“Improve your life one hack at a time; 1,000 Life Hacks, DIYs, tips, tricks, and more; start living life to the fullest!” All examples of clickbait titles from the Internet.
By calling Dharma a “life hack,” we mean it’s a clever solution to a tricky little personal problem that many people have experienced. That is the most optimistic of definitions for the term “hack.” It implies that life is good, but it could be better. You just need this one thing, this turning about in the mind, this reframing, and all your problems are solved, even though nothing concrete about your situation changes. Whatever oppression you might have been experiencing is illusory.
The pages of Buddhist magazines are full of it. The blogosphere reeks of it. Bookstores are loaded with titles extolling it. Often, it’s presented as consciousness hacking. We’ve got “woke” hacks for sex, eating, parenting, the office, soldiering, and so on. But this is merely self-help in a new package—the narrow psychologization of transcendental wisdom. It’s all a form of spiritual bypassing.
We need to shift our attention beyond our own navels. As our awareness of the many dimensions of practice expands, engagement with the greater world becomes a natural part of it. We can do the Work That Reconnects,* together with others on the green practice path, be they Buddhists or citizens of the world who go by a different name.
There are many fine interfaith and secular organizations working toward making the world a better place, in ways that are entirely congruent with a Buddhist outlook. Yet we Buddhists are conspicuously absent from those initiatives.
In A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real (Bloomsbury 2018), the philosopher Glenn Wallis notes that any religion which purports to have answers for every problem then spends all its time building institutions to defend that proposition, in doing so becomes increasingly irrelevant to the real problems of the day.
The Buddhist notion of sufficiency is indeed challenging. Does this mean that Buddhism is antagonistic against forms of thought or practice that undermine its postulates and certainties? I certainly hope this is not the case, because if Buddhists do not join with others to speak up for a new relationship between humans and our planet, but remain stuck in old anthropocentric tropes, the Dharma will indeed be relegated to the dustbin of history.
On the other hand, as writer, Zen Buddhist, and environmental scholar Stephanie Kaza tells it (citing the Thai activist and scholar Pibob Udomittipong), the Buddhist concept of santutthi—contentment, satisfaction—is deeply challenging to modern consumerism. In fact, Kaza says that when the first Thai National Economic Development Plan was created in 1961, the government banned the bhikkhus from preaching about contentment, on the grounds that santutthi was a barrier to economic growth. The sufficiency of “enough” was weighed against the promise of “more” and found wanting. It is a testament to the power of the growth paradigm that the Thai Buddhist governing body of monks agreed to honor the decree. And here we are today, experiencing the karmic fruits of our quest for ever more growth, sacrificing the future for the chimera of the present.
What about those other definitions of “hack?” A hack is someone who botches their work, or an appointed flunky. Not very encouraging. As a verb, “to hack” is to swing away wildly at something with a blade. In the computer world, it means to infiltrate, destroy, reconfigure, or violate any sort of computer program, website, or system through the use of coding. Again, not very encouraging. Did you know that one of the world’s most potent ransomware viruses is called Dharma? Still, the idea of subversion is intriguing.
What if we propose Dharma practice as subverting Samsara, destroying conventional thinking and aspirations, replacing them with a truer (but still anthropocentric) picture of reality? That’s the premise behind movies like The Matrix or TV shows like Kung Fu, and part of the reason for their quasi-mystical, popular appeal, despite the centrality of violence to their storytelling.
We can go further. What if we propose that our individual bodhimandala is like that of a cell in a larger body, and that body is Life on Earth, the biosphere? We need to function as best we can to do our job as a healthy cell, whatever the specific purpose. However, the goal here is to work cooperatively with all the other cells, each with their own specialized function, to maintain the health and development of the entire being. Without that, the individual cells die. Conversely, cells that exhibit cancerous growth and usurp the body’s resources threaten the entire being.
The Buddhist teaching says that we are all complete and perfect as we are. Our Buddha-nature is pure, but covered up by adventitious stains. The goal of practice is to clear away those stains. Could we say that finding our True Nature is finding our Truth in Nature? That is perhaps the new paradigm environmentalists mean when they say: “We are not defending the Earth; we are the Earth defending itself.”
In the story of the transmission of Chan from the Fifth Patriarch, Hongren, to the sixth, Huineng, the Fifth Patriarch proposed a poetry contest to his students, saying the student whose short poem best expressed an understanding of the Essence of Mind would receive the staff and bowl of the transmission.
Hongren’s most prominent student, Shenxiu, wrote:
The body is a Bodhi tree
The mind a standing mirror bright
Polish it with diligence
And let no dust alight
However, the transmission went to Huineng, a lowly kitchen helper and novice, who wrote the verse:
Fundamentally no tree exists
Nor stand for a mirror bright
Since all is empty from the start
Where can the dust alight?
I feel that Shenxiu was short-changed for his poem. He went on to become a wonderful teacher, but his legacy has been lost in the mists of time. Could Huineng have written his riposte, had Shenxiu not given him the mirror stand? We are not engaged in some idle game of gotcha! We really do have to care more about the trees, not to mention the Bodhi tree. Huineng may have given us the Absolute Truth, but Shenxiu gave us the path to get there.
There is no shortcut to Enlightenment. Practice is a lifelong commitment, regardless of whether or not one believes in rebirth. The goal is not individual but universal. Unlike hacks, neither life nor practice embody the phrase, “one and done.”
Macy, Joanna. and Molly Brown. 2014. Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to The Work That Reconnects. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers.
Sakagawa, Yumi. 2017. The Little Book of Life Hacks: How to Make Your Life Happier, Healthier, and More Beautiful. Griffin, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Payne, Richard, ed. 2010. How Much is Enough?: Buddhism, Consumerism, and the Human Environment. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Wallis, Glenn.2018. A Critique of Modern Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real. New York: Bloomsbury.
The Problem with ‘Hack’ Culture (Medium)
Dharma Hacks from a Dharma Hack (Tricycle)
Brain-hacking and Mind-Upgrades: Buddhism of the Future? (Western Buddhist Review)
Environmentally Woke: A Guide to Environmental Justice in the United States