Buddhism and Idealism
(I wrote this on March 26, 2003)
There is: The way the world works.
There is (for each of us): The way the world ought to work.
The way the world works has absolutely nothing to do with the way (each of us thinks) the world ought to work.
In its most essential form, Buddhism describes the way the world works, and encourages us to sit still with that information. However, one of the ways in which the world works, is that people try to prescribe how the world ought to work — people create ideals. Buddhists do this too, more or less. Perhaps it is impossible for a human being to completely stop thinking "oughts" or "shoulds", though it might help to try.
However, if I tried to make people stop oughting and shoulding, I'd be, once again, trying to impose my own ideals upon the world. If I try to make myself stop, I'm trying to impose my ideals upon myself.
Imposing ideals doesn't work. At best, imposing ideals represses mindful decision-making and spontaneous behavior. At worst, imposing ideals destroys people's bodies, minds, and lives.
Yesterday I was deeply depressed about my country's war against Iraq. From my point of view, knowing what I know, and under my own system of ideals, this war is unjust. In reality, there is no "my country", and my ideals about war and peace are artificial standards that have no effect on the world, other than to make me depressed when the world doesn't follow my standards.
Plus, each individual has her own standards about the world ... and the people who support this war believe it is harmonious with their own standards. For them, allowing Saddam's Iraq to continue as a member of the Axis of Evil was just as intolerable as, for me, Bush's pre-emptive war is intolerable.
As the Dalai Lama says, we are all the same, we all want the same things. We all want to feel happy and secure. We all want to meet our physical and emotional needs. These needs appear differently for each of us because we have experienced different lives, but they operate the same way for all.
This is the way the world works. So, Buddhists tell us, sit still, relax. Good and evil are manifestations of the human mind, they are not reality. It is impossible to predict the future, therefore, it is impossible to know which actions will bring future pleasure and which actions will bring future pain. And, yes, there is pain, lots of pain. People are wounded, people are oppressed, people are killed. People starve, people lose their loved ones, people lose their property, people become sick, people die. Events do not turn out as planned. War and poverty bring ruin, peace and prosperity bring riches, and never are these evenly distributed around the globe. Some people dominate and control others, some people submit mindlessly, some people rebel against authority, some people are imprisoned, tortured, or killed by authority. Leaders face the same risks, insecurities, and pains as the people they lead.
There is pleasure in everyday life. There is pain in everyday life. There is chaos all around. We change from moment to moment, our surroundings change as well. Efforts to hold on to joyful circumstances can not ultimately succeed — they only increase suffering. Efforts to avoid sorrowful circumstances can not ultimately succeed — they only increase suffering.
This is how the world works. Living is a blessing, and so is death. Circumstances will always, ultimately, erase our efforts, as sandcastles always fall back into the sea. Building is fun ... but so is destruction ... and holding on only makes things worse.
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