Happiness and its causes - My place in a mucked up world

The final part of Simon Smart's thoughts on the 2010 Happiness Conference

A few years ago I had the good fortune of interviewing a Buddhist Monk for something I was writing on World Religions. He was a deeply thoughtful guy, who took his beliefs seriously and was good company. It’s fair to say he didn’t match the stereotype of a teacher of Eastern spiritual wisdom though. Born and raised in Wales, he was still young, but described himself as an ex-surfer.

The ‘ex’ was the part that stood out to me. Anyone who has experienced the thrill of standing on a board and cutting across an unbroken wave doesn’t easily recover from the experience. I’d never heard of anyone giving it up. Most surfers I know, unless forced to move to landlocked Switzerland or Nebraska, keep going until their knees or backs give out on them.

But this expert in Buddhist meditation, now named Kelsang Sudhana, came to see surfing, and presumably many other activities of recreation, as a meaningless exercise that merely got in the way of his progress towards enlightenment.

I mention this story in light of all the positive talk surrounding various versions of Buddhist and other Eastern spiritual beliefs and practices at the Happiness and its causes conference. It ought not be surprising that this way of viewing the world was well received at such a conference; it was put on by the Buddhist Vajrayana Institute after all.

Lots of people I spoke with talked easily about things like ‘present moment awareness’ and letting go of negative emotions, and many paths to the one great being. Speakers at the conference were not all of this ilk, but a number were. One that stood out was Dr Robert Thurman from the Department of Religion at Columbia University. He’s a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies, was one of the bigger names present.

Thurman talks about infinite life—of being able to achieve profound and secure happiness, to be able to experience an inner joy that is not dependent on circumstance, but that comes from a place deep within us. I would agree that there’s much value in learning a degree of contentment that can remain with you through the inevitable ups and downs of life.

But Thurman finds something strange about our culture’s assessment of the world as broken and in need of fixing. He wants to say it’s wrong-headed to think that way and that ‘there is no limit to how far you can develop positively into higher states of spirituality, understanding, love, happiness and creativity.’

But when I look at the world I do see something that is both wonderful and terribly damaged, and it seems no amount of inner peace that I might be able to conjure up can solve that. In my mind there is something inherently realistic about the Christian assessment of the world and each of us in it. It appears to comprehensively (although not exhaustively) explain the reality in which I find myself.

And the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection speaks right into this need for an outside source of redemption and healing. The biblical story, if it’s true, promises real hope that this redemption is coming. In any assessment of what makes for a fulfilling life that story ought to be given due consideration.

The other thing that Thurman talked about was discovering that our fixed and limited self, separate from all other beings is an illusion—which we need to get over. We can, he said, discover that we are connected to all other people and things.

The belief of Buddhism is that ultimately the ‘self’—what I think of as ‘me’ doesn’t exist. Thurman says that Buddha invites us to join a ‘lifelong, blissful vacation retreat from our domineering selves’. Again, there is real value in learning to be less self-obsessed and more outwardly focused. Thurman’s call to learn the freedom of selflessness is a worthy goal. But that’s not the same thing as the elimination or denial of the self that a lot of Buddhist or quasi Buddhist teaching leans towards.

Christianity tells us that we are a unique, distinct creature of a loving God— distinct from the creation and distinct from the creator. It also says that while the creation groans in anticipation of redemption, it remains a good to be enjoyed and cared for. That has profound implications for how I see myself and others around me and how I relate to God.

It adds depth to why my life and your life matters. That there’s a purpose and preciousness to it. It also places me within God’s story in the world and makes me a player in that.

It’s one of the reasons why I believe the Christian story, of all those on offer, is the one that is most realistic about life and the world we find ourselves in; the most uplifting in terms of our understanding of what it is to be human, and the most hopeful for life now and into the future.

Which means when I am out in the water on my Sunday morning surf, I can celebrate being alive and able to enjoy the good parts of God’s creation. It might not be about ultimate meaning, but it isn’t meaningless.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity