I was just thinking about Puerto Rico earlier, much of which, almost 7 months on, is still without power. I have good friends there who have built a beautiful retreat center in the rainforest, you can visit there if you like, it is so conducive to going deep in meditation. I was sort of planning to go back last Christmas but Hurricane Maria had other ideas.
Carrying on from this article on refuge.
Anyway, I was thinking that if you’re in Puerto Rico right now, you probably really want a shower. And if you got in the shower, and got all clean and fresh and cooled down, it’d feel just great, wouldn’t it? So it’d be great if everyone in Puerto Rico could have a shower; if they could have everything they need right now.
Indeed, it would be wonderful if everyone could have whatever they need, whenever they need it, especially shelter, food, and medicines. These are necessities for human beings’ basic survival, and worth striving for.
But are they enough? No, not if we want real or lasting happiness and freedom. For we can also recognize that if the Puerto Rican was to stay in that shower for more than about an hour, he would start suffering again.
While we’re in the shower it can feel fantastic, can’t it?, especially if we haven’t showered for a while. So we assume that a shower is an actual source of happiness. But if it was an actual source of happiness, then the longer we stayed in the shower the happier we’d become. After 3 hours in the shower, we’d be so blissed out it’d be crazy. But as it is, even the person in PR just can’t wait to get out of that shower. It becomes like a torture, doesn’t it?
If someone just came along and locked you in the sauna because you’re loving it so much, it would not be long before you were hammering at the door, “Have mercy, let me out!” I rest my case.
What are true causes of happiness?
The great Indian Buddhist master called Aryadeva says in Treatise of Four Hundred Verses:
Although it can be seen that the increase of happiness is destroyed by its cause, it can never be seen that the increase of suffering is destroyed by its cause.
This is only fair: If something is an actual cause of something, then it has to produce that effect every time. If someone hits us on the thumb with a hammer, we’re gonna say, “Ouch!” If they keep hitting us on the thumb with a hammer, that pain is only going to grow – it is not going to turn into happiness. This means that it is an actual cause of suffering.
However, when we increase the cause of any worldly happiness, instead of feeling better and better we instead start to feel pain (to experiment, try eating the whole can of Pringles or having sex for 24 hours straight).
If we enjoy eating food, our pleasure may increase as we eat the first few mouthfuls, but if we continue to eat more and more, our pleasure will turn into pain. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune
That’s what happens with food, isn’t it? The first few mouthfuls of that doughnut are always the best, aren’t they? And at some point we push away the box and say, “No! No more.” If we had to keep eating them, if we had to eat 10 doughnuts, our pleasure would decidedly morph into pain. We pull faces when we see people in those overeating competitions, it’s almost frightening. This means that eating doughnuts or hot dogs is not a real cause of happiness because if it was it could not cause suffering.
Which pleasures are overrated?
The point about worldly or external pleasures is that they are all changing sufferings, meaning that sooner or later they ALL turn into pain, every single one of them. Every single worldly pleasure, every “temporary refuge” if you like, turns into pain unless we stop in time. Try and think of one that doesn’t.
This is like Buddha’s challenge to us – find something outside the mind that is always going to make us happy, and that the more we have of it the happier we’re going to get. If you can think of that thing, you’re going to get very rich. No one has invented it yet. It can’t be invented because this is not where happiness or refuge come from.
I read a survey recently on “Which pleasures are overrated?” The replies included the usual suspects – partying, drugs, sports, food, drinking beer, etc. Respondents also mentioned kids, spouses, jobs, and traveling. And one or two wise folks replied, “any fleeting pleasures”. But the fact is that all external enjoyments are overrated.
My neighbor has been playing Candy Crush saga since we got on this flight. (So now I know who is playing that game!) Her nosy neighbor (me) sees that she has reached level 274! That’s got to be good, right?! She doesn’t seem that ecstatic though. No resting on laurels here. A glancing smile, perhaps, before she’s off again, chasing level 275.
The world is wounded
The great Indian Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna says our mind is like an itchy wound. Worldly enjoyments only ever work when we need to scratch the itch. Doughnuts, for example, only work if we are hungry. They don’t work at all if we have just had a six-course Indian curry or have a cold and can’t taste anything. If we’re lonely, company feels fantastic, sometimes, and so on.
If we have a big itch, we want to scratch it — it feels great, scratching itches. But we all know what happens if we keep doing it — itches turn back into pain. Buddha is saying that these kinds of temporary refuges or changing sufferings are like scratching an itch – there is some temporary relief, and then it turns back to pain.
Sometimes more pain than we started with, in fact. The things that we turn to for solutions to our problems are also, ironically — or samsarically — the sources of our problems. Our problems come from our food, they come from our doctors, they come from the police, they come from our medicines, they come from our relationships, they come from our living quarters, etc. All the things we turn to for protection or refuge are just as capable of giving us problems.
Our whole planet is being polluted and the oceans turned into plastic by all of us trying to derive refuge from this, that, and the other, jostling to get as comfortable as we can while treading on other people’s needs and future in the process.
Therefore, although we are turning to these kinds of temporary refuges to get rid of our problems, to get comfortable, to get happy, at best they are only palliative, scratching an itch. And if we keep going, they give rise to further pains. And this is because we’re in samsara, whose very nature is suffering.
In Joyful Path, Geshe Kelsang also gives the very helpful example of sitting and standing:
If we sit in the same position for a long time, and then stand up, it will seem that standing is a cause of happiness, but …
… if we remain standing for a few hours, we’re desperate to sit down again. Then lie down. And then prop ourselves up. And then move around. The amount we have to move these bodies around in the average day just to keep them comfortable!! — sitting up and lying down and moving around over and over again, all day long, just one mini-relief after another, or mini happiness hits. Meaning that neither sitting nor standing are real causes of happiness because both of them are causes of changing suffering. And the same goes for all our worldly pleasures.
Here is a thought experiment to help us see this. It might even save you loads of time and money!!!
Close your eyes and imagine you have already got everything you have ever wanted or worked for – enough money, career, relationship, house, vacation, well behaved kids, fast car, no body fat, equitable society. Whatever it is – you can imagine having all the material things and/or worldly pleasures you have ever wanted or worked for. Right now. Already. You did it! Congratulations!
(Impossible of course to get all our ducks in a row, let alone keep them there; but imagine it anyway.)
You have got everything you want! Are you happy? Finally … are you happy?!
Has that preempted years, maybe lifetimes, of throwing time and money after dreams that can never come true?! I’m half-kidding. But half not.
Point is, we can still go to work, build a career, etc., of course, and we need to gather necessary conditions; but we need be under no illusion that these are actual or lasting sources of refuge or happiness. The pressure is off. The false expectations are dropped. We can relax. Maybe spend some of that money and time on making other people happy instead – just a side thought. Right now the global divide between rich and poor is getting so crazy and it is helping no one.
In our countless lives since beginningless time we have actually had everything. There is no tee-shirt large enough to list all the places, enjoyments, and bodies (our own and others) we have had. Nonetheless we have lost them all. Indeed we have forgotten them all. We have forgotten everybody and everything.
So what are we supposed to do?
Does this mean lasting refuge or happiness is impossible? Of course not. But Buddha’s point in explaining this second type of suffering, changing suffering, is that we need to stop selling ourselves short, just muddling through life trying to make it bearable; and instead discover actual comfort, satisfaction, joy, happiness, and deep bliss by seeking refuge in a different source. This will help us not just now but in all our future lives as well. With non-attachment to worldly pleasures, we will also discover a lot more energy and patience for helping others.
We are not starting from scratch, either, of course. We already have a taste of the potentially limitless joy inside us whenever we experience any contentment, love, faith, wisdom, and so on. When we have these states of mind going on inside, we can also enjoy everything going on outside, not least because we’re in a great mood. So it’s a question of what we want to emphasize.
Here concludes what I have to say on changing suffering, as part of a series on refuge. More on the third type of suffering, pervasive suffering, in a future article.