Life Sucks, Then We Die: Education and Transformation

Life Sucks, Then We Die: Education and Transformation

Getty/Bohdan Skrypnyk

Paul Sutherland has days when he feels like life sucks and then we die, but he works to transform those negative emotions into positive, virtuous actions.

Years ago, Spirituality & Health queried our readers about what they wanted. Transformation was the common answer. A simple word like transformation attracts a lot of nuanced definitions. When I went deeper into this idea of transformation with my meditation group, the conversations bounced around a number of themes and ideas. What did our readers want to transform anyway? Themselves? The world? Others?

And those questions led us to the big question: Why? Then the conversation moved on to changing consciousness, happiness, enlightenment, not feeling depressed, living a life with meaning and purpose.

Most people in the meditation group were financially okay, well-read, thoughtful, and self-aware. Eight thousand miles away, when my family and I lived in Uganda as part of my work for Utopia Foundation, I asked people what they wanted. The consistent answer was education, mostly education for their children. The adults seemed to feel that upgrading their own skills through education was a ship that had already sailed, but for their children they saw education as the way out.

Education is the groundwork that causes transformation. Education for the sake of results means practicing and applying what we learn. Education that is for transformation and not just entertainment requires practice. It takes work and commitment and can be challenging. Education requires us to let go of naïve beliefs, to explore, to inquire, to question everything, to be humble and innocent, but mostly to do the scariest thing we can do: Change.

Thomas H. Huxley wrote, “The most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the things you have to do, when they ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly.”

My Buddhist education guides me to anchor on a few truths. Paramount among them is that we can do something about our suffering, our lack of purpose, our often crummy relationship with the world.

Spoiler alert for budding Buddhists wishing to use the Buddha’s teachings as part of their transformation journey. There is more religious text written from the Buddhist view that any other religion. Add to that: One main Buddhist training, on emptiness, takes 28 years. Buddhism is not for those who want to put their feet up and drop out.

I got wind of this need for exhaustive commitment to education years ago when I was invited to hang out with Tibetan Americans and Tibetan refugees who were called to a training with the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. I was assigned to read before the event a 640-page, 1-pound-9-ounce book with an inviting title but dense content (at least for me), Joyful Path of Good Fortune: The Complete Buddhist Path to Enlightenment, by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

For S&H readers who don’t want to read through 640 pages, the essence of this Buddhist education thesis is on page 438: “Since compassion is the cause of enlightenment, you can be sure that our practice of taking [i.e., suffering and what separates us and others from happiness] creates the cause for us to become enlightened and thereby fully capable of helping others to find freedom from their suffering [i.e.,happiness].” The goal of a Buddhist education or practice is to reach enlightenment so we can help bring others across the bridge to a happy life. Enlightenment is about wholeness—an engaged connection that simultaneously radiates physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual oneness. Simply loving compassion.

A quick Google search of what employers want most from employees yields qualities like teamwork skills, coachability, cooperative skills, the ability to problem solve and find solutions, good written and verbal communication, and a strong work ethic, among others. Google what people want in relationships and you get respect, integrity, compromise, enthusiasm, a happy disposition, encouragement, affection, commitment, and attributes having to do with emotional, relationship, and cooperative intelligence.

Transformation requires that we learn those behaviors and exhibit those virtues mentioned above to be effective at life, helping to free us from being bogged down by indifference, apathy, sloth, and laziness. Master Gyatso’s 640 pages are not titled Life Sucks, Then We Die! Joy and good fortune are right there in the title.

Let’s think about happiness. Here are a few questions: Do you want to work for a happy or unhappy boss? If you are a boss, do you want to hire a happy or unhappy person? If your child is getting married, do you want them to marry a happy or unhappy person? Do you want happy friends? From Kampala to Toronto to Michigan, when I have asked happiness questions, I am happy to say that I have never gotten anything but “happy” as the answer.

There have been many studies of happiness; happiness has almost become a movement now among therapists, some educators, life coaches, yoga teachers, and mental health professionals. My mom, an expert on everything, says, “Happiness is the relaxed enjoyment of life.” Buddha said, “There is no path to happiness; happiness is the path.” I think each of us will have our own definition that is somewhere between Mom’s and Buddha’s.

Transformation, happiness, enlightenment are not destinations that we arrive at where we can suddenly quit our practice. The last evening of the training with the Dalai Lama was opened to the public. When question time came, a young man asked Tenzin Gyatso if he was enlightened.

His Holiness looked at his interpreter in a perplexed way as the question became clear. He then smiled in the way he is so known for and burst into all-consuming laughter. When he was composed he got serious, but he was still smiling when he said, “If I look off into the distance, I think I can see the beginning of the road to enlightenment.”

Life Sucks Then We Die Education and Transformation

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