As many of my friends know (and are quite tired of hearing), I am honestly not the biggest fan of food in Manila. To get a really good meal here requires either a lot of determination or a lot of money – and given the minuscule portion sizes relative to my chubby 6 foot frame, a small appetite doesn’t hurt, either.
However, I do love a lot of Filipino food. The Philippines boasts some delicious regional cuisines, such as Bicol’s red hot specialties, or the turmeric-mad (and equally chilli-saturated) food of the Maranao. Perhaps best of all is the irresistible freshness of Cebuano dishes, with their mouth-watering lemongrass-scentedsoups, incredible kinilaw (basically a Filipino version of ceviche), and delectably tender barbeque – all of which have spread through the southern Philippines and, in some cases, have even been improved upon in places like Davao City. But one thing that Manila is good for is snack foods. There are plenty of salty, sweet, guiltily delicious ways to fill in a spare corner of my stomach, even if actually filling it to capacity tends to be a challenge given my monstrous appetite. Stop by the local Family Mart, 7/11, or, if you have no choice, Mini-Stop, and take in the vast cornucopia of addictively unhealthy munchables!
And it’s a great time to be a lover of snack foods in the Philippines. Even a few years ago I felt like I had to rely on expensive imported US brands to really satisfy my MSG cravings, but the country appears to be undergoing a snack food renaissance. Local snack food manufacturers are really bringing their A-game with new offerings like Oishi’s Gourmet Picks (in the absolutely divine wasabi flavour and its somewhat less impressive counterparts), or Leslie’s new Farmer John chips – the salt and vinegar flavour is pretty close to heaven, and ensures that I’ll never have to waste my money on Lay’s again. I know this sounds like a press release, but I really do love a good potato chip – all respect due to the food chemists who engineered these modern-day marvels!
One of the less glamourous old-school entries in the Philippine snack food lineup is Ding Dong. Basically, it’s an assortment of dried crunchy things that is, for some reason, being marketed as “mixed nuts” (more on that later).
After two very busy months during which I simply couldn’t find the time to blog, I have been pulled back into the blogging world by some exciting news: I just drowned my first rat!
You’ll have to forgive my gallows humour, as my mind is, in fact, heavily burdened with the great significance of what I have done. For the first time ever, I have intentionally killed an animal that I could imagine having a mind – that is, something that exists as a separate entity beyond a series of instinctual reactions to nervous stimuli. I have just drowned, with ruthless efficiency, something that is much closer to my beloved dogs than it is to bacteria, plankton or protozoa. And not only that, but I have already murdered four of them, perhaps with plenty more to come.
As you can imagine (if you don’t already know), Metro Manila is positively overrun with rats and roaches. The roaches create no ethical quagmire for me – they are as vile as they are stupid, even if nature has endowed them with a remarkable set of skills for invading human living space and exploiting it in the most disgusting ways possible. I have murdered hundreds of roaches in every way imaginable: squashing, spraying, and – the least messy and most satisfying option for those encountered in the bathroom – incapacitating them by spraying them with the bidet hose, picking them up by one antenna with a piece of tissue, and then flushing them down the toilet. Out of sight, out of mind!
Unfortunately, the rats create a more prickly conundrum for the animal-loving ethicist. For years I never had to deal with this veritable Sophie’s choice because I lived in condos, and apparently rats are far less intrepid than roaches when it comes to climbing up to the 34th floor. But since I transitioned to suburban bliss in Muntinlupa City, I’ve had to deal with all the pitfalls of having your own house and yard: leaky roofs, constant fear of burglary, nosy neighbours, and yes, rats. Read More
Tonight I had an experience that is quite rare for me: I ate at a high-end buffet. Given my notorious stinginess and my staunch “I don’t eat out in Manila unless it’s canteens, pizza or fast food” policy (which will get its own post, of course!), it takes some truly unusual circumstances to drag me out to the high-end smorgasborgs which have sprouted up throughout the Metro.
As it happens, this high-end buffet served as a most unusual location for a first date with a local woman off an Internet dating site. (What can I say? I’m trying to get out more.) For some reason, she decided that such an ostentatious choice would be ideal for the first meetup between two total strangers; with my usual suaveness, I informed her that I would only eat at such a ritzy establishment if it were birthday or if someone were treating me. Although I expected her to simply lose interest and find another dining companion who wasn’t a stingy jerk (or who was currently celebrating his birthday), she surprised me by insisting that she’d pay for both of us. After a few incredulous rounds of “Do you really want to pay for me?” and several affirmative responses, I finally accepted. I was pretty baffled, but since it’s not every day that strangers offer me expensive meals, it was hard to say no. So, after meeting up with her in Makati and wandering around the malls for a few hours, abusing the free karaoke machine demos in music stores and searching for a pepper mill – more of the makings of a great first date – we ended up at Buffet 101, which touts itself as the longest buffet line in the Philippines. (Incidentally, I did manage to find an inexpensive pepper mill, and I expect my nose to be very happy during the coming weeks and months.)
Buffet 101 is one of several highish-end buffets that can now be found in Manila and other major cities, along with such competitors as Dad’s, Yaki Mix and Vikings. A meal at one of these restaurants could run you between 500 and 1200 pesos ($11 to $25 US), which sounds like a pretty wide price range, but all are equally unaffordable for your average indigent rice farmer or sidewalk cigarette-and-mint vendor. These massive food-based amusement parks have popped up all over Manila, Cebu and Davao as the aspirational middle class continue to seek out new ways to celebrate the sweet life. Or, to put it another way, they provide a helpful answer to the nagging question: “Now that I have all this money, what can I spend it on so as to avoid giving it to the poor?” Read More
In Metro Manila, there are two inevitabilities: not death and taxes, as taxes are all too frequently evaded here, but death and traffic. However, that is not to say that the soul-crushing weight of traffic is evenly distributed throughout the Metro: the road network that links together the 17 cities and municipalities of Metro Manila ranges from potholed one-way side roads plied by bicycle rickshaws to monstrous twelve-lane expressways choked with trucks, buses and shiny new SUVs, and traffic conditions can vary wildly from road to road, hour to hour, and day to day. Some general traffic trends can be discerned, as when millions of commuters travel each morning from their homes in the suburbs (mostly in the north) to the business districts of the centre, then pour back into their suburban enclaves in the evenings. Each week also brings, with grim predictability, the great and terrible Friday night exodus from the Metro, an apocalyptic spectacle wherein millions of Monday-to-Friday Manileños leave their offices and boarding houses to slowly honk their way back to the relative peace and quiet of their home provinces. But amidst all of these recurring patterns, one of the most remarkable features of Manila traffic is its sheer unpredictability. Of course, many of Manila’s impromptu traffic jams are caused by obvious factors like rain, road accidents, and naked, mentally ill men walking down the middle of busy freeways. On the other hand, other traffic flare-ups seem almost inexplicable, like the impassible midnight traffic jams I’ve found myself in at Pasay Rotonda, or total gridlock in a sleepy residential area of New Manila on a Saturday afternoon.
Given the massive socioeconomic disparities that are pervasive in Manila, it’s no surprise that one’s experience of Manila traffic can vary wildly depending on one’s level of privilege. It seems a bit silly that many people would apply the word “commuting” to both an underpaid service worker inhaling hot, toxic air while trapped inside a crowded jeepney for two interminable hours of stop-and-go honking, and to an executive being shuttled to their office by their driver inside an air-conditioned SUV equipped with pitch-black tinted windows to protect them from the unworthy eyes of the masses while they catch up on business e-mails and watch funny YouTube videos on their iPad. But still, although money may buy comfort, it cannot buy you freedom from the time-sucking daily reality of Manila traffic. The three MRT and LRT lines offer commuters a chance to soar above the gridlock, but at the price of sacrificing any basic notion of personal space, and with constant risk of getting groped or pickpocketed. The only people who can really beat the system are the lucky few with access to private helicopters – and even then, they’re still constrained by only being able to travel to locations that are equipped with helipads, which feels like an indignity all its own. Read More
After a two-week hiatus from blogging, it seems fitting to dip my toes back into the compositional world by writing something even more frivolous and unstructured than usual. And although my blog posts have been all roses and sunshine compared to the misanthropic bile I used to pump out during my angsty teen years (and let us never speak of it again), it still might be time to take a “positivity break” from all the death and guilt and pangolin poaching. Here goes!
First of all, I’m grateful that the last two typhoons that whipped by the Philippines brought thoroughly underwhelming amounts of rain and wind to Metro Manila. Although there were times that the nonstop cloud cover and slow, steady rain became oppressive in their sheer unceasingness, it was also a great time to be at home in my underwear, listening to the rain pour outside while cuddling with my extremely hydrophobic dogs. And now that the sun has come back, I can think of it as a familiar friend instead of just a cruel tyrant zapping me with UV rays against which my pasty skin is ill-equipped to defend itself. (If one of the subsequent typhoons during the current rainy season turns Metro Manila into a giant lake, I’m going to regret writing this.)
I’m grateful for lazy, sunny Sundays like this one – days when I can’t hear much outside my house except for the blowing of the wind and the constant chirping of birds, even as I potentially annoy my neighbours by blasting Scarlatti keyboard sonatas on my computer speakers. (Sorry – I hope it’s not too loud! It can’t be nearly as bad as the tone-deaf karaoke that blasts out from the house a few doors down on some weekends, anyway…) Read More
One morning last week, I woke up, washed my usual backlog of dirty dishes from the day before, and happened to glance at my hand. There on my right thumb were two small holes – one had broken skin with the red showing through, and the other was only flaking. As I tried to figure out any way that a pair of tiny round holes could be caused by anything other than two small teeth, I realized that it was time to get a rabies shot. Did my dogs get a little overzealous welcoming me home from my late-night drinking the night before? Did a rat sneak into my bedroom and bite me in my sleep? Either way, it was off to the Animal Bite Clinic for me, or there was a small but meaningful chance that I could die in one of the worst ways imaginable.
As a child growing up in Austria, or wherever, I was dimly aware of rabies as something cartoonishly scary but pretty much non-existent, like the Black Death or the Zombie Doom Virus. In the West, rabies is presented as a hilariously implausible threat in cartoons and comics, where frothy-mouthed dogs are offered to us in the spirit of animated whimsy.
Rabies is also treated as a punchline in live-action media like Fun Run, an episode of the American version of The Office. In that episode, a lot of mileage is derived from bumbling office head Michael Scott trying to organize a fundraiser for something that presents no threat to anyone, and has in any case already been cured.
After spending some time in the Philippines, it belatedly dawned on me that things aren’t so simple in much of the world. For example, such is my naivete about the state of global health that I only recently discovered that Polio is still very much a thing here and in many other countries – something that would’ve never occurred to me with all the back-patting done over its elimination in the West; ditto for leprosy. But the slowest and scarest awakening involved my realization that rabies is not a joke.
DISCLAIMER: Skip this part if you want to allow my post to develop organically, but I wanted to avoid causing any unintended offense. This post basically asks the question, “What if someone was pompous and stupid enough to believe that Jollibee is supposed to be a French fine dining restaurant?” No disrespect intended toward the Big Bee – I’ve probably eaten my weight in Chicken Joy at this point, and I really hope they’ll bring their Pastillas Sundae back one of these days. I love you Sabado, pati na rin Linggo! Hintay ka lang, Jollibee, nand’yan na ako! Anyway…
I was recently enjoying a stroll through Salcedo Village when a restaurant caught my eye: a simple-looking local establishment by the name of Jollibee. (Oops, I mean Jollibeé – when you are fluent in the language of food, as I am, diacritics are a must.) As an international gastronome (or, as coarser types would have it, a “foodie”), I am always looking for new restaurants around the world that successfully capture the immortal culinary spirit of Le Cordon Bleu, so I sauntered inside hoping for a fresh new take on foie gras.
When I entered, I admit I was a bit underwhelmed by the decor; but the logo, at least, suggested a serious culinary experience: the apian mascot is clad in a toque, or chef’s hat, presumably as a profession of unwavering devotion to the secular religion of fine French dégustation.
As I looked more closely at the menu, however, I was baffled by the lack of authentic French offerings: more hamburgers and hot dogs than bouillabaisse and rouille, as it were. I sampled their so-called “Chicken Joy”, but it proved to be typically lacking in authenticity. And in spite of its name, it certainly provided none of the joy of say, devouring an ortolan drowned alive in Armagnac.
Finally, I found a couple of dishes on the menu that had at least a whiff of the Continent about them. First up were the so-called “French” fries, or pommes frites. Of course, anyone who is not embarrassingly ignorant of culinary history knows that these are, in fact, a Belgian creation, and so I will not defile a serious review of a French restaurant by giving them any serious consideration. Next up was the Champ Burger, short for champignon, or mushroom. Perhaps I was about to experience an irreverent fusion-style take on parmentier de champignons? When the dish arrived, I bit into it with a mix of disappointment and befuddlement: on the one hand, it did not succeed in evoking even the merest hint of my earlier culinary pilgrimages in Provence; on the other hand, they seem to have found a way to make mushroom taste uncannily like ground beef – a triumph of food engineering, if not necessarily of gastronomie.
The wine selection also proved woefully inadequate: more Sprite than Syrah, so to speak. My requests to speak with their resident sommelier were met only with confusion. I left soon afterward, my stomach filled with mushroom, but my heart empty of jolliness and joy.
In the end, I must begrudgingly acknowledge Jollibeé’s efforts to make haute cuisine affordable to the masses. Unfortunately, it takes more than a French name, a toque-clad mascot, Belgian-fried potatoes and a French-in-name-only mushroom burger to embody the spirit of hundreds of years of Gallic culinary tradition. If anything, the Jollibeé dining experience ends up being more Filipino-style American fast food than French fine dining – which would be perfectly fine if that’s what they had actually been aiming for!
Of all the creatures that walk, trot, crawl, climb, slither, slink, fly or swim upon God’s greenish Earth, few can match the wicked-coolness of the pangolin. Native to Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, the eight species of pangolin are akin to eight flavours of awesomeness!
Perhaps the appeal of these little-known, little-understood creatures derives from their striking combination of cuteness and sheer weirdness: their sad little eyes and protruding snouts are offset by their monstrous claws and alien-looking scales – and in fact, they are the only mammals with scales. Wicked cool! Read More
Day 1: Around 6 PM on a Friday night, the running water gets cut off in my house. I spend the evening working at home while feeling dirty, itchy and gross, and decide to cheer myself up by going out to buy myself an unhealthy snack at the 7-11: a bottle of beer and some chicken asado siopao.
While walking to the 7-11, I notice a party taking place at a nearby house is known throughout the village for its loud, late, and frequent celebrations. I stop to ask if they have running water, and after informing me that they don’t, they insist that I join them for some beer and karaoke. Who am I to say no?
In the course of imbibing Red Horse and singing Funky Town and other super hits from the ’70s, I get to know a few of my hard-partying neighbours. One of them informs me that Maynilad, the Manila Water Company, will be doing maintenance from 6 PM to 6 AM every day for the next week. I contemplate this news while entertaining a great deal of attention from several gay men. After politely refusing the request of one man, who I had just met, to sleep over at my house, I head home to snooze off the Red Horse and the Funky Town. Sadly, water is still off.
Day 2: I wake up around 8 AM to the sound of running water inside my house. As I stand up from my bed, I immediately connect all of the pieces in my head. “Oh shit!” I say aloud, to no one in particular. Consider:
My bathroom has a faucet near the floor used for filling buckets, which is the traditional Filipino method for showering and flushing toilets (though I do have a proper shower head and a toilet with its own flush, as well).
If water is not running, it is difficult to tell when the faucet is closed – there is no increase in pressure as you move it into the “on” position, so you must memorize the positions and be very mindful of where you leave the switch.
Recently rats have begun to crawl into my house through the bathroom drain, which is connected to another drainage area in the back yard. As such, I have gone for the rather low-tech solution of covering the bathroom drain with an old pestle when I’m not using the shower.
With all of this information in my mind and the sound of running water in my ears, it only took me a few seconds to realize that I might see something very bad when I opened my bedroom door.
Sure enough, I opened the door to see my house flooded with water that had been running steadily for about two hours. It had long since overflowed from the bathroom and spread out into my guest bedroom, my living room, and all the way to the kitchen. My first thought was of my electronics, so I rushed to my surge protector on the floor and discovered that it had burnt itself out, literally caved in while immersed in a deep pool of water. I did turn off the main circuit breaker for the house, but in retrospect I can’t remember if I did this before or after I unplugged the surge protector – in other words, I could have conceivably killed myself. Since I live alone, my dogs could have eaten the face off my decomposing corpse before anyone found out.
I spent the rest of the morning trying to clean up the water without the benefit of indoor lighting. I swept into the dustpan, poured the dustpan into a bucket, and poured many buckets of very dirty floor water down the toilet. I stopped halfway through to shower off my thick coating of sweat, then resumed my sweeping. Once the water levels were low enough, I moved on to mopping. After three hours, I was done. I went to the mall to treat myself to some especially unhealthy fast food and buy a new surge protector, without yet knowing how many of my electronics I had destroyed through my recklessness – I was giving them time to dry off first.
I returned home to test my electronics. My laptop had been safely off the floor, but I had no idea if plugging it into its previously dampened power supply would fry it. Miraculously, aside from the imploded surge protector, everything worked fine. I spent the rest of my day filled in bliss and gratitude, and celebrated by cooking huge portions of pasta primavera and ginataang kalabasa’t sitaw (squash and string beans in coconut milk) with a very dear friend. We watch Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief, which is a pretty dire piece of cinema. Next time I get to pick the movie!
Days 3 & 4: I find myself fully in the groove of coping with the water cuts. They’re long, but at least they’re predictable, so I can keep my barrels and a wash basin full, do my nightly jog and shower before 6 PM, and I’m good. My knees ache a bit from hours of bent-over sweeping on the previous morning, but I still manage to get in my daily jogs. This week will be over in no time!
Day 5: On Tuesday, I am surprised to find the water cut earlier than usual, at 1 PM. I haven’t had the chance to fill my water stockpiles completely. I don’t take my dogs for an evening jog because I can’t spare the drinking water that they will so thirstily consume afterward. My shower with a pail is a bit meagre, and doesn’t quite leave me feeling clean. While walking back to the house from some errands, I notice a large announcement from Maynilad posted on the community bulletin board. I stop to read it, using my mediocre Tagalog skills, hoping to shed some light on the suddenly unpredictable schedule of water cuts. Before I can read the announcement to the end, my womanizing neighbour passes by on his motorbike and offers me a ride home. Who am I to turn down a ride from such a handsome young man? Off I go on the back of his motorbike, like so many ladies before me!
Day 6: I wake up to discover that the water has still not come back. I am forced to forego my usual morning ritual of washing the dishes that have piled up since the last water cut started. The dishes are already looking pretty funky, and I still have no sense of when the water will be turned back on. I start to really wish I had been paying more attention when my landlord showed me how to turn on the electric pump for well water, which earlier tenants used before Maynilad began providing service to our neighbourhood.
I have a work meeting in Quezon City the next morning, so I decide to make the trip up that night after traffic on EDSA dissipates, and grab a short-term hotel room – preferably one without mirrors on the ceilings. According to MMDA’s realtime reporting, northbound traffic on EDSA can be heavy until as late as 11:30 PM – Manila traffic is a topic fully worthy of its own blog post, one that will be written in due time. I get on the bus at 2 AM, which is generally not considered the safest thing to do in Manila, arrive in QC without incident, and check into a hotel, 38 hours after my last drop of running water. As soon as I enter the room, I take advantage of the running water to shave off the thickest beard I’ve ever grown. My mass of facial has achieved truly monumental proportions, partly as a protest against the lack of running water, partly because beards are in now, and partly out of sheer laziness. After I finish my shave, I have an extremely satisfying hot shower, crawl into bed, and fall fast asleep.
Day 7: I start my day in QC by reading my eBook about ExxonMobil over a leisurely McDonald’s breakfast – still my favourite breakfast in Manila! I have no difficulty making use of the free coffee refill as I learn about ExxonMobil’s devious struggle against Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan government. From there I proceed to my meeting, which is pleasant and productive. My colleague suggests that I can check at the Barangay Hall to find out if Maynilad is distributing emergency water supplies to its customers.
On the way home to Muntinlupa, it starts raining hard. I stop to pay a bill at a pawn shop nearby (because you can do pretty much everything at pawn shops in the Philippines), and the cashier cheerfully informs me that the water came briefly in the morning, but is now gone again. In other words, when I get home I can expect a full toilet and nothing else. The rain is too intense for me to visit the community bulletin board, so I take a tricycle straight home. I still get soaked on the way, but am sadly unable to squeeze any of it out into my toilet or wash basin.
I do, however, get a true royal welcome from my dogs. They rush out into the rain to greet me, yelping with joy. The house is still filthy, my dishes are still covered with two-day-old toothpaste, I now smell like wet dog (though that part is admittedly kinda cute), and there is nothing I can do about it. I make an urgent trip to the bathroom and waste about ten litres of filtered drinking by dumping it into the toilet bowl to flush down the contents. In my misguided efforts at rationing this relatively expensive water, I repeatedly underestimate the amount that must be dumped into the toilet, thereby causing me to use even more in the end. As I consider the monetary value of that single toilet flush, I feel very decadent indeed – this must be what The Good Life is. Nonetheless, I do not look forward to a Day 8.
Ever since my days as a pretentious teenage jackass, I have flirted with Buddhism as a useful set of guidelines for daily life. But recently, as the happy-go-lucky hedonism of my 20s has fallen victim to diminishing returns, and as my old mechanisms for self-distraction seem to grow creakier, I’ve returned to Buddha’s teachings more seriously – if not as a full-fledged religious creed, then at least as something deserving of my sustained attention.
For a time, I was far too caught up in life’s many wonderful distractions to really see the appeal in a religion that, at least in some of its grimmer variants, essentially teaches us that everything in life is terrible. But as I’ve achieved many of the modest goals of my youth – having the freedom to work where and when I choose, a modest degree of financial independence and security, a home I can be happy with and the company of good people – I’ve begun to find myself slipping backwards on the hedonic treadmill. I am now presented with two choices: either redouble my old efforts to keep on hitting the fast-moving, constantly zigzagging target of happiness; or, go for an entirely new approach.
And constantly hitting that target can be a tremendously tiring endeavour. It’s not easy to generate endless new variations on The Good Life that will provide fresh new experiences while still fitting within one’s delicate personal balance of new experiences and comforting familiarity, of challenge and of leisure, of fresh internal and external validation. And as each carefully calibrated combination begins to get dragged down by diminishing returns, we have to work even harder to find something new that still manages to meet our precise needs.
In the end, it’s exhausting – Whenever I have a home, I want to move out of it and travel for months on end; whenever I’m traveling, I want to have a home – and so on, and so on. Oh, and I also need to be loved at all times, and to have this love visibly and constantly expressed. See? Exhausting!
Here in the Philippines, where people seem so grounded when compared to the existential angst-ridden cultures of the west, a life filled with simple pleasures and the validation of one’s peers does seem pretty persuasive at first. When I would see how incredibly happy people here seem to be while sharing a meal with friends or family, it’s tempting to believe that you don’t need anything more. And for about a decade of my life, my experiences told me that having fun and being loved and esteemed really was enough.
That may, in fact, be true in a culture where people are so deeply interconnected with their families and social circles, and where most individuals are still heavily occupied with meeting their basic needs outside these moments of bonding and togetherness. So perhaps the staleness and diminishing returns that have set in are not due to some universal attribute of the human psyche, but are the result of my being raised in a culture that teaches constant dissatisfaction – with your possessions, with your body, and even with your own level of happiness. An economic system whose entire survival depends on convincing people who already have everything that they don’t yet have enough probably doesn’t help, either. (Although, as I wrote previously, Filipinos unfortunately seem to be increasingly falling sway to the culture of dissatisfaction, as well – I suppose that’s what you would call progress.)
On the other hand, this dissatisfaction with life’s fleeting pleasures is apparently embedded deep enough in the human condition that it was also experienced by a restless prince named Gotama about 2500 years ago in India. So, maybe there’s really something there.
The advantages of ridding ourselves of all this restlessness, and of our insatiable desires for new experiences and for constant validation, are fairly self-evident. The single-minded focus on fulfilling these desires takes a toxic toll on the psyche, on the environment, and on our fellow human beings, who we use as means toward these paper-thin ends, rather than as ends unto themselves. Perhaps we’re spewing out megatons of CO2 on our way to next international adventure to compensate for the staleness of our daily lives. Maybe we’re dressing up in shiny clothes sewn by Bangladeshi child slaves in order to earn the esteem of our peers, then discarding the clothes once they fall out of fashion. No matter how we pursue these cravings, a colossal amount of waste and suffering are the result.
As I felt this restlessness grow inside me, I began to voraciously consume Buddhist scripture. The more I read it, the more I realized there was something meaningful to be found – something I had never been able to fully appreciate before, either because of the point I was previously at in my life, or because it was too hard for me to separate the power of the Buddha’s teachings from the undeniable flakiness of many of his followers.
One of my favourite things about Buddhism is its approach to morality. Most religions express their morality in terms of our actions or thoughts being just or unjust in the eyes of a higher power. We may act justly to avoid punishment in the afterlife, or we may act justly because we wish to win the love and the approval of a creator. We may even act justly simply because it is the right thing to do, although this sadly doesn’t seem to be as strong a determinant in many people’s ethical decisions as we might hope: witness the convictions of many religious that anyone without faith is bound to become a murderous psychopath.
Buddhism looks at morality from a somewhat different light. The most famous teaching is, of course, karma, the universal law of morality that causes all moral actions to have consequences in this life and the next – not due to some vengeful deity, but merely as a result of the underlying structure of the universe. I don’t believe in reincarnation, and the world contains plenty of very bad people living extremely well, so I can’t accept the idea of karma in the narrow sense that most people understand it.
However, my own experience teaches me that our actions do shape our psyche in the long term, for better or for worse – in the end, we are what we do. Many of the bad decisions I’ve made in my life have the inside of my head a worse place to be, although some of my bad decisions have eventually led to wake-up calls which have, in turn, helped to clear away at least a bit of the spiritual rot. Perhaps karma’s mechanisms of cause and effect are more complex than we can imagine – I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my sins will cause me to be reborn as a slug, though. (And after all, how does a slug make moral decisions that will eventually help him to be reborn as a human being?)
But for me, the teachings on karma are still not as important as the division of actions into the skillful and unskillful, something that is especially important in Theravada Buddhism. I can’t say I understand the different schools of Buddhism perfectly, but I can at least grasp the broad division into Theravada, which focuses more on meditation and personal enlightenment for a select few “spiritual athletes”, and Mahayana, a more inclusive view that focuses on universal compassion, uplifting the masses and guiding them in their daily lives. I hope I am not revealing my snobbery too blatantly when I say that I skew more toward the Theravada school. I guess that’s because I have a lot more difficulty loving other human beings than I do loving my dogs, but I can certainly grasp the idea that hurting other beings for the sake of my temporary gratification is an unskillful way to live. In other words, it’s not only wrong just because it’s wrong (which I’d like to think is the case, though I’m not sure if that’s true in any objective sense); it’s not only wrong because the laws of karma will react against our bad actions (which I only accept in a narrowly non-religious sense); it’s wrong because it shows a lack of skill.
Using other living beings to temporarily satisfy our cravings and provide us with small scraps of fleeting, non-sustainable happiness is simply unskillful, especially when the alternative would be a self-generating, unlimited source of joy. A form of happiness that does not rely on other beings and their pain, and does not depend upon the delusions of constant novelty, shallow gratification and external validation would be stronger, more self-sufficient, more sustainable – more skillful. And although I would recoil at the idea of someone judging me as a just plain bad person, it would be hard to argue with the judgment that I should pursue my happiness in a more skillful way. And – here’s the most appealing part for a borderline narcissist like myself – skill is not something that must be gained by surrendering yourself to a higher power. Skill is something that can be created through extreme internal effort and discipline. In a way, Buddhism tells us that overcoming one’s egoism requires the sheer arrogance of believing that such a thing can be achieved by one’s effort alone (albeit perhaps with the help of a teacher).
The problem is, the pursuit of new experiences and the satiation of the ego are such all-encompassing occupations in most people’s lives that it’s hard to say what’s even left if we take them away. I think that’s one thing that makes Buddhism so daunting, and has made it so much harder to digest than religions that basically promise worldly pleasures magnified many times over in the afterlife. With so many of the world’s religious people taking solace in the idea that they’ll be reunited with their dead relatives in the afterlife, what are we to do with a religion that tells us that even wishing to see a lost loved one again is an unacceptable form of craving?
There are no easy answers, and sometimes I feel like my early forays into the Buddha’s teachings have left me more confused than ever. What I can say at this point is that what I’ve read and lived so far has given me a clearer framework for viewing my life and for assessing my growth as a human being. So far it’s been a lot less fun than the earlier hedonistic phase of my life, but I’m willing to accept it on faith (there’s that word!) that this process of soul-searching will eventually lead to more skillful sources of happiness than the ones I’ve drawn upon in the past. If nothing else, it has certainly given me a greater sense of focus and purpose amidst all of life’s colourful distractions.
For more on my circuitous journey, look for upcoming blog posts that will probably have titles like The Ego Kills Everything, so Kill the Ego and Searching for the Gap.
And finally, while on the topic of skills, here is a closing song upon which to meditate: