Youth in focus: Lam, here’s my question: My life never goes smoothly. I don’t have big problems like a major sickness or an abusive husband, but somehow things never go right. There is always a problem and I never feel satisfied. What can I do?

Dissatisfied, Thimphu  

Welcome to samsara (khorwa). Well, I’m going to give a very standard Buddhist reply to your question. In reality, your sense of dissatisfaction is not caused by problems in your life, but through lack of acceptance on how things really are. Basically, everything in the universe is compounded (made up of other things) and so are unreal and temporary. Like a rainbow or a mirage, we can see things around us, and in other cases also hear and touch them. However, if we closely examine these things we will find that they don’t actually exist. Furthermore, once the conditions that created them (water, heat, light, etc. in the case of a rainbow or mirage) disperse, they will disappear like phantoms in a dream.

Ok, I hear you saying, I can understand that this is true for a rainbow or mirage, but what about something solid like the newspaper I’m holding or even my own body? Well, it is the same. The K2 that you are holding is made from paper. In turn, paper came from wood, which came from a tree that grew due to a seed’s interaction with rain, sunlight and nutrition from soil. Our body is likewise composed of many elements. And, like a rainbow or mirage, the paper and our body will transform and its present form will disappear once the compounds that bind them together disperse.

So, how does this subject relate to your question? Well, we are all fooled into thinking that everything is solid and so we have expectations that they will last forever or at least for a long time. Feelings of dissatisfaction come when they do not. Cars, property, relationships are all compounded and so, in reality, no more real than a mirage, rainbow or the K2 that you are reading. That is why they never bring us anything more than fleeting pleasure. However, because we fail to understand this fact, we tend to act like a man who crawls to a mirage to seek water, but fails to investigate the mirage when he finds none. Instead, he just crawls to the next mirage and then the next. Consequently, his life is unsatisfactory and marked by disappointment.

Basically, you have to give up the idea that a new car, property or relationships can bring lasting joy. So, does that mean that we should not have relationships and never buy new things? No, but we need to approach them with right understanding. The guy in the desert did not suffer because of the mirage, but because he expected the mirage to provide him with water and quench his thirst. When it did not, he felt frustrated and unsatisfied.

The important message here is not to expect happiness from material things. Basically, you should do your job and your duty well, but without expectations. When the Buddha encouraged us not to get attached to material things or relationships, he was not trying to be a killjoy, but pointing out reality with the aim of liberating us from suffering and its causes.

Therefore, with respect to your question, it is not your life that is causing you to feel dissatisfied, but your lack of understanding of how things function. Of course, this is not to say that we should accept injustice just because everything is compounded and impermanent. Definitely, domestic violence, cheating partners or cruelty to others etc. needs resolute and immediate responses. At the same time, we should understand that relationships and material things couldn’t give us lasting satisfaction.

With regard to how we deal with the world, perhaps this example will help. When the sun shines and it is warm, we enjoy our time outdoors. Yet, we know that the weather will not last, and rain may come the next day and the temperature will drop. When this occurs, we prepare an umbrella and wear warmer clothes. We don’t get angry at the weather, but instead calmly accept that change is the nature of weather. Basically, we respond appropriately to the conditions, while accepting that everything will change and disappear. In this respect, everything we do in life should be infused by the wisdom of how the universe functions. If you can do this, you will exchange dissatisfaction and frustration with understanding and acceptance.

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes.

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