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A Brief History of Humankind and Happiness

Spoiler alert: It’s good to be Buddhist

A popular book these past summers was Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari. It's an easy read; an anthropological look at how humans evolved from the very beginning of time. We Buddhists call it “causes and conditions” and the book goes through how society evolved from the most primitive stages of humanity to our current condition, mainly through our ability to tell stories and to promote shared belief systems. The end of the book talks about humans' contemporary pursuit of the “meaning of life/happiness” and it’s told from a social science perspective. Harari is not a professed Buddhist, but interestingly he centers Buddhism in the discussion. I was astonished how his history of humankind included a fundamental Buddhist lesson. Who knew social scientists could also give Dharma talks ☺.

Social science research defines happiness as “how our subjective conditions compare to subjective expectations”. In other words, how are we doing compared to how we expected to be doing? Harari’s example is modern-day Egypt. In 2011 they violently overthrew President Hosni Mubarak even though they were more prosperous and less likely to die of starvation, plague or violence than their ancestors. Why? Harari contends modern Egyptians compared themselves to more affluent contemporary Western countries with more freedom and higher standards of living, even though they were far better off than their ancestors.

Hmmm, sounds like they didn’t embrace the Four Noble Truths, especially the first one.

Today, there are many different views on happiness and the “meaning of life.” Christian theologians set up good and evil standards and instruct followers to pray for forgiveness and salvation. Some “New Age” movements believe we must “be our true self” or “follow our heart”and instead of striving for material gains, they strive to create inner, joyful feelings.

Similarly, we Buddhists understand that true meaning resides within ourselves, not in material possessions or external events. But Buddhism is the pursuit of disconnecting ourselves from all such emotions. Our goal is not joy, it’s inner peace. We understand that suffering (duka) is part of human life and controlling those emotions brings us to enlightenment. We name the root of duka the Three Poisons: Anger, Greed, and Ignorance. Our practice includes being aware of these poisons and ridding ourselves of them in our daily lives. We are all born with and strive to reach our true Buddha nature.

Why share this? For me, reading this history reinforced the wisdom and spiritual rationality of Buddhist practice. History is full of many pathways to the “meaning of life” and include conflicts which have caused war and revolution. There are many belief systems available to us and who currently inhabit this earth. Some look outward and some are introspective. I have tried only a couple of them but I am continually reminded after 25 years of practice, it’s good to be Buddhist.

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