field of cheerful sunflowers

A great many spiritual leaders and practitioners talk about happiness. They promise that with their practice, we will achieve contentment. The aim of the spiritual practice is happiness, whether in this life, or in a future heaven. 

Some talk about how the natural state of the mind is happiness; how one’s real nature is happiness. Others promote laughter and joy: one should laugh and joke often about everything, see how fun, how funny life is. The aim of what is called “enlightenment” is to be very peaceful and feel very good all the time, not taking anything too seriously – to be always happy.  

Those who teach in this way might think that they are teaching something similar to what the Buddha taught. He sought to remove suffering, didn’t he  – isn’t that the same as happiness? 

To remove suffering, however, first we have to really know the difference between suffering and not suffering. 

We have to know what the Buddha meant by suffering, not what we might mean by suffering; we have to know what he meant by ending suffering, not what we mean by ending suffering: simply because the Buddha was the one who could see suffering as it actually was and is. 

Those who want to be enlightened in order to laugh and be happy are similar to quite a few people we meet, who arrive here full of problems: emotional problems, addiction problems, all kinds of heaviness, mainly born of the kind of lifestyle they live.

 Then as they stay here, stop taking intoxicants, do something useful, are in a community and are busy, suddenly life is so good, so much lighter. They can feel happy most of the time. Now they can appreciate things they were never able to before, like the taste of good food or the beauty of a sunset. Before they might have shown interest in meditation, but now no more – what suffering is there now? Life is beautiful; life is good! They don’t see any urgency to practice, because for them their aim is already fulfilled – to be happy, to enjoy life. 

Whenever we confuse our own small, personal suffering with the true suffering that the practice aims to end, we are the same. It is this confusion that makes practitioners and meditators stop and stagnate half-way or one tenth of the way, long before they have reached the aim of the teaching; simply because what they have attained thus far has brought them a level of peace and happiness that they never knew before. 

So much less worry, almost no stress, no anxiety – now life has never been so good. Now it seems enough. 

But is it really enough? What are we missing, what are we misunderstanding if we think like this? What is the true suffering that the practice aims to end?

What we must always remember above all is to look to the Buddha and no one else for our inspiration and our reference point.

When he was a prince, before he left his palace and renounced his life, he already had all the happiness that anyone could wish for. He had all the wealth, all the comfort, all the pleasure, and all the laughter and joy possible. Do we think he did not love his wife, or that he was depressed or emotionally disturbed or bored, like rich people we know of now? Not a bit of it; he loved his wife, his parents were moral people and wise, he was surrounded by good teachers, a good education, a mind steady and full to brimming with qualities and wisdom. The most complete worldly happiness was his. He came from a heavenly world and he was born into a kind of heaven on earth.

Suppose we are given everything that the Bodhisatta possessed, do we still feel the same urgency to practice? 

In fact, it is this very form of happiness that the vast majority of all those who desire enlightenment are searching for. They long to be like the Bodhisatta before he renounced the world: with all the happiness in the world, without mention of renunciation, higher morality, or purification of the mind. 

We have to try to see what made him give it up, to bring this question back again and again and really try to understand it. What did he see and understand, such that he gave the name “Rahula”  – chain – to his first-born son? If someone did such a thing in this world and society, we would diagnose them as mentally ill, put them in hospital and feed them Prozac every day. It is not a normal action, not a normal way of seeing things.

When one has all the happiness in the world, what is the problem that remains, what suffering persists that renders all that happiness meaningless and useless, that turns it sour? 

We can try to see through his eyes. What is the difference between him and us?

When we go looking for some kind of spiritual practice, mostly we are motivated by our own personal problems that we want to get rid of. The Bodhisatta was different. He possessed unequalled compassion for other beings, unequalled love for people, animals, everybody. The sight of others suffering caused enormous compassion to be born in him. 

One day, he discovered the existence of something he had never realised before, never known before in his life: an old man, a sick man, and a dead man.

Having never seen this before, he could see all the suffering in it as it was, without any softening of prior experience. What a great suffering to lose everything like that! To have such pain, such sorrow! Until that moment, he had never known that such suffering could exist.

He must have felt so much compassion for that poor old man, that sick man, that dead man. 

Yet the most terrible discovery still follows: everybody is also that old man, sick man, dead man. Everybody – every man, woman, child, animal, bird, fish and insect. Everyone.  

He himself is that old man, sick man, dead man. Even happiness so great as his, ends in an old man, sick man, dead man. 

Whatever we do, wherever we are, these three things are following us, crushing us.

It was from this point that whatever happiness he had as a prince could no longer be enjoyed, for in truth it was nothing but a temporary image – the kind of mirage that turns to ashes even as one looks at it. All beauty that seemed to be in the world was crumbling, rotting before his very eyes.  What place is there for this laughter, joy, and fun when everyone has to become an old man, a sick man, a dead man?

What laughter, what joy, when all the world is burning? When all around is dark – why do you not search for a light?

Dhp 146

Where now are the riches, joys and worldly happiness of the Boddisata and all his family and his entire kingdom? All are long, long, gone, dead and buried – existing now only in the form of an old story of history, almost forgotten.

Regardless of how happy we can be in this life, it is the same for us. If we do not understand this point we will not be able to progress, we don’t truly believe in the Buddha.

 At this very moment I am the richest person in the world: young, healthy, with every comfort I could wish for, surrounded by good friends, good environment, safety, security. 

It will change, whether tonight, tomorrow, in ten years, twenty years – it turns all to ashes. All will be lost, all gone. It is utterly undependable, entirely impermanent, here one moment, gone the next, like a beautiful cloud. Why can I not entirely believe in this truth? What prevents this mind from accepting it? As long as I cannot accept it fully, I am not a true student of the Buddha. 

 We think there is something we call good, something we call happiness, in this body and mind, in what we can touch with the senses: we are satisfied with something we call happiness while not fully letting go of desire, hatred and ignorance. In reality, nothing is truly good: nothing, either in the body or mind – as long as we are to be an old man, a sick man and a dead man.

The only way to find what is truly good is to let go of desire, hatred and ignorance. As long as we still have these, we still have old age, sickness and death. Without them, there will be no more old age, no more sickness, and no more death. We will be free. 

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