The problem with Buddha
Detachment from reality is not the solution to suffering
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Christians are not so different from Buddhists. We all put our pants on one leg at a time, and we all experience life as suffering.
This morning my husband and I sang the 19th-century Christmas hymn “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and were struck by the melancholy strain woven through the angels’ glad tidings: “heavn’ly music floats o’er all the weary world; above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hov’ring wing; and ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing. And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow.”
There are moments of happiness in life, but they are only moments, preceded by suffering and followed by suffering. A Texas inmate explained to me how he ended up in prison after his forlorn quest for relief from the solitariness, nastiness, and brutishness of life: “Nothing lasts long enough,” he wrote.
The Buddha’s first noble truth or dukkha is that “life does not satisfy,” and he cites three kinds of sufferings, only the first of which is in the physical domain. The second and third stem from dissatisfaction and impermanence, and angst over the lack of substance of the soul.
“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”
Well, the play was not so good, mourns Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, delineating the several stages of disappointment: the infant “mewling and puking”; the schoolboy “creeping like a snail unwillingly to school”; the lover “sighing like a furnace”; the soldier “seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth”; the justice “with eyes severe”; the sixth age, “with spectacles on nose and pouch on side”; the last scene, “second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
I can tell that my children see me as having moved into the last scene, and they wonder at my happiness.
I met a remarkable woman once who had a strategy regarding suffering. She was beautiful with two healthy children and a husband who adored her, but complained that she could enjoy none of it because she was hagridden by a fear of “the other shoe dropping.” Her remedy was to be sure to worry sufficiently every day. That is, she chose preemptive miserableness so that misery would not be able to jump out of the shadows to ambush her.
There’s a Pyrrhic victory for you.
The Buddha’s approach is somewhat different, his recommendation being the cultivation of a state of mind of detachment. It reminds me of one of C.S. Lewis’ methods confessed in his short book about the death of his wife, A Grief Observed: “There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life. I was happy before I ever met H. I’ve plenty of what are called ‘resources.’ People get over these things. Come, I shan’t do so badly. One is ashamed to listen to this voice but it seems for a little while to be making out a good case. Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.”
Buddha is right up to a point when he talks about cultivating a mindset. But the mindset that gives freedom is not detachment from reality but the embrace of more reality. It is the truth that sets free, but only the whole truth. “Spectacles on nose and pouch on side” are incomplete considerations.
What my children do not see is that I set my sights beyond this present world and therefore do “not grieve as those who have no hope.”
“For lo, the days are hast’ning on, by prophet bards foretold, when with the ever-circling years comes round the age of gold; when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.”