Growing up I was told many times that I should passionately savor life with all its joys and pains, and that in fact it was both the joy and pain together that made life beautiful and meaningful. The key is to relate to the pain and joy in such a way that allows one to get the most happiness out of life. Many of my friends have also grown up with similar values. On the other hand, as we discussed in class, the first of the four noble truths is that life is suffering and ultimately the goal is to escape the samsaric cycle of rebirth. Are the cultural values I grew up with and these Buddhist tenets conflicting?
At times I have thought that they were indeed completely divergent. However, perhaps this was impart because I was conflating painful emotion with the term suffering. When I have asked Buddhists about how advanced Buddhist practitioners’ experience emotion, they have given me complex and even sometimes conflicting answers. In general they explained that the goal is to experience emotions without having the emotions overwhelm the practitioner. For example, the Dalai Lama reflected upon a death of someone who sought his counsel, “Even though that feeling of regret is still there [for me], it isn’t associated with a feeling of heaviness or a quality of pulling me back” (Cutler 161). Though he felt sadness as well as regret, this did not lead to suffering. Therefore, there is room in Buddhism to feel these emotions fully, but without suffering. Still, I’m curious what that means – how can someone feel deep sadness and pain without suffering? And what does that new relationship with emotion look like?
Though the values I was raised with viewed sadness and anger as inherent in life and part of what makes life meaningful, people never suggested I strive to feel them; I mean people were still trying to teach me how to be happy. Similarly, Buddhism is not only saying we must escape suffering, it also talks about accepting suffering and seeing suffering as part of life. In describing the Dalai Lama’s perspective, Cutler, who wrote a book about his conversations with the Dalai, writes, “[The Dalai Lama has] a belief in the possibility of freedom from suffering but starts with accepting suffering as a natural fact of human existence” (Cutler 136). While he reaffirms that suffering is natural to the human experience he is also saying that there is something beyond suffering. Furthermore, Buddhism states that life should not be about falling in love, or seeking the adrenaline rush of reaching the top of a mountain. While these are not inherently bad, they will only end up being part of a life of suffering and the focus should instead be on reaching something more, an awakened state with a different relationship to emotions altogether.
While both Buddhism and the values I was raised with stress accepting the painful and happy experiences of life, Buddhism gives a different lens to these emotions. The mission in life is not about striving to feel the passions of life, but rather changing how we relate to these passions, and about actually changing our relationship to ourselves to such an extent that we no longer suffer at all. I am still uncertain how profoundly different this perspective is from the one I grew up with.
Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, and Howard C. Cutler. The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World. New York: Doubleday, 2009. Print.