I bought a compilation of Buddhist writings.  I was struck by one of the pictures in the book.  It was a Chinese village and the villagers, busy executing various activities, looked like cardboard cut-outs.

A man was hammering horse-shoes and another selling some kind of merchandise.  There was a woman selling fish and a man taking care of cows.  Crude houses and trees were interspersed amongst the busy villagers.  The village was a microcosm of society; and the villagers were dutifully playing their roles.  Looking at the picture, I realized that everyone is engaged in some kind of work and that the particular work we do in this world bind us to it.  We work for results – money, shelter, prestige – and the fruits of our work manifest as karma.  A musician, for example, is forced by the laws of nature to play music.  That is unavoidable.

There was something pathetic about the figures in the picture, who were so  – whose inextricably linked to what they did, as if their activities defined who they were.  They were doomed.  Doomed to act out the scripts of their lives in a fatalistic, archetypal, mechanical way.  Like seals at the aquarium.  Paul liked to quote the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau:  ‘Man is free, yet everywhere he is bound by chains’.  It’s the same for us, I thought.  We are just like these villagers.  We are stuck in the wheel of Samsara.

Why are we stuck in this vicious cycle of working, life after life, for the sake of working?  The picture offered no answer.  I might has well have been looking at Hieronymous Bosch’s depictions of hell.  Nothing made sense.  The sadness of living and dying, like a puppet, with no sense of a purpose beyond essentially meaningless activity disturbed me.  My unconscious perception of the suffering of this world was opening like a flower, becoming conscious.  Knowledge was a loss of innocence in a sense.  Ignorance, as they say, is a poor man’s friend.  I felt trapped, like Aeneas,in a deathly Underworld.  I also identified with Goethe’s Werther who at one point in The Sorrows of Werther exclaims, ‘This whole world is a prison.  Who has thrown away the key?’

Buddhism offers a balanced way of living – the ‘middle way’.  Buddhist teachings offer a fine code of ethics and morality.  I admired the fact that many strict Buddhists, including Lord Buddha himself, were vegetarian.  The fact that Buddhist writings hardly mentioned the existence of the soul or God, however, made me feel uneasy.  The goal of Buddhism – Nirvana – meant the extinction of personality and individuality.   I could not accept this.  I must exist.  How could I not exist?  It was only my conditioning I was uncomfortable with, not my intrinsic sense of self.  Surely I could change? Surely I could become a better person. I wanted to know who I was in an unconditioned sense.  I gravitated more to the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita which offered the same rarefied ethics of Buddhism, yet affirmed the existence of the soul and the soul’s unique individuality.  Even the pathetic villagers, bitten by routine, could be imbued with a sense of purpose if they were connected to Divinity in a personal, sentient way.