I asked myself, was I content
With the world that I once cherished?
Did it bring me to this darkened place
To contemplate my perfect future?
I will not stand nor utter words against
This tide of hate
Losing sight of what and who I was again
I’m so sorry if these seething words I say
Impress on you that I’ve become
The anathema of my soul
As I was waiting for the battery in my car to be replaced, I bought a Twix bar from the repair shop vending machine.
Now, I love Twix bars. I mean, I really love Twix bars. There is something…unwholesome about the way I love Twix bars. The chocolate layer, the caramel, the crisp cookie crunch…it’s enough to bring a grown man to tears.
I was disappointed by the Twix bar that I bought. At some point in its life, somewhere ‘twixt the factory and my hands, it had been exposed to very high heat. The caramel layer had melted and oozed out the bottom of the bars in a gooey puddle, leaving behind a thin and feeble layer of half-melted and congealed chocolate over a partly denuded cookie center. It was a hollow mockery of a Twix bar, a Twix bar that had shuffled off this mortal coil before it even had time to live.
But I didn’t come here to talk about candy bars. I came here to talk about Buddhism.
I can’t say that you’re losing me
I always tried to keep myself tied to this world
Though I know where this is leading
Please, no tears, no sympathy
I can’t say that you’re losing me
But I must be that which I am
Though I know where this could take me
No tears, no sympathy
In some small way, my desire for a Twix bar brought me unhappiness. The Twix bar I bought did not meet my expectations, and as a result, it did not bring me joy.
Buddhist philosophy correctly predicts my unhappiness. Buddhism teaches, and quite rightly, that the experience of life is the experience of suffering. This suffering, it says, comes inevitably from desire; when one desires that which one does not have, or when one has that which one does not desire, the result is suffering.
It’s hard to find fault in that idea. I could, as a minor quibble, argue that the source of suffering is not desire of and by itself, but rather the difference between one’s expectations and reality; I expected my experience with the Twix bar to be something other than it was, and I was disappointed. Had I had no expectations at all, the Twix bar may actually, when judged on the merits of what it was rather than what I expected it to be, have been quite good.
But that’s really a trivial complaint. The fact is, desire and expectation do lead to suffering, because we can not always expect to have what we desire, nor have the world match our expectations.
Facing conflict deep inside myself
But here confined, losing control
Of what I could not change
I ask you, please don’t worry, not for me
Don’t turn your back, don’t turn away
When viewed through this lens, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhist thought seem quite reasonable. Nobody likes to suffer; suffering and sorrow and grief are painful burdens, that grind down the human soul and sometimes make the experience of being human unbearable.
Buddhism teaches that freedom from suffering comes through disengagement. If desire results in suffering, then the way out of suffering is to desire nothing. By practicing this, a person can seek to free himself from the endless cycle of suffering resulting from birth, death, and rebirth, and become enlightened. Once the attachment to the world, with its attendant desire, is released, the enlightened Buddhist frees himself from suffering.
And if this is enlightenment, I want nothing to do with it.
It’s hard to say that the Buddhists have it wrong. One need only look around to see that the world looks as if it has been left in the custody of a pack of trolls. A litany of the evils of mankind is at once horrifying and clichéd; we have lived shoulder to shoulder with evil for so long that even talking about it seems banal. Engaging the world invariably brings pain and misery; we are so steeped in it that it cannot be any other way.
And yet… and yet…
And yet the flip side of that very coin is the fact that broken desire and unmet expectation is the necessary driving inspiration behind the impulse to do good.
Desire and expectation lead to sorrow and suffering, but in that sorrow and suffering is the incentive that prods us to seek to make more than what exists now, to become more than what we are today. The drive to better ourselves and the world we live in has at its core that very dissatisfaction the Buddhist philosophy sees as the source of all suffering.
Sometimes, it seems to me that Buddhist thought, when viewed from a certain angle, is the philosophy of nihilism. The world is a wretched, miserable place, it says, and engaging it will only bring you sorrow; best, then to transcend it, to disengage from it, to step away from that which you desire, lest your desire cause you pain.
That strikes me as a tacit, perhaps unconscious acceptance that the world as it is now is irredeemable. The world is beyond hope; the only reasonable answer is to forfeit the game, be quit of the whole affair. The Noble Eightfold Path is a road away from the world, teeming with refugees seeking to separate themselves from it.
To that, I say, no.
The world looks as though it has been left in the custody of a pack of trolls, it is true. The world rarely lives up even to the most modest of expectations, and the rift between one’s expectations and the unpleasant and often evil reality is a source of suffering. But that is not all there is. In that suffering, we can find the power to oppose evil, and to bend reality to our will. We are not impotent. Indeed, with every passing year, our knowledge increases, and with it increases our power to remake the world into something better.
Evil exists. Suffering exists. The world is shaped often by twisted and corrupt people, people of low ways and mean spirits. But it is shaped also by those who desire to do good–and the desire to do good may bring pain, but it also brings hope, and joy. It is only by engaging the world that we can leave our mark upon it, and by leaving our mark upon it we can know joy that is beyond all measure.
The Buddhist says, the world is not okay. Turn away; leave the world behind you; disengage from it. I say, the world is not okay, and that is why we must engage it, for only by engaging it can we ever hope to make it okay.