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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

How Buddha Got it Wrong

June 27, 2008

By Richard Handler
The Ideas Guy
CBC News (Canada)
June 25, 2008

The writers of happiness books -- the serious writers, that is -- are
churning out works based on some pretty solid research. There is even
a name for this group: "Positive psychologists."

They are an upbeat bunch and I love them. They turn my brooding soul
away from the pangs of intellectual melancholy and maintain a place
in my heart as well as on my bookshelf.

What's more, in the great sport of the media interview, they deliver.
They tend to be great performers: Martin Seligman, Dan Gilbert, Sonja
Lyubomirsky, to name a few. So, too, in his own way, is the wise and
giggly Dalai Lama, whose The Art of Happiness was a best seller. When
he is on tour, His Holiness can fill stadiums.

But in this group there is no one more chipper than Jonathan Haidt,
author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient
Wisdom. I heard him on the CBC's Tapestry not long ago. He set my
feet dancing, which was a good way to start the summer.

Haidt teaches at the University of Virginia where he researches
happiness and instructs his undergraduates how to live a good life
(according to the evidence). He also maintains a very friendly website.

But you know when a happiness guy is really good at what he does when
he can criticize the Buddha in the nicest possible way and get away with it.

PACIFYING THE CHAOTIC MIND

That's what he did with host Mary Hynes on Tapestry: He corrected the
Buddha. But like all good positive psychologists (and management
consultants and PR specialists) he started with the good news, the
most effective strategy.

At one time, Haidt believed Buddha was the best psychologist of the
last 3,000 years. In that sense, he was not only the founder of
Buddhism but of the entire field of positive psychology because the
Buddha understood that people walk around with their heads "full of garbage."

These worries have plagued human beings probably forever. Haidt
quotes Mark Twain who wistfully said: "My life has been filled with
miseries and failures, most of which have never happened."

Now, you can argue that this state of mind is the psychological
version of original sin. Thus, for Haidt, Buddhism is a brilliant
system for clearing out the mind and achieving a certain peace.

ELEPHANTS WITHIN

To use the image Buddha liked, the mind is like an unruly elephant.
It must be tamed. Hence the need for meditative practices and discipline.

But here's the bad news. Haidt believes Buddhism goes further than
trying to pacify the chaotic mind. As a philosophy of life, it is
based on "an overreaction, even an error," he says. To understand
why, you have to understand the life of the Buddha.

The Buddha was born a prince in India around 624 B.C.E (dates vary).
His father supposedly heard a prophecy that his son would abandon his
regal ways and venture into the forest to become a sage or holy man.
His father was not pleased.

So, like so many dads, he tried to protect his son by hiding the ugly
realities of the world from him.

The Buddha's father did this by locking his son away in his sumptuous
palace. There, the young prince lived a life full of ease and
pleasure. The shadows of pain and suffering were barred from entry.

But the Buddha was curious. One day he convinced his father to let
him take a tour outside the palace and observe the life of ordinary
human beings. Ever protective, his father tried to sweep the old and
the sick off the streets. But he was not completely successful. When
his son caught sight of an old man, he saw the stark reality of the
human condition.

A VERY HUMAN MISTAKE

The Buddha was horrified. And he set out on a quest. "Why must people
be attached to such a life?" he wondered. The Buddha was looking for
an answer to this transitory and unsatisfactory existence we refer to as life.

His solution is what we now call Buddhism. In its view, attachment is
the problem. Non-attachment is the answer, the state to be prized.
And, according Jonathan Haidt, this is where the Buddha made his very
human mistake.

Had the Buddha actually spoken to any of the suffering people he
observed, says Haidt, he would have discovered they weren't nearly as
unhappy as he thought they were.

The poor Buddha, it seems, was starting his ancient quest without the
benefit of 21st century research.

Now, Haidt is speaking as an empiricist, a scientifically positive
psychologist. He observes that when bad things happen to people they
often adapt amazingly well. Not always. And not everybody. But
according to the evidence, even people crippled by terrible accidents
can return to their usual selves sooner than you would imagine.

As a psychologist, Haidt is always asking himself: What is our
fundamental nature? What kind of creatures are we?

Just as a shark needs to swim so that water flows over its gills, we
humans need goals, he says. When you ask people to renounce passion,
renounce attachment, as the Buddha does, they can't do it.

Well, maybe a few can. But they are the exception and Haidt is
interested in what the ordinary human being can accomplish.

That means a passionate engagement with life, not its deadpan opposite.

BUILDING SANDCASTLES

There is probably little argument that clinging to meaningless,
harmless attachments can be dangerous to your psychological
well-being. But the Buddhist would say that even clinging to
important attachments is the wrong thing to do.

Let them go, a follower would say. Life is like those intricate
sandcastles Tibetan monks love to build. Life is impermanent (a
favorite Buddhist word). Build all the gorgeous sandcastles you want.
They will all crumble in the end.

Perhaps Haidt makes Buddhist renunciation sound harsher than it is.
The chipper Haidt never uses the word the Dalai Lama insists on using
all the time: Compassion.

Renouncing the passions of life can sound cold-hearted and punitive
unless it is done in the spirit of compassion. Without it,
renunciation can become the stuff of hateful puritans and self-loathers.

Still, Haidt makes a good deal of sense to me. Passionate engagement
is his magic phrase. His royal road is not just for the occasional
saint who can perform spiritual gymnastics.

A path or religion that works for the few isn't a real path at all,
it is a recipe for failure. As a Westerner, Haidt is a pragmatist. He
is someone who is attached to what works.

Now, of course, being happy in life may depend on what you are
attached to. Here is where the new psychological research supports
much ancient wisdom. (This is also, Haidt says, why Westerners have
trouble creating balanced lives.)

Haidt says humans seek "vital engagements" in three areas of our
lives: In our person, in our work and in something larger than
ourselves. The Buddhist asks you to disengage from the passions that
fuel your work or your personal interests. But Haidt says, go on,
take a flyer, engage more completely. That is the key to a vital life.

It is such good, simple advice that, if he could have heard it, the
Buddha himself would have had a hard time not cracking a smile.
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