Ever since it was invented, televisions have rapidly multiplied and spread over the Earth, entering into more and more human habitations, wherever there is electricity and cables or satellites to transmit the wide variety of programs that are laboriously created by small groups of humans in many different places around the world. Most critics of television dismiss it as an insipid, vulgar, and unintellectual form of entertainment – in other words, as an innocuous waste of time. But there is a serious harmful effect of spending a lot of one’s time watching or looking at television, movies, photographs and other forms of mass communication, which show people doing all sorts of things, including wearing certain clothes, shoes, and jewellery, living in big houses, driving expensive cars, sailing on one’s private yacht, spending time with beautiful and perfect-looking men or women, or flying around the world in a private plane.
The Law of Human Desire states that people want to do the things they see other people doing. It is no surprise, then, that once the cunning advertisers and marketers figured out this simple fact about human behaviour, they were able to use these images to evoke artificial desires in viewers for the many different things they produce and try to sell in order to increase their sales and make more money. In general, the more time a person spends watching television, the more likely one is to buy the many different products that are advertised on television, provided, of course, one has the money to buy them. If we consider people’s relatively simple lifestyles, along with the fewer number of things they wanted to own and aspired to do, before the age of mass communication – which began with the inventions of printing and, more recently, with the inventions of photography and moving pictures – one is struck by how simple, limited, confined, and, to our jaded brains, monotonous people’s lives were in the past, even only a few centuries ago, before humanity embarked on the road to the frenetic and technologically-enhanced activity that is visible today in most places around the world.
When you watch the images that flash across the television, movie, or computer screen, you are filling your head with many different models of human behaviour, over which you have little or no control. Of course, most people do not imitate the majority of the models they see in these mediums; but even in such cases there will arise the desire to imitate them, which explains the wide variety of daydreams, fantasies, yearnings, impulses, and dreams that many people have, some of which are criminal or bizarre. The inevitable result of these unfulfilled desires is dissatisfaction, discontentment, unhappiness, unfulfillment, envy, frustration, and depression, since some of these models of behaviour, such as flying around in the sky or saving large numbers of people from death and destruction, are not actions that can be performed by mere ordinary mortals. Even more realistic desires, such as becoming a successful actor, musician, or athlete, making a lot of money, or going to the moon or another planet, are unattainable fantasies for the great majority of people.
Televisions are brain-control devices. When one understands their insidious effect and their ability to control viewers’ desires and behaviour, why on earth would you let one into your home? Why would you give control over your life and behaviour to the large, powerful corporations who fund many of these programs and don’t care about you, your health, or your well-being, except to separate you from your money, while cluttering your life with all sorts of unnecessary junk, and making you want to consume their unhealthy products, which many viewers do excessively?
Weaning ourselves off the insidious influence of television and other brain-control devices is an essential step in reducing the extremely destructive effects that we humans are having on the planet. So long as the majority of people continue to spend much of their time staring at these devices, there is not the slightest possibility that we will be able to reduce our consumption to the extent that we must in order to ensure the long-term survival of our species. In other words, unless we are able to change these widespread pernicious habits, our addiction to television, movies, photographs, the Internet, and other methods of mass communication, which we humans regard as shining testaments of our species’ unparalleled intellectual superiority, will lead us to our doom.
Although I have criticized the Buddha for seeing only the negative aspects of existence, while disregarding all of its many positive aspects, and, moreover, I do not agree with his belief in reincarnation, there is still much wisdom to be gained from his teachings. One of his most important teachings is that desire is the root of all evil, and therefore it is better not to desire anything, including existence. According to Buddhism, it is this fundamental desire that is the cause of the continual cycle of rebirth, which in turn is the cause of the evil and suffering that all living creatures are subjected to. Those who are able to achieve the exalted state of Nirvana are believed to have freed themselves from the eternal cycle of rebirth in which the rest of us lesser creatures are trapped. Of course, this philosophy of life makes sense only if one regards life as an evil, as the Buddha did, but which most people, including myself, do not. Nevertheless, I believe the Buddha was right when he declared that the person who desires fewer things is better off than the person who desires many things, even if one is able to acquire or accomplish most or all of these things.
Not being one to take things to extremes, as the religiously devout are wont to do in their strict adherence to certain tenets which they seek to live by, and which they also, in their zealotry, have no qualms about imposing, or trying to impose, on others, I do not believe it is either necessary or possible to free ourselves from all human desires. However, what is true about the modern world is that many people have numerous desires, whether to possess certain things, perform certain actions, achieve certain goals, or attain a certain status or position, that arise from looking too often and too intently at the many images that are presented in the different mediums of communication that have been developed in recent times. What these people fail to realize is how wholly artificial all of these desires are, in the sense that they are not at all necessary for our survival or happiness.
When people’s range of vision was strictly limited to the things they could see only with their own eyes, their desires were few and their needs simple. It was the inventions of photography, and later cinema, radio, television, and the Internet that have so greatly multiplied our desires, so that it is not an exaggeration to say that the majority of people who live in wealthy, industrialized countries, where they are subjected to a constant barrage of images of human beings doing a wide variety of different things, are walking, yearning bundles of unfulfilled, and in some cases unfulfillable, desires. Naturally, the result of all these unfulfilled desires is discontent, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness, which most people seek to hide from others.
The increasingly dominant capitalist, consumerist model of society tells us that it is right and good to want to buy as many things as possible, the more the better, and the person who has the most things is the person who is most envied and admired by other people because one is, according to this very simplistic philosophy of life, the happiest person in the world. This clearly puts it in complete opposition to the Buddha’s teachings.
It is a truism that pleasure is not the same thing as happiness and contentment; for while pleasure is transitory and fleeting, contentment and happiness are more enduring. It is also a truism that wealth does not necessarily bring happiness. Although extreme poverty that causes one to suffer from a lack of basic things like food, shelter, physical comfort, good health, and personal safety will usually prevent a person from being happy, it is not at all the case that the wealthy are necessarily happier or better off than those who are less wealthy but have enough to satisfy their basic needs. In other words, provided one is not afflicted by these many artificial desires, the accumulation of material wealth has nothing to do with happiness.
Because human desires arise from observing the actions performed by others and seeing the things they possess, there is practically no limit to how much humans can desire. But what all these imitating and conforming fools fail to realize is that, instead of seeking to satisfy their constantly multiplying desires, even if they are able to do so, it would have been better if they didn’t have all these unnecessary desires in the first place. For the fact about human desires in the modern world of mass communication is that there is no end to them: like cancer cells, they teem and multiply, in no small part because of the constant efforts of the many marketers and advertisers to make you want to buy their products, or whatever it is they are so eagerly trying to sell to you. And with such a surfeit of desires, some of which are wholly fantastical, such as the desire to fly around in the air like a superhero and save the world, or travel around the Universe and visit other planets, it will naturally be impossible to satisfy all of them. The result of all these unfulfilled desires is restlessness, discontentment, and dissatisfaction with the ordinary, mundane, and less exciting lives we live. In other words, such constantly yearning individuals can never be happy.
Before, most people were not aware of the source of these artificial and unnecessary desires, which have often been mistaken for innate desires. But with the presentation of the Theory of Imitation, we now know that, except for basic desires like hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and the desire to protect ourselves from pain and physical harm, human desires arise from seeing other people we admire performing certain actions and possessing certain things. Thus, to follow the Buddha’s teaching about the vanity and futility of desires means ceasing to inundate your brain with all the many different images that are transmitted through the various mediums of communication, so they do not evoke in you all the many artificial desires that afflict and torment so many people around the world.
As we humans have become adept at creating more and more things, the result is that we have become attached to all of these material things. Consequently, many of us have inundated our lives with an ever-increasing flood of material possessions, to which we have become strongly attached, and which we have great difficulty letting go of. This is true both of our personal possessions and the non-personal cultural objects, such as renowned works of art and historic buildings, which we believe we must protect and preserve at all costs.
In behaving in this foolish manner, we are forgetting the important truth that there is absolutely nothing that we humans can create that will last forever. As is true of our mortal bodies, which are made of impermanent flesh, blood, hair, bone, viscera, nails, and skin, all our human creations will also eventually decay and disintegrate when there are no more humans left to take care of them. It is precisely this immature refusal to accept this eternal, immutable fact about existence that has led our species to become so dangerously destructive and deadly to all the other living creatures on the Earth.
The human dream of, or yearning for, immortality is one of our species’ greatest collective sins, for in this foolish yearning is the refusal to accept the limits of our earthly existence, which includes mortality among its basic, inviolable conditions. Moreover, this desire embodies the outrageously presumptuous belief that we too can become godlike, just like the immortal Creator, and never die. In seeking immortality for ourselves, by living longer and longer lives, or for our constantly multiplying creations, we have become obsessed with ourselves and our human creations. In turn, this has rendered us completely blind to the fact that, as a result of this profoundly immoral desire, we are destroying the very life on which our existence and survival depend. Truly, there is no more vain or stupid species on the Earth than we human beings, the falsely named homo sapiens, which it were better to rechristen by the more accurate name, homo stupidus.
The story of Icarus, the son of the inventor Dedalus, who believed that he could fly to the Sun and consequently fell to his death, is applicable to humanity in the present age. For in seeking to achieve something that is impossible, namely immortality, whether for ourselves or for our many non-living creations and inventions, we too are in danger of falling from the vertiginous summit of our collective arrogance and presumption, and come crashing perilously down to the Earth.