writing on suffering and awakening

Teacher of gods and men

Taking a Lyft ride home last night, I sat in the back and listened to the driver talk about life in his native Nigeria. “You have so much in America,” he said, his accent thick enough that I had to strain to understand him. “You can think about the future. Back home, finding food comes first, before even shelter. We have so little that we learn you don’t need shelter to survive.”

He paused for a moment. “All we can think about is today.”

While there are Americans who would recognize that sort of poverty as their own, as a nation, we do have an incredible abundance. That abundance represents an opportunity to learn how to share better—one I hope we’ll take advantage of. But it can also distract us from the immediacy of our suffering. I don’t think Americans are suffering any less than Nigerians are, but many of us do have more ways of convincing ourselves otherwise.

Feel a gnawing awareness of existential dissatisfaction? There’s an app for that.

This reminds me that the Buddha is often described as a teacher of gods as well as human beings. Buddhist gods are vastly powerful beings that roam the universe at will and live for billions of years. Living across multiple dimensions, they have everything they could ever imagine, and often believe themselves to be a sort of universal prime mover.

But the Buddha teaches that the gods are still suffering. Like most human beings, they are trapped behind a separate sense of self. It’s just that their delusions—reasonably believing themselves to be literal masters of the universe—are so attractive and so powerful that they have a terrible time getting free. Who would want to wake up from a dream that was so delightful?

But even the best dreams obscure reality, and eventually, of course, all dreams end. What then? The comedown must be painful indeed. Small wonder that some Buddhist teachers view being a god as a terrible fate.

To get free, the gods need the help of the Buddha. As a human being, he’s more grounded—he’s got back pain and eats from a beggars bowl—and that means he faces a greater urgency to get free from suffering. Likewise, Christian and Muslim traditions make clear that Christ and Muhammad are human beings who live human lives—they are close enough to their own suffering to be able to understand the source.

None of this is to say that the kind of poverty where finding enough to eat is all one can focus on is to be envied. I don’t like being hungry any more than anyone else does—there’s no nobility in not supporting the body’s basic needs. The Buddha couldn’t achieve enlightenment until he stopped starving himself and started accepting offerings of food.

But being mindful of how little many of us live on is a reminder that using our collective wealth to distract ourselves and pursue the endless whims of ego doesn’t do anything but keep us trapped. We have to be willing to look at our suffering in order to see through it. To gain the sky, we keep our feet planted on the earth.

Ian Cooper