A Philosophy on Living Well
Lessons on suffering from Eastern scholars
Born into royalty and raised in northeastern India, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha was a monk and sage upon whose teachings the school of Buddhism was later founded.
His works would go on to influence not just Eastern philosophy, but the landscapes of personal development, self-help and counselling — even millennia after his death in 4th-Century, BCE.
Gautama was fortunate enough to have access to every imaginable luxury during his early years. He lived out an affluent childhood as a royal within the confines of his opulent family palace, lavished with wealth and grandeur.
Protected by his father from the danger and corruption of the outside world, it wasn’t until the night of his twenty-ninth birthday that Gautama ventured out beyond the walls of the palace.
He met three men during his travels: one sick, one ageing, and the third dying. Gautama was horrified by his first encounter with human suffering; the impermanence and fragility of life. He decided to leave the palace against his father’s will and seek spiritual enlightenment through meditation, freeing his mind from the perennial vice of hardship.
Upon reaching a state of Nirvana, pure bliss and freedom from attachment, Buddha made many realisations about the world around him.
Both contain enough thought-provoking material to draw upon, but one quote best summarises the many insightful teachings of Buddha:
“The mind is everything. What you think you become.”
Early figures and thinkers like Buddha spearheaded the rise of many schools of philosophy, which aim to teach us how to live well and cope with suffering by becoming more thoughtful and appreciative.
Below are three major points and principles taken from such philosophies. May they educate us all on how to cultivate peace of mind amid the hardships we may come to face.
1. Suffering is Unavoidable
Upon discovering the pervasiveness of suffering in India, Buddha concluded that pain is, in fact, unavoidable. It is a necessary part of life and a natural phenomenon that simply cannot be eradicated.
We will someday lose loved ones, fail to succeed and be forced to face difficult decisions. According to Buddha, the wise person should seek to become completely at home and accustomed to suffering — to expect it, even.
This is not to say that life is suffering; that we will never experience joy to match our distress. Rather, that life is a constant flux of pleasure and pain, and we should learn to accept the prospect of suffering in order to cope with it.
As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,
“People suffer because they are caught in their views. As soon as we release those views, we are free and we don’t suffer anymore.”
Our ideas and expectations of suffering force us to view ourselves as victims. These preconceptions only make us feel worse and magnify our misery; instead, we must learn to accept that pain is inevitable. Life is awash with change, impermanence, chaos — and that’s okay.
When we adjust our perspective and begin to anticipate suffering, we open ourselves up to feel more appreciative of life when it does, in fact, go as planned.
Smiles from strangers, true love and small niceties like hot mugs of coffee will feel all-the-more uplifting when we surrender our ideals and simply allow life to take its natural course.
2. Do Nothing
Alongside the foundation of Buddhist philosophy came the emergence of Chinese schools of thought, such as Taoism. Founded by Lao Tzu, Taoism teaches us to seek spiritual harmony with nature, strengthen our virtues and cultivate personal development.
At the heart of Taoist doctrine lies a concept known as Wu Wei, which translates roughly into ‘not-doing’, or ‘doing nothing’.
It asks us to let go of the ideals that we may otherwise try to force upon situations or people; to surrender our expectations and preconceptions and simply go with the flow;
to slow time down and practice enjoying the moment.
According to Taoist philosophy, we should cultivate mindfulness not only during moments of non-activity, but also during those that may otherwise cause us to feel anxious and pressured to make a decision.
This means putting our ego-driven plans to one side and instead responding to the true demands of each moment; to tackle it with calmness, compliance and gentle persistence.
The result is an absence of self-consciousness; a dissolved sense of self and complete unity between us and the situations we find ourselves in.
Rather than respond to issues in haste, we should let others act frantically and then peacefully adjust ourselves towards the best course of action to take.
Accidents and misfortunes that may break others may then leave us untouched as we submit ourselves fully to reality — calmly and without resistance.
3. Be Like Bamboo
Not only is bamboo a plant that grows in abundance throughout Asia, but it also serves as a symbolic representation of many of the ideals and virtues that Eastern philosophy rests upon.
Bamboo is tall and strong enough to support vast groves and forests. Its core is hollow, allowing it to bend down to the ground during harsh winds and bounce back to full form with ease.
Bamboo’s resilience to pressure serves as a reminder that we should learn to embrace struggle rather than resisting it; we should adapt and adjust to new situations, bending with the wind. As Michelle Moran instructs,
“When a storm comes, bamboo bends. It doesn’t break.”
Furthermore, bamboo teaches us not to estimate others based on size or appearance alone. Though small, thin and unassuming, bamboo is able to withstand extreme force without sustaining damage.
You may not be the biggest, smartest or richest person you know, but like bamboo, stand tall, believe in your abilities, and feel confident that strength can always be drawn from within.
Usefulness and Simplicity
It should also be noted that bamboo is not only sturdy and resilient, but simple. It fulfils its purpose without any added complexities. As Kensho Furuya writes,
“The bamboo in its simplicity expresses its usefulness. Man should do the same.”
Often we feel pressure to overcomplicate things in an attempt to impress or influence, striving to meet trends or present ourselves in such a way that makes us appear proficient in our skills.
Complexity, however, does not always denote utility. The bamboo in its simplicity expresses its usefulness.
Bamboo maintains its resilience without any superfluous extras. It is as simple as it needs to be to complete its function, never flaunting its strength or overcompensating. Perhaps we should learn to do the same.
At the core of all Eastern philosophies is an emphasis on growth and development. Just as bamboo grows with sustained effort throughout its lifetime, so too should we seek to cultivate self-improvement, slowly but surely, as we age.
There may indeed be seasons during which growth slows, and others that force it to accelerate. During our lifetimes, we will certainly see our progress hindered by bouts of struggle and periods of emptiness — but through it all, we can still grow and learn.
Furthermore, Eastern philosophy teaches us to become accustomed to suffering. As a result, we may learn to express gratitude for the positive happenings that come our way and, with our newfound acceptance of pain, appreciate pleasure all the more.
And lastly, like bamboo, we should strive to bounce back from the hardships that come our way.
Through mindful acceptance and lack of judgement, we stand better equipped to search for simple solutions to our problems rather than reacting with frantic haste.
By exercising such practices, we can learn to live happily amidst the chaos of life — like a bamboo plant withered by storm, bent near breaking point, but standing tall, proud, and prepared for anything.