Truth, identity, life in the city, and Mr. S. Gautama

WEDNESDAY, 18 JANUARY 2006

A strange sensation hit me tonight after my tutoring session: envy. Stranger still was the person about whom I felt envious: Siddharta Gautama, better known as the “Buddha”.

The sensation stemmed from a conversation I had had with a student in her mid-thirties whom I meet twice weekly for an English class. At one point during our session, she told me about the new religion espoused by her ex-husband. I said it sounded like a particular truth, rather than a universal truth.

“Universal truth?” she inquired.

“Yes,” I replied, “something that no person can deny.”

“Like what?”

“Well,” I said, “maybe you can answer that question.” (She is after all the student.)

“Love,” she tentatively replied. “All people believe in love.”

“Love is a virtue,” I corrected her, “not really a truth.”

After about a minute, during which she mostly talked about something else, I was ready with an answer. “People are born. People die. Those are examples of universal truths that no one can deny.”

A comment from her about Buddhism reminded me of a tenet of that religion which I have always considered to have a universal value. “All suffering is caused by desire,” I recited. “That could also count as a universal truth.”

Conscientious as she is, she wrote it down in her notebook. “What do you think of that?” she asked.

“I think it’s not that simple,” I answered. “Say I want to assist someone in need and act on this desire, but suffer painful consequences because of my assistance, where did I go wrong? Should I not have helped the person in need? Am I being punished because of my benevolence?”

“The Buddha said …” she responded, but I couldn’t quite follow the rest of what she was trying to say (she has a tendency to correct herself several times in the course of a sentence, and I started thinking about my dinner that would follow shortly).

“That’s interesting,” I said when she stopped talking.

The session ended shortly after our conversation about the Buddha. As I was exiting the classroom, the sensation I interpreted as envy hit my consciousness. “There’s no doubt that the Buddha was much wiser than I am, and certainly a lot smarter,” I thought out loud. “If I could disappear for a few years into the jungle, and grow my beard and hair and never brush my teeth – who knows what a person can come up with?”

On the way back from the vegetables and meat place, I continued my train of thought. “Maybe I should read up about this man, the Buddha, and about the ideas he has given the world.”

The reason I want to learn more about the Buddha is not to ultimately present myself to the world as a Buddhist. My identity, as I know myself at this stage of my life and as I present myself to people is adequate. I have no need to say “I am …” and then to complete the sentence with reference to some or other religion. Religion for millions of people is an irreplaceable determinant of identity. Religious people also claim that the religions they adhere to are the carriers of universal truths – when in fact they are the carriers of a significant amount of cultural taboos, preferences, prejudices and rules that are presented as “truths”. For many people, however, the search for an identity is more important than truth. Religion X then becomes the truth for Person Y because he is a follower of Religion X, instead of him being a follower of Religion X because, as he might explain, “After careful consideration and years of study, I have found this religion to provide the most comprehensive understanding of life as I know it, and is therefore worthy of my adherence to its beliefs.”

Nevertheless, the reason why I want to read more about Mr. Gautama is because I am curious to know what ideas a man comes up with if he spends years living in a jungle, with little or no contact with other people. How would your understanding of life and human existence change if you lived in the bush alone for months at a time, never shaving, never brushing your teeth, never washing, never laundering your clothes, sleeping on the ground, drinking water from a river, getting sick but not going to the doctor, developing a toothache but not going to the dentist; if you ate leaves and roots and fruit, and no meat, and you spent your days and nights mostly sitting under a tree contemplating questions concerning human existence?

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Some time ago I asked: Desert or City? Appear or Disappear? Considering where I come from and the world I am familiar with, I chose City, and therefore to appear, rather than to disappear like a modern ascetic to contemplate in silence and in my own time human existence.

I also said, if I choose City, if I choose to appear as the person that I had discovered in my head and in my body, and as the person I defined myself to be and whom I choose to be, I can no longer do so alone. I need a partner, I noted down in some journal.

A few weeks after writing down the above thoughts, I met a young woman. Within a few months we discovered that we see things in each other that we had not been able to see in other people we had met up to that point in our lives. We also believed we could find something in each other that neither of us had been able to find in another person.

Thus my life was to continue in the City, and my appearance as “Brand Smit” was indefinitely renewed.

Still I wonder: What would a person discover if they enter the wilderness for any length of time, without the comfort of a dentist or a doctor, or the luxury of running water and a flush toilet and toilet paper, or the entertainment provided by TV, or the internet, or newspapers and books, or friends, or movie theatres? Indeed, what would you find without love – if you have a vague idea how to find what you cannot necessarily articulate?

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