My previous post examined the problems that led me to move away from utilitarianism, including its Rawlsian variant. Happily, I also found solutions.
While working at the UN in Bangkok, I spent a lot of time at Thai Buddhist temples, because I thought they were the most beautiful places I’d ever seen – such incredible feasts of colour. I didn’t just go to the biggest and glitziest, the main tourist attractions; as an urban geographer I wanted to explore the city, and I kept heading to temples way off the beaten track. This attracted a lot of curiosity from monks who rarely saw foreigners, so I had a lot of conversations with monks – people who, having started with very little, chose to have even less. I got fascinated by Buddhism – both from my encounters with monks, and from the idea of a nontheistic religion. So I kept heading back to the used bookstores on Khao San Road, devouring whatever I could find about Buddhism – finding the likes of Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught.
But Buddhism hadn’t yet made a difference in my life, while I was working in Bangkok. That would come later, as I travelled through Laos and upcountry Thailand, keeping philosophical journals as I went.
In my journals, I came to reflect on the fact of my own dissatisfaction. In my times at McGill I had felt very unhappy because I lacked a good job and a girlfriend. In Bangkok I had a girlfriend, but the relationship made me even more unhappy. I also had a well paying job opportunity that many would envy, but in an environment so charged with politicking that I couldn’t wait to get out. Finally, of course, the job did end, and I had the chance I’d been waiting for, to travel for fun upcountry. But I was lonely, travelling all by myself; what I wanted was some people to talk to. Then I met some Thai people at a guesthouse who wanted to talk, but they didn’t speak much English so the conversation was limited. So I wanted to find some fellow foreigners to talk to in English – and I did, but I didn’t like them very much.
I took some stock of this situation in my journals. These events sounded to me like some sort of Buddhist parable; I just wished I could figure out what the point was. But eventually I did. I thought especially of the Second Noble Truth from the Pali suttas, that suffering comes from craving. Maybe, I thought, the problem isn’t with me not getting the things I want. Maybe the problem is with me. At age 21, especially for someone who’d grown up frequently being treated as if he was the smartest person on the planet, that’s the kind of realization that can change your world. It did change mine.
And yet, all the Western philosophy that I’d learned before didn’t just go away. I’d learned important, powerful, beautiful things that seemed true – and often seemed opposite to the Buddhism I’d found myself in. Is there a way to reconcile the two? One way or another, that question has been central to my life ever since.