In the wealthy world, the pervasive sense of lack drives people to worship at the oddest shrines, and to seek a solution to their formless malaise in bogus shamanism, crystal therapy, hands-free massage, rebirthing, sun salutations, flotation and pesticide-free food. Some people abandon the search for a transcendent explanation quickly, settling on materialism as an alternative, while others continue it for a lifetime. The process of being born and raised within the rituals of an established religion, which has been automatic for most people through the whole of human history, becomes rarer with each year that passes. For many people in rich countries, the certainties of earlier generations now seem implausible, especially the theories and dogmas of revealed religions.
For me, Tibetan Buddhism was a workable approach. Leaving the Roman Catholic faith of my childhood was not hard. It had long seemed less than credible, although its rituals could be reassuring and I liked the emphasis on moral inquiry. But the creator god, the conjuring of bread and wine into flesh and blood, the ban on contraception, the promotion of Christ’s sexless mother as an example to women, the harassment of dissident clergy, the thought that ex cathedra pronouncements by the Pope should be taken seriously—all of these things had pushed me away from my inherited faith.
Buddhism appeared to create contentment among its followers, and reincarnation seemed a fair explanation of what happened to the spirit after death. So my admiration was partially utilitarian: it felt good to be around Tibetans, and if their religion brought good to them, it was worth pursuing. The outward aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, and the celibate male hierarchy running the show, were what I found least appealing, although I still respected the Dalai Lama. It was the Buddhist explanation of life, the universe and everything that drew me, rather than the ritual or the theology.
I was also drawn by the central principle that suffering is universal and pleasure is transient. In secular Western thought, an expectation of permanent satisfaction has become deeply ingrained, and is an important cause of the prevailing discontent. People believe that they can expect fair treatment from life. The idea that loss, death and suffering are to be expected has become obsolete, and a relatively minor trauma can provoke great emotional upset. The Buddha taught in the First of the Four Noble Truths that “discontentment, unhappiness and disappointment are universal … all the things we desire and cherish, not least our own lives, must eventually come to an end.” The Second Noble Truth states that suffering is caused by desire, and that the immediate satisfaction of desire brings only illusory, passing pleasure. By surrendering the self and attempting to break down the delusions of desire, ignorance and hatred, it is possible to find freedom from suffering, and to attain a state of liberation. This free state of mind should be our aspiration. The Dalai Lama has gone as far as to say that “the very purpose of our life is happiness.”