The Wisdom of the Simple

Recently, I watched a PBS documentary on the tiny country of Bhutan, which is south of Tibet. The people of Bhutan live by the philosophy espoused by their leader, who, incredible as it might sound, seems to be the embodiment of Plato’s “enlightened philosopher-king.” He frequently moves among the poor and is transitioning the country to democracy. The philosophy in which he guides his people is known as “gross national happiness,” meaning that policies enacted in Bhutan should always be enacted with the goal of happiness for all the country’s inhabitants — and not just the human ones, but also the animals and the environs. This will in turn lead to greater human happiness.

Until only a couple of decades ago, Bhutan had no real interaction with the outside world. They also had very low crime, practically no drug use, and a population who overwhelmingly categorized themselves as “happy.” They were happy even though they were mostly subsistence farmers with no extra money to speak of. Then, with the opening of Bhutan to the global world, televisions and the Internet arrived — and with them, advertising. While most of the countryside population still does not have televisions or computers, many of the city folk do, and have begun to report a major decline in happiness. Crime has risen, as has drug use. Fast food joints — though no McDonald’s yet — have cropped up, and there is a higher rate of depression. This seems to be partially the fault of exposure to advertising, and to Western ideals of the “perfect” body and the “perfect” life. Bhutanese women, who previously measured themselves according to the traditional notion of the ideal woman — the strong, capable, wise person who holds her household together — now report feeling ugly as they compare themselves to sleek fashion models with perpetual hunger pains and thousands of dollars of product in their surreal hair. Ads for all the new “must-have” products can be seen anywhere in the urban areas, urging viewers to evaluate the material quality of their lives and find it lacking.

Now you might say: surely the subsistence farmers would be happier with these extra things and the money to go with them, since their lives are filled with backbreaking work and very little formal education. How could they truly be happy under those conditions? However, when the documentarist went to the countryside to interview these farmers who lived in huts with their families, the response seemed universal. They were happy. And they weren’t just saying it; you could see it on their faces. These were people with very little (if any) extra cash, with no modern gadgets or even running water, who spent entire days in rice paddies with yaks. Surprising, then, was their seemingly universal answer to the question: “Would you want more things if you could have them, and more money?” They answered no, as long as they continued to have their necessities and just a bit more for comfortable leeway. They did not want any excess.

More astonishing was their answer to the follow-up question: “Why do you not want more?” Seemingly as one, these simple Buddhist farmers responded, “Because if you have too many things, you’re not happy anymore. Instead you’re always worried about people coming and stealing your money or your things, and you want more. You think you don’t have enough and you become very attached to these things. So then you are not happy; it causes suffering.”

These were not people who had attended some local Buddhist seminary for graduate training. Yet there they were, espousing the quintessential Buddhist philosophy, which as a way of life frequently eludes scholars of religion, and being quite happy about it. They were espousing the philosophy that so many of their urban compatriots had perhaps unconsciously let slip away. Yet this philosophy is by no means limited to Buddhism. It can be found in most religions of which I am aware, including Christianity — or at least Christianity in its purer form, one not watered down by its affiliation with the majority culture in the West.

The farmers’ statements are also backed up by a major recent study showing that people, worldwide, report being at their happiest when they have enough to cover their basic needs, plus a little more for comfort. In one of the greatest paradoxes, people from all over the globe report that the more excess they have, the unhappier they are. The wealthiest nations have the highest suicide rates.

I believe that all this says much less about Buddhist philosophy than it does about the fundamentals of humankind. One does not need to be Buddhist to experience what these Bhutanese farmers are talking about. My Catholic grandparents experienced it, living out their lives in their small, but very solid, household. I experience it when I don’t feel the need to buy the latest gadget and throw out the earlier version that I only got last year, which still works perfectly. I experience it when I know that I really don’t want a bigger house — even if I could afford one — or a bigger widescreen TV that would mount on my wall, or even cable. (With that last one, I’m often met with incredulity). It is true that in our modern society, one cannot disengage from everything unless one enters a cloistered religious order. I do have my computer, my iPod, my cell phone, and a TV. But we can be content with what we have, and not think we need more because someone we know has a fancy car or an Internet TV. Let’s distinguish between what we want and what we need.

So there is wisdom in simple things. There is also wisdom in a simple approach to life and faith. When we become caught up in ourselves, things go from simple to complicated to a hopeless mess in quite a hurry. Pope Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, writes of St. Paul’s statement that even though he was an expert in the Law, he was ignorant of how God truly worked:

In view of his earlier self-assurance as a perfect disciple of the Law who knew and lived by the Scriptures, these are strong words; he who had studied under the best masters and who might reasonably have considered himself a real expert on the Scriptures, has to acknowledge, in retrospect, that he was ignorant…This combination of expert knowledge and deep ignorance certainly causes us to ponder….Clearly this mixture of knowledge and ignorance, of material expertise and deep incomprehension, occurs in every period of history….Are we not blind precisely as people with knowledge? Is it not on account of our knowledge that we are incapable of recognizing Truth itself, which tries to reach us through what we know? (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, pp. 206-207)

How we work all this out in modern society is anyone’s guess. Certainly no one is advocating that we renounce education. But as we educate ourselves, as we learn and as we seem to acquire more and more things — including, perhaps, a deceptive sense of our own self-sufficiency — we need to remember humility, simplicity, and happiness.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

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