“Life is a carnival,” sang The Band on a recording from their 4th album that featured horn arrangements by the great New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint. “Life is a carnival — believe it or not.”
Deep inside, I am a believer. So was the Buddha, and he said so.
Not in those words, of course. Actually, in his first dharma talk, the Buddha said that life is very un-carnival like, that life is suffering (dukkha). The first of the Four Noble Truths. With the other Truths, he said suffering has a cause, there is freedom from suffering, and then he laid out a path to obtain that freedom. Now, assuming that Buddha understood non-duality, and I think we can, then it is fair to say that he was implying that life is also not-suffering. It’s a bit of a stretch to get to the carnival bit, but I’m using that as a synonym for happiness, joy, and not-suffering.
This first discourse of the Buddha is found in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (“Wheel of Dhamma”). In this text, he calls the search for worldly pleasures, the Ignoble Quest, and naturally, the opposite of that is the Noble Quest. The sutta talks about “the renunciation of the Bodhisattva,” which in this case refers to Gautama before he became Buddha. The sutta says, “it occurred to the Buddha to renounce worldly life, and become a recluse.” Which he did, practicing extreme austerities, yet we know from this same text that that he came to realize that it was better to avoid extremes, whether it be severe austerity or indulgence in sensual pleasure. This became his Middle Way, the path between extremes.
Still, the Buddha and his bhikkhus lived what we would regard today as a rather austere life. That was another time and it’s not realistic to think that we must fare on the Way exactly as they did 2500 years ago. Besides, there is a deeper understanding of renunciation to consider.
I once heard the Dalai Lama say, “True renunciation is a state of mind. It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.” Suffering, too, is largely a state of mind. When we recognize the inevitability of suffering, when we know that suffering is sometimes necessary, that in the long run the experience of suffering can contribute our growth and overall well being, that’s when we can truly transcend it. Not an easy task, at least I haven’t always found it easy. True renunciation is overthrowing the state of mind that acquiesces under the domination of suffering. It’s the inner revolution where we topple one state of mind and replace it with another, the liberated state of mind.
One who is free from the sufferings of existence, which are fixed in graspingness, is said to be liberated, and attains through infinite, immeasurable, countless ways, worldly and transcendental, showers of happiness and bliss.”
The kind of happiness I’m talking about is not a temporary or limited happiness, but one that is deep and lasting. “Life is a carnival” doesn’t mean to view our existence as some sort of traveling amusement show. At the same time, it seems that there are many people in this world who see their life as a painful austerity that must be endured, and that is the crux of the malaise we call dukkha or suffering.
Speaking of carnivals (how’s this for a segue?), tomorrow in New Orleans life will be a carnival, with a capital C. Yep, it’s Mardi Gras once again. Or, Fat Tuesday, the day that immediately precedes Lent, for Catholics that annual season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter. Since Catholics are expected to give something up for Lent, they decided to have one last day-long orgy of hedonism.
It’s good to give something up every so often, but it’s good to have some fun, too. Here’s an opportunity to get in the carnival state of mind New Orleans style, with one of my favorite Mardi Gras songs as performed by Al “Carnival Time” Johnson: