It’s not very fashionable these days to announce that you are going to become a monk (or a nun – ‘monk’ will henceforth stand for both). Some of your friends and relatives might even wonder what happened to you and think that you’ve gone insane. And that’s understandable. The modern world provides us with more opportunities and pleasures than ever before, and then there’s the fact that choosing an alternative to hedonism is too often met in the West with disasters of the pedo-criminal kind. (And the reason for this is that the West still lacks to this day a fundamental piece of wisdom which has been known in the East for thousands of years, but we’ll come to that later.)
So let me try to explain why someone today would give up all there is to enjoy out there to go live in a monastery. To start with, like pretty much everyone else, a Buddhist monk is engaged in the pursuit of happiness, and not in a twisted masochistic way, but in a way that draws from a deep, ancient wisdom, which is almost totally unheard of in the West, and which everyone has to try and see for themselves to really know it.
But let me start with examining how we usually pursue happiness in the modern world, especially in Western, capitalist societies. I think it’s fair to say that we mostly try to gain happiness by changing the circumstances of our life, in order to end up in a situation that satisfies us, which in other words satisfies our mind. Thus, a lot of people want to become rich and/or get into the perfect relationship of their dreams. Some want to become famous, others want to achieve something that no one has ever done before…
All these strategies have something in common though: they are attempts to act externally, to change the world around us so that it provides us what we want. The problem with that paradigm is that a lot of the factors involved in achieving this kind of success are beyond our control, and as a result most of us suffer frustration and dissatisfaction in the process, and soon find out that success rarely comes without sacrifice.
So the way to happiness, for most of us, is known to be an arduous one, because we make it depend on factors that are beyond our control. To make matters worse, the social engineers who design modern society, a.k.a. the rich and powerful, are very smart and cunning. They have understood very well that the key to their wealth and power lies inside our minds, and if by way of relentless advertisements, entertainments or influence from celebrities, they can hijack our dreams, our notion of what happiness is, they figured that they can control our behavior, so that we will choose to follow them on a (typically) materialistic goose chase, in the process of which we will increase their wealth.
There’s an episode of The Boondocks that illustrates this. Jazmine, the neighbor’s daughter, takes advantage of a heat wave to sell neighborhood-friendly lemonade on the sidewalk. All is well until a rich man notices there’s money to be made and stops by. He dangles in front of her the prospect of getting a pony if she signs a contract with him and fulfills it by selling enough lemonade. She takes the bait, and the rich man ends up taking all the money, while making her life miserable. Similarly, after chasing home ownership, or getting a big and tall car, or a swimming pool for their house, or taking whatever bait of the ‘goods and services’ kind, many of us end up stuck with debt and a job they’d rather not do, running in an endless hamster wheel that generates more wealth for someone who’s already rich.
And then, even people who succeed in looking for happiness that way are often seen to be miserable in their personal lives. Hollywood has more than a few of such characters: some even commit suicide (Robin Williams, Tony Scott), others have painful and heavily publicized relationship breakups (Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie), drug addictions etc. And even if they somehow manage to avoid all that they still have, like everyone else, to grow old, to eventually become sick, and die.
But what if there was a better way?
Let me suggest a paradigm shift: if happiness happens when our mind is satisfied with the present circumstances of our life, why not, instead of trying to change these circumstances (which lie mostly beyond our control) so that they satisfy our mind, rather trying to change our mind itself (which potentially lies within our sphere of control, and is much easier to change than the external world) so that it becomes more easily satisfied with the circumstances of our life, as they already are? (Of course, there’s the caveat that this strategy does presuppose that a few basic needs are fulfilled: security, freedom, water, food, shelter…)
In other words, the idea is that the key to our happiness, much like the key to our oligarchs’ wealth and power, lies within our minds, since after all happiness is nothing but a state of mind. So the strategy here would be to stop the Herculean task of trying to bend the world around us so that it satisfies us, and instead to train our mind to become happy here and now, in the world as it already is.
This, however, requires time and energy, which is why it’s much easier to do it if we are free from all requirements and responsibilities imposed on us by society. This is a reason to go train in a monastery, since Buddhist monks are beggars for food, in order to get a completely free schedule and no worries about anything, so that they can dedicate all their time and energy to the pursuit of happiness through training their mind to be happy.
But this begs the question: what sort of mental training will make me happier than a rich and famous Hollywood star? Well, buckle up. We’re going for a dive.
Let me first address the question: what is preventing me from experiencing total happiness and bliss right here, right now? The Buddha says it’s simply our chronic lack of satisfaction with the present moment, which he calls the first ‘noble truth’ of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). So, then, what causes this lack of satisfaction? He says it’s the thirst (taṇhā), essentially for – but not limited to – pleasures of the five senses, which finds satisfaction in external objects here and there, however only in a limited capacity, since pleasures of the senses can only ever be transitory.
In other words, it is the thirst for all the pleasing experiences we would rather have right now, instead of what we’re actually having, that prevents us from being happy in the present, and the Buddha calls that the second noble truth. So logically, removing that thirst which stands in the way of our happiness will allow the mind to be completely satisfied with the present moment, and that’s the third noble truth. The fourth and last noble truth is an eight-step way to achieve the removal of that thirst and thereby complete, lasting happiness, even through old age, sickness and death.
So a man goes to a Buddhist monastery in order to gain happiness by removing that thirst from his mind. Well, that’s easier said than done, because he has identified himself with that thirst for a long time, and he has let it control his life. Now how does he do it?
This is where, as I said earlier, the West is lacking in fundamental wisdom, because there, no culturally well-known method exists to achieve this removal. The teachings merely say ‘don’t do so and so’. How? That’s all for yourself to figure out! Good luck! As a result, the only thing the people engaged on such a journey are seen trying is repression, an attempt to drive this thirst underground, transforming it into an under-the-bed monster lurking in the dark of their subconscious, that ends up coming out in full force in the middle of the night, and driving them mad, on account of which too many end up engaging in self-defeating or even criminal acts. It’s as if they had a bag of candy (a.k.a. pleasing and desirable objects of the five senses) and they wanted to get rid of it in order to find true happiness, but their own mind rebels against them because they don’t know about the bar of gold they ought to give it in exchange for the candy.
What bar of gold? It starts with a practice which is not traditionally known in the West: meditation. It’s a fairly simple concept, though: you just sit down cross-legged, straighten your back and remain aware of your breath around your nostrils, whether it’s coming in or going out, nothing else. That’s it. It may seem strange if you have no experience of it, but a lot of things start happening, both in the body and the mind. Long story short, if you have a map of how to navigate the difficulties of this very simple practice and avoid its hazardous reefs and whirlpools, if you have nothing left to have any remorse for (in the form of unpleasant thoughts), you arrive at a point (called jhana, a.k.a. Zen) where you experience a particular kind of subtle joy. This joy creates a type of pleasure in the body which is better, subtler and more refined than any other pleasure you’ve ever experienced.
And that’s a real game changer that the West has essentially remained ignorant of. Because you don’t have to think about it, your body and your mind feel it. So every time you remember anything you’ve done before, it only pales in comparison to what you are experiencing in the present moment, and you don’t feel any thirst any more for those things. Be it sight-seeing, vacations, food, sex, you name it. Your brain knows, feels that what you’re getting now is of better quality.
And what is more, unlike pleasures of the five senses, this pleasure is more lasting. If you eat a lot or have a lot of sex, you will soon end up grossed out about the whole thing and start chasing something else. But here, you can enjoy an unlimited amount of this pleasure, and you progressively learn to get an unlimited supply of it. On top of that, there’s further stages where it becomes stronger, more refined, until, according to the map, you transcend even that pleasure for a something still better.
This is how you successfully trade candy for gold. Jhana is a skillful form of indulgence, where you use your mind’s natural tendency towards hedonism to free it from the hardships of hedonism as a lifestyle, which arise when we make efforts to obtain contact with pleasing objects of the five senses. You suffuse your body with a non-sensual pleasure (said to be non-sensual because arising from the joy, a mental state, and not an object of the five senses) that easily counteract any sense of deprivation that would otherwise come from trying to abandon the thirst. There is no need for repression, for trying to drive one’s natural tendencies underground, towards the dark of the subconscious, and much less danger of it suddenly coming out to bite.
Once we are freed, even partially, from the thirst and the quests it throws us onto, we have a greater sense of freedom, we are able to be happy here and now without feeling the need to change the present circumstances by means of a complicated goose chase.
Getting to jhana is not the end of the path though, it’s actually just the beginning, one could even say a prerequisite, but life and its level of happiness already improve so tremendously that going back to the daily struggles of regular life seems like a giant whirlpool of hassle. Which is why someone may feel like life in a monastery isn’t so bad after all.