To Balance the Sins of Life
Many of us have always been slightly attracted to Eastern Philosophy. It is what drove me to fly to India to meditate in silence for 10 days and to trek the Himalayas in Nepal right after. It was one of the best experiences of my life. One that I will no doubt carry with me always, and one that I later turned into my first novel.
East versus West
Part of the reason Eastern Philosophies are such an attractive idea to us is for the same reason Western Philosophies are. It tries to make us better at being human. It tries to make us calmer. It tries to get us to be more compassionate and accepting. It ultimately wants us to be wiser and more grateful in life.
The twist between the two philosophies, however, is how differently they approach this goal. Whereas in the West we have great philosophies to help with our day to day struggles and internal angst such as Stoicism, much of our philosophy is focused on terrific mind puzzles, such as the existence of God or extremely elaborate and intellectual ideas about ethics. Ideas that are written in horribly long sentences that seem to trip over each other and leave us more confused than clear at the end of it.
We can see our differences in how we practice our respective philosophies and how we see them all around us. Whereas we have amazing and intricate gothic cathedrals, the East sits quietly under a tree and writes simple poems of fleeting but deep insightfulness. We use our minds to find the balance and morality of government, while they watch a river run and participate in soothing tea-drinking ceremonies.
This isn’t to say one is wrong and the other is right. However, Eastern Philosophy does seem to offer us something in a simple, yet profound, way that Western Philosophy hasn’t quite achieved yet. They offer pearls of childlike wisdom to our never-ending uneasiness that life is meaningless and empty.
The following are a few, very briefly summarized, ideas that many of us can benefit from wherever we may be in the world and in our lives. They are roughly based on Zen Buddhism. Buddha himself being born in Nepal, squeezed between India and China, it is no wonder he became a funnel point for the two great religions of the area that preceded his own.
Zen Buddhism is, in a nice way, most Eastern philosophies stripped-down and put together for easy export and consumption. Buddhism being the highlights and key deep thoughts of Hinduism without all the confusing messiness that Hinduism can be for a new student. While Taoism is the smiling father looking down at what must feel like his own child. Its final touch comes from its exchanging influence with Japanese culture.
The final note I would like to say before sharing these nuggets of wisdom is to keep in mind the old, well-known Buddhist saying about ‘pointing to the moon.’ If you look at the finger, you miss the moon.
Buddhism is not a religion or philosophy that demands obedience to its ways as many Western philosophies do. Whatsmore, a Christian or a Marxist can easily adapt these ideas and integrate them into their way of life without betraying their own belief systems.
Now, with all introductions and disclaimers out of the way, here are three Zen ideas that I hope will help bring you a little more happiness, a little less suffering, and a lot more balance into your life.
1. A Noble Truth
We will suffer in life and it is unavoidable. This is the first thing Buddha taught in his ‘Noble Truths’. Our suffering comes from our expectations.
We want great sex.
We want to stay young forever.
We believe that money can find happiness.
Rather than constantly chasing these desires and bottomless pits of despair, the Buddha taught us that we should become more and more at home with the maelstrom and disappointment that is existence. We are all living on a shitpile.
When ugliness appears in life, we shouldn’t be surprised. We shouldn’t have so much hope that there will be rainbows and butterflies every day of life. More than that, we shouldn’t feel betrayed by life when bad things do happen. They will.
This isn’t to say Buddha was a grumpy old man or nihilistic teenage goth. He was cheerful and was known to have an inviting and warm smile. By expecting nothing good and calmly expecting the worst, the butterflies became more beautiful when they did flutter his way. By keeping a dark background, the light shined brighter when it came out.
What Buddha really wanted to teach in this first and central noble truth, was the art of acceptance, of being buoyant on the waves of life.
Buddha was from the subcontinent of India and very much influenced by the culture and languages there. One idea that we are taught at the end of the Vipassana meditation course is the ‘Metta’ technique to finish the one hour of sitting meditation.
Metta means ‘benevolence’, or more digestible - ‘tender kindness’, in the Indian language of Pali. It is one of the most important ideas of Zen Buddhism. Metta Bhavana (bhavana meaning to ‘call into existence’) is more about an attitude than any secret meditation technique. While in meditation, we think about someone that, quite honestly, we despise in some way. Perhaps they are just irritating, but whatever the case, we feel cold and aggressive towards them.
That’s okay. There are no wrong feelings. But what we do in response is important. To try to avoid our normal reaction of being hostile to the annoying people in our lives, we concentrate on them with heart and mind and wish them peace and less suffering.
For example, the person that can upset me most is the person closest to me, my wife. I am not perfect by any means, but often, I try to practice this technique, either with calm quietude or by doing something kind for her rather than doing something out of anger. It seems silly to go buy her a new dress or make her coffee the way she likes it when I just want to scream at her or run away from her, but it works. I can say that confidently from experience.
This practice can be used towards every creature in the world, us humans most especially. Our feelings towards each other are not set in stone. They can be changed, or more rightly, improved. Compassion is a learnable skill and it can be given to those we hate just as much as those we love.
3. Wu Wei
Wu Wei is the key principle of Taoism, and a major theme of its more modern and accepted offspring, Zen Buddhism. It is usually translated as ‘Effortless Effort’. More accurately, perhaps, it means ‘not doing’ or as it is often said, ‘wei wu wei’ - ‘doing not doing’.
This is not to say that we should be lazy. Quite the opposite, ‘doing not doing’ is more about allowing things to happen of themselves with the flow of the Tao. ‘Going with the flow,’ as we often say. The flow is Tao. It is the magic of a tennis player making a perfect backhand without the thought of the technique of the backhand. It is the dancer becoming the dance itself. It is, as a writer, when the words seem to write themselves.
We know it when we feel it and this is what Taoism is all about: finding that flow and doing our best to run with the river or wind rather than trying to go against it and struggling in life.
It is an intentional surrender of our own free will to give way to the way things are. Rather than protesting and demanding a different reality, we accept what is and find things as they are meant to be, and we will be better for it. It takes a certain level of trust in the Universe to let go like this, but it is, nonetheless, a gamble that most often wins in the end.
We can’t control the events around us as much as we like to believe we can. An unprotesting acceptance of ‘what is’ will give us a special serenity and essence of freedom any true Taoist carries.
A Few More for the Road
We can find many more calming and enlightening truths like these should we desire to find them.
I have gone through the Tao Te Ching literally hundreds of times. At only 5000 words and in short poetic chapters, it is always accessible and forever uplifting and enriching.
The Japanese art Kintsugi is a practical application with profound meaning like many Japanese traditions and rituals. Reminding ourselves we are all flawed in a beautiful way, and more importantly, that repairing ourselves and our relationships is an act of greatness.
The Chinese art of bamboo and the very culture surrounding bamboo is just as fascinating. Watching a Taoist artist paint is a soothing pleasure in itself. Add in the deeper philosophy that the Chinese attach to bamboo and it becomes even more helpful.
Lastly, I will mention the ‘Mother Mary of China’. Guanyin is much like a saint in China. Her gaze makes grown people cry. Not through fear, but through kindness. She does not judge. Her look simply tells and comforts, in grand-motherly kindness, that she knows: we are tired, we feel hurt and betrayed, life isn’t easy, and we just don’t know how much more we can take. She understands. And quite often, having that is all we ever really need.