By Friso Woudstra
Born in a land without war, a land without parents who have suffered from war. Freedom is just normal to us. Even more, due to the vast range of options we have in life, freedom becomes almost burdensome at times.
Born in times where for generations people have not thought anymore about the organisation of our society, simply old-fashioned capitalism with every now and then a left- or right-wing intervention. The whole idea that your country could be organised differently – for instance communist or theological – is an oddity to us.
Born amongst people with an outlook on life considered to be liberal and progressive. Great changes in society are to be found in history books. We are living in the end time, a time where social relations are mutually crystallized, where the educational system and the inherent values are fixed and where the only thing that can still affect humanity is the rapid progress of technology.
Born in a society that only philosophizes about partial questions. Asking questions that show the vulnerability of our skin-deep and often unsubstantiated philosophy is not cool. It’s not done. That is why mindfulness as a collection of relaxation techniques has become trendy these days but it is better not to mention Buddhist core ideas such as no self and impermanence.
Because our Western way of life is deemed to be untouchable, your individual life is just a matter of trying to gain as much happiness as possible through playing the game of society. He or she who asks critical questions about the rules, goals or whether this can lead to happiness at all, is just a party pooper, someone who disturbs the happy status quo.
I am one of those. I ask questions.
‘Are we heaps of matter that became self aware somewhere along the way of evolution?’ (Western material world view) or ‘are we self aware formless entities that dream the dream of form and have lost themselves in it?’ (Eastern spiritual world view).
Also, I just love history and thanks to all I learned about it, I know for myself that no society or people’s philosophy can withstand instability and major changes. Impermanence seems to apply not only to the smallest of smallest phenomena, but also to the big ones. And how clear can it be that we cannot sustain for another century of Western capitalism?
Ecology, depletion of the earth, overpopulation and the resulting battle for resources – one day it is bound to come to an end one day. Not to mention Western materialistic outlook on life, how many decades can we maintain through denial and indifference that modern physics really do seem to hold that the observer plays quite an active role? Thanks to our urge for objectivism (for undisputable, measurable facts) we have turned the subjective – perception – into a problem for science and in this way we created progress.
Some 2500 years ago, there lived a man who stated that nothing is objective. Instead everything is a product of the mind. Buddha makes everything come down to the mind and the experience of the individual, or in other words: the subjective.
We think ourselves to be talking about facts, but that is the very problem. We think to be talking facts. And because we agree so completely, it no longer seems to be part of our own subjective perspective on reality. There is such a thing as ‘the world’ outside of our own experience. Our modern world therefore is in fact an invisible marriage of physics and religion.
“Do you really think that we, modern men, could be so wrong?” Bewilderment. Resistance. “Couldn’t you just stick to those relaxation exercises of yours?”
And then there is the chapter Suffering: “Buddha postulated it as the first noble truth,” I say from time to time. This has taught me that people can reject this idea in hundreds of ways, ranging from light irritation to serious annoyance. “Suffering? Not me. Nonsense!” “Do you continuously experience happiness then,” I ask them.
“No, but that’s life.”
“But don’t you think it’s strange that man seems to be the only specie that almost never has peace and calm? Don’t you think it’s strange that it takes us so much effort to be in the present moment? To feel your feelings with your heart and not with your head? Why is man the only animal that can’t sit still and be satisfied when the job is done?”
In the end, there are so many reasons to doubt our modern image of man and the image we have of how society is supposed to function. And still we rarely do. The problem is that people (and especially young people) think they can win in this system en thereby make themselves completely dependent on it.
Hardly anyone wants to hear these critical questions. We want a job, we want a house and we want to show that we are competent! That we are worth the effort, so we can/must be happy. But the means (wealth) and the goal (well-being) have become entangled.
Buddha has a very different opinion on achieving happiness (or limiting suffering). Not your wealth, nor avoiding your fears, neither your duties nor standing in society are essential. This very indifference, amidst which I was born, is the cause of suffering. Doubt is the opening through which you can begin to investigate your own indifference and the wanderings and motivations of the thinking mind.
And then off course there is compassion and loving kindness – also no core values of our competitive society. So the Buddhist philosophy seems to contradict the world into which I was born.
Living the Buddhist way
And yet, I love it. The integrity of the Buddha makes me feel as if coming home. Each new layer of indifference that I discover within myself, makes me happier. Each time I can turn the unwholesome roots (greed, aversion, delusion) into wholesome roots (detachment/ generosity, loving kindness/ rapprochement, wisdom/ insight), I feel more human. And so I have learned myself by now not to confront my peers too much and I try to reduce my aversion for indifference.
And then there is off course the youth sangha, Wake Up Nijmegen. An oasis for curious youngsters, experienced practitioners and everything in between. A beautiful example of Buddhism in contact and experience. The friendliness, the openness, the self reflection and the involvement – my friends know by now that I do not like to give up my Wednesday evenings.
In fact this feels like the right time to turn my attention to the fact that I do have the freedom of choice in this society to develop myself the way I want to. Off course I would love to have a mindful workplace and to shop without a care in a mindful supermarket, but in the end, everything is at hand for a good practice, including the manageable obstacles.
That is why I do not have to take the heavy burden upon me to analyse or criticize society. If Buddhism really leads to an end of suffering, then other people’s questions will come by themselves. How reassuring. Now I feel like sitting on a cushion and seeing every moment being born.