The logic of happiness

One of the main study texts that my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche wrote for his students begins with, “Regardless of who we are, the main purpose of our life—you could call it the heart of being human—is to be happy.” I remember attending a teaching by Trulshik Rinpoche in San Francisco about 10 years ago. He began with the statement that all beings want to be happy and to avoid suffering and boldly said that the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, are the only way to bring true happiness.

Intellectually I know this. I have heard it many times. But when it comes to putting this into practice I am far from being able to live this truth. That’s why I keep reflecting on this. I hope and trust this will slowly change my habits.

Trulshik Rinpoche

I usually begin by trying to understand my present approach to happiness. Instinctively I just want to feel good. My approach to bring this about is to chase after pleasant experiences. When I ask myself why I do this, I get the answer that I hope that I can achieve this good feeling and that somehow I will be able to keep this perfect state of mind. In his book, What Makes You Not a Buddhist, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche talks about the futility of the fantasy that we can find a perfect state of happiness and remain in that state.

The Buddhist teachings point out a number of flaws in this approach. Firstly, it is very tedious and short term. We are constantly busy chasing after one moment of feeling good after the other. In the Buddhist teachings, this approach is described in terms of  the Eight Samsaric Dharmas: Hope for pleasure, success, praise and a good reputation and fear of pain, loss, criticism and bad reputation. It is a short list, but when I look at the motivation behind my everyday actions I can usually put it into one of these categories.

Secondly, the teachings tell us that this approach is fundamentally flawed. The idea of a perfect state of happiness is unrealistic. In this world, nothing ever stays the same. Everything is impermanent. If we hope for a lasting experience of pleasure, gain, praise or fame we are bound to end up disappointed. There is no state of mind like happiness or feeling good that can last.

The teachings acknowledge that all beings have this wish for happiness and say that fundamentally it is right. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to experience suffering, but our approach is flawed. We are aiming for an emotional experience of pleasure, peace of mind, etc. and want them to last. This is unrealistic because it is impossible.

A much wiser approach is to acknowledge that we cannot maintain these states of mind and instead inquire into the causes that bring about happiness. The principle of karma tells us that everything arises due to causes and conditions. Buddha said: “You are what you have done, you will be what you are doing now.” Our present experience is determined by our present circumstances and our present circumstances are determined by our past actions. According to the principle of karma, the natural law of cause and effect, positive actions bring positive results and negative actions bring negative results. Therefore, if we want to experience happiness and pleasant circumstances in the future, the best approach is to engage in positive actions now.

If we go one step further, we realize that happiness does ultimately depend on the mind and how it perceives. So ultimately nothing is inherently good or bad. Whether we experience something as pleasant or unpleasant depends on how our mind is conditioned. If we are able to free our mind from the chains of this conditioning then we will have reached the inner freedom of the mind. While we will still experience pain and pleasure, we will no longer try to hold onto pleasant experiences or be perturbed by the unpleasant ones.

I cannot put this into practice yet, but I can see that if I could learn to look at life with this attitude, pain and suffering would no longer be unwanted but welcome as an opportunity to work with and train my mind towards this inner freedom that brings true and lasting happiness.

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2 Responses to The logic of happiness

  1. Hello Bernie,
    It is so nice to read your reflections!
    I too find it very hard to understand that ‘ultimately nothing is good or bad’ I can understand it to a certain extend but physical pain is very hard for me to deal with. It is a feeling a can’t ignore or think it is not so bad or even that it will go away after a while.
    What helps me if I experience worry or unhappiness is that I say to my self: what is wrong with THIS moment? And most of the time there is nothing wrong with that particular moment. I am just riding in the car or washing the dishes and that takes my mind away from the worry and takes me in the now. An other thing I do, is I say to my self: I can choose to be happy! For me that are little things that work. For me pain is very difficult to accept, to let it just be. So a lot of work to do, but with a little more awareness.

  2. Bernie says:

    I like that question “what is wrong with THIS moment?” and will definitely try this out at the next opportunity … which will surely come soon … actually right now … because I was just irritated at something for a moment.

    The “ultimately nothing is good or bad” is tough to really actualize. I have a teacher explain it with the example of someone climbing mount Everest who might be hungry, cold and freezing off their toes but actually not be bothered by the pain and hardship because of their exitement about their quest. The way I understand it good practitioners would in a similar way see pain and suffering as an opportunity to train their mind. The pain doesn’t go away but actually with this different focus you might experience it less intense. Cheers Bernie

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