THE GOOD PLACE Invents Buddhism

This contains spoilers for the latest episodes of The Good Place.

Everybody on The Good Place is dead. This is not the spoiler promised above – rather it’s the very premise of the show. Four people wake up in a waiting room where they are informed they’re dead and they’ve made it to The Good Place. But very quickly it becomes clear that none of them actually belong there, and over the course of the first season they try to avoid being found out and sent to The Bad Place. Then came the first season twist: they were already in The Bad Place. This had all been a part of their eternal punishment, a new spin on damnation.

The next season was an endless series of reboots, with The Bad Place trying to make them forget they were in The Bad Place, and after that they tried to escape. In the process they discovered that the afterlife works on a point system, but that the system is impossibly flawed. The complexity of moral life in the modern world – when you buy a turnip you’re possibly enriching a truly evil corporation that is ruining the lives of millions – has rendered the system moot. Nobody goes to the real Good Place anymore. Nobody at all. 

In the final season our heroes, this hapless quartet and a demon they have recruited to the side of righteousness, first had to convince The Judge, a cosmic entity that seems to control all, to not reboot the Earth itself and erase everyone who ever existed. Then they had to come up with a new afterlife that would make more sense, and when they did they were elevated themselves to The Good Place, the first new folks to make it there in 500 years.

The new system they came up with was familiar to me. It was created by Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the indecisive and anxious philosophy professor, and it involved people who die going into The Bad Place and being tested. They would live seemingly regular lives in which their weaknesses would be tested and prodded, and hopefully they would, over the course of many lives, learn lessons. As they learned lessons they would advance up the ladder, until they were finally good enough to make it into The Good Place for real. 

This is reincarnation and karma, a concept that predates the Christian vision of the afterlife at the heart of The Good Place by a thousand or more years. You probably know the gist of it – as you live you create karma through your actions, and the accumulation of your karma decides the circumstances of your rebirth. Some people believe that your karma determines very much the specifics of your rebirth, of the challenges you might face in the next life – challenges that you need to work on and overcome to gain a more favorable rebirth. 

Nobody knows who first believed in reincarnation. It’s a widespread belief; ancient Indians believed it, as the Celts, and so did the earliest Greeks. The oldest Vedic beliefs of India don’t involve karma and rebirth, but around 1100 BC they began popping up, forming the core of what we now call Hinduism. 

In the latest episode our heroes ascend to The Good Place, where they discover something terrible – it actually sucks. Getting everything you want whenever you want it makes getting the thing meaningless, and everything stops being fun very quickly. The people who are in The Good Place are basically zombies after spending millennia being bored out of their minds. Our heroes, now in charge of The Good Place and expecting the first influx of new inhabitants in centuries, need to figure out a way to fix this problem. 

Their solution: non-existence. When you get sick and tired of being in The Good Place there is a door through which you can walk, and you will leave the universe. You will cease to be. What is it like? Nobody knows, but it is known that it will be peaceful. The suffering denizens of The Good Place rejoice – they have an exit available, and knowing that what they are doing in The Good Place is finite actually gives it some meaning. There is relief in the knowledge that they could, if they wanted, cease to exist (unrelated: that’s the title of a pretty good song Charles Manson wrote and sang).

This is absolutely, 100% Buddhism’s end goal. It can be hard for Westerners to imagine, as we are so afraid of death and so interested in living forever, but Buddhists want nothing more than to achieve nirvana, which is a state of basically non-existence, wherein you are both deathless and also unborn. For Buddhists (and Hindus before them) the cycle of the universe is an unending series of births, lives and deaths – it gets old after a while. That cycle, samsara, is the enemy and nirvana is what you get when you break the chain. The Buddha had lived thousands of lives, each building him towards his eventual awakening; when he died in his most famous life he was not reborn afterwards. He broke the chain and stopped coming back to suffer. I’m simplifying it, but that’s the basics.

But what The Good Place did in the latest episode, written by Megan Amram, was something even more Buddhist and harder for Americans to internalize – it showed that sense pleasures themselves can be the cause of suffering. 

When Westerners approach Buddhism and its First Noble Truth (“There is suffering,” sometimes translated as “Life is suffering,” but I think that’s too broad. Even suffering may be too broad, and I’ve seen the word in the original Sanskrit (“dukkha”) translated as “stress.” I’ll use suffering because it sounds more dramatic) they understand the idea that suffering is a part of being a human. The Buddha taught that suffering is actually the result of clinging – not wanting a state to change, or wanting a state to change to a more pleasurable state. Let me explain.

When you get cut there’s pain. But there isn’t necessarily suffering – suffering comes from how you react to the pain. Some people like getting whipped; it’s still painful for them but they enjoy the pain. Me, less so. I would prefer to not be whipped. But the difference between us isn’t that one person feels less pain, it’s simply how we relate to the pain. I don’t want the pain, and the process of pushing it away is called suffering. I am clinging to a state of being where I’m not getting whipped.

That’s easy to understand – we experience pain and it’s the way that we react to it that is suffering. It’s our aversion to it that creates suffering. But it gets harder to grasp when the Buddha tells us the opposite is true as well. When we have pleasurable things they can also bring suffering. We live in a pleasure-seeking society, so that doesn’t make immediate sense, but it’s true. Wanting something you can’t have is suffering, and then having the thing and losing it is suffering. You will always lose it – the meal will always end, as will the relationship or the movie or whatever. And then you’ll want something else to scratch that same itch, an itch that can never actually be scratched. Or you’ll have too much of the thing, and you’ll get sick or you’ll get bored of it and that’s it’s own kind of suffering.

This is a much more subtle form of suffering, but it’s actually worse (IMO) than the kind that comes from obvious pain and unhappiness. Our whole culture is experiencing this suffering right now, by the way – as a materialistic society we’re coming face-to-face with the fact that having stuff and content and more stuff and even faster content that streams to us on that stuff is actually not satisfying at all. We cannot be satisfied. We want more, we want different, we want too much. And we suffer from it. 

When our heroes get to The Good Place they see this in action. They meet famed philosopher, scholar and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria (Lisa Kudrow) who tells them that millennia of getting whatever she wants whenever she wants it has led to her brain becoming slurry. She no longer thinks and, as she says, can no longer math. Everybody in The Good Place is simply miserable, because getting what you want is just as much a source of suffering as not getting what you want. 

What makes the people in The Good Place happy again is the promise that things will end. This, we think, is what makes us unhappy, but the Buddhist argument would be that understanding that things end is the actual key to happiness. Understanding that whatever we are experiencing is transient and will, one way or another, end, allows us to make peace with what’s happening to us. By making peace with it we are not clinging to it or being averse to it, and so we’re not suffering. 

It’s the finiteness that gives everyone their meaning again in The Good Place. It’s the very thing that we push against in this world – the certainty of change – that actually brings happiness in the next. 

The entire cosmology of The Good Place works as a Buddhist setting, by the way. One of the most interesting things about the show is that we have come to the second to last episode and there has been no God; while that might change next week, with the hour long finale, the absence of a God figure (or a Devil for that matter) speaks very much to the way that Buddhism isn’t that interested in the big questions like ‘who created the universe.’ Buddhist cosmology is largely limited to stuff that’s practical, like the different realms of existence into which you might be reborn. Within that there is a hell realm, and a heavenly realm, which would map to The Bad and The Good Places. I used to think the lack of a God – nobody even asks about Him! – was to keep the show from being controversial, but lately I’m thinking there’s a deeper spiritual reason for it. While the final episode may introduce us to whoever makes the helpful assistant Janets (D’Arcy Carden) the fact that the show has avoided the big questions for 51 episodes tells me that the ‘makers’ don’t matter that much. 

I don’t think any of this is accidental; one of the characters, Jason (Manny Jacinto) began the series wearing a Tibetan Buddhist monk’s robes. This was always going to be the endgame, this was always going to be a show that tried to examine a moral philosophy based on improvement rather than judgment, which is the centerpiece of Christian afterlife theology. The goal of Buddhism is to become better and to shed your accumulated karma, which will allow you to become awakened and achieve nirvana. This is what the characters finally stumbled on, after thousands of years in The Bad Place (this show is pretty weird for a network sitcom, to be honest). 

It does raise an interesting question, though – how much time and effort and stress could have been saved this season if Chidi had just read one single book of Buddhist philosophy? Maybe the big moral at the end of the show is going to be “Look beyond your Western canon, because it’s becoming clear the answer isn’t there.”