In the Spring Festival I just attended at the Kadampa World Peace temple in the Lake District in England (laid back, relaxed, good Dharma, lovely Sangha, blessings all over), Gen-la Dekyong gave a talk on Friday night about the deceptive nature of samsara’s pleasures. In general, people think they will find happiness in eating, drinking, sexual activity, or watching television, or in a good job or nice relationship, or in lots of money, or even more money, or in a good reputation. If I have all this, we think, I will be happy, so we put all our energy into it. But we can see that even people who have managed to get a lot or even all of these things together are still not happy.
So, maybe, she said, you know what is coming next. The happiness that arises from these worldly activities–eating drinking etc–isn’t real happiness, because it changes into suffering. Geshe Kelsang calls this artificial happiness or contaminated happiness or happiness mixed with suffering. For example, a pleasant feeling may arise when we start eating, but if eating was a real cause of happiness, then the more we ate the happier we would become. Yet the opposite is the case – the more we eat, the more uncomfortable we become.
Thinking this through I have concluded, not for the first time, that the same does indeed apply to all the other things we grasp at for pleasure, without exception. We’ve tried it all enough times, in this life and in countless previous lives – trying to find happiness in things or people outside the mind. Every time we get excited, “Perhaps this is it! This is the ultimate café, town to live in, relationship, weather, job!!” But it never lasts, does it?
Don’t get me wrong – I like eating, drinking, hanging out in the sun, and the rest of it as much as anyone else, and am not suggesting that we stop all these enjoyments (as if we even could). But it is important to find a way to transform them into the spiritual path through wisdom, compassion, and bliss, and we will only bother doing that if we see that in themselves they are not the real causes of our happiness.
I think we have to check this point carefully, not in an abstract way but based on our own activities and experiences at the moment – where are we investing our happiness? For example, what did you do today? Did it deliver the goods? Or was it more reminiscent of the words of Venerable Atisha:
Friends, the things you desire give no more contentment than drinking saltwater.
Or eating Pringles. I have often tried to find contentment in eating Pringles, and “once you pop, you cannot stop”, as their jingle goes — but I just end up with a sore mouth and slight feeling of nausea.
(And we are not even talking here about the problems of samsara, just the pleasures!! Which can often end up, weirdly, amounting to the same thing.)
Okay, I’ll start. I was just contemplating this all a bit earlier on this plane when my vegetarian Asian dinner arrived, a delicious BA curry, so much tastier than the stodgy pasta and dead chickens that all those meat-eaters have to eat! Ravenous after several hours of packing, traveling, security, and powerlessly waiting around, I eagerly stopped what I was doing (actually writing this), put lime pickle all over it, and shoved it in my mouth, barely managing to remember that it was not an actual cause of happiness, even though I had just been thinking about this subject. The first few mouthfuls were fine and dandy, then, hunger pangs abating, it already got a bit boring, and I started to toy with it, roll it around on my fork, and wonder, “What exactly is this?”, and “What shall I eat next?” One mouthful of the lemon cake was more than enough. To eat the bread roll or not to eat it, that was the next question. I decided not, but I have hedged my bets by buttering it and secreting it away for a snack later, no doubt so I can find it in a few days’ time mouldy and festering in my rucksack, like the banana I “kept for later” on my last plane trip, or the year-old cookies found in a forgotten pocket. I am a very slow learner when it comes to figuring out how to make samsara work for me. But there again, aren’t we all? Perhaps it is why we are still here, we are still hedging our bets, “One day it’ll work out, surely?! I just need to try harder!” Then I needed a coffee to wash down my coca cola, and while I was at it I thought I should finish my earlier purchased Kit Kat before it melted completely. Now I’m on a sugar/caffeine high, of which you, dear reader, are bearing the brunt. I also am waiting again, this time for the flight attendant to take this annoying meal tray away. I’d also like to use the bathroom, but I am in the window seat, and trays and bodies are everywhere, in my way. Oh, and did I mention that I dropped the tray of leftovers from this once appetizing curry all over my lap?
But my search for happiness on this flight is not over yet. Nowhere near. I still have 7 hours and 47 minutes to go. (And that’s just the first leg, getting me from London to San Francisco just so I can get on a whole other flight backward eastward to Denver, don’t even ask … ) When I watch a movie later, it may moreorless entertain me and keep me awake, but by the time I crawl into bed 5am UK time, I won’t feel I have accomplished much, really — just gone from A to C and back to B, killing time. If on the other hand I used this time in the sky actually flying, thinking about renunciation, universal compassion, and wisdom, for example, or generating bliss and using that to meditate on emptiness, that would be a day well spent, whether or not I watched the movie or enjoyed the curry or even spilt more stuff over myself. My journey would have meant something. Something would have changed forever for the better.
Gen-la Dekyong went onto quote the verse from Je Tsongkhapa’s Prayer of the Stages of the Path:
Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive
Give no contentment, only torment.
If we believed this from our own experience, we could reach a conclusion: “I don’t want artificial happiness. I want the real thing!” So what is the happiness we experience when we eat? It is actually just a reduction in our previous suffering of hunger. Buddha says that in this world no one has real happiness and their actions cause suffering. But we keep looking; we are absolutely convinced that within this cycle of impure life we can find happiness.
I find it very helpful to consider how happiness could ever possibly come from outside the mind when there isn’t anything outside the mind to begin with?! Attachment is based on ignorance, grasping at (pleasant) things outside the mind, so no wonder it is futile.
We can remember the story of the thief rummaging around in Milarepa’s cave at night to find something to steal, only to hear Milarepa’s voice: “I cannot even find anything in here worth stealing in the daytime!” Buddhas in the light of their omniscient wisdom have searched and failed to find any real happiness in samsara, so what hope do we have in the darkness of our ignorance?
Over to you, do you think we can find happiness in objects and people outside the mind?