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.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

22 thoughts on “Buddhism and the pursuit of happiness”

  1. The very idea of all us “pursuing happiness” yet never finding it really helps me develop compassion for myself and others. Its such a basic teaching but hitting me so deeply lately. The fly trying to get nectar from the fake flower is a powerful metaphor, opens the heart right up to Geshe-la saying “we need to find happiness from a different source”
    Thank you for your beautiful teachings always 🙂

    1. Sometimes i think we’re a bit like chickens scratching around on the hard ground desperate to find something edible, anything — when we could be eagles flying in the sky.

  2. Hi Luna, just wanted to say thank you for your blog. Your writing and advice has saved me and turned around my day many times. As probably many people, I find internet painfully addicting. I try to stay away, but inevitably my bad habits draw me in and I seek and seek and seek for happiness in news, blogs, videos, etc. And all while I am doing that, this painful feeling grows, the painful rope of attachment pulls and pulls until I am exhausted and irritated. And this is when your brilliance comes in. You are on the internet too. You are just a click away and I more and more remember to click on your bookmark and spend sometime reading something meaningful. And each time your presentation of Kadam Dharma changes my day, I make a U-turn. For me your blog is almost like Tantra, using my attachment for internet to get rid of my attachment to internet. So, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Love, LJ

    1. I’m very happy to hear that it is helpful to you in this way, thank you for letting me know!!

      (And it is funny how obsession and discouragement are such close companions, whatever object of attachment we are focusing on … )

  3. I have read Geshe-la’s book “Eight Steps to Happiness a number of times and received oral transmission from a resident teacher. I even took a test on it!

    My favorite quote from that book is ” we are like travelers in a desert chasing after mirages” – what kind of happiness will be the result of this type of ordinary activity? We are looking for satisfaction in samsara which the very definition is a totally unsatisfying experience based upon a view built upon ignorance.

    The older I get the more stupid an ordinary life appears to be. In my humble opinion, every minute I spend with an out of controlled mind is a minute I can’t afford to spend unwisely.

    I check my mind at least six times a day and I find I am actually being mindful when the timeer goes off once in a while where in the beginning it always went off at a bad time to think of the emptiness of things- very inconvenient to be sure!

    I have received an oral transmission on Geshe-la’s book “Meaningful to Behold” and took a test on that too! ” Buddhas cherish others while the childish cherish themselves, just look at the difference!”

    If I can’t find true happiness it is because I don’t believe the Dharma I have learned and allowed karmic influences to rule my mind. I have instead, chosen to create a life based upon the Dharma I learned in those two books. Once, I am free I will live according to the Dharma experienced in practicing the instructions and then live each day with Eight Steps to Happiness as my daily planner and organizer!

    Great article, thought provoking as usual!

    May all beings find happiness and the benefit of developing a good heart!

  4. Hi Luna..Thanks for your insightful, probing, surgical analysis of our suffering psychosis. I suspect and hope that I may be a little closer recently to seeing my “stuckedness” and therefore closer to becoming unstuck.

    Your article reminded me of anecdotes I have heard about Song Rinpoche’s strategy of comparing students to dung beetles who are attached to dung and are almost impossible to move. He used to use this analogy saying that someties he felt like he was trying to talk to dung beetles to encourage them to ‘move on’, but they were not interested in listening to him because of their attachment. I think Gen Tharchin told this story when teaching about our attachment to samsara.

    This inspired a lyric which I have not put to music yet:

    DUNG BEETLE SONG (lyrics only)

    Don’t be a dung_beetle climbing up and down a hill
    Doing the same things, suffering still
    It’s not the only neighborhood, in our town
    You will find another hill, if you look around

    You like what you’ve got, you like it a lot
    And that’s why you stay, and never go away
    You like what you’ve got, you don’t know it’s not
    The only show in town, you never look around

    One day somebody told you about another place
    But here you stay you never show your face
    What can anybody do with you
    It’s so hard to show you anything new
    What can anybody do with you
    It’s so hard to show you anything new

    (Sorry if I have referred to this Song Rinpoche anecdote recently)


  5. I like your point about being a friend to the world versus belong to just one or a few. It’s something I’ve contemplated since I was a girl and have examined in many forms out in the field of existence. Now, I ask myself a hundred times a day, “What do I REALLY want? A temporary reduction of previous suffering (remedying some lack of food, company, praise, etc.) or permanent cessation of the suffering of myself and all other living beings?” It stops me from taking many actions that I can see have nothing to do with my ultimate desires (or may even serve as an obstacle to them) and, with actions like eating or paying bills, it helps motivate me to generate the most productive intention I can before engaging in the action. Somehow, despite the simplicity this question has brought to my daily life, the universe still manages to bring me many, many opportunities to cherish others and otherwise accumulate merit. Definitely not living in a cave the way my attachment swore I would be. My days rarely resemble the plans I make before I go to bed but they are awfully joyous.

    Without this simple litmus test, I am quite certain I would create a great volume of problems and complications for myself on a daily basis. My attachment ponders an absurd array of careers, locales, and activities every week! She’s no slouch – she’s creative and manipulative. If I listened to her, I’d be far too busy to study Dharma much less EVER meditate on emptiness pause long enough to answer my friends’ calls and emails from a place of calm wisdom rather than the familiar garbage. My attachment responds with pleas that include words like “extreme,” “boring,” and “but look at what everybody else is doing!” But I suspect that if I took the handcuffs of restraint and the microscope of contemplation off her, she’d have me in a pair of hotpants cooking steak for a handsome rugby player in some tropical region in no time flat. I’ve manifested far crazier scenarios based on the advice of attachment numerous time in this life alone. When I give attachment an inch, she makes a mile of selfish indulgence out of it every time. Every time.

      1. I cannot take credit for that question! It came from Gen Losang during his intro to the retreat on the Uncommon Yoga of Inconceivability at Kailash last November. Though he put it as: Notice the gap between “I want pleasure for me now” versus “I wish all living beings to experience permanent happiness.” Simply put, he explained that our desire for the happiness of all living beings must be stronger than our desire for an instant hit of pleasure.

        The hotpants and rugby player, on the other hand, are all me. I’m just a Dharma infant and so have not yet developed any inner attainments. Therefore, I figure the best gift I can give myself is to try to maintain a radically honest awareness of my delusions and keep dragging them out into the light of day over and over. I’m especially familiar with attachment after decades of watching her silly schemes play themselves out. 😉 Close examination has shown me that when attachment is operating, I don’t cherish others, I objectify them. And that is the opposite of the path to liberation.

  6. Re the pursuit of happiness;
    The (unrelated) Uncle to whom I was evacuated and who brought me up at the beginning of the war used to say to me…….
    “Boy, everything depends on your state of mind!”
    I was very fortunate to receive that message ; as well as later being taught wood and metalwork on top of the Morrison shelter,and under which we slept during bombing raids
    over Hastings in 1939/40
    I remember with affection my departed dear friend from Pear tree cottage…..
    I am running of at the mouth
    So cheerio, I may die today x

  7. Hi Luna – This is a timely post for me. One of the ongoing conflicts with my girlfriend is that she insists that she the only way she can be happy is be doing active things. And since she doesn’t have time to be active right now, she insists she has to be unhappy. This issue surfaced again last night. So far I’ve been unable to convince her that there are other, better, more lasting routes to happiness. Perhaps it’s not my place to convince her? Perhaps it’s something she needs to learn on her own? Anyway, I’m not asking for answers, just acknowledging that it’s a challenge sometimes to “live against the grain” of the “truths” of Western Culture (i.e., happiness is external).

    1. Hi Ed, Not entirely sure what you mean by “active”? We can do active things motivated by love and compassion etc, which is not looking for happiness externally.

      1. Hi Luna – Sorry if I wasn’t clear in my earlier response. When my girlfriend says she needs to be active she’s talking about physical activity – swimming, walking, dancing. According to her, she needs to be physically active in order to be happy.

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