All life is suffering.
-The First Buddhist Precept
Some may believe this to be a pessimistic, even melodramatic statement. After all, why should people not be happy? We in America live in a nation that is middle class by a vast majority. Most of us have luxuries of which the unfortunate rabble of ages past could never dream, or least enough for survival. Surely there cannot be any solidarity for such a bold statement as this. Unless, of course, we stop treating individuals as "everyman," and take a closer look at the individuals themselves.
In all truthfulness, never in my experience have I met anyone who was completely content with their lives. Something is always missing, and, however small that need may be, if we could just possess it, then everything would be perfect. This is a fallacy and a pitfall, of course, and if we were ever to find what have been searching for, there would simply be a little something more keeping us from complete and total contentment. From the poor man who wishes for freedom, to the rich man who only wants to escape, happiness is constantly eluding our grasp. The solution to this miserable cycle, however, should be slapping us in the face: Happiness is a state of mind. So, you can be content wherever you are, whoever you are, no matter what you have, or what you lack. So why haven't more people come to this same conclusion and led us into a new era of hope and prosperity? Perhaps we must probe a little deeper.
Certainly there is something to be said for the way that humans tend to associate misery with reality. In the 1999 film The Matrix, A.I.'s first attempt at controlling humans was to place them in a (literally) virtual utopia, a perfect world. "It was a disaster," explains the Agent. "Your minds refused to accept it." Although a work of science fiction, there is definitely truth in this concept. How often, when an adolescent gets his or her first taste of the cruelties and injustices that exist in this indifferent world, do they hear someone utter 'Welcome to the real world.' (Side note: I was about to write "first taste of reality" before I caught myself) Also, when someone is truly faring spectacularly, and their supply of 'luck' seems inexhaustible, someone will not fail to mention that they are 'living in a dream world,' and the rest of us (out of resentment) need only to 'wait until reality kicks in.'
So what is it that makes us so naturally pessimistic? Have we all simply been thoroughly jaded at some point in our lives, or is it something more fundamental to our very being? I may be attempting something too ambitious here, but I want to explore the roots of human suffering. I am not yet sure how it will turn out; most likely by raising more questions than it answers. I'm sorry if that sounds a little pessimistic. I am, after all, only human.
The Precepts of Buddhism go on to say that the sole cause of human suffering is desire. There is certainly truth in this, as it is our desires that cause us to never truly be content where we are. If we are standing, we would rather be sitting, if we are sitting too long, we would rather be walking. It follows logically, then, that to eliminate suffering, one must eliminate desire: The Third Buddhist Precept. It is indeed possible, however difficult. The true follower of such a goal must, in the end, relinquish even the desire to relinquish desire. So, for many, this is an unattainable goal; one that is hardly even comprehendible. Even if such a desireless state came easy, is it truly something to strive for? It is our desire that drives us, that motivates us to learn, to grow, and to evolve. Would we not be a stagnant society without our desires? There is historical precedence for this argument. Thousands of years ago, the Eastern world was far ahead of the West, technologically speaking. At a certain point, the advances in the East began to slow down, and nearly come to a halt, thus allowing the West to overtake them. You see, it was at that time that the teachings of the Buddha were becoming a prevalent force in the East. Is suffering therefore so inseparable from humanity, that we must forfeit our passions to escape it? Must we stop expanding our minds and give in to stagnancy to be truly happy?
Other religions have different explanations for human misery. Some Western faiths believe that mankind is born into it. For example, in the Christian Bible, man was expelled from a perfect world because of his own desire to differentiate good from evil for himself. Thus all the bloodline of the first man was stained by this offense, and would forever walk in a world of hardships. There is a slightly more logical idea that coincides with the theory that 'mankind is born into suffering.' In Arthur C. Clark's 2001; A Space Odyssey, the deistic aliens placed the first man-apes on the road to humanity by instilling within them a sense of disquiet with the world. Being inspired with discontentment, greed, and ambition, the man-apes took their first steps towards humanity. Perhaps our misery is our reality because it is this that defines us as people.
Is it to be our answer, then, in this little exercise, that not only is desire (and therefore suffering) fundamental to humanity, but that it is actually what makes us human? If so, then it must logically follow that suffering is our human nature, and to escape it would make us less human.
Dire thoughts indeed. Oh well. Welcome to the Real World.