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.
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.