“Because our perception is ‘stained’ by our emotions, memories, views, and knowledge, we cannot touch the true nature of what we observe.

Thich Nhat Hanh



Within the tradition of Buddhism are bodhisattvas: those who seek enlightenment for the sake of all. A bodhisattva consciously aspires to awaken bodhicitta, the “mind of love,” ready to accept pleasure or pain with equanimity with the goal of bringing happiness to other beings.

While all of us have the ability to be bodhisattvas, within the Buddhist tradition, particular bodhisattvas are held up as examples. One bodhisattva with whom Westerners may be familiar is Kuan Yin whose name literally translates to observer of  sounds.

To be bodhisattvas, therefore, we must also be observers: of others in order to offer compassion and, as a foundation, to our own feelings and thoughts so that we may observe correctly.

Jane Austen understood this. Throughout all of her fiction, characters wreak havoc through their lack of observation. Elizabeth Bennet fails to see that Darcy is falling in love with her. No one but Fanny Price notices the inappropriate and ultimately dangerous flirting of Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram. And Emma fails to observe, well, pretty much everything.

Within the novel Emma, though, we do find a model observer—who ultimately also demonstrates the difficulty of mindful observation: Mr. Knightley.

While Emma  receives adulation from all around her, Mr. Knightley recognizes that Emma has faults and makes mistakes that, in a sort of anti-bodhisattva fashion, are bound to make others unhappy.

When Mr. Knightley realizes that Emma’s matchmaking scheme for her friend Harriet will ruin Harriet’s chances with a kind, genuine man who wishes to marry her, he scolds Emma soundly, noting the problem of skewed observation. He tells Emma, “your infatuation about that girl blinds you.”

Using his powers of observation, Mr. Knightley warns Emma off of her matchmaking scheme for Harriet with Mr. Elton: “from his general way of talking in unreserved moments, when there are only men present, I am convinced that he does not mean to throw himself away.” Mr. Elton plans to marry well, not to someone of Harriet’s rank. Mr. Knightley knows this through his careful listening.

He also uses his observations to the benefit of others, for Mr. Knightley’s telling Emma about her rude behavior toward someone of lower social status awakens compassion and observation within Emma.

But even Mr. Knightley misses in his observations when led by his feelings. Like all in town, he is duped by the secretly engaged couple, for Knightley is blinded by his own jealousy.

Convinced that Frank Churchill is wooing Emma and that she is willingly accepting his attentions, Mr. Knightley fails to see that Frank is merely using Emma as a shield to hide his true feelings for another young lady. Mr. Knightley also misreads Emma, who plays with the idea of being in love with Frank, but she never has any real affection for him beyond a superficial friendship.

Overwhelmed by his jealousy after Frank is particularly flirtatious with Emma, Mr. Knightley runs off to London, returning home hurriedly in the rain when he learns of Frank’s engagement to another. Expecting to find a disconsolate Emma, he goes to comfort her.

Our narrator tells us, “He had found her agitated and low.—Frank Churchill was a villain.—He heard her declare that she had never loved him [Frank]. Frank Churchill’s character was not desperate.—She was his own Emma, by hand and word, when they returned into the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill then, he might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow.”

Even one of Austen’s most observant characters loses those powers of observation when caught by his own story.

As Austen wrote in her novel Persuasion, “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!” In this case, how quickly we see things when that is what we expect to see.

Instead, like Austen, let us observe with clarity and, like Kuan Yin, with compassion.


Photo provided by Kathryn Duncan





“If you get satisfaction, you don’t want any more, right?

Robert Wright



The Buddha was not speaking English in the talk he gave laying out the Four Noble Truths. This means we are relying on translations to get at the truth of the First Noble Truth, usually translated as life contains suffering.

Buddhist scriptures are written in either Sanskrit or Pali. In Sanskrit, the word most often translated as suffering is spelled Duhkha and in Pali Dukkha.

However, in his online course, “Buddhism and Modern Psychology,” Robert Wright explains that we might find a different translation makes more sense, pointing to the song “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones as best expressing what the Buddha may have been getting at.

It’s not that we are constantly suffering (thank goodness) but that there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction that hums underneath all that we do. Even as we enjoy what we love most, there’s the knowledge that the pleasure we are experiencing is temporary. We always want more.

Basically, we are all versions of the Alexander Hamilton created by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

Key characters in the play attempt to teach the “young, scrappy, and hungry” Hamilton to be satisfied.

When he returns against his will from the battlefield to his pregnant wife Eliza, she talks to him about appreciating what they have, about seeing they have “enough.” She tells him they are lucky “to be alive right now.” She wants him to know, “So long as you come home at the end of the day, that would be enough.”

But, of course, Hamilton is not satisfied.

Later, President George Washington will take a shot at teaching Hamilton about being satisfied with enough when he asks Hamilton to write his farewell address. As Hamilton urges Washington to stay in office, Washington responds, “I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree a moment alone in the shade at home in this nation we’ve made.”

Washington acknowledges that he’s done his job, and now he must “teach them how to say goodbye” passing the baton onto the next president. He is satisfied that he has done enough and has earned a rest.

Hamilton, though, seems temperamentally prone to dissatisfaction with his constant chatter, reading, writing, and plotting. Miranda doesn’t leave us guessing at this, devoting more than one song to the theme.

Upon meeting his future sister-in-law, Hamilton says to her:

“You strike me as a woman who has never been satisfied.”

. . .

“You’re like me. I’m never satisfied.”

. . .

“I have never been satisfied.” 

It’s not straightforward. Hamilton should not be satisfied with the childhood he experienced nor the oppression by the British nor the enslavement of fellow humans. He is right to vow, “I am not throwing away my shot.” As he and his young fellow revolutionaries proclaim, “When you’re living on your knees, rise up.” Do not be satisfied.

But Hamilton’s egocentric concentration on his own satisfaction—his determination to leave a legacy—means he will never be satisfied and, therefore, will not get past the First Noble Truth, which leads to heartbreak, betrayal, anger, ignominy, and death.

Hamilton and his friends sing before the Revolution, “Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away.” Alas, our physical freedom can be taken away. But the Second, Third, and Fourth Noble Truths teach us that we can be freed from suffering or, if you prefer, dissatisfaction.

We can act against injustice yet be satisfied within, bringing to the battle our own inner sense of peace and the understanding that we are enough.



Photo provided by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash