Recently, I was amused to read this article by the New York Times about the business of lifestyle gurus. Definitely read this before continuing. 🙂
I have often noticed a trend where lifestyle gurus frequently and selectively borrow Buddhist teachings and incorporate it into their own, which is confusing for someone who’s not actually familiar with Buddhist religion, and thus conflating the two.
Reading the article above reminded me of the traditional Buddhist wheel of rebirth. Recently, I talked about people who in this live life as if they’re in one of the Buddhist hell realms, undergoing constant torment, or are the tormentors themselves, both doomed to find no peace unless the cycle is broken. Such hells do exist in a sense, for both humans and animals alike.
On the other side of the Buddhist spectrum of rebirth are the devas.1 These are the original gods in India that were worshipped through ancient texts called the Vedas, which researchers now call the “Vedic Religion”, since it predates all known religions: Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.
Of these devas, early Buddhist texts mention gods like Indra and Brahma as protectors of the Buddha, and the Buddha explained how the devas dwelt in 33 heavenly realms, with the lower realms focused more on sensual pleasure, and the higher realms on more ethereal, cerebral delights.
Further, the devas live very long lifespans, as time flows differently in the heaven realms:
That which among men is four hundred years, Visakha, is one night and day of the Tusita devas, their month has thirty of those days, their year twelve of those months; the lifespan of the Tusita devas is four thousand of those heavenly years…
— Visakhuposatha Sutta
…but there’s a catch: even the devas die.
In Buddhist religion, the devas have extremely long lifespans, and live a life of ease and power that is well beyond humans, and yet even they are subject to decline. In one apochryphal story, the king of the gods, Indra (a.k.a. Shakra) forsees his next rebirth as a pig. As the king of the devas, he has nowhere to go but down, and greatly frets about this.
Thus, the heaven realms are not seen as a long-term solution on the Buddhist path. A person who lives an especially good life (regardless of being Buddhist or not) may end up being reborn in the heaven realms, but that is a double-edged sword because on the one hand you have a life of ease and great mental and physical powers, but on the other hand, it’s a distraction and a hindrance until it’s possibly too late.
Getting back to the original point of this post, I sometimes like to compare lifestyle gurus and people who aspire to follow them as devas. They live somewhat removed and oftentimes elevated lifestyles compared to the mundane lives of other people: a life of relative comfort and ease, sumptuous foods, health spas, nice homes, clothing and lively parties with their friends. But there’s something that will inevitably nag in the back of their minds, and that’s their own mortality.
You can eat the nicest organic foods in the world, drink the finest wines, have the best most satisfying sex in your life, or enjoy the taste of victory, but these are temporary things and in the end you will still face old age, decline and ultimately death.
How you face that death is really important, and may be the most important problem to solve in your life.
You can’t buy your way out of that problem, either. It’s something you must work out yourself, and the answer can be a bitter pill to swallow, but a bitter pill is good medicine.
So, it’s important not to conflate lifestyle gurus and their advice with actual Buddhist teachings. The two have little in common, and ultimately arrive at different ends if followed to fruition. One is focused on here and now, while the other is more forward-thinking.
1 Deva is cognate with English words such as “divine” and such.