Our "happy gloom": Living a good life in a dying world

In a world wracked by pandemic and imperialism, turning to nihilism or despair is a dead end

Published August 15, 2020 2:00PM (EDT)

The world is shattered by the coronavirus pandemic (Getty Images/Salon)
The world is shattered by the coronavirus pandemic (Getty Images/Salon)

"I don't worry 'bout a thing, 'cause I know nothing's gonna be all right."
—Mose Allison

For me, Buddhism's most endearing quality is its happy gloom. No other religion is so certain that nothing can be fixed, certainly not the "world," whatever that is. And no other religion is so insistent that the bedrock of life is suffering, dukkha. That's gloomy enough, but, adding perplexity to affliction, Buddhism then advises us that, actually, there is no world to fix. Nor is there suffering, because there is no "self" to suffer. No me, no you, and no anybody else. There is only change, what the English poets called "mutability." As Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in "Mutability":

We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;

How restlessly they speed and gleam and quiver,

Streaking the darkness radiantly!

But there are stranger things yet. The next turn of the dharma wheel suggests that the suffering that both exists and doesn't exist…is our teacher, our very gloomy teacher. Without the suffering and change and ignorance that so easily make their way among us, there would be nothing to wake from, and thus no possibility of enlightenment. But it's hard to be grateful for such teachers when there are so many of them: poverty, injustice, racism, colonialism, nationalism, militarism, authoritarianism of left and right, and, looming over all of this, the slouching beast of environmental catastrophe.

Some continue to think that the ills of capitalism's global disorder can be corrected by socialism, but the dream of a socialist state has its own dangers and illusions. Witness the Soviet Union's "socialism in one country" that dead-ended in Stalin's brutally paranoid purges of 1937. It's not that the idea of a democratic socialism is bad; it's that socialism must pursue its worthy ends in the toxic atmosphere of what Buddhism calls the "Three Poisons"—greed, anger, and delusion. These poisons are not evil things that can be corrected; they're not mistakes that we can fix. These poisons are central to "what is."

In the Tibetan Wheel of Life, the Three Poisons are the driving force, a nuclear core fiercely pushing the Wheel's motion. If there is fascism, if there is racism, if there is genocide, if there is manmade climate disruption, the Wheel has only this to say, "Are you surprised?" After all, five of the six "realms" on the wheel are occupied by demons: the billionaires of the God Realm, the Wall Street types among the demi-gods, and the hungry ghost consumers, eager to eat everything that comes before them. As if that weren't bad enough, there are also the angry residents of the Animal Realm, just on the other side of Hell, all dressed up in their MAGA hats and their blood-red Trump finery. They're destroying the world, because of course they are, what did you expect?

And then, as if to add a cosmic exclamation point to our ordinary suffering, here comes the COVID-19 pandemic, a different kind of teacher, a very stern messenger that comes from an unknowable place. The sickness, psychic trauma, and death that the virus has visited upon us has been made even worse by an economic crisis for which there can be no vaccine. So conspicuous is the relationship between the virus and money that those who are dying might wonder just what has killed them—a biological germ or an economic system? Or a little of both?

Of course, a virus is not a living thing; it is a mutation machine. It plays infinite variations on a genetic theme. We may not like the sickness and death that it brings to us with such drama, but we may owe it a tip of the hat because it may in fact be at the origin of life. As Nobel Laureate Salvador Luria wrote:

May we not feel that in the virus, in their merging with the cellular genome and reemerging from them, we observe the units and processes which, in the course of evolution, have created the successful genetic patterns that underlie all living cells?

But the virus takes no pride in this achievement, nor does it celebrate the misery it brings to us. It is merely a nest of proteins with a genetic signature that seems to percolate with change. Its sole business is mutation, mutation for nothing. It is pure transience, an evolutionary force going nowhere fast, spinning furiously in very tight circles. COVID-19 is a Bardo, a viral book of the dead. Like the Wheel of Life, it, too, is a great if very difficult teacher of what is.

So, that's the gloom, but what's the "happy" part? The happy bit is that although there are Three Poisons there are also Three Jewels: the teacher (Buddha), the teaching (dharma), and the community of students (sangha). These two groups of three are not opposed to each other, as if it were a case of sin versus virtue, or good versus bad. They do not exist in opposition because, in the parlance of the Heart Sutra, they are "empty of self-existence." Instead, they are co-dependent. Without the Poisons, there would be no Jewels, and no need for a Buddha, his wisdom, or his community.

The book I wrote recently, "Living in a World That Can't Be Fixed," is about a kind of community that we in the West call a counterculture. The Buddha's sangha was one of the earliest countercultures, existing as it did in marked contradiction to the religious and political authorities of his time. The Buddha was a cultural revolutionary. He didn't try to "fix" the world he was born into; he "dropped out" of it — sought refuge from the world in "retreat" — and then began living differently, began living as a human.

Beyond all the mayhem and malice described by the Wheel of Life, there is one happy place of curiosity, creativity, and freedom: the Realm of the Human. We're not all billionaire demons, hungry ghosts, or gun-toting, Bible-thumping animals. The Wheel is not merely a gloomy account of our doom, never mind how fearsome the wrathful Yama appears while holding the Wheel between his fangs. Ultimately, the Wheel is about becoming, becoming human, becoming who we really are. Every being in every realm is human to a degree. All possess Buddha nature, and all have been shown the way to the human realm. The tragedy is that, to paraphrase Jesus in Mathew 22:14, "Many have been shown the path, but few have chosen it."

In the West, counterculture has a lineage going back at least as far as the Romantic movement of the later 18th and early 19th centuries, and continuing through the art-inspired social movements made up of Wagnerians, Symbolists, Pre-Raphaelites, Arts and Crafts, and the rich array of modernist art anarchies moving from Dada and Surrealism to the Beats and, most recently, hippy culture—psychedelia. Like the Buddhist sangha, these countercultures offered a critique of and sanctuary from the horrors of the state—whether oligarchic, capitalist, fascist, or communist. We Westerners have our own ideas about a Pure Land apart from a world that can't be fixed.

The sole business of counterculture is to provide a place where we can become who we really are, a place where we are not mere functions of the world we happened to be born into, not diminished creatures whose being has been reduced to a marketable "skill set." This is the way of the world for reasons that the 17th century Zen monk Bankei understood well:

Growing up with deluded people surrounding them, children develop a first-rate set of bad habits, becoming quite proficient at being deluded themselves, and turning into unenlightened beings.

In order to aid in liberating us from our first deluded teachers, counterculture works through honesty and intelligence. Counterculture asks of us what Buddha asked of his followers: listen, consider, and cultivate. Listen to what we have discovered; consider what you have heard; and if you like what you have heard and considered, if it speaks to you, then join us in cultivating a path that others in their turn may consider. This is the ideal way to join any human community: not by thoughtlessly inhabiting its damaged forms and conditions, but by freely engaging, considering, and choosing.

# # # 

Adapted with permission from the preface to the Spanish edition of  "Living in a World That Can't Be Fixed: Reimagining Counterculture Today," to be published by Ediciones La Llave in January 2021.

By Curtis White

Curtis White is a novelist and social critic. His most recent book is "Transcendent: Art and Dharma in a Time of Collapse," published by Melville House.

MORE FROM Curtis White

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Buddhism Climate Change Counterculture Excerpts Pandemic Science