By Alex Chong Do Thompson
You wake up with a start and realize that you aren’t in your bedroom.
In fact, you have no idea where you are. Your heart starts pounding in your chest, and you feel dizzy as you look around the room. It’s a prison cell; you’re lying on a bare mattress in the corner. As you look out the bars of your cell, you see people dressed in orange jumpsuits walking around in a courtyard; they seem confused. You walk out into the courtyard and begin speaking with some of them.
You quickly realize that no one knows how they got here or what is waiting outside of the prison, but everyone agrees that they need to escape!
You spend the next several months working to find a way out of the prison. You test the doors, try climbing over the walls, take turns throwing furniture against the windows hoping that they can be broken. It doesn’t work. You’re trapped and there’s no…way… out.
Eventually, you all come to terms with the fact that you’re going to be there for a while. Everyone slowly begins going about their lives the best they can. Unsure of how you want to live in this place, you sit under a tree and observe the other prisoners. Over the course of six days, you watch silently as people engage in various actions and you take note of the consequences of those actions.
Some people lie, cheat and steal. Some even commit murder believing that such actions will bring them happiness, but it doesn’t work. Their actions always come back to them in the form of karma, which cancels out any short-term pleasure that they may receive. The liars are not trusted, the cheaters and thieves live in fear of getting caught, and the murderers are either wracked with guilt or eventually killed themselves. Their actions only serve to make life in prison harder on others which in turn makes life harder on themselves.
On the other hand, you notice people who treat their fellow inmates with kindness and respect. To be sure, their lives still have some suffering in them—they’re in prison after all—but it would appear that the people who treat others with kindness tend to be treated with kindness in return. Also, you notice that when they help others, other people tend to be willing to help them. But even when they aren’t rewarded for their good deeds, they take satisfaction in living in the world without causing harm. Even when they lose, they win.
Slowly, ideas begin to form in your head. The liars, cheaters and thieves do what they do because they’re trapped in a mind of desire. They want something, and they want it so badly that they’re willing to hurt themselves and others in order to get it. “Suffering is caused by desire,” you mumble to yourself as the neurons continue firing in your head.
In contrast, you look at the people who treat their fellow inmates well, and you notice something surprising: they have desires just like the liars, cheaters, and thieves; the only difference is that they mitigate those desires with a rational view of the consequences of their actions. They understand that their happiness is tied to the happiness of the people around them, and they act accordingly. This allows them to live their lives in a way that minimizes suffering while maximizing happiness in any given moment. You call this way of life the Eightfold Path in order to keep it straight in your head.
Excitement grows in your chest as all of these ideas begin to coalesce into a moral code that you can live by. Eventually, you’re able to distill your thoughts into four lines:
Prison is filled with suffering
Suffering is caused by desire
The way to end suffering is to end desire
The way to end desire is the Eightfold Path
You smile as you recite these Noble Truths in your head over and over again like a mantra. It’s all so simple! You’re stuck in this place, along with all of the other inmates, and there’s no way out. So why wouldn’t you try to make life in here as good as it can possibly be? And if your happiness is inextricably tied to others, it only makes sense to take care of others in the same way that you take care of yourself.
From what you’ve seen, the best way to do that is by learning to control your desires and following the Eightfold Path.
Quickly, you stand up from underneath the tree and brush yourself off. Walking back into the courtyard you wave at four of your friends and start moving in their direction.
You can’t wait to tell them what you’ve learned.
Editor: Dana Gornall & John Author