The plane’s contact with the ground woke me from my semi-conscious state and I looked around anxiously, to see where I was. We had finally landed, and I felt life flow back into my limbs as I stretched in my seat. A gentle murmur rose as the plane slowed down, and the reassuring sound of the pilot echoed through the plane. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have now arrived in Delhi, the temperature is a pleasant forty three degrees with cloudless skies, and local time is four fifteen PM”. Stewardesses strutted up and down isles collecting litter, and passengers began to abscond from the plane.
As I lifted myself to my feet, still in a half alert state from jetlag-induced fatigue, I stumbled into the sunshine outside. The blue sky dazzled my agitated eyes, and I grumbled to myself in irritation. The scorching hot sun was already upon me, burning my unconditioned skin in a similar way to a magnifying glass burning an ant. Hours followed as we collected bags; showed passports and performed countless other tasks that made me want to curl up on the floor and lapse into hibernation. Whether I was in Delhi or London, I was still exhausted and cantankerous.
Finally we managed to obtain our car, and, as I had suspected, a long trip hundreds of miles upwards to Northern India followed. On our journey, my irritation began to crumble. The first village we stopped at, where I could appreciate the scenery, was near the Punjab, in a rural area. The village itself looked primitive and simplistic, with buildings partially finished, abandoned with no roofs or waterproofing, like an unwanted animal abandoned on the street. Poverty reigned rampant, and incoherent languages flood towards me. We drew nearer to the village market, passing by unsavoury looking beggars and lone children.
An old man peered at me through a half developed cataract, before falling into a coughing fit. The world around me seemed dismal. In a split moment, my impression changed. Just as the flood washes dirt from its path, so my notions about India changed. We turned the corner into the market square, and were met with a blissful scene; a crowded square full of laughing, shouting and commotion; stall owners bellowing at the top of their voices to advertise their goods, and amidst the joyful chaos young children scuttled around like playful insects.
A rich variety of vivid colours met my eye in the form of scarlet apples, striking yellow bananas and earthy brown yams. Countless fruits held my gaze, which I had never known before. The poor no longer seemed menacing; a half smile on their face was noticeable, as if they were simply satisfied by the atmosphere. Everyone around me seemed happy; and the first question that I asked myself was, why? Back in London for a moment, the answer arrived. A grey sky enveloped the city, and people trudged in their various directions, minding their own businesses and keeping themselves to themselves.
After living in my home for ten years, there were still people on my street I didn’t know. However, the main question I was posed, which was how could people with little money, health care, and a low standard of living be happier than those living in a modernised world with excessive amounts of money and a high standard of living? The sad answer was, that we appear to have forgotten how to obtain happiness. Epicurus, a Greek philosopher living around 300 BC, spent much of his life finding out what was required to obtain true happiness.
A well-known phrase of his is: The human soul is as
What was it that these people had that we did not? This question remained on my mind throughout my trip in India; through the bustle of the city in Jalundar; the peaceful tranquillity in the village; the faint sounds of gunshots near Kashmir; even during the humorous incident of seeing a man squat in the middle of a field only feet away from a road. Sitting back at home in London listening to the gentle drumming of the rain, I contemplated why it was so hard for the Western man to gain happiness. Like the correct document finally being found in a stack of papers, I finally produced the answer.
A Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist once said: “Humans are afflicted with all external forms of life: we are subject to life and death, pleasure and pain, love and fear, good and evil, beautiful and ugly. We tend to sway, or strive towards one side, and reject its opposite. There is no real escape of one or the other, yet we somehow believe that sooner or later, we will be able to conquer the other side if we stay focused long enough. ” The reason the average man in the West could not find happiness lies in acceptance.
Driven relentlessly by the Capitalist machine, we are constantly told we must improve, do better, get promoted, find a better job, or save for the latest electronic gadget. The real obstacle in the way of happiness was an excess of opportunity in the West, which in turn sows the seeds in men’s mind that they can achieve better all the time, leaving only a handful of people who achieve their goal, and reject the rest of the spoiled harvest of the population who are scarred with depression and left with an ’empty feeling’ in life: that they have achieved nothing.
It could be said that pain is essential for pleasure, if pleasure is to be known as pleasure. If we did not know of evil in the world, then how would we be able to distinguish good? Denial of one of these extremes is similar to denying the existence of both. If we believe that evil cannot exist, or that we can block it from our lives, then good cannot exist, because then there is nothing to measure it against. However, if we accept that both good and evil exist in our lives, it can allow us to feel more at home in the world, perhaps obtaining happiness.
Looking back to India as evidence for this, I remembered an encounter with a family of peasants. The husband of the family was a peasant, working for the richer men as a farmer, constantly toiling at the fields every day with no hope of extra pay or advancement in his job. The wife of the family took care of their four children, all destined for the same lifestyle, in what many would call an endless, and pointless cycle. However, far from pitying them, I envied them.
They were contented with their lives; they earned enough money to live under a roof with adequate food and drink. The end result of this was that they were happy; they had no ambitions to gain wealth, and were satisfied with their lot. To be truly happy we must not linger in the past, or hypothesise about the future, but live life for the moment, and enjoy its small pleasures. By losing the foresight of the future, or hindsight in the past, we open up that world of acceptance. Some people will steal because they see that they have something more in their future.
Some people will perform good deeds because they desire to feel better about themselves. In this society, we can never truly be completely happy. From our first few years of life we have ambitions: to decide what we will be when we grow up, and how we will choose to live our lives. Without these ambitions society would, unfortunately, not function correctly; no one would have any motivation to do well at their jobs and get promoted, as the idea of a Marxist/Communist society shows.
It seems to me the human population has dug itself into a pit where the light of true happiness is growing more and more remote as we dig further and further down. There will always be, even in the mind of a Buddhist monk or Christian nun, a growing desire to gain something else, no matter what it may be. This, I conclude, makes it impossible for anyone in the modern 21st Century to gain the status of ‘Buddha’, or ‘The Enlightened, or Blissful One’.