In Buddhist cosmology one can be born into many realms depending on their karma. For example, someone with a bad temper might be reborn as an animal, stripped of their intellect, and forced to live on instinct.
Or a thief may be reborn as a hungry ghost; constantly eating but never feeling full.
On the other end of the spectrum we have the god realms. Life is actually really good in those places. Everyone is healthy and happy with plenty of food. One would think that being reborn in a god realm would be cause for celebration, but this isn't the case.
In fact, traditional Buddhist thought states that gods are to be pitied. Their lives are so good that they've lost all motivation to practice. As a result, they'll never escape the cycle of suffering.
Sometimes, I think the United States is a Buddhist god realm.
That might seem like an exaggeration, but anyone who has traveled outside of the developed world can attest to just how easy our lives are in this country.
Case in point, the heat in my apartment is clicking on at regular intervals, keeping my apartment at a balmy 72 degrees. The cat is curled up in the corner sleeping peacefully, and I can see countless city lights blinking outside my window. Life is good.
Maybe it's too good. Maybe life in America is so good that American Buddhists have lost their motivation to practice.
How else can we explain the endless string of excuses that we have for neglecting our training. We don't meditate at home because we're busy. We don't visit the Zen center because it's too far away. We don't keep the precepts because... we don't want too.
We have endless sensual pleasures at our finger tips ranging from reality TV to fast cars. And while these things will never provide a true escape from suffering, they serve as a temporary respite until a bigger, better option can be found.
The end result is that we run on what psychologists call the Hedonic Treadmill; chasing after a happiness that's always just out of reach.
Sadly, the longer we live this way, the harder it becomes to stop.
We become convinced that once the "right" people hold political office or our work situation becomes more stable, THEN we'll be able to focus on training.
But that's a backwards way of thinking. It hinges on the idea that contentment can be found through voting or speaking with a job recruiter. Pleasure can certainly be found this way. But long-term happiness isn't tied to a simple change in circumstance.
That's why disappointment with the social or political sphere should drive us TOWARDS our cushion. It should be fuel that encourages us to practice with greater urgency.
We should sit longer, chant more fervently, and practice greater non attachment as we realize that even in the midst our good fortune (e.g. indoor plumbing, supermarkets, internet, etc.) we can't escape suffering through conventional means.
Instead, we must turn away from worldly distractions, and walk the path Buddha laid out for us 2,600 years ago. This isn't always easy, and there are many pitfalls along the way. But if we discipline ourselves to the task, each day will bring us closer to awakening.
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