We rarely think of Buddhism as an emotional religion. Early Buddhism in particular is often depicted as centered more in the upper left quadrant of the head than in the heart. But if you look closely at the tradition, you’ll find that from the very beginning it has been fueled by a deeply felt emotional core.
Think back for a moment on the story of the young Prince Siddhartha and his first encounters with aging, illness, death, and a wandering forest contemplative. It’s one of the most accessible chapters in the Buddhist tradition, largely because of the direct, true-to-the-heart quality of the young prince’s emotions. He saw aging, illness, and death as an absolute terror, and pinned all his hopes on the contemplative forest life as his only escape. As Asvaghosa, the great Buddhist poet, depicts the story, the young prince had no lack of friends and family members to try to talk him out of those perceptions, and Asvaghosa was wise enough to show their life-affirming advice in a very appealing light. Still, the prince realized that if he were to give in to their advice, he would be betraying his heart. Only by remaining true to his honest emotions was he able to embark on the path that led away from the ordinary values of his society and toward an Awakening into what lay beyond the limitations of life and death.
This is hardly a life-affirming story in the ordinary sense of the term, but it does affirm something more important than living: the truth of the heart when it aspires to a happiness that’s absolutely pure. The power of this aspiration depends on two emotions, called in Pali samvega and pasada. Very few of us have heard of them, but they’re the emotions most basic to the Buddhist tradition. Not only did they inspire the young prince in his quest for Awakening, but even after he became the Buddha he advised his followers to cultivate them on a daily basis. In fact, the way he handled these emotions is so distinctive that it may be one of the most important contributions his teachings have to offer to our culture today.
Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range…..at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that comes with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complicity, complacency, and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. This is a cluster of feelings that we’ve all experienced at one time or another in the process of growing up, but I don’t know of a single English term that adequately covers all three. Such a term would be useful to have, and maybe that’s reason enough for simply adopting the word samvega into our language.
But more than providing a useful term, Buddhism also offers an effective strategy for dealing with the feelings behind it…..feelings that modern culture finds threatening and handles very poorly. Ours, of course, is not the only culture threatened by feelings of samvega. In the Siddhartha story, the father’s reaction to the young prince’s discovery stands for the way most cultures try to deal with these feelings: He tried to convince the prince that his standards for happiness were impossibly high, at the same time trying to distract him with relationships and every sensual pleasure imaginable. Not only did he arrange an ideal marriage for the prince, but he also built him a palace for every season of the year, bought him only the best clothes and toiletries, sponsored a constant round of entertainments, and kept the servants well paid so that they could put at least a semblance of joy into their job of satisfying the prince’s every whim. To put it simply, the father’s strategy was to get the prince to lower his aims and to find satisfaction in a happiness that was less than absolute and far from pure. If the young prince were alive today, the father would have other tools for dealing with the prince’s dissatisfaction…..including psychotherapy and religious counseling…..but the basic strategy would be the same: to distract the prince and dull his sensitivity so that he could settle down and become a well-adjusted, productive member of society.
Fortunately, the prince was too eagle-eyed and lion-hearted to submit to such a strategy. And, again fortunately, he was born into a society that offered him the opportunity to find a solution to the problem of samvega that did justice to the truths of his heart.
The first step in that solution is symbolized in the Siddhartha story by the prince’s reaction to the fourth person he saw on his travels outside of the palace: the wandering forest contemplative. Compared to what he called the confining, dusty path of the householder’s life, the prince saw the freedom of the contemplative’s life as the open air. Such a path of freedom, he felt, would allow him the opportunity to find the answers to his life-and-death questions, and to live a life in line with his highest ideals, “as pure as a polished shell.”
The emotion he felt at this point is termed pasada. Like samvega, pasada covers a complex set of feelings. It’s usually translated as “clarity and serene confidence”…..mental states that keep samvega from turning into despair. In the prince’s case, he gained a clear sense of his predicament, together with confidence that he had found the way out.
As the early Buddhist teachings freely admit, the predicament is that the cycle of birth, aging, and death is meaningless. They don’t try to deny this fact and so don’t ask us to be dishonest with ourselves or to close our eyes to reality. As one teacher has put it, the Buddhist recognition of the reality of suffering…..so important that suffering is honored as the first noble truth…..is a gift. It confirms our most sensitive and direct experience of things, an experience that many other traditions try to deny.
From there, the early teachings ask us to become even more sensitive, until we see that the true cause of suffering is not out there…..in society or some outside being…..but in here, in the craving present in each individual mind. They then confirm that there is an end to suffering, a release from the cycle. And they show the way to that release, through developing noble qualities already latent in the mind to the point where they cast craving aside and open onto Deathlessness. Thus the predicament has a practical solution, a solution within the powers of every human being.
It’s also a solution open to critical scrutiny and testing…..an indication of the Buddha’s own confidence in his handling of the problem of samvega. This is one of the aspects of authentic Buddhism that most attracts people who are tired being told that they should try to deny the insights that inspired their sense of samvega in the first place.
In fact, Buddhism is not only confident that it can handle feelings of samvega but it’s one of the few religions that actively cultivates them in a thorough-going way. Its solution to the problems of life demands so much dedicated effort that only strong samvega will keep the practicing Buddhist from slipping back into his or her old ways. Hence the recommendation that all men and women, lay or ordained, should reflect daily on the facts of aging, illness, separation, and death…..to develop feelings of samvega…..and on the power of one’s own actions, to take samvega one step further, to pasada.
For people whose sense of samvega is so strong that they want to abandon any social ties that interfere with the path to the end of suffering, Buddhism offers both a long-proven body of wisdom to draw on, as well as a safety net: the monastic sangha, an institution that enables them to leave lay society without having to waste time worrying about basic survival. For those who can’t leave their social ties, Buddhism offers a way to live in the world without being overcome by the world, following a life of generosity, virtue, and meditation to strengthen the noble qualities of the mind that will lead to the end of suffering. The close, symbiotic relationship maintained between these two branches of the Buddhist parisa, or following, guarantees that the monastics don’t turn into misfits and misanthropes, and that the laity don’t lose touch with the values that will keep their practice alive.
So the Buddhist attitude toward life cultivates samvega…..a strong sense of the meaninglessness of the cycle of birth, aging, and death…..and develops it into pasada: a confident path to the Deathless. That path includes not only time-proven guidance, but also a social institution that nurtures and keeps it alive. These are all things that we and our society desperately need. As we look into the Buddha’s teachings to see what they offer to the mainstream of our modern life, we should remember that one source of Buddhism’s strength is its ability to keep one foot out of the mainstream, and that the traditional metaphor for the practice is that it crosses over the stream to the further shore.