Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Buddhism for happiness?

I wonder if Buddhism has occurred to you as a possible exploratory route to happiness? It's certainly occurred to me many times over the years, although I've instinctively shied away from anything that looked too much like hard work. I'm also unsure if I am or if I want to be someone who 'aligns' myself with something. Many years ago I knew someone called Anton Wasilewski (I think that's the spelling) at university and he pronounced that I was a person with no morals but plenty of underlying principles, and I think it is principles that have got me through life in the absence of anything like faith. I have no faith. I joke about having had the 'faith bone' removed, but truthfully I don't have any faith. Internal searching hasn't even disclosed to me the part of my mind in which faith would reside if I had any. I've read research that suggests people with faith are physically and mentally healthier so in some ways I feel as if perhaps an absence of faith in my life has made things more difficult, but I've also felt glad to be the author of my own misfortunes and I am reluctant to describe any part of my life or myself to something other.

So anyway, back to Buddhism. I'm interested in the fact that some of the people who've published research and written books about happiness and how to achieve it are practicing Buddhists, but with my Bachelors degree Christian theology behind me I am crushingly ignorant about Buddhism and I'd like to know more. One thing that's confusing me is that there are so many variants of Buddhism, different schools, although with my knowledge of the history and practice of Christianity perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.

I don't know that I'm about to embark on a personal journey into Buddhism, but I do think that meditation, mindfulness and compassion in particular may have important things to teach me about being less stressed, living now rather than in the past or in the future, and forgiving myself - all of which would do me a lot of good. So I'm reading two books at the moment, which are at different points in the plethora of western interpretative literature about Buddhism: Sarah Napthali's Buddhism for Mothers and Matthieu Ricard's Happiness: a Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill.

The Napthali book is (so far) amusing and relevant in that its author is not a guru. She's a time-poor, frazzled mother with a supportive partner who is otherwise uninterested in her spiritual journey, and she's an ordinary, mistake-making, non-academic student of Buddhism who isn't claiming to have all the answers. If nothing else, reading the book makes me realise I'm not alone! Ricard's book claims a lot more authority, if only because of its weightier prose and the fact that its author is a fully ordained monk and a science graduate with amazing parents and a fabulous education who could probably have turned his hand to anything and been an outstanding success but instead has devoted his life to Buddhism and specifically to the interface between Buddhist teachings and modern physics... Intellectually it's a lot more interesting, but less sympathetic. Indeed, having been brought up in that very British way of understating achievement Ricard's calm and dispassionate recital of his successes makes him sound a bit smug when it's supposed to showcase his Buddhist non-attachment to wordly things and his lack of delusion about his place in the world. I'm hoping that as I read more I find something more fallable about him and that I'm able to avoid schadenfreude. That wouldn't be very Buddhist, would it?


  1. In answer to your initial question, yes! If I were to align myself to anything, it would be Buddhism, because it's the only organised religion that I can admire. Unfortunately I'm not very disciplined, so I cannot say I'm a Buddhist. I'm consoled by the fact that Buddhism varies so widely around the world, from meat-eating monks to handbag-worshipping Thais. So I cherry-pick (I initially typed cheery-picked, which works in the context) all the bits I like and that get me through my day, and get through my day. Life's too short for guilt.

  2. Dear SCB, seeing as you would 'like to know more about Buddhism', please have a look at www.buddhismatoz.com. Happy exploring!


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