Tis the season when my wife and I, as we behold our children reacting to packages and presents arriving in the mail, exchange knowing glances and mumble something about how “Buddhist” Christmas is.
Spouses, as everybody knows, use a sort of shorthand that is unintelligible (and thus usually misleading) to everybody else, so I will translate. It means something like:
Christmas, like all existence but perhaps more so, torments people through the subtle and insidious mechanism the Buddha first described.
Oh, and what was that mechanism?
As is my wont, I will get gratuitously intellectual about all that in a moment, but let’s start with the actual scenario.
Christmas is a time when presents show up unannounced. This is otherwise known as stuff. Uncles, aunts, and other acquaintances send the stuff because, well, it’s Christmas and that’s what one does, whether anybody wants stuff or not.
So the packages arrive — in a household that contains children. In fact, the stuff is meant mostly for those children, and the children know it. How do the children react?
Definition of “child”:
I have read enough academic papers to know that one must, whenever a text threatens to get interesting, interrupt with definitions. Herewith:
Child (noun; plural = Children): A human being who is exactly like an adult but has not yet had sufficient time to practice the adult skill of feigning indifference in most situations of ordinary life.
Back to scenario
Where were we? Oh yes, the presents that are arriving at the door. How do the children react, in the first instance and over the next hour or so?
Exactly as both the Buddha and his contemporary Patanjali (my favorite thinker) would have predicted:
- Child A, arriving first: A momentary thrill. ‘Here is something that promises to suspend my boredom. No, I wasn’t actually bored, but now I would be if I do not immediately rip this package open.’ Rips package open.
- Child B, arriving split second later: Another momentary thrill. Then: ‘But wait. Sibling has got a head start. She can’t have more thrill. It’s my thrill. Must have.’ Attacks package.
- A & B: Conflict. Hair pulling. Tears on A. Time Out for B.
- A, having played with toy (because it’s already open anyway, so what can you do?), loses interest. Returns to previous activity and temporary balance/bliss.
- B, emerging from Time Out, gets his turn with toy. Notices that A has lost interest and returned to previous activity. Also loses interest and returns to balance/bliss with A.
- New package arrives. Repeat cycle.
Sanskrit: duhkha and sukha
Both the Buddha and Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras (as far as I’m concerned, original Buddhism and authentic Yoga are exactly the same philosophy), describe our minds as causing us near-permanent discomfort in precisely the way these toys are tormenting my children.
The word both the Buddha and Patanjali use for this mental discomfort is duhkha.
T.K.V. Desikachar, a great yogi, translates duhkha as restricting or squeezing in this excellent book.
This is noteworthy, because duhkha is usually mistranslated as suffering. Thus, you’ve probably heard the first Noble Truth of Buddhism expressed as follows:
All life is suffering.
Well, actually, the Truth says that all life is duhkha. And suffering is a bad translation (with the effect of turning many Westerners off before they’ve even begun to absorb the rest), because, manifestly, not all life is suffering.
Duhkha is more subtle, so let’s investigate as we usually do: by looking into etymology.
Etymology of duhkha
The Sanskrit roots of duhkha relate to its Indo-Germanic nephews German and English as follows:
duh ≡ du(nkel) ≡ da(rk)
kha ≡ ka(mmer) ≡ cha(mber)
In other words, duhkha is, or feels like, a dark room, an oppressive space.
Its opposite is sukha, a happy, good or light space.
The goal of Yoga, Buddhism and all other Indian philosophy is to exit the dark room and enter the light room.
Remember that this entire time we are talking about our minds. Our mind constantly shoves us into the dark room (duhkha) by conjuring disturbances (called “fluctuations” in the Yoga Sutras):
- etc etc
This does not have to be very profound. If you’re a child, the arrival of a package suffices.
In the Bhagavad Gita, all these disturbances are represented by the Kauravas, the vicious cousins of my hero Arjuna.
The Kauravas of Christmas
Christmas is — aside from a time for cosiness, festiveness and so forth — an intense agglomeration and onslaught of mental disturbances.
For the kids, each package creates an expectation of thrill, quickly leading to a disappointment (= duhkha).
Or to a pang of jealousy (= duhkha).
Or simply to distraction from the activity the child had just been absorbed in (= duhkha).
And for the adults?
Definition of “adult”
Adult (noun; plural = Adults): A human being who is exactly like a child but has had ample time to practice the skill of feigning indifference in most situations of ordinary life.
Adults don’t run to the package and rip it open. They put it under the tree. And they don’t pull your hair when you’re opening your package.
But they walk around all December with that jingly-jangly music in the stores and those trees in the windows and they feel … that they should — shouldn’t they? — be somewhere special, with someone special, feeling special. And is the person next to me special enough, is all this special enough,….?
So they yearn, and they crave, and they’re lonely, and perhaps they envy or regret, and they’re in the dark chamber of duhkha.
But there’s a jail break.
One strand of Buddhism/Yoga invites you to discipline your mind (ie, meditate) for years so that your mind becomes still, thus setting you free.
Another strand, called Zen, guffaws at the hilarious inside joke of it all and simply says: ‘Snap out of it — now!’
That can be easy, it turns out: You put away the packages and the toys, and you tickle the kids, and you all roll around under the tree, in the beautifully light, comfortable room of sukha.