The gift that keeps on giving

Do you ever feel out of sorts? I saw this Onion article, “Woman Either Quits Job or Goes Home and Watches 4 Hours of Netflix” the other day, which seemed to sum up some of the malaise and hollowness of modern society.Onion woman

But, now we’re settled on the couch, before we start streaming House of Cards, we could do a lot worse than to spend a few minutes turning on the faucet of love. Eventually, we discover

… an inexhaustible fountain of happiness within our own mind — our love for others. ~ New Eight Steps to Happiness

Carrying on from this article.

One way to turn on the faucet of love is by remembering how much we need others in order to practice love, compassion, generosity, and everything else that can fulfill our deepest wish for lasting happiness. Others are the gift that keeps on giving.

What makes something precious or valuable? For example, if you were offered the choice of a diamond or a bone, which would you choose? Obvious, perhaps. But what would really get your dog’s tail wagging? This example shows that preciousness doesn’t giftexist from the side of the object but depends on our needs and wishes. So, as it says in New Eight Steps to Happiness:

For someone whose main wish is to achieve the spiritual realizations of love, compassion, bodhichitta, and great enlightenment, living beings are more precious than a universe filled with diamonds or even wish-granting jewels.

The first step in this love practice, therefore, is really wanting those spiritual realizations. And why would we want them? Because we want to be happy all the time. “This day after day of unadulterated bliss is driving me crazy”, said no one ever.

But, although we want ongoing or permanent happiness, for as long as we associate happiness with stuff outside ourselves we settle instead for little happiness hits. Bit of food here, bit of sleep there, watching, talking, jobbing, texting, vacationing, etc. Sometimes things can work out well, but even then there’s usually still some underlying tension and frustration because the cause of happiness is perceived as outside of us so we have to keep clinging onto it for dear life. Plus it always goes away sooner or later.

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In any event, for this love meditation to work, we can conclude that there is no guaranteed pure or lasting cause of happiness other than Dharma, ie, purifying and transforming our minds to increase our mental peace, preferably shooting for the supreme peace of enlightenment.

In the recent Kadampa Spring Festival, Gen-la Jampa taught the beautiful method to develop affectionate love that comes from Shantideva and also appears in the Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, where you can read it. I thought I’d summarize the main steps. As you go through them you can ask yourself, “Do I agree? Is this true for me?”

  • We all want real, lasting happiness. See above.
  • We human beings now have the opportunity to gain this — the pure and everlasting happiness of enlightenment — because we have met the path to enlightenment.
  • This path is any spiritual realization motivated by compassion for all living beings. This can be anything, including giving, ethics, helping others, studying, meditating, etc.
  • The only gateway to this path is therefore universal compassion.
  • How are we going to get universal compassion? Only by relying on all living beings in the universe as the objects of our compassion.
  • Therefore, they are very kind. Without them, even if we met Buddha directly we would not have the opportunity to attain enlightenment. As Shantideva says, they are as kind as Buddhas. They are the same as Buddhas in the opportunity they give us for attaining enlightenment, and so are worthy of the same respect.
  • So we can conclude:

Each and every living being is supremely precious and kind for me because they give me the supreme happiness of enlightenment – the ultimate goal of human life.

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Thinking in this way we will generate a warm heart and a feeling of being close to all living beings without exception, and we can meditate on this affectionate love. Nice!

Competitors or invaluable?

If we want the pleasures of samsara, Gen-la Jampa said, it is hard to see others as kind because we are in competition with them. But if we want enlightenment, then each and every one of them is invaluable, more so than a universe of jewels, which in any case could never protect us from suffering or give us lasting happiness.

And we need them all, every single one. They are all equally beneficial, equally objects of love and compassion. And the objectionable ones are arguably the kindest or most beneficial, given that they are the causes of much needed patience.

The more we want worldly attainments, the more others will be the sources of our attachment or annoyance. The more we want spiritual attainments, the more valuable others will become for us. So, which is it to be?!IMG_0981

In our daily life, we can see what we actually want most by watching our minds to see how we are finding others — irritating or lovely. I will go first.

As I write this, there is a chubby little girl across the aisle from me on the supposedly Quiet carriage of this Virgin train, who is chattering loudly and singing songs about dinosaurs, despite her dad shushing her. She is also offering her dad ridiculous theories about fairies, and he, with his eyes closed and clearly trying to nap, is nodding his head absently. And I have the uncharitable thought, “What happened to that old adage about children should be seen but not heard?! After all, didn’t I deliberately choose the Quiet carriage so I could meditate on love & stuff uninterrupted?!!” But then her patient dad laughed at something she said, and she was delighted, and suddenly it was the sweetest scene. This is because he cherishes her and doesn’t find her at all annoying. So I don’t have to either, especially as I need her in order to get enlightened; and now I really quite like her.

Earlier, in a social setting I could not escape, I found myself landed with someone I’ve never had much in common with, who indeed has a diametrically opposed way of seeing the world. Was I bored and judgmental, or was I happy to have this opportunity to love and understand them?!

And even earlier, I was trying to give someone some really great advice, but they just kept talking and didn’t hear a word I was saying. Did I feel attachment to being heard, “They should be listening to me! Don’t they realize how much I know what I’m talking about here?!” Or was I happy to have the opportunity to just cherish them by listening?!

IMG_0984There was not enough rice left for everyone in the food caravan at the Festival, so as I watched someone in the line before me have the last scoop, was I jealous or happy for them?

Someone else was telling me about how much the National Health Service has deteriorated in Britain and how demoralized the doctors and nurses are. Did I get into self-preoccupation mode: “Oh no, who is going to look after my parents, and indeed even me if I ever want to come back to England for the free healthcare?” … or did I think about everyone concerned and increase my peaceful, compassionate wish to liberate all living beings from their sickness forever by becoming enlightened?

With these teachings fresh in my mind, dear reader, you’ll be relieved to hear that I was pretty much able to do the right thing on each of these occasions 😋

One useful question would really seem to be, “What am I most interested in? What do I want?” This seems to entirely determine whether I have a good time with others or see them as surplus to requirements or even an obstacle in my way.

So, encouraged by my experiments, I have decided that when I meet people I’m going to think — and from my heart not my head ‘cos it works — “I am going to get enlightened both thanks to you and for the sake of you.”

Over to you, comments welcome.

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Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive

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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.

Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive

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.

Pringles 2So, 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?

Pringles 1Don’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.

Pringles 3Or 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 photo 1 (1)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 plane in sky who takes these photosactually 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?