Conventional wisdom tells us that people are drawn to Buddhism by suffering, and that the chief motivation for practice is to achieve the end of suffering. This is an axiom that fits in well with the modern medicalization of Buddhism, where mindfulness-based interventions offer relief from a wide array of physical and mental ailments, and it also happens to conform with Judeo-Christian notions of redemption and salvation. But how well does this understanding reflect the situation in ancient India at the time of its origins?

There are some dramatic stories of people coming to Buddhism from intense suffering, especially among women such as Kisagotami, who lost her son, and Patacara, who lost her entire family. Both went mad with grief, were restored to their right mind by encountering the teachings of the Buddha, and went on to become awakened. But these stories are relatively rare. Much more often the stories tell about people of privilege and high standing, like the Buddha himself, who went forth into the homeless life to seek truth, to enter upon a noble search for meaning, and to accomplish the highest attainable goal.

The large community of wandering ascetics among whom the Buddha lived were seekers of knowledge, not refugees from despair. Many had “dropped out” from the brahmin caste, like Sariputta, or were young men from the families of aristocrats or wealthy merchants who eagerly embraced the hardships of the forest life as a challenge. They “turned on” to meditation and altered states of consciousness, not to seek relief from pain but to open up to new experiences and expand the capabilities of their minds. What they “tuned in” to was a deeper understanding of reality, not as something to be escaped but as something to be embraced with full awareness.

Mindfulness and meditation, in comfortable settings, offer many consolations to an aging population, and indeed the modern Buddhist movement is predominantly inhabited by those with gray or graying hair. Encountering the existential truths of aging, illness, and death with insight and understanding is an inherently valuable and rewarding activity. But I wonder if those in the prime of their youth might find in these teachings the kind of enthusiasm and inspiration that seems to have spread like fire through the Buddha’s own generation. Taking on the project of awakening the mind was a call to adventure, a challenge to “do what is hard to do,” to break through the complacency of a comfortable life, to test oneself and see how far a person might evolve in understanding. The life of the wandering ascetic or the spiritual seeker, in all cultures and times, is situated at the cutting edge of the human endeavor. It is driven by the courage to dare and to risk, requires the sacrifice of comfort and control, and is pursued with a commitment not short of life and death.

As the modern Buddhist renaissance moves from an early to a more mature phase, I wonder if we are due for some optimism, some enthusiasm, and some determination to take it to the next level. Perhaps it is time for people to demonstrate through their own realization the transformative value of these ideas and practices.

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