UNIVERSAL DHARMA

Wait A Minute! ~ DISCONTENTMENT

Just as the tension that builds up under the earth’s crust is finally released in earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, so now the tension that has been building up in me for some time past seeks release through my pen. I have some ideas in mind but I know that as I go on, many things will emerge unsought, not thought of. I have long found this process fascinating, and it is, for me, quite instructive, affording insights into different aspects of life. Many things are hidden in our minds that we know nothing of, but may emerge if we allow them to.

Although we know that words are not the things they represent, nevertheless we may find great beauty in them for what they are and a joy in being able to communicate and express our ideas and feelings to others thereby. I obviously feel that I have something to communicate to others; this is why I write and speak (I am not going to be falsely modest about it); so, words are very useful tools to me. Though they are limited, we seldom use them to their full extent, beyond which they must be left behind as inadequate. Like a boat that may carry us over a river, they should not be abandoned in mid-stream.

We may appreciate and use things without being unduly attached to them, like vacuum-cleaners, pens, pots and pans, and so on; we use them as means to an end, but we do not worship them on altars or take them to bed with us. So it is with words. And the fact that many of us live largely on the verbal level and take words for their objects, thinking that just because we know the word we therefore know the thing, it is not the fault of the words. If we understood this, words would serve us better and open many doors.

I once had a conversation with a Christian, during the course of which, almost inevitably, the word ‘God’ came up. I asked him what he meant by it and if he knew the thing it represented. My question clearly took him by surprise, which indicated that he had never really thought about it but had merely been content—like most people—to accept and believe un-questioningly what he had heard from others; he had only the word. And is the word ‘God’ God? Of course not! He would have done better—this middle-aged man—to have heeded Pierre Abelard’s words: “By doubt we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we arrive at Truth”.

Until now, most of us have been content to use the words of others that we have inherited, but we can, if we wish, make them our own—and by so doing, demonstrate our gratitude to the originators of these tools, whoever they were—by investigating them, pulling them apart, turning them around, rolling them on our tongues, and feeling them, as if they were tangible. Our lives are so very enriched by words and we owe them so much; it is a tragedy that we take them for granted and do not think more about them. I have written about words before —words about words—and am doing so again in order to try to impart a little of their wonder to maybe just a few people who aren’t yet aware of it.

When I was in primary school, one of my teachers (whose name I don’t recall), gave me extra tuition in reading during the lunch break. Why she singled me out for this I don’t know. Did she see something in me worth coaching? Whatever it was, I am grateful to her (and to many others, of course, but especially to her, as she did it in her spare time when she didn’t have to) for helping me to learn how to read, for if this had been the only thing I learned in school, it would have been enough; it opened many doors and revealed many worlds to me. Thank you, Miss X, wherever and however you are now; although I’ve forgotten your name, I’ve not forgotten you, and hope you are well in every way!

I would like to examine the word discontentment, as I feel it has far too much negativity attached to it. Most people would think of the state or condition of discontentment as negative, even though many of us wallow in it like pigs in muck. And indeed, it usually is negative, in that it causes us to complain about our lot and to be acquisitive and greedy for more than we’ve already got; we envy others for having what we don’t have, and envy, unchecked and not seen for what it is, may lead us to do things that in our ‘right minds’ we probably would not do. But it is not exclusively negative, and it would be good if, now and then, we recognized or remembered its positive aspect—that feeling which urges us on to achieve better things, not just for ourselves, but for others, too. Positive discontentment will not allow us to rest easy with mediocre achievement, but tells us: “This is not the end; this is not good enough; it is incomplete; things can be better than this”. There are innumerable examples of positive discontentment, both in others and in ourselves; all around us are manifestations of it and we all benefit from it, for if we as a species had not been capable of feeling and using our discontentment constructively, we would not have made any progress and would still be living like cave-men! It has resulted in countless discoveries, inventions, breakthroughs and insights in so many fields of human endeavor; we could not have survived without it.

The best example of positive discontentment, perhaps—and I can think of no better, because of the far-reaching and beneficial effects he had on the lives of countless people since then—is found in the person of Prince Siddhartha, who had everything money could buy at that time—luxury, pleasure and ease—but still he was dissatisfied, not for more pleasures of the senses but because he felt that there had to be more to life than just the things he’d been surrounded with from birth; he felt hollow, empty and unfulfilled, and it was this that led him to renounce his kingdom at the age of 29 and creep out of the palace at the dead of night to become a wandering ascetic in the forest in search of truth. His search, and all the hardships, pain and deprivations thereof, finally bore fruit six years later when he became enlightened. His discontentment with his princely life led him to attain Buddhahood, the effects of which are still being felt—like the after-shocks of a major earthquake—more than 2,500 years later.

Some detractors of Buddhism—and there is no shortage of them, though they usually speak from prejudice or lack of understanding—claim that Prince Siddhartha failed in his duty as a husband and father by abandoning his wife and new-born child. However, had he remained in the palace and succeeded to the throne, he might indeed have fulfilled the role of husband and father admirably and ruled his people well, but how long after his death would his benevolent influence as husband, father and ruler have lasted? We probably would not even have heard of him if he had not chosen that course, let alone benefited from him ourselves!

A certain American multi-millionaire had a socialist-minded nephew who used to upbraid him for being so wealthy, claiming that he had become so at the expense of the poor, and saying that his wealth should be given back to the people. The uncle tolerated this until his patience wore thin, then one day, when his nephew visited and started his usual harangue, he gave him five cents.

“What’s this?” said the nephew.
“That’s your share”, replied the uncle.
“My share? Share of what?”
“Your share of my wealth”.
“Only five cents?! But you have millions—maybe even billions—of dollars!” spluttered the nephew.
“Yes, maybe I have”, said the uncle, “but you’ve been advising me for years to distribute my wealth, and five cents is what everyone would get if I did this, so I’m starting with you. This is your share!”

Money has limits; there are things that cannot be bought, no matter how much money one has; and the more money one gives to others, the less one has for oneself. But what the Buddha found and gave is not limited like that and is, in fact, just the opposite, as no matter how much one shares it with others, it does not diminish. His wife, son, father and many of His former subjects, also benefited, because He later led them to Enlightenment, too. And thus, He was vindicated for having left them earlier. If he had not returned, with such a hard-won gift, He might be held culpable. If only we could give such a gift to our families!

Very few people are contented with their lives, though not many really know why they are discontented and try to cover it up with ‘band-aids’ which give only temporary relief; they seldom try to understand or put their discontent to good use. Many sociologists and welfare-workers attribute the escalating crime-rate to poverty, but this is mere short-sightedness. Poverty is relative and what is known as poverty in the West is something quite different from poverty in many other countries; moreover, the poverty of the West today is not what it was 40 or even 20 years ago, but is simply poverty compared to something else. And to blame crime on poverty is wrong; just because people are poor—especially in a relative way and not to the extent of starving to death, as many people in really poor countries are—doesn’t mean they must automatically turn to crime. We must look a bit deeper for the cause of crime than material poverty; I think it can be traced to poverty of a different kind: inward or spiritual poverty. When people are poor within and lack spiritual values, are deficient in understanding and care little about others, then no matter what their material condition, it is easy for them to behave antisocially; nor is it people who are poor materially who commit crimes; the rich are not immune to that, and many of the greatest criminals are the most ‘successful’ and don’t get caught, perhaps because of the strings they can afford to pull.
I am not denying that material poverty is a factor in crime, as it undoubtedly is, but I am saying that it is only one of the causes, and not the main one, either. The main cause, said the Buddha, is ignorance of the causes of things. It may sound a bit simplistic today to talk about the search for happiness, but nevertheless this is at the root of many of our problems and restlessness; basically unhappy, we are blindly groping for happiness in the dark; but our efforts to find happiness are so misguided that they often produce the opposite results; our energy is therefore not only wasted but is sometimes used destructively. Famous psychologist Erich Fromm said this on the matter: “It would seem that the amount of destructiveness to be found in individuals is proportionate to the amount to which expansiveness of life is curtailed ...... Life has an inner dynamism of its own; it tends to grow, to be expressed, to be lived. It seems that if this tendency is thwarted the energy directed towards life undergoes a process of decomposition and changes into energy directed towards destruction .... The more the drive towards life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive towards destruction; the more life is realized, the less of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life”.

A teacher once said to his disciples: “Listen: I will tell you a secret”. The disciples gathered around, expecting to hear something profound. Speaking in a conspiratorial tone, the teacher then said: “The secret is this: there is no secret!” Happiness is also not a secret, and cannot be found, but must come to us; the search for happiness is counterproductive and causes many problems. If only we could forget about happiness! We would be so much happier than we are!
So, poverty—material poverty—is just one of the causes of crime, but poverty, like everything else, has many causes, and it would help if we recognized some of them in ourselves instead of always looking for them outside and blaming others or circumstances for the situations we find ourselves in. Laziness, theft, drunkenness, dishonesty, wastefulness, envy, niggardliness, and stinginess—all of which have many causes and could be written about at length—are causes of poverty; nothing happens by chance. If we are to deal with the problems that beset us, we must try to identify their causes. J.C. is reported to have said: “No man gathers grapes from thistles or figs from thorns”. To say that crime is the result of poverty may lead to increased welfare payments and other attempts to remedy the situation, but it would only be treating the symptoms and not resolve the problem; as long as we have no understanding of the Law of Cause-and-Effect and the Golden Rule, and no ability or willingness to consider others as ourselves, the problems will go on, and we will need more rules and laws and more people to enforce them; life will become more complex and more of a problem than it already is. There is no ‘magic-wand’ solution to our problems, of course, no pill that we may take to resolve things and make life beautiful. The problems have been long in developing, and the treatment of them, if ever begun, will also take a long time. And yet we have the means already in place to begin it: the education-system. For generations—in the West, at least—education up to a certain age has been compulsory, but it has not achieved what it might have done and has only half-educated us, leaving most of us spiritually little better off—and many of us worse—than before we began, as it has inculcated in us the belief that, just because we have been given equal rights in the eyes of the law, we are therefore equal, which is just not true at all. Equality is only an idea, not a fact; in reality, there is no such thing as equality; there is variety and difference. The education system has also provided us with knowledge but not with the wisdom to use it properly, so it increases selfishness and greed rather than decreases them. Is it too late to change direction and educate people from a very early age (as this is where it must begin) to understand more about life and living communally, and the joys, benefits, rights and responsibilities thereof, than we have done until now? I don’t think it is, but it will be difficult to change now, as the forces of inertia and ingrained habit are arrayed against us, and so we will probably take the line of least resistance and continue on course, hoping somehow to muddle through. We will continue to turn out —in some cases—people who are highly educated in specific fields but who are selfish and ruthless in their ambitions and drives to excel, succeed and achieve at all costs, and who are spiritually hollow and empty, like bamboo, and in other cases, people who understand very little from all their years in school. Albert Einstein once said that the thing that fascinated him the most about the school system was its ability to destroy in young people the fundamental urge to learn.
We have our priorities wrong, and would do well to heed some more words of J.C.: “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?”

Wishing to discover what people really wanted from life, a certain king, of a philosophical temperament, unhappy with the theories and answers that he had so far been presented with, one day sent some of his courtiers out to find and bring back an ‘average’ person—not old but not young, not very intelligent but not very dull, not very handsome but not very ugly, and so on. The courtiers came back after some time with a man about 35 who fitted the description the king had given them. After putting the man at ease and assuring him that no harm would come to him, the king asked him what he would really like from life. Recovering from his initial nervousness, the man—let’s call him George for convenience here—said that he would like to be so wealthy that he’d never have to work again and could employ people to do everything for him.
“Anything else?” asked the king.
“Well, yes”, said George. “I would like endless pleasure and entertainment, because there would be no point in being rich and idle if I couldn’t enjoy it”.
“Quite right”, said the king, “but is there anything else other than wealth and pleasure you would like?”
George thought for a moment and then said: “Er, yes, since you ask, I might as well mention it, although I know there’s no hope of it happening, but I would like everyone to respect me and defer to me without me having to defer to or obey others”.
“Can you think of anything else you would like?” said the king.
“Not right now”, said George, “that would do”.
“Well, suppose you could have all these things you mentioned; it is within my power to grant them, you know. I could provide you with as much wealth as you desire, and assure you of pleasure beyond your wildest dreams, and could issue an edict commanding everyone to respect and honor you without you have to defer to anyone, and to such an extent that you could even call me by my first name, on almost equal terms. What do you think? Would that make you happy?”
“Of course”, said George, “Who wouldn’t be happy with such conditions?”
“Well, forthwith, I will provide you with the things you desire and which you say would make you happy, but there is one condition: after one year of living like this you will have to forfeit your life—ah, but don’t worry! I will see to it that your death will be quite painless; you won’t feel a thing!”
George said: “You must be joking, your majesty! I want to live a bit longer than that, even though I’m not very well off! And so, if that’s all, I should be getting back to work now”, and he turned to go.
“Oh, don’t be so hasty!” said the king. “Let’s negotiate. How about five years?”
“It’s very kind of you”, said George, “but no thanks”, and continued towards the door.
“Ten years?” said the king.
George hesitated, his hand on the door-knob.
“Twenty years?”
George’s feet began to turn on their own accord, but he controlled them and slyly thought: “If it is within the king’s power to grant me these things, why put a time limit on them? Besides, he has shown a willingness to negotiate, so if I hold out a bit longer maybe he’ll increase the time again”. So, refusing once more, he opened the door.
The king was not about to give up, however, and called out: “Then how about fifty years? My final offer!”
“You’re on!” said George, trying to conceal his delight at having managed to persuade the king into such a marvelous arrangement, thinking that it would take him into a ripe old age which, under any conditions, he could not be sure of reaching anyway.
To his dismay and chagrin, however, just when he thought this fabulous dream was about to become reality, the king said: “Sorry; I’ve changed my mind. But thanks anyway, George, because you have helped me understand something that I’ve been wanting to know for a long time: that what people really want from life is something that they’ve already got: Life itself! Other things, like wealth, pleasure, fame and honor are only secondary. But please accept this purse of gold as a token of my appreciation for your help. Feel free to visit me anytime you like”.

Yes, we really do not understand what we’ve got and take it all for granted, considering it ‘ordinary’, until it’s time to lose it. What a pity we are not taught, from our earliest years, how to count our blessings. As it is, the opposite happens: we are taught to be greedy and acquisitive, never satisfied with what we have but always to want more. Negative discontentment is inculcated in us, to the point where we think of discontentment —if we think of it at all—as solely negative and, in the case of many of us, never get a glimpse of its positive side or recognize it as such. Consequently, we spend much of our lives complaining, feeling sorry for ourselves and envying others.
Instead of pushing on, expecting and hoping to muddle through and achieve something in the future, maybe we should turn back—not in time, to the past, for such a thing is impossible, but inwards, to ourselves. We need to take stock of ourselves, learn about ourselves, and discover things we never dreamed were there. It will entail, no doubt, facing and coming to terms with unpleasant and ugly things inside ourselves—thistles, thorns and weeds, as it were—and this will be painful, so be forewarned. Yet it is necessary in order to discover our positive qualities, our treasures, through and beyond them. Take heart and do not be dismayed at the difficulties, nor at the length of time it takes to cut through the tangled undergrowth of the mind, for we have allies in our quest, urging us on, and each small success, each little insight, each spark of enlightenment concerning things we did not understand before, will encourage us to go on; indeed, eventually, we will find that life itself, with all its pain, hardships, frustrations, sorrows and disappointments, is on our side, for it refuses to allow us to rest long content with things that, by their very nature, are unreliable and cannot afford us a firm foundation. We may think we have got everything together, everything worked out and going smoothly, and then something might happen—maybe something unexpected and even quite trivial—that can quickly and easily throw us into confusion.
The wonderful advances of our science and technology and the widespread literacy we have achieved have not turned out to be unalloyed blessings but have brought with them tensions, frustrations and a sense of personal worthlessness in degrees never known before; we are more dissatisfied than we ever were, probably because we have been brought to depend so much on the world ‘outside’ us, to the disregard or neglect of the world ‘within’; our greed is unquenchable, and it is as if we have become accessories rather than the beneficiaries of our technology, that we exist to serve it rather than it serving us. Much of our deep-seated feeling of discontentment arises from our over-dependence on others, which diminishes us and makes us feel impotent; we lose sight of ourselves and feel alienated and lost. But precisely because of this there is so much to be discovered in ourselves, and therefore the alienation—painful though it is—which is largely the result of our dependence on our dehumanizing technology, may be looked upon as good, because before we can return home, first we must go away; if we are satisfied with our condition we will stay as we are.

What does it take to turn people back to themselves, to get them to break free from the cocoon of delusion and selfishness? What does it take to smash the prison-bars of self and enlarge our mental horizons so that we might regard the world with understanding and love instead of with greed and fear? What does it take to divert the powerful energies of discontentment from negative into positive channels? Alas, many people, known and unknown, have pondered on this down the ages and offered remedies and suggestions, and in so doing, many were persecuted and some even lost their lives. It seems that the world prefers darkness to light and any attempt to change things will be met with stiff resistance. A Chinese sage, seeing this, wrote these rather disconsolate words: “The real pain is the pain of knowing that the Way does not prevail in the world”. It is because the Way does not prevail in the world that much of the suffering and all of the evil goes on.

However, while it is true that ‘you can take a horse to the water but you cannot make it drink’, there are always people who are thirsty and in search of water. In any age this is true, and so the attempt must be made to provide something for them. Anyone attempting this should know that, ultimately, the ripening-agents of Time and Suffering are on his side, so he must be patient and wise, and create or wait for opportunities to turn things around. We should try to keep it in mind, too, that human nature is basically good (is there not goodness in yourself? Where did it come from?); no-one really wants to be bad; there are very few really evil people in the world.

Try to harness your discontentment and make it work for you and others.

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