Snakes, Ladders, and Utopia, by Diana St Ruth

Fudō uses his sword to cut through ignorance and his lasso to reign in those who would block the path to enlightenment. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Have you ever noticed? If everything seems to be going right in your life, if everything seems to be perfect and you start thinking that this is the most perfect time in my life and it’s going to be wonderful from now on, your world suddenly falls apart. It’s a bit like that old board game of snakes and ladders where you throw the dice and climb the ladder to greater and greater heights, then encounter a snake and zoom down you go again, maybe even to a lower position than before.

Some people might say that this is a somewhat pessimistic view of life and that we should be more optimistic, but I have found that this sort of thing does happen quite often. The pinnacle of perfection is reached in terms of health and worldly well-being, our ambitions have been gratified, maybe just sometimes, it’s exciting, and then something awful happens and we plummet downwards into a difficult or even nightmare situation. The depths of despair, on the other hand, can equally as suddenly turn and life goes into the ascendant again. Mostly, we probably just jog along with less dramatic ups and downs — we’re relatively happy; we’re relatively unhappy; we’re relatively happy again.

Buddhism points out that this is how it is, and encourages us to recognise that change is a constant; we live in a world of conditions and change, of highs and lows, hopes and fears, joys and sorrows. The practice of Buddhism, however, is not to go up and down with those changing conditions — feeling sad when things are not as we want them to be, and happy when they are. The Buddha’s teaching is pointing towards understanding this world, seeing it for what it is, and letting things come and go without getting attached to them or taking them personally.

The same principle applies in relation to the wider community and the world. Our technology has become more sophisticated over recent years which has made it easier to get instant world news, and it’s a sobering experience. No longer can we be persuaded into believing that humanity is getting wiser, more sensitive, more diplomatic, and more compassionate by the day. On the contrary, we seem to be spiralling down into greater brutality, outrageous greed and unbelievable foolishness. Big corporations have enormous power in our world today, and corporate greed is blind and ruthless. Ordinary people feel powerless even though millions are against it. As a species, human beings are at a low ebb. We could get pulled down just by thinking about the injustices and the state of the planet. But maybe human beings aren’t really any worse now than they were a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago; maybe it’s just the technology that has changed making our world more dangerous and bringing us more immediate news. Maybe we can never make this planet into a Utopia, or if we get close to it, it will go into reverse again.

So change is right in our faces — the changing world, changing emotions, thoughts, feelings and conditions. We just basically go round in circles until there is an awakening — until maybe we wake up to the fact that life is a turning wheel, a merry-go-round, and the only way off is through releasing our grip on the various views and opinions we mindlessly stick to, and the various forms of greed and hatred that arise within us. Just five minutes a day of becoming fully aware of changing conditions — our thoughts and feelings, for example — will be enough for us to see just how free it is possible to be—free of anxiety for a moment, free of who we think we are for a moment. That isn’t to deny what is happening in the world and in our own lives, but just not to get dragged along by conditions. Is it easy? Yes and no. It depends on how strongly attached to them we are. But whatever, it can be done, and sometimes more easily than others. Just a moment of that freedom within the turmoil of life, in the quietness of one’s room, or in a retreat situation, is a profound relief, and that is enough to show us the truth of non-attachment. It is that ability not to deny and at the same time not to be controlled by the flow of changing conditions.

Click here to read more by Diana St Ruth.

Categories: Beginners, Buddhism, Diana St Ruth, Foundations of Buddhism

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4 replies

  1. Curious to know what your/Buddha’s views are on whether we should attempt to change the injustice we see in the world. Does the practice of non-attachment mean we should simply change our view of injustice – accepting it as the way things are and not attempting to change it?

    • Emma,

      Buddhism is a moral way of life for people to stand independently and see things how they are.

      Changing our views and opinions for other views or opinions doesn’t make much sense to a Buddhist.


  2. Love the title! So true.

  3. It is that ability not to deny and at the same time not to be controlled by the flow of changing conditions.


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