These thought experiments are contemplations that we engage in with critical curiosity. Basic, natural truths are not one person’s good idea or the ideas associated with old religions – they are things that all of us can discover on our own right now. Basic truths are internally verifiable through direct observation and contemplation, not through reading about them. Reading this is just the first step, like reading a cookbook. Practicing is the real thing, like making the meal and eating it. Our goal is to arrive at personal certainty through direct experience.
Hopefully, if we pay attention to nature and natural behavior in an open way, we will all notice similar things. What you’ll read here is just what I’ve noticed on my own. There will be some benefit in reading it, because sharing is often beneficial, but reading can never be as beneficial as actually doing the investigation personally. With that in mind, let this be a mere suggestion that may add perspective to your own experience.
When we ask ourselves, “What makes me happy?” it’s likely we’ll describe various circumstances and experiences that we enjoy. Some of us may say something about the love of our families, others might talk about being in nature. In any case, our happiness tends to be connected to favorable circumstances.
Similarly, ask, “What makes me unhappy?” and we’ll describe circumstances and experiences that we do not enjoy. Some of us might say something about politics and war, others might speak of dishonesty and betrayal, while others might describe their stressful workplaces or health problems. In any case, our unhappiness tends to be connected to unfavorable circumstances.
That’s basically how we work – we’re not very complicated. We’re happy when the circumstances are working in our favor, and we’re unhappy with they’re not. Some circumstances are within our control and others are not.
When we are healthy, we can control the movement of our bodies, the words we speak, and the activities in our minds. We can do stuff, think thoughts, and speak our minds – all activities that affect our circumstances one way or another. We can influence our environments and our relationships by means of our words and actions, and in that way either improve or degrade our circumstances. For example, when we behave in a friendly, helpful manner, then others tend to respond by being friendly and helpful. On the other hand, if we are unfriendly and take advantage of others, then we tend to receive the same treatment in return. Whatever our goals may be, we try to achieve them by means of our thoughts, words and actions.
Beyond our own thoughts, words, and actions, none of the circumstances we experience are within our control. We cannot control the behaviors of others, we can contribute to, but not control the group behaviors of culture, society, and government, and we certainly have no control over natural events like the weather or the movement of tectonic plates. When unfavorable circumstances beyond our control begin to encroach more and more upon our happiness, we experience more and more dissatisfaction and frustration.
We are also strongly subjected to the circumstances associated with our place and time of birth. Some of us are born into affluent families in safe places during a period of relative social and political peace, while others are born into desperately poor families in dangerous places during terrible wars. Right now, children are being born into both of those situations. We might be born to loving parents or abusive parents. We might be born with a healthy body, or a body challenged with health problems. All of these kinds of circumstances are entirely beyond our control.
When we examine the circumstances that bring us happiness and those that bring us unhappiness, we may find that some of the circumstances that bother us the most are those that are entirely beyond our control. For example, a person living in Syria in the year 2016 might say that the things that make her unhappy are the brutal killing of her entire family and the destruction of her home.
There are many of us who live in comfort and security, far from Syria, and we are also unhappy with the circumstances there. When we turn on the news from our safe, comfortable homes, we get a constant stream of stories about terrible circumstances, most of which are not happening to us and are totally beyond our control, but which nonetheless can contribute in some way to our daily discontentment when we listen to them.
To make matters worse, while there are things we can do to take care of our bodies and ward of disease to some extent, no matter what we will all die. Most of us will get sick first, and then die, even if we do take great care of our bodies beforehand. Disease and death are the inevitable result of the passage of time – they are circumstances that are entirely beyond our control, and great sources of distress for people the world over.
Given the inescapable nature of uncomfortable and ultimately deadly circumstances beyond our control, coupled with the troublesome fact that sometimes what we can control still doesn’t turn out well, many of us turn to religion for consolation. If we are possessed by the idea that perhaps there is something that we can do religiously, spiritually or philosophically to produce a state of perpetual, lasting happiness, then all the world’s religions are there for us with promises of one kind of salvation or another, and we can dive in. The operating idea in these cases is that by some fantastical means, participation in the religion can lead to perpetual happiness of one kind or another.
Buddhism is no different from any other religion in that it promises to end all suffering. Some religions promise a heavenly afterlife, some promise unification with God; the Buddhist religion promises omniscience and total freedom from the causes of suffering for its followers. Likewise, just as Christianity promises salvation for those who adhere to the Christian doctrine and damnation for everyone else, Buddhism promises liberation for those of us who achieve enlightenment through Buddhist practices, and perpetual suffering for those of us who don’t.
If you’re thinking that there’s something fishy going on, you’re right. This model does not make sense. For all of the millennia that people have been zealously practicing the various religions that promise one kind of salvation or another, still there are billions of people suffering daily both from the results of their own actions and from circumstances beyond their control. Most religions avoid this truth by promising lasting happiness after death, in a realm we cannot sense while we are alive. Buddhism promises rebirth – in hell if we’re bad, and as a human again for another try at enlightenment if we’re good. In these cases, we are motivated by hope and fear –hoping that things will get better or fearing things will get worse when we die. While this approach is attractive to most people on earth, a growing number of us want to see things as they are, not as we are told they are.
Luckily, when practiced as a non-religion, the Buddhist story changes significantly. At its root, Buddhism clearly acknowledges that its stories of nirvana, immortality and omniscience, immaculate conception (yes, Buddhism has that), icy and fiery hells, hungry ghosts and jealous demigods, are all presented as an illusory, fictitious supports designed to serve those of us who need such stories. Some of us have inherited a worldview from our families and cultural conditioning that produces a strong affinity for supernatural stories and grand promises of an easy afterlife. Many of us need a beautiful religion that makes miraculous promises because sometimes pure, straightforward rationality isn’t comfortable.
In order to reach as many people as possible, Buddhism takes the form of an attractive religion, hauntingly similar to all the others. Nonetheless, every expression of Buddhism contains an essentially non-religious core. Those of us who are interested in doing the work can become students and practitioners of the religious expressions of Buddhism, and through that process extract the simple essence of raw truth contained within. But since not everyone wants to engage in such a complicated and time consuming process, Buddhism also offers itself to us in its most pure and unadulterated form.
This form makes no promises whatsoever. There is no promise of enlightenment or omniscience – only a recognition of our capacity for ordinary awareness of the natural way things are. This form asks for no belief, no particular conduct, and tells no supernatural stories. This form gives us very little guidance, and puts all of the responsibility on us to do the work. There are no gods, no devils, no sins and no rules. There is only mind and awareness of mind that briefly experiences consciousness in a world of sense perceptions and conceptual interpretations that consistently and ceaselessly alternate between the favorable and unfavorable. There is only this, and there is nothing we can do to change it.
Sure, it is naturally in everyone’s best interest to do and say things that are kind and helpful to others, and it’s good to interact with the world in ways that promote health and life. All of the world’s religions include proscribed behavioral codes that promote basic social wellbeing, and those of us who live according to those codes are more likely to build healthy communities. However, as we can see by the state of the world today and throughout history, the presence of religious codes of behavior has not fostered the development of a healthy, peaceful world. Instead, there is civility and savagery in equal measure. No matter what we do, all that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing, be it peace or war, health or disease.
Spiritual practitioners the world over have purportedly achieved enlightenment, oneness with God, and ultimate salvation, yet all of them have lived in tumultuous communities, all of them have suffered the aches and pains of life, and all of them have died the same as every other person who has ever lived. It seems, from all of the information that we can gather through our senses, and from all of the interpretation we can do with our strong minds, the experience of life is a continuous stream of favorable and unfavorable circumstances, and while we can have some influence over things in our limited sphere, overall, the way of the world remains reliably unreliable. What goes up must come down. What is born must die. Nothing lasts forever. All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing. Or, in the words of William Blake:
“He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.”