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I have only an informal understanding of Buddhism, so please excuse the informal language used in this question. My intent is to understand Buddhism better, and I welcome any answers or resources that will help me do that.

Being present is focusing on the here and now, because that is all you ever have. Not striving to feel differently, just accepting and observing what is. It is my understanding that this mindset helps do away with the suffering that comes from an over fixation on striving. In other words dropping the expectation that if only this one aspect of life was different or you had a little bit more money you would be happy. Unless your circumstances are truly dire and your basic human needs are not being met, striving for a change in life is a recipe for always wanting more and not being satisfied. This seems to be consistent with the concept of hedonic adaptation.

It is my understanding that part of accepting the present and non-striving is believing that every road has an end. Every career path chosen, every hobby taken up, every life decision made will ultimately come to an end in one way or another, and there you will be on the other side still only having the present moment. This is a deeply depressing mindset to me. Viewed through this lens, what is the point of doing anything? Why strive for an experience or accomplishment when it is fleetingly temporary?

There seems to be some critical components missing from my understanding of these aspects of Buddhism. What am I missing?

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Non-striving can devolve to dullness, laziness and unhappiness:

AN8.80:1.5: ‘I have some work to do. But while doing it my body will get tired. I’d better have a lie down.’
AN8.80:1.6: They lie down, and don’t rouse energy for attaining the unattained, achieving the unachieved, and realizing the unrealized.
AN8.80:1.7: This is the first ground for laziness.

The Buddha recommends otherwise.

AN8.80:9.5: ‘I have some work to do. While working it’s not easy to focus on the instructions of the Buddhas. I’d better preemptively rouse up energy for attaining the unattained, achieving the unachieved, and realizing the unrealized.’
AN8.80:9.6: They rouse energy for attaining the unattained, achieving the unachieved, and realizing the unrealized.
AN8.80:9.7: This is the first ground for arousing energy.

So if the Buddha doesn't recommend non-striving, what does the Buddha teach? The Buddha teaches us to strive carefully, skillfully and diligently.

AN2.5:1.1: “Mendicants, I have learned these two things for myself—
AN2.5:1.2: to never be content with skillful qualities, and to never stop trying.
AN2.5:1.3: I never stopped trying, thinking:
AN2.5:1.4: ‘Gladly, let only skin, sinews, and bones remain! Let the flesh and blood waste away in my body! I will not stop trying until I have achieved what is possible by human strength, energy, and vigor.’
AN2.5:1.5: It was by diligence that I achieved awakening, and by diligence that I achieved the supreme sanctuary.

What then is this skillful striving that leads to contentment without wishes?

Well, it starts with ethics:

MN8:12.1: Now, Cunda, you should work on self-effacement in each of the following ways.
MN8:12.2: ‘Others will be cruel, but here we will not be cruel.’
MN8:12.3: ‘Others will kill living creatures, but here we will not kill living creatures.’
MN8:12.4: ‘Others will steal, but here we will not steal.’
MN8:12.5: ‘Others will be unchaste, but here we will not be unchaste.’
MN8:12.6: ‘Others will lie, but here we will not lie.’
MN8:12.7: ‘Others will speak divisively, but here we will not speak divisively.’
MN8:12.8: ‘Others will speak harshly, but here we will not speak harshly.’
MN8:12.9: ‘Others will talk nonsense, but here we will not talk nonsense.’
MN8:12.10: ‘Others will be covetous, but here we will not be covetous.’
...

It is indeed depressing to strive for self-centered goals. There is no lasting happiness there. But it is the "self" that is suspect, not the striving. So strive for the "win-win" and happiness for all:

AN4.95:3.3: But the person who practices to benefit both themselves and others is the foremost, best, chief, highest, and finest of the four.

That's a start, but there is much more to explore. Welcome to Buddhism!

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  • 1
    I enjoy the way you compound sutta excerpts like this. Simple and striking.
    – Max
    Sep 20 at 15:50
  • 1
    Happily, the Buddha's teachings are indeed simple and striking.
    – OyaMist
    Sep 20 at 16:07
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You are confusing what is with what may be. We all suffer when we refuse to accept what is the case right now. We suffer because you can’t change the present. In Buddhism there are lots of forward-looking activities directed toward desired goals. Prayers, mantras, even meditation, for example, all are directed to becoming a better person and to help oneself and others escape suffering. It is often said by confused people, who haven’t made the effort to study the Buddha’s wisdom, or haven’t understood it—even sometimes those who call themselves Buddhists—that any desire is a bad thing, but this is not Buddhism. If it were, why pray, why meditate, why make the intent and expend the energy to become enlightened and help others? Trouble arises when we desire that which we cannot have, or will not get, or which will not in any case help us or anyone else. If you want to be an astronaut and you’re close to seventy years-old, you’re going to be frustrated (unless you’re a billionaire). Frustration is suffering. If you can’t understand the source of your frustration and you let yourself be convinced by hucksters that this or that will solve your problems, you’ll suffer even more. Most of us cannot understand this. The Buddha taught the way to end suffering, but not by suppressing it, or just accepting one’s fate, nor by expending one’s life in a hopeless chase after the exact special trinket or abstract quality (like happiness) that will make all your suffering go away. The Buddha realized that that was the cause of suffering (as many others have), and he taught the way to stop causing suffering (unlike others) by not desiring more than we can have, other than we can obtain, or chasing after those things, or qualities, that will not fulfill our confused desires. I wrote this answer because I desire to help you better understand the Buddha’s teaching. If Buddhism only imparted a defeatist attitude, I wouldn’t have bothered. Implicit in this acknowledgement is my believe that I could help. And I wrote it this way, rather than simply listing the four noble truths for you, because the Buddha’s great insight is more profound, and requires more reflection than just memorizing bullet points. His was a dialectical solution. If you can see how that is the case, then you understand well how to end your suffering and that of others.

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MUMONKAN, CASE 48: “KEMPO’S ONE ROAD”

The Case
A monk once asked Master Kempo, “A sutra says, ‘The Bhagavats in the Ten Directions, one straight road to Nirvana.’ I wonder, where is that road?” Kempo lifted up his stick, drew a line in the air, and said, “Here!”

Later a monk asked Ummon about this. Ummon held up his fan and said, “This fan jumps up to Heaven and hits the nose of the King of the gods. The carp of the Eastern Sea makes one leap and it rains cats and dogs."

Or put another way, where should your heart be? At all moments, here here. Striving puts your attention somewhere else. It is time bound, couched in desire, and oriented toward becoming. Don't strive. Instead, simply do. I think Thoreau put it best - "God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages." We cannot work our way to nirvana. No amount of striving will get us there.

It's very fair to ask what a life of non-striving would look like. Wouldn't it be empty of activity? Devoid of joy? Goal-less. Aimless? If we aren't on Kempo's one road, absolutely. But to walk that one road is to meet what is before us, moment after moment, particle after particle. Every mind moment presents us with a new challenge. Each brings the possibility of joy and loss. Even noticing these mind moments is a challenge all of its own. A life that is oriented towards these moments and greets them all, one after the other, is deeply lived. No amount of accomplishment can compare.

Everything comes to an end. That is true. But that doesn't mean there is no reason to walk the one road. Step after step, the walking is the way.

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I think you answered the question yourself.

“It is my understanding that this mindset helps do away with the suffering that comes from an over fixation on striving”

The problem lies not in striving, but over fixation on striving. People assign (often arbitrarily) values on a future they imagined and are convinced they will be worthless if that future is not realized.

Scientific progress has led to the mass adoption of a clear-cut worldview where the factors affecting an entity can be exactly pinpointed and grouped into external or internal ones. Reductionist models are useful when doing research, but they should not to be mistaken for reality, because the uncontrollable “not-yours” and controllable “yours” are so deeply interwoven, always interacting and evolving. Some of ‘you’ are made from ‘not-you’, things like your parents, or - maybe too specific an example - your birthday if you were a 26 year-olds American in 1969. Some of “you” also make “not-you”, like the mood of your spouse or the lives of patients in ICUs if you are a medical personnel. This is the emptiness that Buddhism talks about. Everything dies (even ideas, even concepts) but still lives on, just in different forms.

By viewing the world this way, what we get is not “nothing matters”, but “everything matters”. Since you will be in this world for a while, I assume a comfortable experience would be much preferred. If so, you should treat everything with care, not just a small set of things mistaken to be the determinants of the future, because everything affects your future. This is why obsessive striving will make you suffer, but not striving. And by treating everything with care, you're being present, and you’re already striving.

A side note: this argument will only be useful if you are struggling with the thought that “everything ends”. If your worldview is similar to the one I held before I researched Buddhism - feeling nihilistic or thinking that morality and social constructs are pointless – a different method should be used.

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"This is a deeply depressing mindset to me"

Physics suggests the universe will end in 'heat death', or featureless photon soup that erases any record. Should we reject that, because it's 'depressing'? Surely, we should try to understand this place we find ourselves in, & act in it on the basis of that understanding.

Things don't truly begin or end, what we call things are tags for phases of endless processes. There is an ancient phrase said to make happy people sad, and sad people happy: 'This too shall pass.' We can only choose how we meet that, not whether it will be the case. Change has two edges, that is just it's nature.

The point to learn isn't, 'do nothing'. But, to act on the basis of what is meaningful right now: things worth doing in themselves regardless of outcome. A good act is part of living a good way to be, it doesn't need rewards or praise to be proved good.

Return to this very moment, and in it's qualities, are the answers to what us worth doing.

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