his palace can reconcile himself to the plight of the poor man at his gate by reminding himself that this is part of God's bright and beautiful plan; those who suffer poverty and oppression in this life will be recompensed in the hereafter.  When thousands die in an earthquake, we can tell ourselves that God knew what he was doing.

 

Perhaps God knows.  Perhaps not.  We certainly dont know. 

I do remember those lines from Popes "Essay on Man" - All nature is but art, unknown to thee; All chance, direction, which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good; And spite of pride, in erring reasons spite, One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

Talk about cold comfort!

Armstrong recounts that at a literary festival, where she had been describing the fear that lies at the heart of religious fundamentalism, a man in the audience told her that he found this quite incomprehensible.  If you have true faith, he argued, you cannot suffer.  She suggested that if he lived in a more troubled part of the world (she was in Cheltenham at the time), he might find it more difficult to maintain his equanimity.  But he seemed to regard religion as an anesthetic that would even numb the pain of a concentration camp. 

Armstrong calls this lazy, inadequate religion.  Over on this side of the pond it's called Christian, conservative Republican dogma. 

Armstrong suggests Buddhism might be more realistic:

 

If we deny the reality of suffering, we will ignore the distress of others.  At its best, religion requires the faithful to see things as they really are.  In Buddhism, the First Noble Truth that is essential for enlightenment is that life is dukkha: "unsatisfactory, awry".  The Buddha's father tried to shield him from sorrow by imprisoning him in a pleasure-palace, walled off from disturbing reality.  Guards were posted to drive away any distressing spectacle.  For 29 years, the Buddha lived in this fool's paradise, locked into a delusion and unable to make spiritual progress.  Finally the gods intervened and forced the young man to confront mortality, sickness and decay.  Only then could he begin his quest for Nirvana. 

The Buddha's palace is a striking image of the mind in denial.  As long as we immure ourselves from the pain that surrounds us on all sides, we remain trapped in an undeveloped version of ourselves ...

 

Ah, the conservative Christian right is just developmentally challenged!  Cool. 

Well, yes, sometimes life is dukkha: "unsatisfactory, awry".  Shit happens.  The point seems to be one should find the ideal and balanced center, which "enables us to face pain with equanimity and use our experience of dukkha to appreciate the sorrow of others."

Easy for her to say.  But when you're running the most powerful nation ever to arise in history can you afford such appreciation of the pain of others?  It's so very unpleasant after all. 

No.  Such appreciation might be useful. 

 

The failure to confront unpleasant reality can also be politically dangerous.  In the Bible, those preachers who told people to look on the bright side, that God would protect Jerusalem and that everything would work out for the best are condemned as "false prophets".  The prophet Jeremiah has become a byword for excessive gloom, but if people had listened to his dire predictions, the Babylonian army might not have destroyed Jerusalem.  He was not being "negative"; he was right. 

 

Oh no!  The former nun is using the Bible to say we need someone to stand up to Bush and Rumsfeld and the rest of the messianic imperialists who tell us we did a good thing in Iraq and things are or will be wonderful.  We need some realistic gloom?  My conservative friend would be getting really angry now. 

Armstrong then adds this!

 

In the past, we have sometimes pursued policies that have resulted in great suffering, telling ourselves that all would ultimately be well.  We have let conflicts fester until they have become intractable.  We have supported such allies as Saddam Hussein, ignoring the atrocities they inflict upon their people.  We are now rightly outraged by his massacre of his Kurdish subjects, but at the time we ineffectually turned a blind eye.  Today we are reaping the reward of our heedless karma.  The pain that we ignored in some parts of the world has hardened into murderous rage. 

The First Noble Truth requires us to acknowledge the ubiquity of pain, even when we are happy and successful.  If we get a coveted job, other candidates are disappointed; if our country prospers, it may well be at the expense of other nations that are languishing in poverty and despair.  In our privileged first world, we have been living in a bubble of false security that is not unlike the Buddha's pleasure palace.  On September 11, reality broke in.  If we turn our backs on the suffering in our troubled world, it will come back to us, in a terrible form. 

 

What a downer!  She thinks BAD THINGS might happen again?  Why is she so negative? 

Yeah, well, bad things might just happen again.  And we maybe could become a tad more empathetic in matters around the world.  But that seems unlikely. 

One suspects we will persist in our "heedless karma" as it feels mighty good, and goodly mighty.