The Late Night Buddhist: Don’t Put Descartes Before the Horse

By Scott Taylor
Reader Columnist

French philosopher Rene Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” (Actually, he probably said “Je pense, donc je suis,” unless he made a habit of spitting out philosophical quotes in foreign languages) He offered this statement as his answer to the age-old human question of existence in a real world vs. an imagined one. I can remember when, in a college philosophy course exam, we were given a blue book full of blank pages and the prompt, “Prove you exist.” That was it. And of course, you couldn’t take the easy way out and simply quote Descartes, you had to develop and elaborate on your own thoughts. I also remember much gnashing of teeth, furrowing of brows and the smell of burning neurons being pushed to their limits.

So thinking and thoughts are very much a part of what makes us human. But they can also be dangerous to our well being, a stumbling block on our path of happiness. We are our thoughts. If we genuinely think ourselves to be happy, we are. If we genuinely think life is an amazing, wondrous journey, it will be. And if we genuinely think the world is out to get us, then that becomes our reality. 

In Buddhist lore, there is the story of a traveler who, after days of walking, comes upon the gates to a city. Knocking on the door, he’s greeted by a gatekeeper:

“Hello. May I help you?”

“I hope so. I’ve trudged across many miles searching for a place to call home; a place where I can be happy and get along with the people around me.”

“I see. And how did you find the people in the place from which you came?”

“They were a surly lot; disagreeable, rude, and unfriendly. I didn’t stay long.”

“Ah. And what of the place before that?”

“A den of thieves, liars, and beggars. A place of no moral fiber, where a man of my sensibilities should never have to endure.”

“Well sir, I’m afraid you’ll find this place to be the same. Probably best for you to move on.”

Later that night another traveler knocked at the gates:

“Hello. May I help you?”

“I hope so. I’ve traveled many miles searching for a place to call home. I enjoy visiting different villages and meeting the people, but I’ve yet to find a place I want to stay.”

“I see. And how did you find the people in the place from which you came?”

“Wonderful! They were friendly and agreeable, and treated me nicely.”

“Ah. And what of the place before that?”

“A splendid lot of dancers, artists and acrobats! Wildly entertaining and fun!”

“Well sir, I believe you’ll find the people here to be the same. Welcome!”

We need to realize that we don’t gain happiness after or because of a positive, pleasurable experience; we have positive, pleasurable experiences because we have positive, happy thoughts. So read philosophy if you must, wander if you choose, and remember what Descartes would have said, had he studied Buddhism: “Nous sommes nos pensées!” And be happy!

Scott is an ex-teacher and current artist/writer/musician with an affinity for beauty, peacefulness and late-night Nutella on apples.

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