The Smiling Swordsman

buddhism joy rurouni kenshin

It is very easy to be cynical about all this, and from one point of view, it might seem morally justified.

But I think that is a dangerous path to follow. I found myself choking on the fumes of my own bitterness, unable to grow and move forward in my own life. Worse than that, I was developing misanthropic thought patterns, harshly criticizing everyone around me for the most mundane things. I would see a child learning something fascinating on an iPad, and all I could think about was how she was being cut off from nature.

I had chosen my particular crusade and was judging all things by whether or not they supported what I considered important.

Even in terms of health and diet, I found myself judging others. I would see someone overweight eating ice cream and blame them, completely assured of my own rightness for avoiding sugar and processed food (never mind the fact that I have my own issues with food).

For a long time, I thought I was simply viewing the world with true awareness, while others failed to see the consequences of this so-called progress. It was pride, in the worst sense of the word, bitter and aloof.

But what good is Awareness if it only brings unhappiness? How can a life lived in accordance with higher values result in constant bitterness? Wisdom ought to bring peace, not frustration.

I didn't want to become a bitter, self-righteous, militantly health- and eco-conscious hippie. I sought Integrity in order to bring peace to my life, not to lord it over others.

Seek Happiness, Spread Joy, Embody Compassion

I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy.  From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering.  Neither social conditioning nor education nor ideology affect this.  From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment.  I don't know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars and planets, has a deeper meaning or not, but at the very least, it is clear that we humans who live on this earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves.  Therefore, it is important to discover what will bring about the greatest degree of happiness. - The Dalai Lama, XIV

I watch children take joy in all the wonderful things life has to offer. They are fascinated by plastic slinkies and violent videogames as much as by spiderwebs. They don't judge, but simply explore and play. That attitude seems more open-hearted to me: seeing the good in everything. Of course, we should not be naive and let ourselves be enslaved by addictions or thoughtless enjoyment, but this is an extreme.

Sure, technology may be driving us apart in some ways, but it can also bring us together in others (my closest friendships were forged playing videogames). There's a lot of beauty in the world amidst all the suffering, and I don't think it's all black and white. Our world is as we see it.

Life is a gift, no matter where or when we are born, and I think we owe it to ourselves to find what joy we can in that, to bring smiles to others instead of  judging them and ourselves for little pleasures.

To love others, to accept their point-of-view and understand it, even while working to change it: that is the true measure and challenge of compassion. The vegan who holds absolutely no animosity towards a dedicated steak-lover, and even empathizes with their appreciation of meat, but works to end the slaughter of cattle for food, would be a good example.

What You Are, That is What You Will Create

Certainly, work for equality, sustainability, clean food, animal rights, an end to consumerism, more human connection, creativity, local foodsheds, personal and social health, but don't become infected by bitterness. To lose yourself to hatred, even motivated by noble ends, is still to lose yourself, to become an instrument of dark motives, and I am a believer that you can only bring into the world what you have within yourself.

Whatever you do will be twisted and corrupted, and in your new world, you will still have your discontent inside you. You will still only see shortcomings and failures.

That is why Buddhism is concerned with cultivating internal peace. It is the surest way to make the world a better place for others, by changing the one thing you can truly control: yourself.

Choose to be optimistic, it feels better. - The Dalai Lama, XIV

Maybe smiles won't end the troubles of the world, and maybe they will, but certainly bitterness will not. Perhaps we need to look past the simple morality that dictates an eye-for-an-eye to a more Zen-like, paradoxical one that can see the inherent goodness and beauty in a creature like a tiger, even as it kills to live.

I don't know where Kenshin's story ends, or how he comes to peace with the monster within that enabled him to kill so many. So far, the only thing that has driven him back to that person was the need to use aggression to protect those he loves. Even if he doesn't win out, the fact that he places a higher value on joy than power, peace than being right, speaks volumes.

I cannot hold on to my bitterness. It is like poisoning myself in order to make a point, and I'd rather be happy than morally vindicated. My heart tells me that true peace and compassion, real happiness, will be in accordance with a moral life.