In New Zealand, where I was born, the young are expected to travel then return home with a broader perspective on life and a greater appreciation for their own country. It works—except that some of us decide that Australia suits us better and end up living there, as I do. But no matter where you travel, what your revised perception of your own country may be, and where you end up, travel gives you a different perspective, which if you contemplate on it, can give you greater insight into yourself and the human condition in general. This is one of the benefits of travelling.
Usually we are so involved in the concerns of our life that we don’t consider how things are for others. Our own challenges totally consume us. Though it would be beneficial to do so, we don’t step back and look at our life from a more objective distance, but travel forces you to do that, at least to some degree.
I sit now on the veranda of a Thai resort on my last day in Thailand and find that my holiday has resulted in a renewed appreciation of the fundamental challenge of human existence—what is the purpose of our life and how do we fulfil it?
Wow! Not the answer you were expecting, huh?
It’s like this:
When you travel, you are outside the society you find yourself in. You don’t live there; you are merely visiting. Even if it’s the same culture, everything is different because you’ve moved yourself somewhere else, somewhere you do not belong. You see with the eyes of an outsider, one step back from the society, and that is a good place from which to see.
What did I see?
What more did I see?
Human existence is the same the world over, just with cultural variations. We eat, we sleep, we laugh, we work, we play, we cry, and we die. And beneath it all, what drives us is the desire to be happy, to avoid the pervading dissatisfaction of the human condition.
“The pervading dissatisfaction of the human condition.” Huh? What’s that? You ask. It’s duhkha, the Sanskrit word usually misleadingly translated as suffering. It’s misleading because in English the word suffering refers to a gross form of duhkha, and since Westerners do not consider that they live in a state of suffering they reject Buddha’s insight that this dissatisfaction is the basic state of unenlightened existence. Correctly translated, however, you can begin to see the truth of it.
We eat because we are hungry, an uncomfortable state. If we do not eat, or do not eat enough, we are dissatisfied. Even if satisfied from a meal, we soon become hungry again and, once again, are driven to eat. If you really look at it, you will see that work, shopping, entertainment, everything we do is all a way to try to shake off this dissatisfaction/boredom/discomfort both mental and physical. Even when we do manage to step outside it, it’s only for a moment before we want something else. This wanting, striving, grasping for more is what drives samsara, around and around, and keeps us stuck in the unenlightened state.
Huh! What do I care about enlightenment? That’s just for religious nuts.
No, enlightenment is simply the complete cessation of this state of dissatisfaction. It’s what we all seek, most of us just don’t know it.
Here in Thailand, the striving for basic existence is obvious. There are too many shops, not enough tourists to buy, and too many people selling trinkets that no one wants. Yet the old lady squatting on the street asking $1 for her flower offerings has a peaceful face and smiles and laughs when I squat beside her, and the grossly deformed beggar who can only walk on two elbows, one foot and a knee has clear eyes that shows a relatively peaceful acceptance of his lot.
Suffering always accompanies a human body; for some it is worse than others, but we all get sick, and old and eventually die, and even when physically things are good, when our stomach is full and our existence comfortable, our mind still finds something to lust after, and our moments of inner peace are short lived. Yet even when physically things are not good, we can still be without this gnawing dissatisfaction. We can be satisfied with our lot, regardless of what it is, and even while working to improve it.
How? Mind is the root of our dissatisfaction—watch it and see. Through mediation we can find a state of inner peace and contentment no matter where we live or what our external circumstances. That is the challenge of our lives; to find inner peace and contentment and to share it with others and help them find it too.
How was my trip? Enlightening.