As was discussed in Part I, if one’s purpose in life is to seek happiness, then possessing wealth, reputation, power or status may not suffice. Similarly, gratifying the six senses does not necessarily deliver happiness either.
Second, people have different needs and hopes at different times and under different circumstances. Apparently, once these needs and hopes are met, they feel happy. Thus, for someone who is penniless, a little money to meet their urgent needs makes them happy. For one who is sick, healing soon is a happiest thing. And for a loving mother, seeing a rebellious son turn into a pious and hardworking man makes her happy. Of course, this kind of anticipated happiness is all but temporary. Happiness dies down as gratification subsides. Moreover, we have innumerous needs and hopes, how could one have them all fulfilled and stay happy all the time?
According to Buddhism, then, how might one remain cheerful and happy every day? The answer lies in a pure mind and body. The question is, how could you keep your mind clean and pure? When adversity hits and you feel angry or distressed, it means that your mind is seized with greed, anger or delusion, and that you have lost your cool to become disturbed, agitated or depressed. In these moments, you may speak evil or tell lies, you may act on impulse and get into physical violence. What is more, if you have a shady natural disposition or are fiercely greedy, you could involve yourself in criminal acts like killing, theft, or sexual misconduct. What is more, in those moments, if you are not able to reflect on your own behaviour and exercise self-control with a stable mind and wisdom, wake yourself up from stubbornness and confusion, you are likely to go further astray. Those who are able to maintain a pure mind and body, however, whether or not the circumstances favour them, stay emotionally detached and unsusceptible to feelings of love or hate, and these people live a life of serenity, content and joy.
The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates (469-399 BC), Plato (427-347 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC) all believed that human beings must attain real wisdom before they have an opportunity to discover the origin of true happiness. And the attainment of wisdom begins with thinking in order to understand the truth of life and the universe. In deed, this notion is compatible with Sakyamuni Buddha’s teaching to “dependent on meditative concentration; practise stabilization, contemplation and introspection; attain wisdom”. However, as philosophers rely solely on rational thinking, the product is no more than speculative philosophy. And even though such a massive thought system is rigorously structured, it does not help completely and perfectly solve real life problems, and that is it is called “theories for play” in Buddhism. On the other hand, by purifying his mind, Buddha was able to prove, through personal practice, that one can realize the truth of life and the universe to attain lasting joy. In this sense, if one’s purpose of living is to pursue happiness, then there would be no better approach than studying and following the Buddhist Dharma.
Studying the Dharma means cultivating the mind, that is, purifying one’s consciousness. All Buddhist schools share the same purpose of practice – purify the mind, awake to the dharma, be delivered from suffering and attain happiness. It is like that doctors prescribe different medications for different diseases but they all have a common goal – to heal the patient.
For instance, the Three-treatises School is based on three authoritative texts: Madhyamika Sastra (The Treatise of the Middle Way) and Dvadasa-dvara Sastra (The Twelve Gates Treatise) by Nagarjuna (c. 150-250), and Sataka Sastra (The One Hundred Verses Treatise) attributed to his disciple Aryadeva. They highlight the amazing significance of dependent origination and emptiness of nature contained in the non-worldly Dharma. Dependent origination means that all phenomena are born of many different karmic causes working in harmony.
Emptiness of nature means that all phenomena are an aggregation of a great many different karmic forces, which have no intrinsic independence, dominance, or eternity. Therefore, all phenomena are of false existence in manifestation and of natural emptiness in essence. Contemplation of this emptiness may enable people to put down and let go of all kinds of attachment to achieve happiness and freedom.
For yet another example, the Consciousness-only School delves into the eight consciousness – the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind, manas and alaya, and their subtle interactions with the self and the Dharma, and everything else in the universe. It expounds the theory that everything arises from the mind, and goes from theory to cultivation, following the five-fold contemplation of consciousness-only in turning delusion into prajna and furthermore, using prajna to remove delusion, so that the seeds of mental suffering within one’s consciousness are eliminated, to naturally attain happiness and joy.
And as to the Chan school’s “investigation of a meditation topic”, it helps generate persistent inquisitiveness in order to halt all thoughts of delusion by concentrating on the topic “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” With these investigations one may get deeply involved in search of an answer day and night. Once the search ends, enlightenment will manifest. There will no longer be any delusion or discrimination. Only then will the Chan practitioner enjoy a life of happiness and freedom when “every day is a good day”.
All in all, if you want to pursue a happier and more meaningful life, you need to nurture your mind. Nurturing the mind must begin with cultivating true wisdom with an appropriate outlook on life. And no matter what practice approach you adopt, the more you cultivate, the fewer hindrances and more happiness you would have!
Happiness Begins with Cultivating the Mind
A middle-aged reader once remarked, “I feel depressed and miserable. I work hard for my family and my job. I am busy all day to get us by with food, clothing, shelter and the commute. Yet all the time, I face overwhelming pressure from work and from getting along with people. A guy has only a few decades to live, and I am already working so flat out, yet why do I still feel unhappy?”
The concept of “happiness” is relative. People without a dime are happy when they have just a few bucks to meet their urgent needs. Those wanting to make it quick are happy once they turn nouveau riche. For people who are sick, getting well soon alone makes them happy.
Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance says, “One who is content, though sleeping on the floor, is happy. One who is discontented, though being in heaven, is not pleased.” Thus, the definition of happiness varies with people, time, and place.
In a world today that indulges in the gratification of material desire, many think that happiness comes from fame, fortune or status. However, once you do have them, are you necessarily happy?
The great Russian novelist Tolstoy (1828-1910) wrote the world-famous masterpieces War and Peace and Resurrection, which brought him enormous wealth and stardom, but he said he still felt empty, and that many things being unsatisfactory he was actually not happy at all. This indicates that prestige, affluence or eminence do not always ensure happiness. And if you seek them by hook or by crook, you are bound to suffer ill consequences.
Some, however, argue, “There are those in the world who do have everything they need: riches, longevity, children and grandchildren, filial piety. Aren’t they happy?!” Dear readers, let me say that these things that may bring happiness are all time-based, since life is reined by impermanence, and fame and fortune shall not last. In fact, joy, sorrow, union and separation, these are all part and parcel of man’s life, and no feast continues forever, as a saying goes. Husband and wife, parents and children, even they will separate one way and another, sooner or later.
People who feel content know well that peace is a blessing. They may live a simple life eating plain food, yet they relish it. Yan Hui, a Confucius’ (551-479 BC) disciple, proverbially lived on “a simple box of meal and a single gourd of drink, letting none of it take away his joy, while other men found life in his rundown alley unbearable”. The world being in constant change, everything is in a flux and that includes what one enjoys. This omnipresent transience is hard for people to get used to, which the Dharma considers to be a type of existential suffering. The brevity and impermanence of all things is indeed a portrayal of the reality we all live in, and by no means a derogatory comment on life by the author.
There are those who like to “get tipsy while there is wine at hand”, believing that happiness lies in nothing other than sensual gratification: beauty for the eyes, music for the ears, fragrance for the nose, fine food for the mouth, and silk and lace for the body. Be warned, everyone: clinging to sensory pleasure may lead, on the contrary, to infinite agony. Seeing a beauty that arouses your desire, for example, you could grow impulsive to commit a sin. Hearing criticism, you may feel anger and hostility. Sampling food that is not up to your taste might make you annoyed. And when your mind is filled with greed, anger or delusion, it could trigger criminal behaviour down the road. Therefore, happiness and joy brought on by the six senses are indeed short-lived and more likely to have negative consequences, planting karmic seeds that will ultimately turn into a cause of tribulation. From this one could clearly appreciate that happiness does not come from sensory stimulation.
The Lotus Sutra says, “The Three Realms are unsettling, like a burning house full of sorrow.” Saha, a Sanskrit word, means “to endure”. And a saha world, the world which we live in, is a world full of suffering, where the dwellers endure and get accustomed to it. Of course, there is happiness in a saha world too, but again it is ephemeral and impermanent.
This is by no means a pessimistic outlook, but a reality of human life. No doubt, all sentient beings want eternal joy, but as long as there is birth, sickness, aging and death, as long as people suffer from love and separation, from not getting what they desire, and from what is known as the five clinging aggregates, i.e., of form, feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness, how is it possible for any practitioner to have eternal joy?
Looking back, wise sages in history have had profound deliberations on human life. Lao Tse (604-531 BC) and Confucius in China, Thales (c. 624-548 BC), Socrates (469-399 BC), Plato (427-347 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC) in Greece as well as India’s Brahmin spiritual masters all conclude that
happiness is not attainable from material or desire. Instead, it comes from the inner world of the individual, and not from fame, fortune, power or status, nor from stimulation of the six senses of the body. In other words, happiness comes from invoking inner wisdom.
In truth this view aligns well with Buddhist thinking, whose followers must first understand their own mind. It is said in Buddhist scriptures, “Know but your own mind, and then without an effort one is able to access numerous approaches to immeasurable amazing insight.” And also, Straight Talk on the True Mind has this to say, “The mind is the origin of the individual and attainment by all Buddhas. All dharmas lie within the mind, from which come 84,000 Buddhist approaches”.
On the other hand, an illusory mind is what leads to obsession for sentient beings. Once a mortal’s illusion gets to work, there soon arise ideas of delusion, greed and anger, which may further motivate behaviour causing evil karma such as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, libel, lying and double speak. The individual so behaving then reaps ill consequences that keep him in perpetual transmigration. In contrast, the Buddha realized the “true mind”, and therefore transcended transmigration of life and death and stays in the realm of Nirvana.
The state of nirvana is beyond language, conception, time or space, that is, beyond the scope of experience by a sentient being. Only a Buddha truly understands what nirvana is. However, from the scriptures and through the dichotomy perspective of the secular world, we can still infer that nirvana is a realm of eternal bliss.
What the multitude of Buddhist scriptures attempt to convey is nothing more than the various approaches for sentient beings to leave suffering for joy. Ever since ancient times, Buddhist masters have summarized these approaches into eight major schools: Chan, Pure Land, Tantric, Vinaya, Tiantai, Consciouness-only, Three Treatises, and Hua Yan, with a vast amount of literature and profound theories behind them all. Among them some are seemingly easier to practise, such as Pure Land, others are harder to follow, such as Vinaya, and some are more philosophical, such as Hua Yan, Consciousness Only, Tiantai and Three Treatises, while others rather emphasize lineage and mentorship, such as Tantric and Chan. Followers, each and every one of them, have to work hard on their own cultivation, learn from knowledgeable practitioners, follow theory and understanding with action, and in turn, use action to further evaluate theory and consolidate their own understanding. In this fashion, the individual practitioner explores the rich storehouse of intrinsic merits found within his own mind.
Attentive readers, there is an endless stream of happiness from the Dharma to be discovered in your own mind, awaiting you to open up and probe. Rhymes of the Mind Only has this to say, “To know the amazing truth takes nothing but contemplation of the mind.” Thus, all merits and virtue start indeed with cultivation of the mind.