Sometimes I think chasing extreme enjoyment is a kind of human instinct. Although Western and Eastern culture is different, both try to find a perfect world to live in. The West calls it Utopia; in Amitabha Buddha’s Buddhism it’s called “Western Paradise”. In truth, both of these worlds don’t exist in this world.
For the past sixty years, in the real world, America has relied on its mighty economy to attract a lot of people to it. It is as if America is “Paradise on Earth”. But America is a completely consumption-oriented economic system; its mighty economic power is based in encouraging Americans to consume as much as possible. For instance, individual expenditure seizes two-thirds of gross domestic product (GDP). We also know Americans have been borrowing money for many years; individual and government debt loads are the highest in history.
Since last year’s start of the sub-prime-mortgage crisis, many people have begun to worry about whether or not America’s economy is in decline. Although I’m not an economist, I don’t know if a decline in America’s economy really will cause any serious consequences… but I do know it’s not end of the world. I believe that everything that flourishes in this world will also have its turn to decline, just as when misfortune reaches its limit, good fortune is at hand.
There is a story written by the Chinese sage Zhuang Zi called “Perfect Enjoyment” that I would like to share. It can be found at Donald Sturgeon’s website, in the Outer Chapters, at http://chinese.dsturgeon.net/text.pl?node=2712&if=gb&en=on.
“Under the sky is perfect enjoyment to be found or not? Are there any who can preserve themselves alive or not? If there be, what do they do? What do they maintain? What do they avoid? What do they attend to? Where do they resort to? Where do they keep from? What do they delight in? What do they dislike?
What the world honours is riches, dignities, longevity, and being deemed able. What it delights in is rest for the body, rich flavours, fine garments, beautiful colours, and pleasant music. What it looks down on are poverty and mean condition, short life and being deemed feeble. What men consider bitter experiences are that their bodies do not get rest and ease, that their mouths do not get food of rich flavour, that their persons are not finely clothed, that their eyes do not see beautiful colours, and that their ears do not listen to pleasant music. If they do not get these things, they are very sorrowful, and go on to be troubled with fears. Their thoughts are all about the body – are they not silly?
Now the rich embitter their lives by their incessant labours; they accumulate more wealth than they can use: while they act thus for the body, they make it external to themselves. Those who seek for honours carry their pursuit of them from the day into the night, full of anxiety about their methods whether they are skilful or not: while they act thus for the body they treat it as if it were indifferent to them. The birth of man is at the same time the birth of his sorrow; and if he lives long he becomes more and more stupid, and the longer is his anxiety that he may not die; how great is his bitterness!– while he thus acts for his body, it is for a distant result. Meritorious officers are regarded by the world as good; but (their goodness) is not sufficient to keep their persons alive. I do not know whether the goodness ascribed to them be really good or really not good. If indeed it were considered good, it is not sufficient to preserve their persons alive; if it were deemed not good, it is sufficient to preserve other men alive. Hence it is said, ‘When faithful remonstrances are not listened to, (the remonstrant) should sit still, let (his ruler) take his course, and not strive with him.’ Therefore when Zi-xu strove with (his ruler), he brought on himself the mutilation of his body. If he had not so striven, he would not have acquired his fame: was such (goodness) really good or was it not? As to what the common people now do, and what they find their enjoyment in, I do not know whether the enjoyment is really enjoyment or really not. I see them in their pursuit of it following after all their aims as if with the determination of death, and as if they could not stop in their course; but what they call enjoyment would not be so to me, while yet I do not say that there is no enjoyment in it. Is there indeed such enjoyment, or is there not? I consider doing nothing (to obtain it) to be the great enjoyment, while ordinarily people consider it to be a great evil. Hence it is said, ‘Perfect enjoyment is to be without enjoyment; the highest praise is to be without praise.’
The right and the wrong (on this point of enjoyment) cannot indeed be determined according to (the view of) the world; nevertheless, this doing nothing (to obtain it) may determine the right and the wrong. Since perfect enjoyment is (held to be) keeping the body alive, it is only by this “doing nothing” that that end is likely to be secured. Allow me to try and explain this (more fully): Heaven does nothing, and thence comes its serenity; Earth does nothing, and thence comes its rest. By the union of these two inactivities, all things are produced. How vast and imperceptible is the process!– they seem to come from nowhere! How imperceptible and vast!– there is no visible image of it! All things in all their variety grow from this Inaction. Hence it is said, ‘Heaven and Earth do nothing, and yet there is nothing that they do not do.’ But what man is there that can attain to this inaction?”
In the book The Sayings of Zhuang Zi: Book 2, this story, also called “The Toils of Life”, is summarized so:
“What worldly people pursue is but bodily enjoyment whereas the learner of Tao goes for peace of mind and joy of the spirit. Bodily enjoyment is harmful to one’s nature whereas joy of the spirit is true happiness.” (as translated by Koh Kok Kiang and published by Asiapac Comic Series).
The times of the “Cold War” proved that human beings are not able to live by the ideals of communism i.e. classless, stateless and with common ownership of all. I think time will also prove that the “America Dream” (an extreme society based on a consumption-oriented economic system) will not provide an extremely enjoyable world and that it is actually not even good for humanity. A new way of thinking called LOHAS or “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability” is getting popular in America and I think it’s a good change. It is this kind of thinking and living that will point us towards living in an extremely enjoyable world.