Everything is Burning

The clerk at the counter in the pharmacy was telling me that earlier in the day an elderly woman had presented a winning lottery ticket – worth $100,000!  How exciting!  Wow, I thought, what I couldn’t do with that.  My mind spun off in a hundred directions at once…Buy a little property (that little cabin on the lake I’d always dreamed of)… a trip back to the West of Ireland… Give some money to mom and dad, help out my brothers, my sons, friends, invest in my retirement…hey, wait a minute… I’ve overspent.  A hundred thousand dollars isn’t really very much money.  How about a million?  A house in the city… a new car… Hey, that’s gone, too.  Well, a million dollars isn’t really that much, nowadays, either… How about 10 million?  20 million? 50 million?  How much is enough?

The United States deficit is currently in the neighborhood of 14 trillion dollars.  2 trillion of that represents consumer debt.  Credit card debt alone is around 800 million dollars.  (There is a fascinating website that has a real time clock that tracks the current U.S. National debt.  You can check it out at http://www.usdebtclock.org/).  To give you some idea of the magnitude of those numbers, imagine how long it would take you to count a million dollars… At the rate of one dollar per second, that’s a million seconds or about 12 days.  How about a billion?  A billion seconds:  32 years.  A trillion:  32,000 years.  A trillion dollars laid end to end would reach the sun (a distance of approximately 93,000,000 miles or 150,000,000 kilometers).  That is a lot of money.  Yet, if you had even a trillion dollars would you be satisfied?  Would you be happy?

Research by Carol Graham (Happiness around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, Oxford: Oxford University Press.) and others, sheds some interesting light on happiness.  For example, while it is true that wealthier countries are, in general, happier than destitute ones,  “The bottom line is that people can adapt to tremendous adversity and retain their natural cheerfulness, while they can also have virtually everything – including good health – and be miserable. One thing that people do have a hard time adapting to is uncertainty.”  And, if there’s one thing in life we can count on, it is uncertainty.  (I don’t mean to take Ms. Graham’s comments out of context and there is a lot more in her research than I have presented here – including some optimism regarding the recent economic crisis.  You can read a recent article, by her here:


Other research suggests that beyond a certain level of income, the emotional quality of everyday experience does not increase:

“Angus Deaton, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs and Professor of Economics and International Affairs, and Daniel Kahneman, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs (Emeritus), analyzed over 450,000 responses to a daily survey of 1,000 randomly selected U.S. residents and found that while life evaluation rose steadily with annual income, the quality of the respondents’ everyday experiences did not improve beyond approximately $75,000 a year.  As income decreased from $75,000, respondents reported decreasing happiness and increasing sadness and stress. The data suggest that the pain of life’s misfortunes, including disease, divorce, and being alone, is exacerbated by poverty.”  They concluded: “that lack of money brings both emotional misery and low life evaluation…Beyond $75,000 in the contemporary United States, however, higher income is neither the road to experienced happiness nor the road to the relief of unhappiness or stress.”

These studies suggest that happiness is not simply equated to wealth or income and that having “more” fails to translate into a greater sense of well-being.

The Buddha said that in life we cannot avoid unhappiness.  To believe otherwise leads to disappointment and disillusionment.  Further, he taught that our unhappiness or suffering is caused by craving (greed, desire and ignorance).  Certainly, regardless of the technical causes, (hedge funds, junk mortgages, etc.) I think it is obvious that the root cause of the recent (and still too current; see Ireland’s recent economic meltdown) economic crisis was avarice.  We want what we cannot have, we want what others have and we allow ourselves to be convinced that we can have it all, and that, in doing so, we will be happy.  But the more we have, beyond a certain level of creature comfort, the less happy we become.

Desire, in itself is not a bad thing.  The Dalai Lama points out that without desire, we would not have the desire for enlightenment.   The desire for truth, for goodness for the happiness of all living things… these are noble desires.  The desire for the health and well-being of our families and ourselves is good and necessary.   But the fuel of desire can easily catch and grow into a wildfire that is difficult to extinguish.  Han Shan (Silly Mountain) 1546-1623 said,

“Vast as the universe is, it fits inside the mind. Small as the body is, there is not enough in creation to satisfy it.”

I have a friend who is always on the lookout for the newest gadget or electronic device and cannot be satisfied until he possesses the most current technology… but current technology is a moving target that changes almost moment by moment… flat screen plasma, LCD, LED, HD, OLED, 3D… Happiness, it appears, is always around the next corner or on the wave of the next technological innovation.

When the Buddha was growing up, his father, King Suddhodana, made sure that he was given every sensual pleasure that his heart could desire:  food, drink, entertainment, a beautiful bride, a son, a kingdom… but none of this was enough.  None of this could answer the Buddha’s fundamental question:  In this life, nothing is certain except old age, sickness and death.  Why do we suffer?

In his third sermon, given to his first five disciples at the Deer Park in Sarnath, shortly following his enlightenment, the Buddha attempted to give voice to the cause of suffering.  This discourse, commonly known as the Fire Sermon is essentially about the flames of desire and what we need to do to put out the fire.  He said:

“Everything is burning.
What is burning?
The eyes are burning.
Everything seen by the eyes is burning.
The ears are burning.
What is burning?
Everything heard by the ears is burning.
The nose is burning.
Smells are ablaze.
The tongue is burning.
Tastes are ablaze.
The body is burning.
The mind is burning.”

The Buddha’s Fire Sermon as presented in David Grubin’s Recent film, the Buddha presented on PBS

He goes on to say,

“The mind is burning, ideas are burning, mind-consciousness is burning, mind-contact is burning, also whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with mind-contact for its indispensable condition, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion. I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.”

translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1981). Copyright © 1981 Buddhist Publication Society.

And what is the cure for suffering, the cause of happiness?  When we can extinguish the fire in the senses, when we can extinguish the fire in the mind, passion fades and we can experience liberation:

“He understands: ‘Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.’”

Ursula K. leGuin translates the first chapter of the Tao te Ching in part,

“So the unwanting soul
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.”

Lao Tzu said,

“Must I want what others want?  How ridiculous!”

Is there an end to desire?  Some Buddhist’s view of desire goes as far as to say that it is desire itself that binds us to the wheel of re-incarnation.  Beyond desire is the plain of Nirvana, cool and eternally refreshing.

I think it is probably reasonable to take the middle path, neither wanting too much nor having too little (however vague and unspecific that may be).

Back to our elderly lottery winner… When asked what she was going to do with her newfound wealth, she replied that she intended to get a new set of teeth.  Now that sounds like someone who has a pretty good idea of happiness and is definitely the kind of person who deserves to win the lottery.