All About Change | Daily News

All About Change

Change is the focal point for Buddhist insight — a fact so well known that it has spawned a familiar sound bite: “Isn’t change what Buddhism is all about?” What’s less well known is that this focus has a frame, that change is neither where insight begins nor where it ends. Insight begins with a question that evaluates change in light of the desire for true happiness. It ends with a happiness that lies beyond change. When this frame is forgotten, people create their own contexts for the teaching and often assume that the Buddha was operating within those same contexts. Two of the contexts commonly attributed to the Buddha at present are these:

Insight into change teaches us to embrace our experiences without clinging to them — to get the most out of them in the present moment by fully appreciating their intensity, in full knowledge that we will soon have to let them go to embrace whatever comes next.

Insight into change teaches us hope. Because change is built into the nature of things, nothing is inherently fixed, not even our own identity. No matter how bad the situation, anything is possible. We can do whatever we want to do, create whatever world we want to live in, and become whatever we want to be.

The first of these interpretations offers wisdom on how to consume the pleasures of immediate, personal experience when you’d rather they not change; the second, on how to produce change when you want it. Although sometimes presented as complementary insights, these interpretations contain a practical conflict: If experiences are so fleeting and changeable, are they worth the effort needed to produce them? How can we find genuine hope in the prospect of positive change if we can’t fully rest in the results when they arrive? Aren’t we just setting ourselves up for disappointment?

Or is this just one of the unavoidable paradoxes of life? Ancient folk wisdom from many cultures would suggest so, advising us that we should approach change with cautious joy and stoic equanimity: training ourselves to not to get attached to the results of our actions, and accepting without question the need to keep on producing fleeting pleasures as best we can, for the only alternative would be inaction and despair. This advice, too, is often attributed to the Buddha.

But the Buddha was not the sort of person to accept things without question. His wisdom lay in realizing that the effort that goes into the production of happiness is worthwhile only if the processes of change can be skillfully managed to arrive at a happiness resistant to change. Otherwise, we’re life-long prisoners in a forced-labor camp, compelled to keep on producing pleasurable experiences to assuage our hunger, and yet finding them so empty of any real essence that they can never leave us full.

These realizations are implicit in the question that, according to the Buddha, lies at the beginning of insight:

“What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term well-being and happiness?”

This is a heartfelt question, motivated by the desire behind all conscious action: to attain levels of pleasure worthy of the effort that goes into them. It springs from the realization that life requires effort, and that if we aren’t careful whole lifetimes can be lived in vain. This question, together with the realizations and desires behind it, provides the context for the Buddha’s perspective on change. If we examine it closely, we find the seeds for all his insights into the production and consumption of change.

The first phrase in the question — “What, when I do it, will lead to ...” — focuses on the issues of production, on the potential effects of human action. Prior to his Awakening, the Buddha had left home and gone into the wilderness to explore precisely this issue: to see how far human action could go, and whether it could lead to a dimension beyond the reach of change. His Awakening was confirmation that it could — if developed to the appropriate level of skillfulness. He thus taught that there are four types of action, corresponding to four levels of skill: three that produce pleasant, unpleasant, and mixed experiences within the cycles of space and time; and a fourth that leads beyond action to a level of happiness transcending the dimensions of space and time, thus eliminating the need to produce any further happiness.

Because the activities of producing and consuming require space and time, a happiness transcending space and time, by its very nature, is neither produced nor consumed. Thus, when the Buddha reached that happiness and stepped outside the modes of producing and consuming, he was able to turn back and see exactly how pervasive a role these activities play in ordinary experience, and how imprisoning they normally are. He saw that our experience of the present is an activity — something fabricated or produced, moment to moment, from the raw material provided by past actions. We even fabricate our identity, our sense of who we are. At the same time, we try to consume any pleasure that can be found in what we’ve produced — although in our desire to consume pleasure, we often gobble down pain. With every moment, production and consumption are intertwined: We consume experiences as we produce them, and produce them as we consume. The way we consume our pleasures or pains can produce further pleasures or pains, now and into the future, depending on how skillful we are. The three parts of the latter phrase in the Buddha’s question — “my / long-term / well-being and happiness” — provide standards for gauging the level of our skill in approaching true pleasure or happiness. (The Pali word, here — sukha — can be translated as pleasure, happiness, ease, or bliss.) We apply these standards to the experiences we consume: if they aren’t long-term, then no matter how pleasant they might be, they aren’t true happiness. If they’re not true happiness, there’s no reason to claim them as “mine.”

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