Happy daze

Buddhism in the West: the Classic FM of faiths.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • Against happiness

According to research carried out by scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Buddhists are considerably happier than the rest of us.

Apparently, this is down to their meditation techniques, which stimulate strong brainwaves in the left frontal cortex, making them more relaxed, contented souls. Conversely, angry and anxious people have a lot of activity going on in the right frontal cortex – the sulky, tantrum-throwing corner of the brain.

Such news will undoubtedly make Buddhists even cheerier. One of their faithful, Ana Bishop of Epping in Essex attests to the religion’s track record in providing her with a sunnier disposition. ‘I’m less stressed’, she told the Sunday Times (London). ‘It has improved my marriage and made me a happier, calmer and more peaceful person.’ Britain’s other 151,999 Buddhists are likely to concur.

I see no reason for self-congratulation. Call the attitude Christian-centric, but I think religion should be about seeking the truth, not happiness. The case may be different for adherents of Buddhism in Asia, but in the West the faith appears to be a form of religion-lite – the aromatherapy, the Classic FM of faiths. I dare say the Dalai Lama is embarrassed at the kind of airheads and boobies his religion attracts in Europe and America. Here it appeals to people not seeking enlightenment or revelation, but to those who want to ‘relax’ because they are ‘stressed out’ by the horrid modern world.

At a time when ignorance and apathy have become the acceptable norm, this kind of finding is only going to encourage people to embrace the Eloi tendency. The Elois from HG Wells’ Time Machine, you may remember, were a childish, happy and phenomenally stupid species of human being. This is what many seek today: a state of blissful ignorance.

There are three reasons why this is undesirable. First of all, an apathetic populace is no guard against totalitarianism and fascism. A quiescent population is not going to fight to protect its freedom – indeed, it will probably be happy surrendering freedom so that the father figure of the state can provide for it instead. Secondly, if everyone is chilled-out, we can look forward to living like cavemen. Civilisation was not built by contented people. Science, technology, architecture, democracy, literature and so on are the fruits of people unhappy with the status quo, subjective agents who wanted to change the world.

But most of all, really happy people are deeply smug and boring. A month ago I was approached by two Buddhists in Piccadilly Circus. Grinning, one of them pointed to my neck. ‘Hey man, is that a scarf or a noose?’, he asked. ‘You look a bit stressed out.’ My first reaction was ‘Yeah, well at least I’m not a c—‘.

Of course, I didn’t utter these rather harsh thoughts. I just couldn’t abide by that contented, lobotomised look on their faces, the one you’ll find on born-again Christians or people who smoke too much marijuana. It was as if all the life and intelligence had been sucked from him. To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, it was almost as if they would prefer to live as happy pigs than unhappy human beings.

  • Car wars

The Liberal Democrats have launched a campaign to ban bulky, 4×4 vehicles from Britain’s streets, sales of which have more than doubled in the past 10 years. The Lib Dem environment spokesman says that he has been bombarded by complaints from his constituents, who feel ‘increasingly intimidated’ by the growing number of these big metallic beasts.

I don’t believe people are being honest. Drivers of such vehicles are invariably derided as ‘fake farmers’, which suggests that it is not their size we object to, but their fraudulence. There is no campaign, after all, to drive lorries or vans off our roads. Off-road 4×4 cars simply offend our sense of reality.

Which is all very well, but this literal-minded suggestion sets an odd precedent. The Lib Dems may well be calling for the prohibition of sports watches next. Nobody really needs a wristwatch that can withstand undersea depths of 5000 metres. ‘This is what they’re designed for!’ will come the cry from the Lib Dems. Trainers could also be in trouble. Their main market is for beer-bellied blokes who go to football matches and do very little sport indeed. The old football replica kit (best selling size: extra large) may also feel the wrath of the Lib Dems, too. ‘Well, if you’re not actually going to play football in it, then you shan’t be allowed to wear it.’

The real concern is not that 4×4’s are pretentious; it’s that they symbolise parental paranoia. They are for people who fret endlessly about their ‘kids’ being abducted or coming into contact with the big bad world. Like the Puffa Jacket, the 4×4 is designed for scared people who want to tell strangers to keep clear, because I am bigger than you.

  • Load of bull

On Monday, a bull went on the rampage in a china shop in Lancaster, causing thousands of pounds of damage. Consequently, a lot of people have derived much amusement from finding that a popular expression does seem to correspond with reality.

Such rejoicing displays a typical myopic grasp of history. There is no reason to be so complacent about English similes.

In 1938, the American eccentric Jim Moran did actually sell fridges to the Inuit. On another occasion he unloaded 50 tons of hay in Washington, DC and asked someone to bury a needle in it. Eight-two hours and 35 minutes later, he found it. In 1939, he took a bull into a china shop in New York. It was there for an hour; it broke two plates.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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