Many years ago I sat in a café reading a college textbook on Buddhism. An elderly woman at the next table had been eyeing me curiously and seemed to have something to say. I looked over at her several times, tacitly inviting her to speak, but she remained silent. Had she noticed the title of my book? The café was known for its eccentrics, and in time I began to imagine that she was a convert Buddhist who’d traveled the far corners of Asia and was primed to share with me at the slightest prod the great treasures of the East. But no sooner had I returned to my book than she leaned toward my table to remark rather irritably, “Otherworldly chants and begging bowls—and all that talk of suffering! I find it terribly depressing.”
I guess you could say the promise of Buddhism—that the end of suffering is possible—was lost on her. I can’t pretend I was much wiser. Not yet twenty, when I wasn’t looking for answers to life’s questions in books, I was eager to act out the nihilistic conceits of the Punk Rock set, otherwise wanting nothing more than to taste the pleasures the world seemed to offer. Like the old woman—and many Westerners today—I lived under the misimpression that Buddhism was bleakly pessimistic, indifferent to life’s joys.
Considering Buddhism’s growing popularity in the West over the decades that followed, you’d think this false take would have lost its easy allure. But, as James Baraz writes in this issue’s Dharma Talk, “despite pervasive images of the smiling Buddha, the teachings of Buddhism have had a reputation of being rather more somber than joyful” (see “Lighten Up”). What’s more, Buddhists themselves often bring this troublesome view to practice. Baraz, in his own early practice, avoided any outward expression of joy, which he associated with inappropriate attachment to worldly pleasures. However, as his practice matured, he began to understand that “joy, delight, and happiness . . . actually facilitate awakening.”
In this issue’s special section, “The Riddle of Desire” (page 58), contributing editor Mark Matousek compiles a series of essays that walk us through three Buddhist methods for navigating our desires along the path to enlightenment. Debunking yet another popular misconception, French monk Matthieu Ricard, a decades-long student of Tibetan Buddhism, insists that the Buddha did not advocate the suppression of all desires: “Like other emotions,” Ricard writes, “desire can be experienced either in a constructive or in an afflictive way. It can be the catalyst for a meaningful life—or the maelstrom that wrecks it.” Following his opening piece are essays by teachers and everyday practitioners on the experience of desire, and the means by which they’ve come to terms with their deepest longings. “Desires can contribute to lasting happiness,” writes Ricard, “as long as they are not tainted by craving and grasping.” Like Baraz, Ricard returns again and again to the cultivation of happiness, equating it with the Third Noble Truth, the end of suffering.
It’s ironic that Buddhism, which brings us only closer to life and its joys, has earned a reputation for denying them. I recently heard a Buddhist monk express not a little dismay at our willingness to look everywhere but within ourselves for happiness. The Buddha, ever practical and optimistic in his approach to suffering, pointed out that we were looking for happiness in all the wrong places. At a recent talk in New York, Matthieu Ricard rephrased this by saying that joy and happiness—genuine joy and happiness—are not merely the incidental fruits of practice, they are its very goal: nirvana. As the Buddha put it in theDhammapada:
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