Seinfeld, Impermanence, Death, Grief, and the Parable of the Mustard Seed

Jerry Seinfeld Found Acceptance in His Father’s Death

Jerry Seinfeld This February-2002 article from the newspaper-magazine Parade quotes comedian Jerry Seinfeld on coping with the death of his father. Instead of recalling emotions of sadness and loss, Seinfeld declares he found acceptance:

His dad’s death at age 66, when Jerry Seinfeld was 30, was the first great loss of Seinfeld’s life. Did it crush him? Surprisingly, after a brief pause, he says no. “I tend to accept life as it is,”he says. “I’m not one of these ‘Life isn’t fair’ people. I tend to accept whatever the limits are, whatever the rules are.” He sits back. His love for his father is evident, but no more evident than his acceptance of the basic facts that the man is no longer around … “It’s okay,” Seinfeld says. And you get the feeling that it is.

Acknowledging Impermanence Can Foster Happiness

The above anecdote about Jerry Seinfeld invokes the Buddhist concept that everything—including life—is impermanent. The Buddha taught, “Decay is inherent in all component things.”

Life, Death and Rebirth in Hinduism Nothing in the world is fixed and permanent. Everything is subject to change and alteration. Life offers no control or consistency but rather impermanence and successive changes—youth changes into old age; the past changes to the present and then into the future.

Suffering, Buddhism teaches, is caused by unrealistic expectations of permanence—especially in relationships. Accepting impermanence can therefore lead to an existence with less suffering. Appreciating that everything in life is fragile and impermanent can foster an appreciation of the present.

Buddhist Parable of the Mustard Seed

Kisagotami and Parable of the Mustard Seed in Buddhism When faced with adversities you must feel and experience—not deny—your emotions, and then embark on a healing process by looking at the situation in a more realistic light.

The Buddha used a well-known parable to help a woman prevail over the death of her son. Here is the “Parable of the Mustard Seed” from British Pali scholar T W Rhys Davids‘s Buddhism: A Sketch of the Life and Teachings of Gautama, the Buddha (1894:)

Kisagotami is the name of a young girl, whose marriage with the only son of a wealthy man was brought about in true fairy-tale fashion. She had one child, but when the beautiful boy could run alone, it died.

The young girl in her love for it carried the dead child clasped to her bosom, and went from house to house of her pitying friends asking them to give her medicine for it. But a Buddhist mendicant, thinking “She does not understand,” said to her, “My good girl, I myself have no such medicine as you ask for, but I think I know of one who has.” “O tell me who that is,” said Kisagotami. “The Buddha can give you medicine; go to him,” was the answer.

She went to Gautama, and doing homage to him, said, “Lord and master, do you know any medicine that will be good for my child?” “Yes, I know of some,” said the Teacher. Now it was the custom for patients or their friends to provide the herbs which the doctors required, so she asked what herbs he would want. “I want some mustard-seed,” he said; and when the poor girl eagerly promised to bring some of so common a drug, he added, “You must get it from some house where no son, or husband, or parent, or slave has died.” “Very good,” she said, and went to ask for it, still carrying her dead child with her.

The people said, “Here is mustard seed, take it”; but when she asked, “In my friend’s house has any son died, or a husband, or a parent or slave?” they answered, “Lady, what is this that you say; the living are few, but the dead are many.” Then she went to other houses, but one said, “I have lost a son “; another, “We have lost our parents”; another, “I have lost my slave.”

At last, not being able to find a single house where no one had died, her mind began to clear, and summoning up resolution, she left the dead body of her child in a forest, and returning to the Buddha paid him homage. He said to her, “Have you the mustard seed?” “My Lord,” she replied, “I have not; the people tell me that the living are few, but the dead are many.” Then he talked to her on that essential part of his system the impermanency of all things, till her doubts were cleared away, and, accepting her lot, she became a disciple and entered the first Path.

Buddhism: Acknowledging Impermanence Can Foster Happiness

Swiss novelist Hermann Hesse wrote in Siddhartha, “I learned… to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it… Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me.”

Idea for Impact: The key to finding equanimity and contentment in life is to develop a heightened acceptance of reality.

Postscript: The Buddhist parable of the mustard seed is not to be confused with the identically-titled Christian parables in Matthew 13:31–32 of the New Testament: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” This parable also appears in Mark 4:30–32 and Luke 13:18–19.

Addiction to Pleasure is a Symptom of Fear

The Problem is Not That There is Pleasure …

Addiction to Pleasure is a Symptom of FearThe historical Buddha offered a profound analysis of the suffering that is an element of human existence.

The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths teaches that life encompasses “unsatisfactoriness”—or suffering. In other words, life, by its nature, is difficult, flawed, and less-than-perfect.

The second of the Four Noble Truths teaches that the origin of suffering is attachment—or craving and desire. Indeed, the desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure itself leads to suffering.

The key to understanding the Buddha’s diagnosis of human suffering is the concept of clinging to pleasure, and with that, creating a world of suffering. Whenever we seek pleasure, not only do we become dependent on the eagerness to find it, but also we create an existence of suffering, because pleasure is impermanent and fleeting.

… The Problem is That There is Clinging to Pleasure.

The third and the fourth of the Four Noble Truths teach that the way to become enlightened is to purge ourselves of our attachment to pleasure or to any source of satisfaction that could trigger distress in seeking to make it permanent.

Discussing the reality that clinging to pleasure always brings pain, the meditation teacher and author Christina Feldman writes in The Buddhist Path to Simplicity,

'The Buddhist Path to Simplicity' by by Christina Feldman (ISBN 0007323611) The other great obstacle to mindful attention is our addiction to pleasure; an addiction that holds within it our fear of being overwhelmed or paralyzed by the unpleasant, challenging thoughts, encounters, feelings and sensations that are part of the fabric of our lives. By filtering our senses and minds with food, sound, information, and entertainment, we also numb ourselves. Increasingly, we find it difficult to embrace the unpleasant events or challenges that life brings to us. We forget the simple truth that freedom relies upon embracing the whole of our life and world. Busy with pursuing, avoiding, and modifying we attempt to convince ourselves that we are safe from the unpredictability of a life that offers no guarantees. We try to build sandcastles before an oncoming tide.

Our life will continue to bring us the sweet, delightful, even glorious moments, but it will also bring the sour. We cannot command the world or our mind to deliver to us only the pleasant and shield us from the unpleasant. Bare attention teaches us to find balance and steadiness; it protects us from fear and offers a reliable refuge in a changing and fragile world. Mindfulness is always available and we are invited to help ourselves to the peace and freedom it offers.

The stillness and calmness born of bare attention are not ends in themselves but a door to liberating wisdom. They are the foundation upon which understanding is built. Wisdom is an understanding of the nature of life and ourselves, deeply seeing what is true on a cellular level. Listening to the story of the present moment invites us to understand the story of all moments.

Temper Your Expectations: Avoid Disappointments in Life

Temper Your Expectations: Avoid Disappointments in Life

The Buddha’s vision of existence is expressed in the truth of pain and suffering. He taught that redemption comes solely from knowledge, the root of which lies in awareness of the reasons for suffering.

'Wisdom of the Buddha' by Max Muller (ISBN 0486411206) According to the first of the Buddha’s Four Nobel Truths, worldly existence is fundamentally unsatisfactory: “This is the truth of pain: birth is painful, old age is painful, sickness is painful. Contact with unpleasant things is painful, not getting what one wishes is painful.”

Core to the Buddhist approach to life is to lower our expectations, thereby raising our joys. If pain and suffering constitute the gap between what we want and what we have, surely we have the power to change what we want.

Verse 94 in The Dhammapada (ref. Max Muller‘s Wisdom of the Buddha) declares, “The gods even envy him whose senses, like horses well broken in by the driver, have been subdued, who is free from pride, and free from appetites.”

'The Discourses of Epictetus' by Arrian, George Long (ISBN 1934255319) Mirroring the Buddha’s teaching, the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55–135 CE) taught the following (ref. the Enchiridion or the Manual of Epictetus compiled by his disciple Arrian):

But, for the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; … If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies. … Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. … Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well. … Whoever, then, would be free, let him wish nothing … wish things to be only just as they are, and him only to conquer who is the conqueror, for thus you will meet with no hindrance.”

Idea for Impact: Trying to change people will result in frustration and futility. They may change in a short time, but unless there is a compelling reason for change (e.g., a significant emotional event that shocks them,) people go back to their natural state. Find the people who have the behaviors you want and teach them the skills they need to be productive.

The Source of All Happiness: A Spirit of Generosity

Dalai Lama with Matthieu Ricard

Thinking of Others is the Source of All Happiness

'Little Book of Inner Peace' by The Dalai Lama (ISBN 1571746099) In the Little Book of Inner Peace, the Dalai Lama writes,

In this world, all qualities spring from preferring the well-being of others to our own, whereas frustrations, confusion, and pain result from selfish attitudes. By adopting an altruistic outlook and by treating others in the way they deserve, our own happiness is assured as a byproduct. We should realize that self-centeredness is the source of all suffering, and that thinking of others is the source of all happiness.

Interconnectedness

At a 2006 TED conference, Robert Thurman gave a pithy discourse called “We Can Be Buddhas” on the Buddhist concepts of interconnectedness, empathy, and compassion. Thurman is Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, an ordained Buddhist monk, founder of the Tibet House, and father of actress Uma Thurman.

Where compassion comes is where you surprisingly discover you lose yourself in some way: through art, through meditation, through understanding, through knowledge actually, knowing that you have no such boundary, knowing your interconnectedness with other beings. You can experience yourself as the other beings when you see through the delusion of being separated from them. When you do that, you’re forced to feel what they feel.

When you’re no longer locked in yourself … you let your mind spread out, and empathize, and enhance the basic human ability of empathizing, and realizing that you are the other being, somehow by that opening, you can see the deeper nature of life.

The Dalai Lama says that when you give birth in your mind to the idea of compassion, it’s because you realize that you, yourself and your pains and pleasures are finally too small a theater for your intelligence.

Being compassionate is a selfish thing to do.

Doing something loving for a person in your life can give you an emotional high. It helps you focus outside of yourself and on the needs of others. Paradoxically enough, this outward focus and compassionate behavior benefit you. Reiterating this concept, Thurman states:

The way of helping those who are suffering badly on the physical plane or on other planes is having a good time, doing it by having a good time … the key to compassion is that it is more fun. It should be done by fun. Generosity is more fun. That’s the key.

Compassion means to feel the feelings of others, and the human being actually is compassion.

When you stop focusing on the self-centered situation … (and) you decide, “Well, I’m sick of myself. I’m going to think of how other people can be happy. I’m going to get up in the morning and think, what can I do for even one other person, even a dog, my dog, my cat, my pet, my butterfly?” And the first person who gets happy when you do that, you don’t do anything for anybody else, but you get happier, you yourself, because your whole perception broadens and you suddenly see the whole world and all of the people in it. And you realize that this—being with these people—is Nirvana.

Anger Is Often Pointless / How to Free Yourself from Anger

Buddha on Anger (Dhammapada)

Anger is often nothing more than an intense emotion caused by an apparent injustice. The destructive outcomes of anger are well known. When even a slight annoyance arises, it is capable of growing quickly and overwhelming your state of mind.

Anger results in (1) a loss of perspective and judgement, (2) impulsive and irrational behavior that is destructive to both yourself and others, and (3) loss of face, compassion, and social credibility.

Anger is often pointless, as the following Buddhist parable will illustrate.

Often, there’s no one to blame

Once upon a time, a farmer was paddling his boat upstream to deliver his produce to a distant village. It was a sultry day, so he was covered in sweat. He was in a great hurry to reach the village market.

Further on upstream, the farmer spotted another boat rapidly moving downstream toward his vessel. It looked as though this boat was going to hit him. In response, he paddled feverishly to move out of the way, but it didn’t seem to help. He yelled, “Hey, watch out!” The other boat seemed to approach him swiftly. The farmer shouted, “Hey, you’re going to hit me! Adjust your direction.” He got no response and continued to yell in vain.

As a last resort, the farmer stood up angrily waving his arms and shaking his fist. The other boat smashed right into him. He was hopping mad and cried out, “You imbecile! How could you hit my boat in the middle of this wide river? Couldn’t you hear me asking you to get out of my way? What is wrong with you?”

Then, all of a sudden, the farmer realized that the boat was empty; it had perhaps cut loose of its moorings and floated downstream with the current. He calmed down and realized that there was no one to blame but an empty boat and the river. His anger was purposeless.

Anger depletes energy and leads to loss of perspective and judgement

When you lose your inner peace, you expect that your anger can help you get even with the offending person or amend the vexing circumstances. However, responding with anger is illogical. The offending deed has already occurred, a fact your anger fails to negate. Also, your anger cannot thwart or diminish the perceived wrong.

In the New Testament, Ephesians 4:26–27 advise, “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”

How to Free Yourself from Anger

Free yourself from anger

There is no benefit to anger at all. All anger can beget is negative energy, which can aggravate an already volatile situation. Anger can also impede sound judgement and inhibit your ability to consider the negative consequences of your abrupt reactions.

The next time you’re angry, consider the following response:

  • Stop. Don’t respond immediately. Walk away from the situation that has instigated your anger.
  • Breathe deeply. Become fully aware of your state of mind. Assess what’s going on.
  • Calm down and compose yourself. Invoke mindfulness to appeal to your wisdom. Anger and other emotional arousals often stem from a lack of self-awareness or mindlessness, and can simmer down if you just wait long enough.
  • Consider the matter from other points of view. Ask if there could be other possible explanations for what happened.
  • Identify the reasons for your anger by asking three questions: (1) “Is this matter serious enough to get worked up about?” (2) “Is my anger necessary and warranted?” (3) “Will getting angry make a difference?”
  • Reflect about what response will be most effective. Try to develop a wise and measured course of action.

Idea for Impact: A low-anger life is a happier life

Patience is the definitive antidote to anger and aggression. With patience, you may not always be able to eliminate anger, but you can usually control it. Patience can build and fortify your intellectual and psychological resources.

As Proverbs 19:11 tells in the Hebrew Bible, “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.” Ultimately, developing greater patience enhances your romantic, personal, professional, and casual relationships—as well as that all-important relationship: the one you have with yourself.

Don’t Reject Your Spiritual Traditions Altogether in Favor of Another

Don't Reject Your Spiritual Traditions Altogether in Favor of Another All over the world, organized religion is on a protracted decline. However, in Western societies, Buddhism is one of the fastest growing “religions” in terms of new converts.

In these Western societies, many people take to Buddhism because of the appeal of meditation and the substantial self-help benefits attributed to persistent meditative practice. Some Neo-Buddhists are motivated enough to warm up slowly but surely to the fact that Buddhism is much more than mere meditation. They come to understand that the Buddhist way of life is atheistic and emphasizes ethics. They draw inspiration from the realization that they alone are responsible for their own attitudes, intentions, decisions, actions, and behaviors. As University of St. Thomas’s Stephen Laumakis wrote in An Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy,

The single most important or most basic insight of the historical Buddha is the claim that who we are and what we think exists is a function of our mind and its cognitive powers. In other words, it is our mind and our uses of it that determine how we see and understand our self, the world, and other things.

On the other hand, some new Buddhist practitioners have misgivings especially as regards the religious or esoteric philosophical aspects of Buddhism. They continue to seek and practice meditation techniques in a secular, non-Buddhist context.

Buddhism has never sought strength in number of adherents

As I have mentioned in my previous article, Buddhism is more of a philosophy of life—a “spiritual practice”—than a religion in the Abrahamic sense.

When Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and other prominent Buddhist teachers started teaching Buddhism in the West during the ’80s, they did not intend to establish a beachhead. Rather, they intended to help educate enthusiasts and help Westerners return, with renewed spirit, to their own religions. In Teachings on Love, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:

'Teachings on Love' by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 1888375000) Many Westerners attracted to Buddhist practice have abandoned their own spiritual traditions. They reject the churches and clergy of their own traditions because they feel constricted and uncomfortable with the attitudes and practices they have encountered there. They have suffered within their own tradition and so have sought another. They approach Buddhist practice with the hope of replacing their own tradition and may wish to break away from their own tradition forever.

According to Buddhist wisdom, such wishing is in vain. A person severed from her own culture and traditions is like a tree pulled out by the roots. Such a person will find it hard to be happy. Buddhist practice can offer effective means to heal, reconcile, and reunite with one’s blood and spiritual families, in order to discover the precious gems in one’s own traditions. Thanks to the practice, people will see that Buddhism and their own spiritual tradition have many things in common, and therefore it is not necessary to reject their own spiritual tradition. They will see that there are things that need to be transformed in Buddhism as well as in their own tradition.

Idea for Impact: Forcefully rejecting one’s religious, spiritual, or cultural tradition in favor of another is not conducive to happiness and peace of mind. Buddhism encourages the Neo-Buddhists to employ insights from their Buddhist practices to find what may have been previously overlooked in their long-established beliefs.

Why Doing Good Is Selfish

Consider the following legend about Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) from J. E. Gallaher’s Best Lincoln Stories (1898.)

The Fable of Abraham Lincoln and the Pigs

The Fable of Abraham Lincoln and the Pigs

Once Lincoln was traveling in a mud-wagon coach along a swampy, rural area. His fellow passenger was his good friend and US Senator Edward Dickinson Baker, who later lost his life in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff at the onset of the American Civil War.

While they were conversing in the mud-wagon coach, Lincoln remarked to Baker that in doing good and evil, all people are motivated by selfishness. Just as Baker challenged Lincoln’s assertion, their coach crossed a rickety bridge over a slough (a large swampy marsh.)

Abruptly, Lincoln and Baker glimpsed a mother pig making a terrible squeal because her piglets were stuck in the swamp, couldn’t get out, and were in danger of drowning.

Abraham Lincoln As their coach started to head away, Lincoln yelled, “Driver, can’t you stop just a moment?” The driver replied, “If the other fellow don’t object.”

With Baker’s approval, Lincoln jumped out of the wagon, ran to the slough, lifted the piglets one by one out of the swamp, and carried them to the dry bank of the swamp.

When Lincoln returned to the coach, Baker remarked, “Now, Abe, where does selfishness come in this little episode?”

Lincoln replied, “Why, bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfishness. I would have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, don’t you see?”

Psychological Egoism

Being moved by the plight of others—even the suffering of animals (or sentient beings to use Buddhist terminology) as in the aforementioned legend of Lincoln and the piglets—is considered a selfish deed per modern philosophy’s theory of ‘psychological egoism’.

Egoism has its roots in the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE,) who argued that the human mind is driven by the need to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Egoism contends that deep down all our actions are motivated by what we perceive to be in our own self-interest. For example, if Tom saves Mark from drowning in a river, egoism contends that Tom’s seemingly altruistic behavior is actually motivated by his own self-interest to avoid potential social censure for not helping Mark or to be regarded a hero within his social circle.

Idea for Impact: Be Selfish, Be Generous

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

The great Indian philosopher Aurobindo wrote in Towards the Light, “The secret of joy is self-giving. If any part in you is without joy, it means that it has not given itself, it wants to keep itself for itself.”

The Dalai Lama once advised, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Per the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness, altruistic generosity encourages us to perceive others more positively. When we discover the suffering of others, we realize that those individuals could just as easily have been us. Intuitively, we contemplate “I feel their pain; I can’t let that happen” and are driven to helping others.

When we do something for others and lose ourselves in the service of others, not only do we feel closer to them, but also they feel closer to us. By focusing on giving rather than receiving and on contributing rather than consuming, our generosity can engender an outward orientation toward the world, shifting our focus away from ourselves.

As our whole perception broadens, we realize that the biggest beneficiary of our generosity is often ourselves: at the outset, we are filled with joy with the recognition that someone else is happier because of us.

Idea for Impact: If you want to feel good, help someone else.

What Is the Point of Life, If Only to Be Forgotten?

While traveling around the magical Norwegian Fjords and contemplating life one day last summer, I recalled a young man’s story. He had spent many years in an Indian prison despite being acquitted because everyone had forgotten about him.

What Is the Point of Life

Forgotten

In 1988, Pratap Nayak was arrested at the age of 14 after getting caught in a violent clash between two rival families in his village in the state of Orissa. A corrupted lower court promptly sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Thanks to the Indian judicial system’s sluggishness, it took six years for a High Court to pronounce Nayak innocent. Unfortunately, nobody informed him or the prison officials about this judgment and his lawyer had died during the intervening years. Nayak’s family had assumed helplessness and lost touch with both him and with the lawyer.

Nayak remained in jail for eight more years after acquittal until a prison system auditor realized that Nayak wasn’t supposed to still be in prison. When he was finally freed at age 28, he was astonished and said, “no one bothered about me … not even my own family.”

When Nayak was finally reunited with his impoverished family of bamboo craftsmen, his father cried, “How shall I take care of him? We don’t get enough to eat ourselves. Had he completed his education, he would have had a good job by now. They ruined his life.”

“Life’s but a walking shadow … then is heard no more”

Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 22–31) contains one of the most eloquent expressions of our lives’ cosmic insignificance:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The Meaning of Life

What Difference Does It Make What We Do with Our Lives?

Whenever I’m enjoying the splendor of the mountains and the waters—as I did in the Norwegian Fjords—and marvel at how these natural elements came to be millions of years ago, I meditate upon the fact that what we identify as our lifespan is but a tiny sliver in the grand timeline of the cosmos. We’re born, we live, we die, and then, as Shakespeare reminds us in Macbeth, we are “heard no more.”

In the grand scheme of things, everything is pointless, irrelevant, and ultimately insignificant. Our lives are impermanent and almost everything that most of us accomplish during our lives will someday become obsolete and be forgotten.

Yet, we rouse ourselves out of bed every day and engage in various activities that are all somehow tied to a purpose or mission—a mission we’ve either consciously created for ourselves or subconsciously accepted as an assignment from somebody. Central to this mission is that we hope to bring about more meaning to the lives of people around us.

This mission imbues us with a sense of purpose—invariably, it is a manifestation of a strong desire within ourselves to bring value, meaning, and joy for others and ultimately for ourselves as well. Even the prospect of smiling, complimenting, or expressing gratitude to another person feels good and adds to our own happiness because we know we’re adding more meaning to the other’s life.

The Key to a Life Well-led Is to Make as Big a Difference as You Can

Idea for Impact: The Key to a Life Well-led Is to Make as Big a Difference as You Can

The utmost measure of a life well-led is how you use your unique talents to do the most good you can. Enrich your life by trying to make a difference. Better yet, try to make the biggest difference you can. Perhaps if you’re fortunate enough—as the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Bill Gates were/are—your contribution can create ripple effects and create an enduring legacy that lasts long after you’re gone.

If you want to be remembered and appreciated for having contributed something to the world, strive to live in the service of others and make the largest possible positive difference you can. That’s the key to a life well-led.

Leaves … Like the Lives of Mortal Men

Spring and Autumn - The renewal of the elements of nature

Spring and Autumn not only call to mind the renewal of the elements of nature but also remind us of the brevity of life and the temporal advancement of life.

The past is immutable and the future is yet tenuous and undefined. Memories of the past are full of triumphs and regrets while anticipations of the future are full of hopes and fears.

If we lose ourselves in memories of the past or fantasies about the future, we lose valuable experiences that take place in the present moment. As I mentioned in my previous article “Present Perfect,” we don’t remain completely in the present.

The change of seasons reminds us of the Buddhist concepts of transience and impermanence—that everything is impermanent—everything, including our own selves. Somehow, we refrain from acknowledging our own impermanence and resist confronting our own mortality.

'The Iliad' by Homer, tr. Robert Fagles (ISBN 0140275363) In Homer’s epic The Iliad, men die at an astonishing pace in various battles. During the Trojan War, when the Achaean commander Diomedes confronts the Trojan lieutenant Glaucus, the latter reflects,

Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.

Source: “The Iliad” (6:171) by Homer, tr. Robert Fagles

Idea for Impact: The passage of time induces us to confront our own mortality. Considering our own morality is a useful tool to guide our present actions. It reminds us to appreciate and live each moment purposefully and wisely.

The Buddha Isn’t God or Superhuman

Today is Vesak (or Wesak) in South East Asia, the most prominent of Buddhist festivals and a celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and death of Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha. Vesak is celebrated on a different day in South Asia.

I’ll take this opportunity to clarify a common conception—or misconception—taken up during casual comparisons between Buddhism and the Abrahamic faiths. I’ll also shed light on Buddhist gods and deities.

Was the Buddha God or Superhuman

The Buddha Never Considered Himself Savior or the Guardian of Truth

According to foundational Buddhist scriptures, Gautama Buddha claimed to be an ordinary man—not a God, superhuman, or prophet. The Buddha even denied that he was omniscient, though he did emphasize that what he knew was all that really matters.

The Buddha presented himself as a philosopher, an enlightened human being. He was only exceptional in having deeply contemplated the true nature of reality. He claimed he had identified the sources of pain and suffering.

The Buddha taught that humans are fundamentally ignorant about the nature of existence and that everything in life is unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) caused by ignorance (avidya) and selfish craving (tanha.) As a teacher, the Buddha was deeply interested in the ethical remaking of a person and declared that it lay within anybody’s capacity to follow his life experience to achieve awakening. The Buddha insisted that his teachings should not be accepted on blind faith—Buddhism is therefore a ‘religion’ of reason and meditation.

Siddhartha Gautama, the Historical Buddha

Do Buddhists Believe in God The entire philosophical edifice of Buddhism centers on Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment. He was born into royalty as Siddhartha Gautama during the sixth century before Christ. According to tradition, at Siddhartha’s naming ceremony, Brahmin astrologers predicted that the newborn was predestined to become an extraordinary ruler of humans, as a great king or holy man. His father desperately wished the former for his long-awaited heir. He isolated Siddhartha within their palace’s protective boundaries and took precautions to ensure that Siddhartha would never experience any trouble, sorrow, or suffering that could cast even the slightest shadow on his happiness.

At age 29, Siddhartha strayed from his palace’s simulated paradise and chanced upon an old man, a diseased man, and a corpse. He also encountered an ascetic who strove to find the cause of human suffering. Depressed by his encounters with human suffering, Siddhartha resolved to follow the ascetic’s example. Leaving his wife and infant son behind (they later became initial disciples), Siddhartha left his affluent palace and lived as a beggar. After pursuing six years of ascetic practice and arduous meditation, he attained new depths of understanding about the nature of life, ego, consciousness, and reality. He achieved enlightenment and thus became the Buddha, the “Awakened One,” or the “Enlightened One.”

Theism is Incompatible with Buddha’s Teachings

The concept of an omnipotent God does not feature substantially in Buddhism. Indeed, scholars quote verse 188 of the Dhammapada, “Men driven by fear go to many a refuge, to mountains, and to forests, to sacred trees, and shrines,” and state that the Buddha believed that the concepts of religion and godliness stem from primal fear, just as sociologists and psychologists have recently posited.

Unlike people of other faiths, Buddhists believe neither in a creator God nor in a personal God entitled to their obedience. Consequently, Buddhism does not derive its system of ethics from any divine authority, but from the teachings of Gautama Buddha.

Buddhism: Gods and Deities

Buddhism: Gods and Deities

Buddhist doctrines have evolved over the centuries. In some schools of Buddhism, the worship of the Buddha is merely an act of commemoration for the founder of their ancient tradition. Others defy the foundational Buddhist teachings that the Buddha is not an object of prayer or devotion and worship him as a deity who holds supernatural qualities and powers.

Gods in Buddhism Religion - White Tara To account for the misconception of a Buddhist God, the more-religious forms of Buddhism added gods to serve as objects of meditation. According to these schools, living beings can be reborn into various realms of existence, one of which is the realm of the gods. The Buddha was said to have taken various animal and human forms and reborn as a god several times. The gods (those born into the realm of the gods) are mortal and impermanent—i.e., they are born and die like other living beings. These gods do not play any role in the creation or sustenance of the cosmos. Adherents can meditate upon these gods and pray to them for practical (but not spiritual) benefits.

The Mahayana schools of Buddhism also believe in many supernatural beings that feature prominently in Buddhist art: various Buddha-figures, ghosts, demons, and bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are would-be Buddhas who represent various virtues of thought and action. In Tibetan Buddhism, for example, the Sitatara or the White Tara (‘star’ in Sanskrit) is a female Bodhisattva. She is a meditation deity who embodies compassion, longevity, and tranquility.

Buddhist God or Deity - Pu-Tai or Budai Finally, the Laughing Buddha (Pu-Tai or Budai in Chinese and Hotei in Japanese) is a holy person per Chinese folklore. He represents a future bodhisattva and epitomizes contentment. His popular image is often mistaken for that of Gautama Buddha. Rubbing Budai’s belly is said to bring good luck and prosperity.

Recommended Books & Films

  • English poet Edwin Arnold’s “The Light of Asia” (1879,) a book that deeply inspired Gandhi. The Light of Asia illustrates the life of Siddhartha Gautama, his enlightenment, character, and philosophy.
  • German theologian Rudolf Otto’s classic “The Idea of the Holy” (1917) explores the mystic, non-rational aspects of the idea of God and contains abundant references to foundational Buddhist teachings.
  • Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha” (1993) includes an remarkable visual retelling of the life of Prince Siddhartha Gautama. Bertolucci also made the epic “The Last Emperor” (1987.)