What makes the world go around in the world of Buddhist practitioners?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Having taught many lay followers in addition to his monastic disciples, the Buddha was well aware of the temptations that life offers for those people whom he called “uninstructed worldlings.” Although addressed to monks, “eight worldly conditions” (attha lokadhamma) well summarize what the Buddha considered to be the temptations that uninstructed worldlings would turn into the main motivations for their activities in the world: “These eight worldly conditions, monks, keep the world turning around, and the world turns around these eight worldly conditions. What eight? Gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. … When an uninstructed worldling, monks, comes upon gain, he does not reflect on it thus: ‘This gain that has come to me is impermanent, bound up with suffering, subject to change.’ … But, monks, when an instructed noble disciple comes upon gain, he reflects on it thus: ‘This gain that has come to me is impermanent, bound up with suffering, subject to change.’” (Anguttara Nikaya 8:6)

With gain and loss included as the first two of the eight worldly conditions, it is clear that the Buddha was well aware that gain and loss would keep the world turning around as the people would turn seeking financial gain into the main goal of their life’s activities. The Buddha was not necessarily opposed to the acquisition of wealth that results from seeking financial gain, provided that wealth was righteously acquired through right livelihood. As a matter of fact, the Buddha accepted generous support of rich merchants such as Anathapindika and Visakha because theirs was “righteous wealth righteously gained.” Moreover, as faithful lay followers of the Dhamma, they understood very well that “the gain that has come to me is impermanent, bound up with suffering, subject to change.”

If wealth, or seeking financial gain, is one temptation, seeking fame is another worldly temptation that propels many men and women in their daily endeavors. Actually, the conventional world we live in rewards those who are successful in their endeavors with awards and prizes, even inducting them into the Halls of Fame as the reward for their accomplishment. But as Marcus Aurelius Antonius (121-180), who may come close to the Buddha’s conception of raja cakkavatti (wheel-turning monarch) as an enlightened Roman Emperor whose contribution to the history of Western philosophy is well recognized, reminds us, “all is ephemeral—fame and the famous as well.” (Meditations IV. 35) Of course, it takes someone like Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), who chose to turn his back on the conventional world, to be able to declare: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” (Walden 18) For the fact of the matter is that fame, too, “is impermanent, bound up with suffering, subject to change.”

A line in An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope (1688-1744), “Some praise at morning what they blame at night,” captures very well that praise and blame are flimsy and impermanent. For those who seek truth for the sake of truth, or those who seek beauty in works of art, blame or praise does not have a lasting effect on them, as exemplified by a statement John Keats (1795-1821) made in his letter to a friend: “Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic of his own works.” (Letter to James Augustus Hessey) It comes as no surprise, then, that this statement comes from a poet best known for his 1818 poem, Endymion, with the first line: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” This, of course, raises a question about whether joy, or pleasure, is everlasting, as Keats seems to suggest that it is.

Here again, the Buddha reminds us of the impermanence of pleasure and pain. The word “pleasure” here is a translation of the Pali word “sukha,” which is also translated as “happiness.” “Happiness” (sukha), along with “rapture” (piti), comes up in the Buddha’s exposition of Right Concentration (samma samadhi), one of the eight factors in his Noble Eightfold Path: “Here, monks, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a monk enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly understanding, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’ With abandonment of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and dejection, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called right concentration.” (Samyutta Nikaya 45:8).

What is to be noted is that, while rapture and happiness appear during the first three phases of concentration, they disappear by the time one reaches the fourth jhana. In fact, both pleasure and pain need to be abandoned and, with the abandonment of pleasure and pain, one enters the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant. The word “equanimity” makes its appearance in the third jhna, culminating in the purification of mindfulness by equanimity in the fourth jhana. Given that “equanimity” appears as one of the Four Immeasurables of “loving-kindness” (metta), “compassion” (karuna), “altruistic joy” (mudita), and “equanimity” (upekkha), we can see that by the time the practitioner reaches the fourth jhana, he/she is now ready for the Bodhisattva path that has come to be emphasized by Mahayana Buddhists. And with the appearance of the Bodhisattva path, we finally enter the stage where “love” makes the world go around in the world of Buddhist practitioners. To get there, needless to say, requires constant study and practice on the part of us practitioners.