In this blog series, I have ranged through the storehouses of various religious traditions to find out what each tradition understands by the concept of what many have found convenient to describe by the everyday word human "sou/spirit", often used by us very loosely to refer to what is conceived of as the reality upon which we base our notions of man's moral accountability, about its "true" nature. Why is it important to find that out? Why should we be concerned at all with whether or not we got a "soul" and if we have one, what its nature may be? To me, such questions would be of purely academic interest only if we were to consider them in isolation from other far more important questions: how to live properly and how to live happily here on earth and the nature of "happiness"..
With the advance of our understanding of the functioning the physical universe, our brain, our memory, our emotions, the functioning of our physiology, the nature of community and morality based on the methods of the empirical and social sciences, it is now far more usual to think of the way we act as based upon our brain, our rational, the emotional processes rather than as based on the activities of our "soul", an outdated concept favored still only by various forms of theologies of reward and punishment and based upon whether and if so, how the human "soul" may be treated by a "supernatural entity" called "God" or gods. According to the Abrahamic faith, the universe is created by a monotheistic God who created inter alia, the human "soul" and who determines the "meaning" or "purpose" of our life here on earth. Our "soul" is supposed to be have an existence independent of that of our body and may continue to exist after our physical death and is in that sense "immortal". Why do we need an immortal 'soul"? Unless we posit such a "soul", what believers think of as the final "day of judgment" would make no sense. Only when we have such a "soul" can it be made to "enjoy" eternal "happiness" of "heaven" and if we have led our lives on earth badly, to "suffer" eternal punishment in "hell". Why do we need to invent the concept of "heaven" and "hell"? To me, its only purpose is to serve as an inducement to us to do good and as a threat to make us avoid doing evil, through the twin psychological mechanisms of "hope" and "fear", by analogy to the way we induce and force such animals as our horse or donkey or ass, which we use as our "beasts of burden" to do physically exhausting and mentally boring work for us: the method of the "carrot" and the 'stick", a trusted and well tested method which human experience has found quite effective.
Can we be induced to do good and avoid doing evil without positing the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and an all perfect God? Is the mysterious, arbitrary and jealous God of the Abrahamic faith absolutely necessary for the practices of human morality? I would submit that we can. The Buddhists do not find the existence of such a God necessary. They rely merely on the use of our reason and on insightful observations of what makes us happy and what makes us miserable. They have through deep meditation and vigilant observation of the functioning of the human mind, the human consciousness and the coming and going of human emotions developed some fairly sophisticated theories of how we may attain happiness in a rather more stable and permanent form.
I return now to the text of Matthieu Ricard I mentioned at the start of this series, "Happiness". Many think that to be "free" is to be master of oneself, involving freedom of action, movement and opinion, the chance to achieve such goals as they have set themselves or "doing anything" that they want. Ricard thinks that although spontaneity is a precious quality, anarchic freedom to fulfill our immediate desires is unlikely to bring happiness. "If we let the hounds of craving (貪) , jealousy (嫉), arrogance (妄) and resentment (嗔) run amok in our mind, they will soon take over." To him, "inner freedom is a vast, clear, and serene space that dispels pain and nourishes peace" and inner freedom is above all, "freedom from the dictatorship of 'me' and 'mine' of the ego that clashes whatever it dislikes and seeks desperately to appropriate whatever it covets". and being free comes down to "breaking down the bond of afflictions that dominate and cloud the mind" . It means, he says, "taking life into one's own hand",instead of abandoning it to tendencies created by habit and mental confusion. It is a way of "becoming fed up with being manipulated like a puppet by selfishness, the scramble for power and possessions, and the never-ending quest for pleasure." Such an approach is merely pragmatic. We must never treat ourselves too harshly. "Understanding that we are neither perfect nor completely happy is not a weakness" but a ":very healthy acknowledgment that has nothing to do with self-pity, pessimism or a lack of self-confidence." For many, the idea of renunciation and non-attachment implies "a dank dungeon of asceticism and discipline" and a "depressing privation of life's pleasures" but to Ricard, "true renunciation is more like a bird soaring into the sky when its cage is opened": suddenly, "the endless concerns that had oppressed the mind are gone, allowing the free expression" of our inner potentials. Renunciation, he rightly points out, is not about "depriving ourselves of that which brings us joy and happiness" . "It is about abandoning what causes us inexhaustible and relentless distress. It is about having the courage to rid ourselves of dependency on the root causes of suffering" It comes down to asking ourselves with certain aspect of our lives: "Is this going to make me happier?" To him, genuine happiness, as opposed to contrived euphoria, endures through life's ups and downs. We need to learn to free ourselves of the burden of the past as well as the burden of future fear. We need to ask ourselves: "What is the point of worrying about things that no longer exist and things that do not yet exist?" Inner freedom will allow us to "savor the lucid simplicity of the present moment", free from the intrusive memories of past pains, hatreds, thoughts of revenge and emancipated from fear of pointless fretting about future. Such clearheadedness allows us the joy to accept things peacefully and to use all life's circumstances, favorable and adverse, as catalysts for personal change and to avoid being arrogant when they are favorable and depressed when they are not.
One of the ways Ricard taught is also taught by Henry David Thoreau, who said, "our life is frittered away by detail...Simplify, simplify". Renunciation involves "simplifying our acts, our speech and our thoughts to rid ourselves of the superfluous." A lot of social conversation consists of torrent of words that are not only useless, but aggravate covetousness, hostility and vanity. "Appropriate speech avoids self-serving lies, cruel words and gossips whose only effect is to distract us and sow discord." Simplicity is always "adapted to circumstances, gentle or firm as required, and the product of an altruistic and controlled mind." But we must not confuse a simple mind with being simple-minded. "Like clear water that lets us see all the way to the lake bottom, simplicity reveals the nature of mind behind the veil of restless thought." As André Compte-Sponville, a French philosopher says, "The simple person lives the way he breathes, with no more effort or glory, with no more affectation and without shame...Simplicity is freedom, buoyancy, transparency. As simple as the air, as free as the air,...The simple person does not take himself too seriously, or too tragically. He goes on his merry way, his heart light, his soul at peace, without goal, without nostalgia, without impatience. The world is his kingdom, and suffices him. The present is his eternity, and delights him. He has nothing to prove, since he has no appearances to keep up, and nothing to seek, since everything is before him. What is more simple than simplicity? What lighter?It is the virtue of wise men and the wisdom of saints."
To Ricard, being free means being able to follow the path of inner transformation, to overcome not only external adversity, but also our innermost enemies: laziness, lack of focus and the habit that constantly distracts us from or defers spiritual practice. Unlike sensual pleasures which appear at first attractive but will soon turn into their opposites, the path of spiritual practice may first appear arduous, but with time, will become easier and easier and gradually will "impart a sense of fulfillment that nothing can replace. Sociological researches have found that happiness rises with social involvement and participation in volunteer organizations, the practice of sports or music, membership in leisure clubs and is closely tied to the maintenance and quality of private relationships. And happiness tends to be more pronounced amongst highly energetic people in good physical condition and leisure activities enhance satisfaction especially amongst those who do not work e.g.the retired, those of independent means, in part because people are more in voluntary control of what they do."
Studies have also shown that in America, people watch an average of 3.5 hours a day i.e. one year in every 7! But those who watch a lot are in general less happy! Research has also shown that beyond a relatively low threshold of wealth, the level of satisfaction remains unchanged even as income continues to rise e.g. in America, real income has doubled since 1949 but the number of people who declared themselves "very happy" has dropped slightly! Richard Layard of London School of Economics summarises the situation: "We have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nice work and above all, better health. Yet we are not happier." Social scientists have discovered that one the mains sources of people's discontent comes from comparing themselves with others in their family, at their work places and among their acquaintances
(To be Cont'd)