Just as the tension that builds up under the earth’s crust is finally released in earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, so now the tension that has been building up in me for some time past seeks release through my pen. I have some ideas in mind but I know that as I go on, many things will emerge unsought, not thought of. I have long found this process fascinating, and it is, for me, quite instructive, affording insights into different aspects of life. Many things are hidden in our minds that we know nothing of, but may emerge if we allow them to.
Although we know that words are not the things they represent, nevertheless we may find great beauty in them for what they are and a joy in being able to communicate and express our ideas and feelings to others thereby. I obviously feel that I have something to communicate to others; this is why I write and speak (I am not going to be falsely modest about it); so, words are very useful tools to me. Though they are limited, we seldom use them to their full extent, beyond which they must be left behind as inadequate. Like a boat that may carry us over a river, they should not be abandoned in mid-stream.
We may appreciate and use things without being unduly attached to them, like vacuum-cleaners, pens, pots and pans, and so on; we use them as means to an end, but we do not worship them on altars or take them to bed with us. So it is with words. And the fact that many of us live largely on the verbal level and take words for their objects, thinking that just because we know the word we therefore know the thing, it is not the fault of the words. If we understood this, words would serve us better and open many doors.
I once had a conversation with a Christian, during the course of which, almost inevitably, the word ‘God’ came up. I asked him what he meant by it and if he knew the thing it represented. My question clearly took him by surprise, which indicated that he had never really thought about it but had merely been content—like most people—to accept and believe un-questioningly what he had heard from others; he had only the word. And is the word ‘God’ God? Of course not! He would have done better—this middle-aged man—to have heeded Pierre Abelard’s words: “By doubt we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we arrive at Truth”.
Until now, most of us have been content to use the words of others that we have inherited, but we can, if we wish, make them our own—and by so doing, demonstrate our gratitude to the originators of these tools, whoever they were—by investigating them, pulling them apart, turning them around, rolling them on our tongues, and feeling them, as if they were tangible. Our lives are so very enriched by words and we owe them so much; it is a tragedy that we take them for granted and do not think more about them. I have written about words before —words about words—and am doing so again in order to try to impart a little of their wonder to maybe just a few people who aren’t yet aware of it.
When I was in primary school, one of my teachers (whose name I don’t recall), gave me extra tuition in reading during the lunch break. Why she singled me out for this I don’t know. Did she see something in me worth coaching? Whatever it was, I am grateful to her (and to many others, of course, but especially to her, as she did it in her spare time when she didn’t have to) for helping me to learn how to read, for if this had been the only thing I learned in school, it would have been enough; it opened many doors and revealed many worlds to me. Thank you, Miss X, wherever and however you are now; although I’ve forgotten your name, I’ve not forgotten you, and hope you are well in every way!
I would like to examine the word discontentment, as I feel it has far too much negativity attached to it. Most people would think of the state or condition of discontentment as negative, even though many of us wallow in it like pigs in muck. And indeed, it usually is negative, in that it causes us to complain about our lot and to be acquisitive and greedy for more than we’ve already got; we envy others for having what we don’t have, and envy, unchecked and not seen for what it is, may lead us to do things that in our ‘right minds’ we probably would not do. But it is not exclusively negative, and it would be good if, now and then, we recognized or remembered its positive aspect—that feeling which urges us on to achieve better things, not just for ourselves, but for others, too. Positive discontentment will not allow us to rest easy with mediocre achievement, but tells us: “This is not the end; this is not good enough; it is incomplete; things can be better than this”. There are innumerable examples of positive discontentment, both in others and in ourselves; all around us are manifestations of it and we all benefit from it, for if we as a species had not been capable of feeling and using our discontentment constructively, we would not have made any progress and would still be living like cave-men! It has resulted in countless discoveries, inventions, breakthroughs and insights in so many fields of human endeavor; we could not have survived without it.
The best example of positive discontentment, perhaps—and I can think of no better, because of the far-reaching and beneficial effects he had on the lives of countless people since then—is found in the person of Prince Siddhartha, who had everything money could buy at that time—luxury, pleasure and ease—but still he was dissatisfied, not for more pleasures of the senses but because he felt that there had to be more to life than just the things he’d been surrounded with from birth; he felt hollow, empty and unfulfilled, and it was this that led him to renounce his kingdom at the age of 29 and creep out of the palace at the dead of night to become a wandering ascetic in the forest in search of truth. His search, and all the hardships, pain and deprivations thereof, finally bore fruit six years later when he became enlightened. His discontentment with his princely life led him to attain Buddhahood, the effects of which are still being felt—like the after-shocks of a major earthquake—more than 2,500 years later.
Some detractors of Buddhism—and there is no shortage of them, though they usually speak from prejudice or lack of understanding—claim that Prince Siddhartha failed in his duty as a husband and father by abandoning his wife and new-born child. However, had he remained in the palace and succeeded to the throne, he might indeed have fulfilled the role of husband and father admirably and ruled his people well, but how long after his death would his benevolent influence as husband, father and ruler have lasted? We probably would not even have heard of him if he had not chosen that course, let alone benefited from him ourselves!
A certain American
multi-millionaire had a socialist-minded nephew who used to upbraid him for
being so wealthy, claiming that he had become so at the expense of the poor, and
saying that his wealth should be given back to the people. The uncle tolerated
this until his patience wore thin, then one day, when his nephew visited and
started his usual harangue, he gave him five cents.
Money has limits; there are things that cannot be bought, no matter how much money one has; and the more money one gives to others, the less one has for oneself. But what the Buddha found and gave is not limited like that and is, in fact, just the opposite, as no matter how much one shares it with others, it does not diminish. His wife, son, father and many of His former subjects, also benefited, because He later led them to Enlightenment, too. And thus, He was vindicated for having left them earlier. If he had not returned, with such a hard-won gift, He might be held culpable. If only we could give such a gift to our families!
Very few people are contented with
their lives, though not many really know why they are discontented and try to
cover it up with ‘band-aids’ which give only temporary relief; they seldom
try to understand or put their discontent to good use. Many sociologists and
welfare-workers attribute the escalating crime-rate to poverty, but this is mere
short-sightedness. Poverty is relative and what is known as poverty in the West
is something quite different from poverty in many other countries; moreover, the
poverty of the West today is not what it was 40 or even 20 years ago, but is
simply poverty compared to something else. And to blame crime on poverty is
wrong; just because people are poor—especially in a relative way and not to
the extent of starving to death, as many people in really poor countries
are—doesn’t mean they must automatically turn to crime. We must look a bit
deeper for the cause of crime than material poverty; I think it can be traced to
poverty of a different kind: inward or spiritual poverty. When people are poor
within and lack spiritual values, are deficient in understanding and care
little about others, then no matter what their material condition, it is easy
for them to behave antisocially; nor is it people who are poor materially who
commit crimes; the rich are not immune to that, and many of the greatest
criminals are the most ‘successful’ and don’t get caught, perhaps because
of the strings they can afford to pull.
A teacher once said to his
disciples: “Listen: I will tell you a secret”. The disciples gathered
around, expecting to hear something profound. Speaking in a conspiratorial tone,
the teacher then said: “The secret is this: there is no secret!” Happiness
is also not a secret, and cannot be found, but must come to us; the search for
happiness is counterproductive and causes many problems. If only we could forget
about happiness! We would be so much happier than we are!
Wishing to discover what people
really wanted from life, a certain king, of a philosophical temperament, unhappy
with the theories and answers that he had so far been presented with, one day
sent some of his courtiers out to find and bring back an ‘average’
person—not old but not young, not very intelligent but not very dull, not very
handsome but not very ugly, and so on. The courtiers came back after some time
with a man about 35 who fitted the description the king had given them. After
putting the man at ease and assuring him that no harm would come to him, the
king asked him what he would really like from life. Recovering from his initial
nervousness, the man—let’s call him George for convenience here—said that
he would like to be so wealthy that he’d never have to work again and could
employ people to do everything for him.
Yes, we really do not understand
what we’ve got and take it all for granted, considering it ‘ordinary’,
until it’s time to lose it. What a pity we are not taught, from our earliest
years, how to count our blessings. As it is, the opposite happens: we are taught
to be greedy and acquisitive, never satisfied with what we have but always to
want more. Negative discontentment is inculcated in us, to the point where we
think of discontentment —if we think of it at all—as solely negative and, in
the case of many of us, never get a glimpse of its positive side or recognize it
as such. Consequently, we spend much of our lives complaining, feeling sorry for
ourselves and envying others.
What does it take to turn people back to themselves, to get them to break free from the cocoon of delusion and selfishness? What does it take to smash the prison-bars of self and enlarge our mental horizons so that we might regard the world with understanding and love instead of with greed and fear? What does it take to divert the powerful energies of discontentment from negative into positive channels? Alas, many people, known and unknown, have pondered on this down the ages and offered remedies and suggestions, and in so doing, many were persecuted and some even lost their lives. It seems that the world prefers darkness to light and any attempt to change things will be met with stiff resistance. A Chinese sage, seeing this, wrote these rather disconsolate words: “The real pain is the pain of knowing that the Way does not prevail in the world”. It is because the Way does not prevail in the world that much of the suffering and all of the evil goes on.
However, while it is true that ‘you can take a horse to the water but you cannot make it drink’, there are always people who are thirsty and in search of water. In any age this is true, and so the attempt must be made to provide something for them. Anyone attempting this should know that, ultimately, the ripening-agents of Time and Suffering are on his side, so he must be patient and wise, and create or wait for opportunities to turn things around. We should try to keep it in mind, too, that human nature is basically good (is there not goodness in yourself? Where did it come from?); no-one really wants to be bad; there are very few really evil people in the world.
Try to harness your discontentment and make it work for you and others.