Can your life be guided by fun, joy, and happiness even in these troubling times? Buddhist scholar and philosopher Robert Thurman says, with Buddhism, it can…
Omega: What’s Buddism’s take on happiness?
Robert: Buddhism has a very positive view of life. Buddha, when he became enlightened, smiled with glee and happiness. He was actually announcing that happiness is possible to people. The only reason he mentions suffering is that if one remains confused and doesn’t find the reality of oneself, then one will automatically bump into things and then one will suffer.
People say, “ignorance is bliss.” They don’t want to know what reality is. It’s too scary, you know. In Buddhism, ignorance causes suffering and if you know reality through wisdom, you’re happy because reality is happy, relaxing, and safe.
That’s what Buddha was announcing and that’s why Buddhism has been a popular movement in history for thousands of years—because it gives people a sense of relief. It gives people this sense that maybe things could work out after all.
I am writing a book now called Buddhas Have More Fun. When people first meditate, they get very serious, but the main objective in Buddhism is for people to gain a sense of true optimism about themselves and their life.
They can do that without having a religious conversion. Buddhism is more science than religion in the sense that having faith and believing something good is good, but it’s not that strong if you don’t have common sense reasons for doing so.
Blind faith seems to be irrational. I have a slogan, “If you believe something for no reason, you will believe anything.” If it doesn’t have a reason, well, what’s the source? Maybe you listen to what culture tells you, or your dad, or a rabbi, or a scientist at MIT, but it doesn’t make sense. Don’t believe it, just because they told you.
If you first look at something scientifically in a sense and analyze what it is, try to understand it, and have thought experiments, think deeply about things, then it seems to make sense to you. That’s what a scientist does. Make a hypothesis and verify it in experiments.
I’ve always harkened back to Henry David Thoreau’s statement, “The mass of men today lead lives of quiet desperation.” He said it in the 1830s, but there was full-scale industrialization going on like we’re still in now. We’re in the endgame of it now, so the planet has taken a level of industrialization and we’ve poisoned everything. And we’re still having quiet desperation.
Once we’re in despair, then we don’t have fun. Ignorance is not bliss; ignorance breeds suffering. And knowledge and wisdom and intuition breed bliss.
We want to try to diminish ignorance and increase knowledge and intuition. Intuitive feelings create all sorts of connections to others and help us become truly hopeful and optimistic and feel good about ourselves and the world, about our opportunity in the world.
Feeling good about something is Nirvana. Nirvana is not someplace you go to sit by yourself in some vast space all alone and feel happy because nobody else is there. Nirvana is when you really are enjoying being here with others. Wishing them happiness can only come from having some real sense of your own happiness, and knowing that happiness is possible.
Omega: In the book Love Your Enemies, which you wrote with Sharon Salzberg, you define love in the spiritual context as wishing for the happiness of someone else or yourself. Is there a practical way to apply this concept when it comes to interacting with others who have opposing social or political views?
Robert: Punching is more harmful to the puncher than hugging is to the hugger. So the point is that you can still oppose vigorously, even forcefully, but your goal is not just to destroy the other person in hating them. Your goal is to make them happy and get them into a peaceful situation.
Sometimes that means forcefully opposing them when they’re doing the wrong thing, something that’s making them more and more unhappy. The idea of loving your enemies is really good advice from Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed, and all the great teachers of humanity.
Your enemy is only your enemy because they’re really unhappy about you and so they think by getting rid of you or suppressing you they’re going to be happy. But you know that won’t make them happy because then they’ll have other people they want to get rid of and suppress. They will still be frustrated. You want them to be happy without being your enemy.
Omega: Is it possible to cultivate peacefulness within and “joyful nonviolence” while still feeling angry about issues in the world?
Robert: Joy is a huge power that people have. My whole thing is the joyfulness of Buddha. The joy of enlightenment.
For example, you can talk on behalf of those who were unjustly murdered, deeply feeling their anguish and their peril. But then, to be able to do something effective about it, you have to have the fuel of joy.
They say empathy is necessary for compassion, but if you stay in empathy then you become ineffective in compassion because you are suffering, too, and you can’t do anything about it. So empathy should trigger you, then compassion comes in.
The act of doing something for others to relieve them of their suffering requires you to have the force of joy with you. That’s how someone like Dalai Lama can react to a genocide from communist China for 50 years and still remain joyful himself.
He is still disapproving and doing everything humanly possible to try to ameliorate the situation. People will say, what good is nonviolence doing? I would ask them, “How are they doing in Afghanistan?” There, everybody is angrily and violently reacting to the Russian invasion. Then it was an American invasion. Then it’s a Pakistani invasion. It’s just one endless war.
If you can endure it because you have inner joy about it, when you reach the conclusion, there’s no one left trying to get revenge. The cycle is broken and people feel there’s a way to come out of it.