I am currently instructing an introductory meditation course for the Rigpa online course program in the United States. This term we changed to a new course called “What Meditation Really Is”. It not only includes teachings on meditation but also presents an introduction to the general basic principles of the Buddhist teachings. In the first week it begins by reflecting on happiness and contentment.
Happiness seems a very appropriate topic to begin our spiritual journey. If we look around we can see that all beings want to be happy. Even the smallest animal will do whatever it can to avoid pain and suffering.
The Buddhist teachings explain that there is a relationship between our experience of happiness and our mind. To illustrate this point, my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche often quotes something the Dalai Lama has said: “Granted that external circumstances and situations do, to a certain extent, contribute to one’s happiness and well-being, but ultimately happiness and suffering depend on the mind and how the mind perceives through the five senses.”
I love this quote because it expresses the heart of what the teachings tell us about happiness. The teachings explain that there are two ways of looking for happiness. The way we usually go about it is by looking for happiness outside. When we do that, our happiness becomes dependent on pleasure or satisfaction derived from outer circumstances.
This could be the pleasures of the senses, the short-lived satisfaction when we are successful in getting what we want, the brief high we get when we buy something that we think will make us happy, the nice feeling of appreciation when are praised, feeling good about being respected by others. Some of us even manage to enjoy shorter or longer moments of glory and fame.
We hope for these pleasurable experiences and do whatever we can to achieve them. We fear their opposites, and do whatever we can to avoid them. In the teachings these hopes and fears are called the eight samsaric dharmas: hope for pleasure, gain, praise and fame and fear of pain, loss, criticism and infamy.
The problem with this approach to happiness is that outer circumstances are inherently unreliable and impermanent. Thus this approach just becomes an endless chasing of temporary experiences of satisfaction and pleasure. Fortunately the teachings tell us that we can find a deeper reliable lasting happiness inside us that is based on inner peace and contentment.
How can we find this inner peace and contentment? The great master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche often used to say:
“Samsara is mind turned outwardly, lost in its projections.
Nirvana is mind turned inwardly recognizing its nature.”
When we connect with our Buddha nature, our true being, there is a natural great peace. In that there is deep understanding, connectedness and wisdom. And out if this naturally radiate love and compassion. In that realization there is an understanding that what we are is much bigger than our thoughts and emotions and that the essence of our being cannot be affected by outer circumstances. We discover our inner richness, that fundamentally all we need is already perfectly within us. When we realize that on a deeper level we already have all we need to be happy and that this inner richness cannot be affected by circumstances, this gives rise to a deep contentment.
Great practitioners can even face death or serious illness with that kind of attitude. True happiness is being in touch with that. And when we completely realize and embody this realization, then we call it enlightenment.
So how can we find this inner happiness? It is not something that we can fabricate. We can only create the conditions for it to arise. How? For example, through the practice of meditation, which brings us in touch with our pure self. Or, through training our mind and changing the attitude with which we look at the world. And there are also many other practices, like training the mind in compassion, that remove what obscures our true nature and blocks it from manifesting.
For me this brings up an interesting question: Does this mean we have to give up pleasure, gain, praise and respect are inherently bad and that we have to give them up completely? I wrote about this in my next post Do we need to give up the sense pleasures to find true happiness?