Positive and Negative sides of the Human Life

Somparn Promta

(An Interview Given to an International Monk Student at Mahachulalongkorn University)






Dear Venerable,


I think the essence of the questions that you have posed to me can be summed up in one sentence: what is my idea concerning the teaching of the Buddha about two kinds of things that people, including you and me, must experience in their life? We call these things in the Pali word as the Loka Dhamma. I think we do not need to consider the detail of this doctrine as it is well known among Buddhists. During the recent years, I have found myself that one of the best ways in answering this kind of question is to let my stream of consciousness flow and feel the things that I need to understand and talk about it freely. I would like to apply this in answering your questions.


Yesterday, I have a lecture at Thammasat University. In the class, we discuss the meaning of Zero in Indian philosophy. In some part of the discussion, I have mentioned the interpretation of the human life and the world given by the Buddha. The Buddha uses the concept of Zero to explain that the human life needs both positive and negative conditions to support its growth. This means that in the view of the Buddha, the growth of human life can never be complete without loss and damage. I have pointed out in the class that great followers of the Buddha are partly those who lose so many beloved things in their life. I believe you might know the name of Patacara Bhikkhuni.


In mathematical system, we have two kinds of number: positive and negative numbers. the numbers 1-9 are the positive numbers in a sense that we can touch the real existence of them with sense perception. We understand when a man says that “I have three cups of coffee.” But people might not understand when a man says that “I have zero cup of coffee.” Exactly, what we understand from this saying of the man is that he does not have any cup of coffee. So, if Zero means “do not have” we understand. But the Buddha tries to convince his disciples that the number Zero has its quantity and quality, and this kind of quantity and quality has some utility not differently from the quantity and quality of 1-9. I myself have tried to understand the philosophy of Zero in Indian (and Buddhist) philosophy for a long time. It seems that my personal interest goes to the part which is beyond mathematical world of the Zero. Deep thought, imagination, contemplation, and intuition are needed to understand what is the meaning of Zero or “not having” as said.


One thing that I would like to say with Venerable is that as I have noticed myself for years, suffering of some people comes from a very simple fact that they have a lot of unnecessary things in their life. Wealth at some level is not necessary at all. So, the man who has this kind of unnecessary wealth is clear to have no peaceful life and this comes from the very simple truth of universe which states that happiness is the thing that will happen when there is the balance between necessary and unnecessary things in our life.


Certainly, the Buddha has said that poverty is a source of suffering in the life of human beings. And the Buddha encourages people to overcome poverty by the right effort. But I do not think that Buddhism encourages us to accumulate unnecessary wealth. Not having is a kind of value like having. Some Western political thinker says that freedom does not come from having alone. Sometimes freedom will occur in our life when we do not have something. Note that I do not interpret the teaching of Buddha as the morality of thought (good and bad are in our mind alone). I am talking about the teaching of the Buddha as morality in the real life and the real world.


For some Buddhists who like to understand that the teaching of the Buddha stresses our thought, they would say you should make more and more money and use the wealth in making merits. This is a kind of the interpretation of Buddhist teaching which is based on the concept of having. I do not reject this understanding. But we know that besides teaching the doctrine of having, the Buddha also teaches the doctrine of not having. Making merits in the view of the Buddha at some level can be said to be unnecessary thing like the unnecessary wealth. And every unnecessary thing is alike in that they give us the burden and bondage. Finally I think Buddhism is the religion of freedom, and freedom means not being a slave of anything in the universe including goodness. The Buddha and his arahant disciples are not the good persons. They are the free persons!


August 25, 2019