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Mark Epstein: “Beyond Ordinary Happiness”

9 March 2010

“Beyond Ordinary Happiness”

Mark Epstein

The Buddha was raised in a palace, so the myth goes. He was a prince. He was shielded from any view of suffering, but the aspect of the Buddha’s childhood that nobody pays any attention to is that his mother died when he was week old. So something tragic happened right at the beginning: the Buddha lost his mother. He was raised by his aunt, by her sister...and very, very little is said of that. But I think—and I may just be being a psychiatrist here—that there’s a lot of important material there, because the whole sense of loss or of trauma, or of dislocation, which the Buddha was shielded from by growing up in a palace.

He was really raised in what we would call a kind of sentimental environment. They were trying to protect him from any hint, any whisper of pain, such that he never saw an old person. He never saw a sick person. He never saw a dead body...he was shielded from that. But at a very early age, at a time before he could remember anything, at a time before there was conceptual thought or the ability to represent it symbolically, he already suffered the worst kind of loss that one could suffer. But I think it might be that what it takes to become a Buddha is that you have to suffer on such a primitive level that in a way they’re representing symbolically a kind of loss or dislocation or alienation that many people even now 2500 years later feel.

In some of the stories about those events with the chariot driver he goes several times, and one time he goes out and he sees a sick person and one of the first things that comes out of his mouth is “what kind of person is that, doesn’t he have a mother?” “Why is no one taking care of him?” So I think right away something is being touched inside of him, it's a universal suffering which is also his suffering. It was his suffering right away. He doesn’t know about it. He’s sitting on it; then he sees that it isn’t just him—in fact, it’s universal. And he asks, “what do we do for this?” And they’re like, “be quiet, go back to your palace.” But it is stimulated inside of him. So he keeps getting the chariot driver to take him out, and he sees horror after horror.

It could represent the way we try to protect our children, because that is something that we all do. We don’t want to let our children see all the pain that’s in the world, and that’s one of the things you have to do as a parent. So he’s been protected into his twenties. Well, he reproduces the trauma in a certain way. He’s already married. He already has a kid, and he does to his family what, in some sense, was done to him.

That idea that you leave the family, the village, the community, the clan behind—that was already established. The way out was always: you could go to the forest, become a seeker and that was established, that was India. It probably wasn’t only India. Jesus did the same. That was the therapy of the time. He went to all the great teachers of his day, the same way we do therapy. He was listening to the teachers and there was a theory behind it.

In the Buddha’s story, there came a moment when the Buddha was at the height of his ascetic practices, his ribs coming through his skin, wasting away, when suddenly out of the blue he remembered being a young boy—probably an eight-year-old boy or something, sitting under a rose apple tree while his father was in the distance plowing in the fields on a nice day, the sun shining and the wind blowing the leaves. He remembered himself sitting under the tree, happy, and he was puzzled when he had the memory.

Why should he be remembering this at this moment? He examines his mental state and he realizes he’s a little bit afraid. He’s remembering this feeling, this happy feeling and he’s a little bit afraid. And he thinks to himself, “why should I be afraid of a feeling like this? There’s nothing wrong with this feeling.”And he realizes, it’s kind of paradoxical, but he realizes he’s afraid of it because it’s so ordinary. It’s like he didn’t have to do any kind of intense spiritual striving to reach that feeling. It wasn’t dependent on some kind of sexual thing or some kind of need. It was a joy that was intrinsic to who he was as a boy, and it’s making him afraid, and he thinks, “I don’t have to be afraid of that; it’s silly to be afraid it.”

That’s why I always think of this as the first great self-analysis, because he’s recovering this feeling that he’d been estranged from which was his own; the capacity of his own self to be happy. He thinks, “maybe if I don’t have to be afraid of this, maybe the key to the enlightenment that I’m seeking lies in this feeling and not in all the self-punitive practices that I’ve been doing.” So he kind of examines his mind again and he says, “okay, I’m going to give this a chance, but I can’t sustain a feeling of joy like this if I don’t take any food, so I better eat something”. And at that moment a village maiden mysteriously appears carrying a bowl of rice porridge and she feeds him. He eats the food and gets stronger, and then walks for a few days and comes to Bodh Gaya and sits down under the Bodhi tree and gets enlightened.

Buddhism—the whole religion—is so psychological. I always think it’s the most psychological of the world’s religions and the most spiritual of the world’s psychologies. He suffered, he investigated his own suffering, he came up with a solution that didn’t exist before. He used his own life and then he said to everyone else, “you have to do it for yourself; you have to investigate your own life”. He was individually psychological in a time when that wasn’t happening.

He was the first to create a spiritual doctrine that didn’t depend on belief in anything outside of the self. It was all about investigation of the self—looking within and penetrating the mystery of the self. He said there might be a God, there might not be a God, but that isn’t the point. So to our eye it’s much more of a psychology, although it speaks to spiritual concerns.

The traditional way to understand the Buddha is that the Buddha was "awake," and the Buddha was a man, like any of us, who discovered his own capacity, his own potential, and indicated that was possible for everyone. The beautiful thing about the Buddha’s teachings is that there’s no contradiction that the joy that he found is in the world that is already broken. It’s in this transitory world that we’re all a part of, the fabric of this world, despite the fact that it can seem so horrible. The underlying fabric of this world actually is that joy that he recovered. That was his great insight.

I think he is saying life is joy. He’s saying that “we’ve turned this world into a painful place, and this world can be a world inhabited by Buddhas.” This world does not have to be a painful place, but it’s up to each one of us to turn ourselves into a Buddha. That’s the work.


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