Attitudes to Life
By Ruth Walshe
this essay I want to give you as little book-knowledge as possible.
Yet, in order to underline my approach, let me start off with a
quotation from Goethe’s Faust:
”Greift nur hinein ins volle Menschenleben!
Ein jeder lebt’s—nicht vielen ist’s bekannt.
Und wo Ihr’s packt, da ist’s interessant!“
”Just dip into the fullness of life!
Everyone lives it, not many understand it.
But wherever you seize it, it’s full of interest.“
what I want to do is to introduce six real persons to you and try to
examine their attitudes to life through Buddhist eyes. When I say attitude to life,
I mean the way a person looks at life and accordingly re-acts to it. We
Buddhists even go so far as to say that we only know life through our
senses and elaborate these sense-impressions in our mind.
whenever we speak about life, it is not life as it is—but only the
mental image we have formed for ourselves. Of course, there must be as
many mental images of life as there are people in this world of ours.
For each one of us is quite different from the other. Yet we find that
there are groups of people who look at their sense-impressions of life
in a similar sort of pattern. We say they have a similar attitude to
Now I have taken six people of my
own acquaintance—each of them representing such a group—and I have given
them six different labels:
- The philosopher.
- The materialist.
- The perfect mother.
- The woman who is afraid of life.
- The non-accepter of dukkha (frustration, suffering), and
- The accepter of dukkha.
us first have a look at Albert, the philosopher. He is a well-known
doctor, a highly intellectual and cultured man. The world calls him very
successful, for he is admired and loved by his patients as well as by
his family and friends. He has a very good income, owns a house and a
car and he even writes books on medicine and psychology. When you meet
Albert outside his consulting-room, he is most charming and interesting,
though perhaps a little condescending at times. But when you get to
know him better, you find that his way of thinking, though very sharp
and logical, is rather abstract and schematic and he dearly loves a
juicy argument—even before breakfast. Albert’s favourite topics, besides
his own subjects, are politics, economics and philosophy—in fact,
anything created by man’s intellect. He has a very good wit—but little
sense of humour—strong opinions, conventional convictions and is a great
lover of personalities and traditions …
you say there was anything fundamentally wrong with Albert? From the
Buddhist point of view: decidedly yes. For Albert mistakes the intellect
for life. Please don’t think that I regard the intellect as a bar to
spiritual development. To think that would be quite wrong. We certainly
need all the intellect we can muster to understand Buddhism and its
application to daily life. Without intellect we could never lift the
thick cloud of delusion we all suffer from and understand the Eightfold
Path so clearly laid out by Buddha. But once we start treading this
path, our intellect alone is no longer sufficient. Through watching
ourselves like an outsider in meditation and later throughout the day,
we start developing an awareness of ourselves, our surroundings, other
people—in fact, everything we call our life. This awareness is only dim
in the beginning, but with perseverance and sincere effort it can become
so sharp and one-pointed that it ceases to be awareness and becomes
insight. It is then that we reach the point where we transcend the
intellect. Briefly, I would like to sum up the difference between
intellect and insight thus: Intellect is the sharpness of mind still
ego-bound while insight is the sharpness of mind no longer ego-bound. It
is universal and all-embracing.
Albert does not want to admit—even to himself—the limitations of his
intellect. Instead of using it, as I have just pointed out, to
understand the first stage of his journey and then to be content to let
insight take over—if only for a flash of a moment—he uses it as a shield
between himself and life. Between himself and his own sense-impressions
of the outside world. Though outwardly successful, he suffers-like the
rest of us—from the feeling of insecurity which arises by identifying
himself with the ego. To ward off this unpleasant feeling he greatly
welcomes his intellect. But what does he do? He only tells himself more
and more that he is a permanent entity—that he must build up and protect
that permanent entity. So his ego-belief gets stronger and consequently
his feeling of insecurity increases too. He reasons it all out with his
intellect and represses emotions and doubts as much as he can. He is
what Jung calls a very strong thinking-type. He just hasn’t got the
courage to see life as it is—in the raw! He dare not lift the lid of his
own dustbin too far. As a psychologist Albert has some idea of what
might be popping up. So he has developed a strong subconscious warning
system which sounds the alarm at the slightest threat to his carefully
built-up intellectual world. And so he only buries his head yet deeper
in the sand …
Charles has the label
materialist. He is a very common type in our 20th century and I’m sure
most of you know one or two yourselves. Mine is rather a charming man,
kind and very clever. When I first met him many years in Vienna, he was a
student of German. Rather hard up—but already developing a taste for
the pleasant things in life. A few years ago I met Charles again in
London. He has now become a very prosperous business-man, rather thin on
top, with a fat cheque-book and an enormous black stream-lined car. He
is divorced—like so many rich men and film-stars—and has half a dozen
girl-friends trailing after him. He eats as well as his body allows him,
drinks more whisky than soda-water and smokes fat American cigars. I
shocked him right to the core when I told him that I was a Buddhist.
he said firmly, “no Buddhism for me, my girl! Why should I give up all
my pleasures? Surely I have worked hard enough to get them.“
”But you don’t have to give them up,“ I replied demurely. “You would just gradually lose the taste for them“.
Charles was horrified, “Worse still! What good would all my money be then!“
I chuckled, “You could give it to a Buddhist Society, since you would have no more use for it yourself!“
He shuddered. Since then Charles hardly dares to see me any more …
you think Charles is really happy? I can honestly say that he is not.
In fact, he is a living example for me that craving and clinging only
increases one’s suffering. True enough, Charles has what we call a happy
temperament and seems on the surface more or less content with his lot.
He does not even crave for much more money any longer, since most of it
would only go straight to the inspector of taxes. But he clings with
all his might to all his possessions and defends them like a tigress her
young! He’s terribly restless and blasé, since he has tasted nearly
everything his materialistic world can offer him. He has become a slave
to his own sense-pleasures—for there seems to be very little else in his
life. Mind you, Charles is not uncultured, he likes reading good books,
for example. But, like Albert, he makes quite sure that these books
don’t become his world. He won’t let anything penetrate his ego. Books
are only there to give him an intellectual stimulus—in one word, they
provide him with yet another sense-pleasure; that of the mind. His
feeling of insecurity is even greater than in the case of Albert—for his
world is mainly built on money. And—yet deep down in him he knows only
too well that he is the great loser. All he craves for is ever-changing
and impermanent. And so is his ego, of course. Only that which knows and
understands—in fact, which is knowledge and understanding and truth all
Fortunately, I believe in
karma and rebirth: For I’m still fond of Charles and I like to think
that in time he too will free himself from all his ignorance and
delusion and gain enlightenment. After all, Charles is kind and helpful.
He once told me that he only has one philosophy: that of everyone being
just a little kinder. He himself keeps to it for he does a lot of good
deeds which, in spite of his obstinate belief in his ego, will in his
many lives to come sure enough open the doors to Nibbāna more and more,
that is, if Nibbāna has any doors.
we come to the fair ladies. The first I want to introduce to you is
Winnie—the perfect mother. She is what you might call a homely type:
very capable and friendly. You just can’t help liking Winnie. When I
first met her, her daughter Rosemary was about nine. I soon found out
that Rosemary was the be-all and end-all of Winnie’s life. Her entire
conversation, interest and worries always centred round Rosemary. While
her husband Peter usually sat in a corner, rather shy and absorbed,
reading a book.
I should think most of you
must have known such a Winnie at one time or other in your lives. And
you must have been just as thoroughly bored by her as I used to be. But
unfortunately the case of a possessive mother is much more serious and
complicated than just the surface-boredom she inflicts on her friends.
My Winnie nearly broke up her marriage over Rosemary and did her best to
ruin the child into the bargain. For it didn’t take Winnie long to turn
Rosemary into a thoroughly spoilt little brat. The children at school
disliked her and the teachers complained that she was difficult and
And what did Peter do? The poor
man had very little say in the whole matter. So he withdrew more and
more to his library. He started going out on his own and even during the
summer holidays he went mountain-climbing in Switzerland while Winnie
took Rosemary to Blackpool. She didn’t seem to mind. Her whole life was
Rosemary—to such an extent that her own seemed completely subservient to
it. In fact, she almost became Rosemary with all her problems, worries
and pleasures. She didn’t seem to be interested any more in her marriage
nor in her husband—such was the strength of her maternal instinct.
Fortunately Peter was a very clever and understanding man, and being
very fond of both his wife and child, he put up with the situation as
well as he could and adjusted his life accordingly.
a lot of people these days openly criticise the so-called “perfect“
mother, They say her attitude is due to an excessive mother-instinct
coupled with too much possessiveness. Quite right, true enough. But we
Buddhists go much further than that. Why in fact Buddhism is often
described as one of the most effective mental therapies is because it
goes so much deeper than even the psychiatrists. It doesn’t only touch
the root of the trouble—but it lifts it right out. Now how would the
Buddhists analyse poor old Winnie? We would say, together with the
psychologists, that Winnie has projected her ego onto her daughter
Rosemary. So far, so good! But what exactly lies underneath this
projection of the ego? Let us get to the root of the diagnosis, for only
thus can we cure the disease. As a homoeopath once explained to me: it
is not enough to discover that the patient suffers from a cancer of the
stomach—we must also find out what kind of mental state brought about
this illness. In this particular case, he told me it is always due to
some kind of frustration. Only when we successfully tackle the patient’s
frustration can we be sure that his cancer—though it might be cured by
the physician—doesn’t, come again!
impressed me very much, for I suddenly realised that Buddhism is doing
exactly the same thing: it cures the mental state which brought about
the disease. Now let us go back to Winnie again. Why has she all her
life projected her own ego onto Rosemary? The first reason is obvious:
because she has a specially strong maternal instinct which was by no
means fully satisfied. She should have had at least half a dozen
children! But surely this doesn’t really explain why Winnie submerged
her own personality into that of her child? She could have loved her
dearly—even possessively—and still led her own life independently from
that of Rosemary. But Winnie’s feeling of insecurity is specially strong
and so her own ego feels the need of extending even further—to that of
her child. After all, she thinks like so many mothers, Rosemary is part
of herself. But is that so? Again we Buddhists say: decidedly no! If you
believe in karma and rebirth, you will look upon Rosemary as the
outcome of all her own volitions, thoughts and deeds, good and bad, from
the past and present. Buddhism even goes so far as to say, there isn’t
such a thing as mental inheritance, only physical. Perhaps you might now
understand why Buddhists say that, before we can advise and help anyone
else, we must first be able to understand and help ourselves. As a
rule, we know little enough about what goes on within us—how much less
we know about someone else’s inner life?
advice soon becomes interference and often does more harm than good.
But, even when we are in a position, through mastering our own emotions
to some extent, to understand another person’s difficulties and
shortcomings, we can’t really give him much direct help. All we can do
is to lead him on very gently where he can help himself. That is, in
fact, all a good teacher can do. Now to live your child’s life on top of
yours, so to speak, is quite ridiculous. I said right at the beginning
that what we call life is only the mental image of our
sense-impressions. How can we therefore have a mental image of someone
But the cause of
Winnie’s extreme possessiveness where Rosemary is concerned is not only
due to insecurity and excessive maternal instinct. There is also a lot
of greed and conceit behind it all. Actually conceit is always a form of
greed: greed for the manifestation of the ego. And this automatically
brings about clinging. The greedier we are, the more we crave for and
cling to sense-objects. Hence Winnie’s clinging to Rosemary! Her case,
however, is so exaggerated, so subnormal that Winnie no longer craves
for her own sense-objects—but mainly for those of her child. Her ego has
almost swallowed up Rosemary’s! I think there is a good deal of
frustration at the back of all this too. What Winnie was not able to get
and achieve in her life, she now endeavours to achieve through
Rosemary. The child’s life is still in the making—so Winnie can build up
new hopes, ambitions and desires which she now identifies with
Let me say this however: I
have great admiration for some mothers who, unlike Winnie, are not
possessive and gladly sacrifice their lives for their children. For this
is certainly the purest form of all worldly love. But when you analyse
even this kind of love in the Buddhist way, you will still see the
element of desire at the back of it: the desire for the child’s love in
return for your own. It is because of this attitude of unemotional
analysing that some people accuse Buddhists of not feeling enough love
for their neighbours as the Christians do. But this certainly is not so.
Only in Buddhism we distinguish, besides worldly love, between loving
kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy: mettā, karuṇā and muditā. In
all these three faculties the ego is not involved. Therefore they are
universal, all-embracing—the same as insight-wisdom: paññā. In fact,
karuṇā and paññā always work together. I would, say: one faculty
develops the other until they fill the whole being. This is the end-goal
for any Buddhist: enlightenment!
woman who is afraid of life—is a matron in a large hospital with plenty
of scope for organisation and responsibility. Perhaps you might find it
difficult to imagine a woman in such close contact with life and
suffering being afraid of it herself. But then she is not a physical
coward. Her fear is much more subtle than that: she is afraid of mental
suffering. What does she do? She surrounds herself with high
brick-walls. Her attitude towards life is greatly limited.
is prudish, sex-frustrated—but she tells herself that her work is far
more important than husband and children. She is a genuinely righteous
woman with a very high ethical code. But her code is narrow at the same
time. She dare not face what Jung calls the shadow: neither her own nor
even that of others. She has not a grain of humour—so she just could not
take it. In order that she can be a thoroughly good woman all her life,
she strictly avoids any temptations which might lead her into strange
and dangerous waters. She makes herself look even plainer than she is
and never gets any nearer to a man than she can possibly help in her
career. Naturally, Paula is a strict vegetarian, non-smoker and
teetotaller. She is the most uninteresting person I’ve ever met!
might think that the Buddhists would, in some way or other, approve of
Paula. After all, she hasn’t got many sense-attachments, nor does she do
harm to other people. In fact, she is a religious person who has
trained herself to look within. But—and that’s the trouble—only to a
rather shallow degree. For, as I said before, she never allows the
pendulum to swing the other way. Now Buddhism never believes in
repression and frustration. It is the philosophy of letting go of going
right through suffering to non-suffering. Only by courageously facing up
to the shady side of ourselves without any excuse or judgement, can we
ever hope to transcend it. When I say: without excuse or judgment, I
mean just the watching again—the watching of an outsider. Thus we don’t
allow emotions to come up which, after all, only fortify the ego.
Instead, knowledge will come up and knowledge is wisdom. If we don’t
recognise a thing for what it is, how can we deal with it? It is like
polishing one side of a penny only. The other side, dark and filthy, is
constantly buried in the sand. And yet it is all the time one and the
Mizzi—the non-accepter of
dukkha—is quite a different woman altogether. You might almost call her
Paula’s opposite! When I first met her in Vienna she was extremely
attractive and smart and very flirtatious. She was what we call a woman
of the world, or may be of the demi-world—for she modelled woollen
jumpers and knew quite a lot of the leading Viennese
fashion-photographers rather intimately.
then one day, when Mizzi was not quite so young anymore and seemed a
little tired of woollies and photographers, of cocktails and dancing,
she suddenly went out and got herself a religion. She went in mainly for
dogmas and rituals, In a way the dogma was good for her, for she lacked
self-discipline—but she became rather holy at the same time. That was a
pity because it wasn’t genuine, but only the holiness of her strong
ego. You see, as the years went by, something in her which we might call
the potential for enlightenment, tried to come up. But again and again
the ego pushed it down, deeper and deeper, hiding it under its thick
shadow. So poor Mizzi has been suffering from pulls and counter-pulls
all the time, as in fact most of us do. But through Buddhism we, at
least, learn how to by-pass or even drop the ego—if only for a little
while during meditation or mindfulness. Yet all Mizzi’s ego can do is to
adopt holiness in order to pretend to herself and to others that all is
well with her. Where she greatly differs from Paula, however, is that
she can’t avoid temptations for she is what the Buddhists call the
greedy type. That is to say, her greed prevails over hatred and
delusion—the other two unwholesome roots. Actually we have, of course,
quite a bit of all three. The three wholesome roots are non-greed,
non-hatred and non-delusion.
is now a respectably married woman with children and grand-children, her
ego hasn’t changed all that much since her youth. She still has greedy
emotions and always wants to be the centre of everything. She
continuously pushes herself into the limelight—even at the expense of
other people. Only when she has got what she wants for the moment, does
she consider anyone else. Yet she manages to deceive herself all the
time. She is—at least consciously—convinced that she is sweet and gentle
and helpful all round. It is true, she can be all these things—but
only, as I have just pointed out, when her ego is satisfied for the time
being. She is still very religious, goes to church regularly, and says
her prayers. But there again she mainly uses her religion to ease her
conscience. The trouble with poor old Mizzi is that she always wants to
be and never is!
I feel that our own egos
are not all that much better than Mizzi’s—but the main point I want to
stress is the need to be honest with ourselves. Don’t let us put a cloak
of holiness over our shadow and pretend it isn’t there! Only by facing
up to it, are we in a position to accept dukkha, which is the direct
result of our false identification with the ego.
all my six living examples, the one who comes nearest to accepting
dukkha is Eth. Eth—short for Ethel, you know, Eth used to be my
“daily“—or rather “weekly.“ When I first met her, she was in rags and
her Cockney accent was so thick that it took me quite a while to
understand her. Yet in spite of this, we soon became friends. She was of
a refreshing naivety coupled with a lovely sense of humour. Her
life-story was that of great genuine hardship. Already at an early age
Eth had to stay away from school a lot in order to look after her
family. Her mother was often ill and she happened to be the eldest of a
great number of children. When she married, it only meant more hardship
and work, for they were very poor and Eth bore one child after another.
Her husband died comparatively young and then she had to struggle all
alone to bring up her five children.
the time I knew Eth, most of them were married—but she was still slaving
away all day long. When she was not out working, she now had to mind
her many grandchildren, while their mothers worked in factories. When
you consider that poor thin little Eth had helped to bring up three
generations in her sixty-odd years, you can’t help admiring her. And she
just accepts her hard lot as something unalterable. Neither is she
envious of all the people round her who are better off than she is, nor
does she ask herself how it comes about that life is so “unfair“ to her.
In fact, she is a thoroughly good Buddhist without knowing it. You
might have thought she knew all about the doctrine of karma and rebirth.
Actually, Eth is not particularly religious in one way or another. She
nominally belongs to the Church of England—but never has time to go to
church. Nor has she ever spoken about God to me.
I ask myself whether Eth is very near to enlightenment. This is rather a
difficult question to answer. I feel she is certainly a good deal
nearer to it than I am, or than most of my acquaintances are. There
seems no doubt whatsoever that spiritually she is a highly developed
woman. If only her intellect were equally balanced, I feel, she could be
almost there. She has little greed and little hatred—but there is quite
a bit of delusion. For unfortunately, owing to her lack of education,
her thinking is still rather primitive and illogical. Her mind needs to
be trained and sharpened. On the other hand, through the very hardship
of her present life and her great sense of humour and fun Eth has
acquired a lot of common sense which in my opinion can be equated with
the lower states of insight.
I feel Eth is
a very interesting example for us Buddhists. Without knowing anything
about Buddhism at all, she has chosen the right path and has
courageously progressed a good deal towards enlightenment. In some ways
it might be even a good thing that her intellect is not developed enough
to understand the Buddhist teaching, for she is blissfully unaware of
all the pitfalls of its wrong interpretation. On the other hand, I often
want to comfort her by pointing out the value of the very dukkhā she
has to go through. But then she doesn’t seem to need any comfort: she is
always cheerful and content!
are asking yourselves now what is the Buddhist attitude to attitudes to
life? Well, what we are striving at throughout our life is to break that
protective shell of ours that grows harder and absorbs more and more of
the living tissue. This protective shell is; in fact, no other than our
good old friend, the ego. Now you might ask, what is left after we have
successfully smashed our protective shell? This is, indeed, a difficult
question, for the answer can’t really be given in words—in concepts. We
Buddhists say that we are not a permanent entity as the ego wants us to
believe: We are but a series of moments of consciousness. Once our
protective shell, made up by our vast ignorance and delusion, is broken,
our true nature—which never was “ours“, but is part and parcel of the
whole Universe—is realised. As I said before, the absolute can’t be
explained in words,, nor understood by our intellect. But let me try to
put it to you this way.
As long as we have
the delusion of an ego, we will have all sorts of attitudes,
convictions and views, which are all thought-created. In fact, instead
of having a direct experience of life in the present, we live in a world
of thoughts of either the past or the future. We live by our memories,
speculations and fears.
We miss so much of life by reproducing it second-hand in our mind.
once we have realised our true nature by breaking through our
protective shell, we will live in the present moment. All our bare
attention will be given to the act without the assumption of an ego
outside the act. That moment will fill the whole of our action—the whole
of our sense-impressions: the seeing, the hearing, the smelling, the
touching, the tasting, the knowing.
As Buddha said to Bāhiya:
”In the seeing, Bāhiya—there is just the seeing.
In the hearing, Bāhiya—there is just the hearing.
In the knowing, Bāhiya—there is just the knowing.”
Source: BPS, Sri Lanka, Bodhi Leaves 12 (excerpt). For free distribution only.