How Does One Achieve the Good Life?

Author: Colleen Lawson-Thornton

Year: 2017

Seminar: A Survey of Contemplative Practices Across the World's Religions

Grade Level: 9-12

Keywords: zine, Eastern religion, Tao Te Ching, philosophy, Meditation, Hinduism, happiness, Good Life, Four Noble Truths, experiential learning, Upanishads, Eightfold Path, Eastern philosophy, Tao of Pooh, discussion board, Daoism, Cornell notes, contemplative practices, collaborative learning, close reading, Buddhism, Bhagavad Gita, walking meditation, yoga, tai chi

School Subject(s): Social Studies

How does one achieve the Good Life? Especially for teenagers, this is the predominant question in philosophy. Teenagers want guidance on how best to live in order to enjoy life, find happiness, and achieve the afterlife they desire (or think they deserve). In “Eastern” traditions insight and concentration are emphasized, which leads to a focus on contemplative practices as a means to live the Good Life.

This unit explores how achieving the Good Life is defined in Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism through analyzing core texts in each tradition and engaging in daily contemplative practices. This unit is designed for high school students who have a background in Ancient Greek philosophy. This unit can be utilized in a philosophy, social studies, or English course.

Download Unit: 17.1.06-unit.pdf

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Full Unit Text
Rationale

I have been interested in developing a unit for my philosophy class that responds to the questions “How can we live our lives to cultivate happiness?” and “How can we make it a constant state of being?” My goal in taking “A Survey of Contemplative Practices Across World Religions” was to explore how various philosophical traditions approach happiness and living the Good Life.

Happiness is often viewed as a fleeting state – and one that can only be achieved through external or material things. We may feel that a different job, or a new car will make us happy. And then we may feel unhappy until we are able to obtain these things. This view of happiness removes agency from the individual and suggests that there is no clear pathway to prolonged happiness. Because of this, I was most interested in exploring how various traditions define actions and practices that lead to the Good Life. I chose to focus on Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism/Taoism because they are the three largest philosophical traditions in Asia.

Within Hinduism there are many texts that describe how to live a Good Life. My focus was on the Katha Upanishad.  The Katha Upanishad is a sacred text in Hinduism. The central characters in the Katha Upanishad are Nachiketa, a young boy, and Yama (Death). Chapter 2 of the Katha Upanishad explores the differences between the “good” and the “gratifying” through a conversation between Nachiketa and Yama. Essentially, Yama explains to Nachiketa that the “good” is difficult yet eternal, whereas the “gratifying” is easy yet transient. In chapter 2, Yama also explains that Atman exists, and self-realization can be understood through contemplative practices. From this text, is shows how Hinduism emphasizes the “good” over the “gratifying” – or the idea that living the Good Life is about continued contemplation, and, while difficult, it is within each person’s ability to pursue the Good Life.

Buddhism has a very clear description of how to live the Good Life in The Noble Eighfold Path. The eightfold path is essentially Buddhism’s guide to eliminating desire and living the Good Life. The eightfold path consists of: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Each of these folds is described in great detail, so it is clear how Buddhism approaches the Good Life. However, Buddhist practices can be difficult for everyday people because of the expectation to give up earthly desires and to live an ascetic life. To many, this makes truly observing Buddhism difficult or impossible. Many people wish to still have desires, such as families. The term “householders” refers to those who wish to practice Buddhism, but within the context of a “regular” life. The “householders” approach to Buddhism is much more accessible and shows that some of the strict practices can be adapted into different contexts.

Daoism outline how to live the Good Life in the Tao Te Ching, a classic Chinese text and the sacred text of Daoism. This text, written during the 4th century BCE, is attributed to the philosopher Lao Tzu. It is comprised of 81 brief chapters, each of which focus on how to follow the Tao (“the way”).  Though this is straightforward, most of the chapters, despite being quite short, require careful consideration and analysis in order to understand them. The basis of Daoist teaching is that a person must live in harmony with the Dao (the way). To do this, one must follow wu wei, or effortless action / active inaction. The harmony that develops from following wu wei allows a person to the Good Life.

Throughout the course I maintained a daily meditation practice. I meditated for 10 minutes during my morning bus commute. I would use various guided meditations from podcasts and apps that I found (these resources are noted in an appendix to my unit). I found that this daily practice made me feel awake and in control of my day. Because I found my daily practice successful, I was inspired to incorporate a summative assessment where students would have to  develop their own daily practice – whether that was in one of the formal traditions we studied, or through adapting the ideas of mindfulness to other activities (like running or painting).

The theme of contemplation and contemplative practices as a foundation for achieving the Good Life runs through Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism. These ideas are counter to the overwhelming view of how to achieve happiness that I’ve seen when working with students who view happiness as temporary and often linked to external goods. In these eastern traditions, achieving happiness / the Good Life is more of a state of being than a feeling, and all of these traditions ground the Good Life in contemplative practices.

Objectives:

By the end of this unit, students will be able to understand and do the following:

  • Analyze Eastern philosophical traditions and how they delineate and emphasize the Good Life.
  • Draw comparisons across philosophical/religious traditions to discuss how one achieves the Good Life.
  • Evaluate philosophical/religious traditions to determine which traditions best align to students’ views on how to achieve the Good Life.
  • Create a pathway to the Good Life interactive zine that synthesizes sacred texts and practices from each of the traditions.

Objectives

By the end of this unit, students will be able to understand and do the following:

  • Analyze Eastern philosophical traditions and how they delineate and emphasize the Good Life.
  • Draw comparisons across philosophical/religious traditions to discuss how one achieves the Good Life.
  • Evaluate philosophical/religious traditions to determine which traditions best align to students’ views on how to achieve the Good Life.
  • Create a pathway to the Good Life interactive zine that synthesizes sacred texts and practices from each of the traditions.