Buddhism and the pursuit of happiness

broken printerThe last article, based on the Spring Festival introduction, looked at how deceptive samsara’s enjoyments are. Of course its sufferings are no fun either. Now I have boarded my second plane, from San Francisco to Denver, to find it almost entirely empty. I asked the flight attendant why, and she told me that the machines printing boarding passes were not working and so the would-be passengers who do not have their passes on their mobile devices are not able to clear security! I asked if we were waiting for them, and she said we couldn’t. I asked if they’d have to pay for another flight themselves, and she said yes, they would. So that sucks for all the other people who are supposed to be on this airplane. Unless of course this plane crashes.

Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. Luckily, samsara is not real.

Gen-la Dekyong told us that she saw a bluebottle fly trying to seek sustenance from the bell-like flowers on the shrine — it tried and tried to find nectar, but its search was fruitless, for the flowers were fake. This is just like us trying to find happiness in this and in that. Buddha has said that there is no happiness inhering in any of the things we chase after.  Real happiness is a life that is not Man smelling flowercontrolled by uncontrolled desire.  A life of compassion and wisdom will bring that happiness now and in the future. Of course, she pointed out, we do engage in normal activities; but if we remember that none of these activities in themselves can bring us happiness, we won’t be disappointed when they fail. Buddha is suggesting that we stop giving our energy to things that cannot give us happiness and instead give our energy to things that can. We can make ourself happy all the time. We need the pure happiness that comes from a pure or positive mind. And when we gain this happiness, we will be able to give others real happiness too.

Time to choose

Thinking about this, it seems clear we have to make a decision. It is hard and discouraging to have one foot on samsara’s path and the other on the path to liberation. Those paths are going in opposite directions, so we end up doing the splits. If we know and are convinced where happiness comes from, we can stay on the liberating path, regardless of where our daily life activities take us from month to month.

But a word of caution – it’s good to lighten up when we think about these things, not get all heavy. Attachment and disappointment and other delusions weigh us down – the decision to stay on the liberating path on the other hand is a light mind, free from the extremes of excitement and despondency. Have you ever been at a long, tedious party where you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself, but you’re actually not? And then you decide to leave, and how great it feels to stop pretending that it is all such good fun, and you step out lightly and with relief into the fresh air? Renunciation is a bit like that. We don’t need to take ourselves or our delusions too seriously as we work to overcome them, we don’t need to give them more power over us than they normally have. They are just clouds in the vast limitless sky-like space of our mind.boring party

Is it possible to have some happiness from the inside but also at least a little bit from the outside? That question needs thinking about. For one thing, we do need good human conditions, and Geshe Kelsang has said we need to avoid the extreme attitude of abandoning these. These days, in particular, we need a normal life — we generally can’t just run off and hide in a cave, no one would understand or support that. We also need the so-called “happiness of humans and gods”, for it is far easier to be happy in the human realm than in the lower realms. So it may be easier to frame the question in terms of where we feel happiness really comes from.

It’s easy to try to really look for it in both our mind and outer enjoyments – “Ooh, I’m all meditated and Buddhisted out, I need to relax and watch a movie!” There’s nothing wrong with a movie per se, it can teach us the truth of Dharma, help us develop empathy for others’ stories, for example; but there is something misleading in thinking that our happiness comes from the side of the movie as opposed to from our own states of mind. External things such as movies and dancing can make us happy if our mind is peaceful or blissful, but not if it is not. The endless frustration in samsara – such as failing to satisfy our desires and the other samsaric sufferings listed by Buddha — are all coming from uncontrolled desire, thinking that the holy grail of happiness is out there somewhere.

Who do you belong to?

As an example of trying to get happiness by following both a path motivated by delusions and a liberating path at the same time, I was thinking of the example of believing that our happiness comes from love AND from attachment. Lets say you’re an aspiring Bodhisattva, for example, who loves the idea of belonging to the world and making everyone happy, and who knows how great love always makes you feel. But at the same time you feel the need out of attachment or isolation arising from self-grasping to belong to just one person or a few people. This can cause a contradiction and a tension in the mind. This to-ing and fro-ing blocks us or slows us down — we digress, we get distracted, we take our eye off the ball, we don’t know where to put ourselves, we get discouraged in our ability to make ourselves and others happy.love breaks chains

Is it really possible to make both love and attachment work at the same time as real causes of our happiness? For one thing, is it possible to love unconditionally if we have fear in our heart? Yet uncontrolled desire makes us fearful, for example of losing. So it seems we have to choose – does happiness come from following the path of love OR the path of attachment? I think we need to make our life bigger, not reduce it to a poky life of attachment.

Not saying it is not a work in progress, we cannot abandon our delusions overnight obviously, that is not possible; but for one thing we don’t have to keep identifying with them, and for another we need to know from our own experience where happiness comes from if we are to make a firm decision to follow the blissful liberating path and generally stay on it.

A liberating path

Back to what Gen-la said, if we wanted to get to Paris from here, we would need to know the correct path. It’s the same for happiness, what are the correct spiritual paths or spiritual trainings leading to happiness? Examples would be renunciation, universal compassion, and the wisdom realizing the way things really are, or emptiness. The reason these paths lead to happiness is because we learn to control our delusions, controlling our own anger and attachment, controlling our self-grasping ignorance. Our delusions function to disturb our inner peace, so we have to give up on them if we are to experience real happiness. We don’t need to give up our usual daily activities, we just need to give up our delusions.this way or that way

Have you noticed how problems are everywhere all the time? They may surprise us every day, seeming to come out of nowhere, as anomalies, causing us to shake our heads “Oh dear, how did THIS happen?!”; but in fact they pervade our lives. Wherever we turn, whoever we talk to, delusions and karma are causing people problems.

For example, I talked to one of my brothers yesterday, it had been a few months. He told me almost by way of small talk that his company was in liquidation this week, his father-in-law had just suffered from a heart attack, and a vulnerable elderly person we both knew was being taken advantage of financially. He was making the best of it, and looking on the bright side (“No more overheads! Only a small heart attack! She doesn’t care that she is being fleeced!”), as we do, especially when we are trying to be stoical. (And people are remarkably brave, I find.) But it showed me, yet again, for the billionth time, that we don’t have to scratch deep beneath the surface of samsara’s sometimes seeming okayness to see that, no matter what we do, samsara doesn’t work very well for us at all. It never has. It never will.

Samsara is not by nature benign with the occasional unexpected setback thrown in. Our karma and delusions are ALWAYS out to get us!

I observe that a lot of people feel as if something is missing in their life, they know that happiness doesn’t really come from external activities; and this is especially the case as we get older and the things we were turning to work less and less, including our own health and energy and even the simple ability to stay awake and chat. But sometimes people don’t know where else to look. This is one reason, as Gen-la Dekyong said, why Geshe Kelsang has established centers all over the world so that people can learn about renunciation, universal compassion, the wisdom realizing emptiness, and the bliss and creative power of Tantra, or the “unmistaken Dharma of Lamrim, Lojong, and Mahamudra.” Through the centers, teachings, books, festivals, all this knowledge can be ours. And if we apply this knowledge, our life itself can become the liberating path while we go about our normal daily activities.