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CHAPTER FIVE - The Secret of Happiness
If we are able to quiet the cravings within us, we see that our true desire is not wealth or fame but happiness.
Because we want happiness, we search for power outside of ourselves. But as long as we seek power and happiness in fame, money, and sex, we will not find it.
Only by coming back to ourselves and purifying our minds can we experience true, lasting happiness and the kind of power that can’t be corrupted.
Is it possible for those of us who are poor, who are unknown, to have happiness? Many of us think that if we have no money and no fame, we have no power and therefore cannot be truly happy. Of course, our basic material needs for food, water, shelter, clothing, physical safety, and livelihood must be met for us to be happy. Abject poverty leads to suffering, disease, and violence. So I am speaking here of the desire to have money above and beyond our material needs.When the Buddha attained enlightenment, he wasn’t famous. On that remarkable day he was unknown to most of the world. Even his family did not know that he had become enlightened. When he went to Deer Park to see the five friends with whom he had previously practiced, they did not know he had attained Buddhahood. He wasn’t famous yet. After he attained enlightenment, he sat down at the foot of the bodhi tree and played with children and was very happy. His happiness was not based on fame or money. His happiness was based on his liberation, his peace, and his wisdom. We should train ourselves to see happiness in terms of peace, freedom, and compassion, not the size of our bank accounts. These are tremendous sources of power that we can cultivate in our daily lives. Later in his life the Buddha did become famous.
But this fame couldn’t consume and destroy him; this fame only helped his teaching and practice to spread farther. This kind of fame was not evil; in fact, it was of great benefit to many living beings.
Even if you have no money or fame, the practice of the five powers can make you happier than a lot of people with great wealth and celebrity. Surprisingly,when you are happy, it is not difficult to earn enough money to live comfortably and simply. It is much easier to make the money you need when you are solid and free. If you are happy, you are more likely to be comfortable in any situation. You are not afraid of anything. If you have the five spiritual powers and you lose your job, you don’t suffer much. You know how to live simply, and you can continue to be happy. You know that sooner or later you will get another job, and you are open to all possibilities.
We must distinguish happiness from excitement, or even joy. Many people think of excitement as happiness. They are thinking of something, or expecting something that they consider to be happiness, and for them, that is already happiness. But when you are excited you are not peaceful. True happiness is based on peace.
Suppose you are walking in a desert and you are dying of thirst. Suddenly you see an oasis and you know that once you get there, there will be a stream of water you can drink from so you will survive. Although you haven’t actually seen or drunk the water, you feel something—excitement, hope, joy, but not happiness yet. Happiness comes only once you actually drink the water and your thirst is quenched. If you don’t have peace in yourself, you haven’t experienced true happiness.
Some people find it easy to be happy and others don’t, even though they have plenty of conditions for happiness. You can buy conditions for happiness, but you can’t buy happiness. It’s like playing tennis. You can’t buy the joy of playing tennis at a store. You can buy the ball and the racket, but you can’t buy the joy of playing. To experience the joy of tennis, you have to learn, to train yourself to play. It’s the same with writing calligraphy. You can buy the ink, the rice paper, the brush, but if you don’t cultivate the art of calligraphy, you can’t do calligraphy. So calligraphy requires practice, and you have to train yourself. You are happy as a calligrapher only when you have the capacity to do calligraphy. Happiness is also like that.
You have to cultivate happiness; you cannot buy it at the store.
Walking meditation is a wonderful way to train yourself to be happy. While standing in one spot, look off a little ways and choose something—say, a pine tree. Make up your mind that while walking to the pine tree you will enjoy every step, that every step will provide you with the kind of peace and happiness that nourishes, heals, and satisfies.
There are those of us who are capable of walking from one point to another in that way, enjoying every step we take. We are not disturbed by anything—not by the past, not by the future; not by projects, not by excitement. Not even by joy, because in joy there is still more excitement than peace. If you are trained in walking meditation, with each step you can experience peace, happiness, and fulfillment. You are capable of truly touching the earth with each step. You see that being alive, being established fully in the present moment and taking one step, can be a wonder, and you live that wonder in every moment of walking.
Whether we are walking alone or together as a community, every step releases tension so we can touch the wonders of life right here and now. When you are free from tension, free from regrets about the past and worries about the future, you can touch the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha with every step you take, all day long. In the Gospel, there’s a story of a farmer who discovered a treasure in a field. He went home and sold everything to buy that field. Like that farmer, if we know how to touch the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha in the here and now, we have the most precious treasure already and we don’t need to run after money, fame, and power anymore. I have been urging church leaders and spiritual leaders to provide us with the kind of teaching and practice that will help us touch the Kingdom of God right here, right now, so we won’t run after fame, sex, money, and power anymore. The Kingdom of God is always available. The question is whether we are available to the kingdom. In Buddhist teachings, it is said that the Pure Land of the Buddha is in your heart. If you are free, you can touch the wonders of life here and now.
The French writer André Gide said that God is happiness. I like that. He also said that God is available twenty-four hours a day. If God is there, his kingdom is there. But are you there to enjoy the kingdom? The same thing is true in Buddhism. If you do walking meditation properly, every step helps you touch the Pure Land of the Buddha. So you can challenge yourself: “I will do walking meditation from here to that pine tree. I vow that I will succeed.” Only if you are free can your steps bring you happiness and peace.
One nun shared with me a story about her friend who visited Plum Village. Her friend is married and has a family, a job, a house, a car, and everything she needs.
She thinks of her relationship as a good one, although it wasn’t what she’d expected. Her job is enjoyable, with a salary above average. Her house is beautiful.
And yet she doesn’t feel happy. Intellectually, she knows that in terms of comfort she has everything, but it does not keep her from being depressed. Not many people are as successful as she is, and she knows that she is fortunate. And yet she isn’t happy.
We have a tendency to think of happiness as something we will obtain in the future. Like the oasis visible from miles away in the desert, we expect happiness down the road. We don’t have certain conditions we think we need to be happy, but we believe that once we have them happiness will be there.
Suppose you think a degree will make you happy.
You think about the diploma day and night, and you do everything to get it because you believe that happiness will be there tomorrow, when you earn your diploma.There may be joy and satisfaction in the days and weeks after you receive your diploma, but you will quickly adapt to that new condition, and in just a few weeks you won’t feel happy anymore. You will get used to having a diploma. We become immune to our happiness, and after a while we don’t feel happy any longer.
Even people who win the lottery and become millionaires don’t often get lasting happiness from their good fortune. Studies have found that after two or three months winners return to the emotional state they were in before winning the lottery. During those three months, what they experience is not exactly happiness; there is a lot of thinking, a lot of excitement, a lot of planning. But three months later, they fall back to exactly the same emotional level they were in before winning the lottery.
Perhaps you want to marry someone, thinking that if you can’t marry her, then you cannot be happy. You believe that your happiness will be great after you marry that person. After you marry, you may have a period of happiness, but eventually happiness vanishes.
There is no longer any excitement, any joy, and of course no happiness. What you get is not what you expected and dreamed of. Perhaps you know that what you have attained will not last. The person you are living with may betray you one day. You can’t be sure that person will be faithful to you, so there is also fear and uncertainty. Even if you have a good job, you are not sure you can keep it: you may be laid off at any time. This type of happiness without peace has an element of fear and cannot be true happiness. To hold on to these conditions of so-called happiness, you have to be busy all day long. And with these worries, uncertainties, and busyness, you don’t feel happy and you become depressed.
Even after we obtain all the conditions we believe are necessary for our happiness, we remain unsatisfied. So the question for those of us who want true happiness is, what can we rely on? The answer is simple and profound. Those of us who want to experience great happiness, to awaken the mind of great understanding and love, should not base our mind on any external thing, including form, sound, touch, and ideas. We should not rely on any object to give rise to the mind of enlightenment, the mind of love.Suppose you wonder what path to choose for your life. You may think that being a police officer will make you very happy. Some people may be attracted to this path because they want the uniform, they want power.
Others feel they can find happiness as medical doctors.
And there are those who feel they can be happy only if they become politicians.
You must choose one of these paths, but you are not sure it will bring you happiness. You hesitate, wondering, “If I am not happy in this career, what will I do?” We have this doubt because we are basing our decision on form, on appearance. The path of a
monastic is a form. The path of a politician is a form, just like the path of a businessperson and the path of an artist. There are artists who are happy and artists who aren’t. There are monastics who are happy and monastics who aren’t. There are laypersons who are happy and laypersons who aren’t. There are police officers who are happy and police officers who aren’t.
So you cannot say that the position or occupation you long for will make you happy. If you think you can base your decision and your happiness on this kind of outer form, you are wrong. You will be deceived.You may want to marry a man who is attractive, who has a prestigious degree, or who has a high position in society, because you think that marrying such a person will guarantee your happiness. If you want to marry someone just because he is beautiful or rich, you are relying on only the external form, and this changes constantly. What if your spouse loses his job, his fame, his power? What if he gets into an accident and is no longer attractive?
Whatever form you take, whatever path you take, if you are attached to the form, you cannot get the happiness you want, even if you become a monk or a nun. If you are attached to the form of a monastic and you think that wearing the robe and living in the monastery will make you happy, you are wrong. There are monks and nuns who are not happy because they are not capable of being understanding and loving. But when you know how to cultivate understanding and compassion in every moment of your life, the outer form of your life doesn’t matter anymore. So the key to success is not the form of a monastic or layperson, of a police officer, a farmer, or a doctor, but your capacity to cultivate happiness, understanding, and compassion.Wherever there is form, wherever there is perception, there is delusion. We have to be very careful about basing our decisions on the appearance of things, on the outer form. To find happiness, enlightenment, and compassion, you have to be free, not fooled by your perceptions. When you look at something deeply, you discover its nature and you are no longer fooled by it.
Since you are not fooled by the appearance, you no longer suffer, and you have the capacity to be happy.
We tend to think, “I’ll be so happy if I can get this and this and this. But if I’m not able to get these things, my life will be ruined, and I’ll never be happy.” Our ideas about what power is and what will bring us happiness can be quite dangerous for us. It’s dangerous to be committed to an idea of happiness, because then you’re caught in that idea. Happiness can come to you in a thousand ways if you only allow it to. But if you’re committed to only one idea of happiness, you’re stuck. Happiness can no longer come to you because you’ve decided that you’ll refuse everything except this one path of happiness. Of course you’re motivated by the desire to be happy and to make the people you love happy. But the idea of happiness that you have may actually be an obstacle preventing you and your beloved ones from being happy.
The Buddha told the story of a merchant, a widower, who went away on a business trip and left his little boy at home. While he was away, bandits came and burned down the whole village. When the merchant returned, he didn’t find his house; it was just a heap of ash. There was the charred body of a child close by. He threw himself on the ground and cried and cried. He beat his chest and pulled his hair.
The next day, he had the little body cremated.
Because his beloved son was his only reason for existence, he sewed a beautiful little velvet bag and put the ashes inside. Wherever he went, he took that bag of ashes with him. Eating, sleeping, working, he always carried it with him. In fact, his son had been kidnapped by the bandits; three months later, the boy escaped and returned home. When he arrived, it was two o’clock in the morning. He knocked on the door of the new house his father had built. The poor father was lying on his bed crying, holding the bag of ashes, and he asked, “Who is there?” “It’s me, Daddy, your son.” The father answered, “That’s not possible. My son is dead. I’vecremated his body and I carry his ashes with me. You must be some naughty boy who’s trying to fool me. Go away, don’t disturb me!” He refused to open the door, and there was no way for the little boy to come in. The boy had to go away, and the father lost his son forever.
After telling this story, the Buddha said, “If at some point in your life you adopt an idea or a perception as the absolute truth, you close the door of your mind.
This is the end of seeking the truth. And not only do you no longer seek the truth, but even if the truth comes in person and knocks on your door, you refuse to open it. Attachment to views, attachment to ideas, attachment to perceptions are the biggest obstacle to the truth.”
It’s like when you climb a ladder. When you get to the fourth rung, you may think you are on the highest step and cannot go higher, so you hold on to the fourth rung. But in fact there is a fifth rung; if you want to get to it, you have to be willing to abandon the fourth rung.
Ideas and perceptions should be abandoned all the time, to make room for better ideas and truer perceptions.
This is why we must always ask ourselves, “Am I sure?”I have a friend who became a stockbroker. At first, he was quite eloquent and used that talent to persuade his clients to buy stock. But after encountering the Buddhist teaching and learning the mantra “Are you sure?” he changed his views and his method. When people asked him whether he was sure, he said, “I can’t say that I’m sure. This is my opinion, based on my best understanding at this time.” He was honest. The result was that even more people sought his advice.
We may find that ambition—the desire to become someone special—is very strong in us. Achieving and “becoming someone” is seen as significant, yet it can lead us to suffer a lot in spite of our many achievements. How can we deal with the desire to become someone?
Your action, what you do, depends on who you are.
The quality of your action depends on the quality of your being. Suppose you want to offer happiness to someone. You are eager to make a person happy. This is a good idea, but if you yourself are not happy, you can’t do it. To make another person happy you have to be happy yourself. So there is a link between doing and being. If you don’t succeed in being, you can’t succeed in doing.
Happiness becomes possible when we realize we have a path, when we know where we are going. If you don’t have the impression that you are on the right path, if you don’t know where you are going, you suffer, you feel lost and confused. Happiness is feeling that you are on the right path every moment. You don’t need to arrive at the end of the path to be happy. You are happy right here and right now.
Being on the “right path” has to do with the very concrete ways in which you live your life in every moment. It is possible to live mindfully every moment of your daily life. This makes you happy, and it also makes the people around you happy. Even if you haven’t “done” anything yet to make them happy, once you are walking that path and you are happy doing so, you become pleasant to be with, fresh, and compassionate, and people benefit from being around you. Look at the tree in the front yard: the tree doesn’t seem to do anything. It just stands there, vigorous, fresh, and beautiful, and everyone benefits from it. That is the miracle of being. If a tree is less than a tree, all of us will be in trouble. If a tree can be a real tree, there is hope, there’s joy.
So if you can be yourself, this is already love, this is already action. Action is based on nonaction, and nonaction is the practice of being. There are people who “do” a lot, who cause a lot of trouble. Even if they have the best of intentions, the more they try to help, the more trouble they create. There are a lot of activists around us who are not peaceful, not happy, and so what they do causes more trouble. This is why what we want to do is to be in such a way that peace and compassion are possible in every moment. Words and actions coming from that foundation can be only helpful. If you can make a person suffer less, make her smile, you will feel very happy, very rewarded.
If a nun is happy, it is not because she has power or fame but because she knows her presence is helping a lot of people. To feel that you are helpful, you are useful to society—this is happiness. When you have a path and you enjoy every step on your path, you are already someone. You don’t need to become someone else. You already are what you want to become, practicing nonaction, the art of being.
When I was a young monk, I learned that the teachings of the Buddha could be summarized in four short sentences. People asked the Buddha how to be happy, and he said that all buddhas teach the same thing:
The bad things, don’t do them.
The good things, try to do them.
Try to purify, subdue your own mind.
That is the teaching of all buddhas .
I wasn’t impressed. I thought to myself, “This is too simple. Everyone agrees that you have to do good things and refrain from doing bad things. To subdue and purify your mind is too vague.” But after sixty-five years of practice I have a different perspective on this teaching. Looking carefully, I have seen that these four sentences are very meaningful.
Now I understand that the bad things you should avoid are those that create suffering for you and other people, including other living beings and the environment. Mindfulness helps you know whether something is a good thing or a bad thing, whether doing it will bring happiness or suffering to yourself and the people around you. When you refrain from doing bad things, you are practicing compassion, because you refrain from bringing suffering to yourself and other people. Practicing compassion is practicing happiness, because happiness is the absence of suffering. Then, try to do good things. Try to do whatever brings peace, stability, and joy to you and other people.
You practice love, you practice compassion, and you know that practicing love brings happiness. Happiness cannot exist without love. All the great spiritual teachers have told us to love, and the concrete means is to refrain from causing suffering and to offer happiness.
It is easy to say, easy to understand, but it is not always easy to do or to refrain from doing. Thus these first two things depend entirely on the third thing: to purify and subdue your mind. The mind is the ground of everything.
The Buddha said that all suffering comes from the mind but all happiness also comes from the mind. To purify your mind is to transform your way of perceiving things, to remove wrong perceptions. When you remove your wrong perceptions, you also remove your anger, your hate, your discrimination, and your craving.
Our minds can be intoxicated by three kinds of
poison: the first is craving, the second is hate or violence, and the third is delusion. To purify your mind is to neutralize and transform these poisons in you. You neutralize these poisons with the three wisdoms, the energies of mindfulness, concentration, and insight.
If your mind is full of confusion, anger, and craving, then your mind is not pure, so even if you want to do good things you can’t do them, and even if you want to refrain from doing bad things you cannot. You can offer happiness and refrain from causing suffering easily and beautifully only when you know how to subdue and purify your mind. This is the most special thing in Buddhism, the art of subduing and purifying your mind.
Once our mind is subdued and transformed, happiness becomes possible.
When you walk from here to the pine tree, you begin with one step, and you can train yourself so that this step has within it the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. If you really practice walking meditation, you will discover that every step you take generates the energies of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, bringing you a lot of happiness. When you walk like this, you are first aware that you are taking a step: that is the energy of mindfulness. I am here. I am alive. I am taking a step. You step and you know you are taking a step. That is mindfulness of walking. The mindfulness helps you be in the here and now, fully present, fully alive so that you can take the step. Zen Master Lin Chi said, “The miracle is not to walk on air, or on water, or on fire. The real miracle is to walk on earth.” Walking with mindfulness, concentration, and insight is performing a miracle. You are truly alive. You are truly present, touching the wonders of life within you and around you.
We have invented many types of machines that save a lot of time. We can do wonders with a computer. A computer can work a hundred or a thousand times faster than a typewriter. In farming, it used to take several weeks to plough the fields; now you can do it in a few days. You don’t have to wash your clothes by hand anymore—there’s a washing machine. You don’t have to go fetch the water, because the water comes to your kitchen. We have found many ways to save labor, and yet we are much busier than our ancestors were. That is a contradiction. Why is that? Because we have acquired so much and we are afraid of losing these things, so we have to work hard to keep them. That is why even if you have a lot, you still suffer and become depressed.
Manufacturers of medicine will tell you that the kinds of medicine we consume the most in our society —in tremendous quantities––are sedatives and antidepressants. When the Buddha talked about subduing and purifying our minds, he wasn’t talking about sedation.
We have taken into ourselves so many toxins, poisons. The world we have created has overpowered us. We cannot escape anymore, even in our sleep. But peace and happiness are still available, once we see that the conditions we think are essential to our happiness may in fact bring us the opposite of happiness— depression, despair, and forgetfulness.
We have to begin with our breath. We have to breathe in mindfully to know that we are alive, that there are still wonders of life around us and in us that we can touch every minute for our transformation and healing.We have to use our feet to learn how to walk in the present, because each step will be transforming, healing, and nourishing.
Most of us walk like sleepwalkers. We walk, but we aren’t there. We don’t experience life or the wonders of life. There is little joy. We are sleepwalking through our own life, and our life is as unreal as a dream. Cultivating true power is about waking up from your dream. One mindful step can be a factor of awakening that brings you to life—that brings you the miracle of being alive.
And when mindfulness is there, concentration is there, because mindfulness contains concentration. You can be less or more focused. You may be fifty, sixty, or ninety percent focused on your step, but the more focused you are, the better your chance of breaking through into insight. Mindfulness leads to concentration, which leads to insight. Insight is a fruit of our practice. Like an orange tree offers oranges, insight offers us the truths of impermanence, no-self, and interbeing.
Impermanence means that everything is changing, including the happiness you experience when you are doing walking meditation. Happiness, like all
phenomena, is impermanent. It lasts for only one step;if the next step doesn’t have mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then happiness will die.
However, you know that you are capable of taking a second step that also generates the three energies of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, so you have the power to make happiness last longer. It’s like when we ride a bicycle: we continue to pedal so that we can continue to move forward.
Happiness is impermanent, but it can be renewed.
You are also impermanent and also renewable, like your breath, like your steps. You are not something permanent experiencing something impermanent. You are something impermanent experiencing something impermanent. If happiness can be renewed, so can you, because you in the next moment is a renewal of you in this moment. It’s wonderful to know that happiness lasts only as long as one in-breath or one step, because we know we can renew our happiness in another breath or another step, provided we know the art of generating mindfulness, concentration, and insight.
The insight of impermanence leads to the insight of no-self. When we pursue individual happiness, our satisfaction is always ultimately fleeting, because individual happiness is not possible. Our happiness, our existence, is dependent on the existence and happiness of everyone and everything else. This is the insight of interbeing, the interconnectedness of all things. The father knows that if the son is not happy he himself cannot be truly happy, so when the father seeks his own happiness, he also seeks happiness for his son.
Your mindful steps are not for you alone; they are for your partner and friends too, because the moment you stop suffering, others benefit.
When you take one mindful step, it might seem that you are taking a step for yourself alone. You are trying to find some peace, some stability, some happiness.
But with insight, you see that everything good that you do for yourself, you are doing for all of us. If just one person in a family or a company practices, that practice will benefit everyone, not only the practitioner. When that person practices correctly, she gets the insight of no-self and she knows that she’s doing it for everyone.
Perhaps you feel you are doing most of the work in your home or office. You get angry at others and feel they should be punished. When a feeling of anger or discrimination manifests, the practitioner recognizes that to allow such an energy to continue is not healthy for himself or for others. All these thoughts can be easily transformed once you have touched the nature of no-self. Practice mindfulness of breathing and walking in order to recognize the feeling of anger, to embrace the anger and transform it. When the element of ignorance is no longer there, the element of anger will be transformed. You don’t transform it just for the benefit of others; you do it for yourself as well, because you see that there is no distinction between the two. With the insight of no-self, you no longer seek the kind of happiness that will make other people suffer. This kind of insight can liberate you and liberate the world.
So from here to the pine tree, I wish you good luck.
Take a step in such a way that mindfulness, concentration, and insight can be generated, so that you get in touch with the here and now, you touch the wonders of life. Forget about the conditions of happiness that you have been running after for such a long time—money, power, wealth, sex—because you know that once you get them, you will still be unhappy. You want true life, true happiness, true power.
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