Happiness: An In-Depth Analysis
of Its Role in Sutra and Tantra
Mexico City, Mexico, October 1999
Edited course transcript, March 2007
Session Two: Recognizing the Various Levels of Happiness
I’d like to continue our discussion from last night, but before I begin, there is a piece of advice that a very wise woman once gave me, which I think is relevant here. If you have a group and you want to lead it into a destructive action, like into battle, then you instruct them at the level of the lowest persons in the group so that everybody will understand and go fight. But if you want to lead a group into doing something constructive, then you instruct it at the level of the highest persons within the group. Those persons will understand and then slowly instruct the people with less understanding, so that everybody comes to a higher understanding in a stable and steady way. So, when we are speaking about our topic here on a fairly sophisticated level, it is important not to get discouraged, but to realize that the teachers that you have here will be able to understand and follow this. Then slowly they will be able to explain to you over time, since I am not here for a very long period. This is the most efficient way of trying to help everybody along the constructive path toward liberation and enlightenment.
I don’t want to review all of yesterday because that will take the whole morning. But, in brief, we saw that innate joy is one of our evolving Buddha-nature factors. It is part of the network of good qualities that we all have in some form or another, even if only at a very low level, and which can transform into the enlightening qualities of a Buddha. We also saw that by enhancing our innate joy, we can use it as a method for strengthening our networks of positive force and deep awareness. When our networks of good qualities, positive force, and deep awareness are sufficiently strengthened and the stains that are preventing them from functioning at peak efficiency are removed, our whole system of networks transforms into and functions as the enlightening networks of a Buddha – the Buddha-Bodies. The resultant peak level of happiness that we experience then will be part of our system of Buddha-Bodies. It will be our Body of Essential Nature, according to the Kalachakra system.
Not only is innate joy or happiness part of the basic package of Buddha-nature factors that we need to work with, and not only will it be part of the final resultant package that we achieve as a Buddha, but it is also one of the things that we can use as a method to reach that final stage. This is because when we strengthen the factor of happiness and combine it with an understanding of voidness so that it is not disturbing and we are unconfused about the happiness we experience, then that happiness can help us to access our clear light mind. This is the most subtle and efficient level of mind for the understanding of voidness so that we can cut through and eliminate our suffering and the causes of our suffering most efficiently and quickly.
An important point here is that happiness, pleasure, or joy in its ordinary form is not going to bring us liberation or enlightenment. That is because it is too confusing, too disturbing. The technical term is that it is “tainted” with confusion. “Tainted” means that it derives from confusion, is mixed with confusion while it is being experienced, and gives rise to more confusion. Happiness needs to be combined with an understanding of voidness. In the Gelug tradition there is always a tremendous emphasis on what is called “inseparable voidness and bliss,” not just on one of them but on the two of them inseparably. The happiness that is part of inseparable voidness and bliss is “untainted” happiness.
[See: Tainted and Untainted Phenomena.]
Although joy is an aspect of our evolving Buddha-nature and, as such, is an innate feature of our minds, we are not talking about happiness as being equivalent to some small part of the brain secreting chemical and electrical impulses. Everybody has a part of the brain and various chemicals secreted there that function as the physical basis for feeling happiness. That is not what we are talking about in our discussion of happiness as an innate feature of the mind.
We are also not talking about mind as some sort of immaterial “thing” in our brains, but rather we are talking about mind as the individual subjective experiencing of events and objects. It is a mental activity. And this individual, subjective experiencing of events and objects includes not just the rational side of experiencing things, but also includes the perceptional, emotional, intuitive, and feeling sides as well. “Mind” in the Buddhist context includes all these things.
So, the fact that joy or happiness is an innate feature of our minds means that happiness is an innate feature of our individual, subjective experiencing of things. However, normally that happiness is clouded by fleeting stains, so that we don’t always experience it. For instance, when we are confused about behavioral cause and effect, we act destructively because we think that there are no results from such behavior or that happiness will come from it. But results do follow from our destructive behavior and those results are a future experience of unhappiness. Some time in the future, whether in this lifetime or in another life, when we see, hear, smell, taste, physically sense, or think something, we will experience this together with a feeling of unhappiness – the suffering of suffering. That unhappiness we experience at that time will be clouding the innate happiness or joy of the mind. Even when we are aware of behavioral cause and effect and, as a result of acting constructively, our seeing, thinking and so on of things will be accompanied with happiness at some time in the future; that happiness we experience at that time will be merely ordinary “tainted” happiness – the suffering of change. It too will be clouding the innate happiness or joy of the mind.
One thing needs to be emphasized here very strongly. This innate joy of the mind that we are talking about is not some findable “thing” sitting somewhere in our minds and establishing its existence by its own power, independently of anything else. In simple language, innate joy is not some solid “thing.” We must always remember the voidness of innate joy – its absence of existing in impossible ways. It is not that there is solid happiness somewhere in our minds and it simply gets clouded by unhappiness or by tainted happiness, but is findable underneath that suffering. Nor is it the case that happiness as a solid “thing” has varying degrees and the lowest degree of it is what we call “unhappiness.” Nor is it that happiness as a solid “thing” transforms into suffering, like gold transforming into a bracelet. Shantideva refutes all these wrong views of happiness in the ninth chapter of his Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. Even innate happiness is something that dependently arises. But, this is a complex topic for another discussion.
Both happiness and unhappiness have been part of our individual subjective experiencing of things with no beginning. Our experiencing of things has no beginning and so our happiness and unhappiness likewise have no beginning. We have to really ask the question, then, are both happiness and unhappiness the innate nature of experience, which would mean that we can only ever sometimes be happy and sometimes be unhappy, or what? That’s a very serious question.
We’d have to say that happiness is part of the innate nature of the individual, subjective experiencing of things – but untainted happiness, not the tainted variety – because untainted happiness is based on understanding the nature of reality, voidness. Even tainted happiness is more well-founded than unhappiness, because it is based on understanding behavioral cause and effect and therefore based on acting constructively. Unhappiness or suffering is not the innate nature of the individual, subjective experiencing of things, because it is based on confusion – either about behavioral cause and effect or about reality. In other words, to determine whether or not either happiness or unhappiness is the innate nature of experience we look at its causes.
The cause for happiness is correct understanding, if we put it in simple words. The cause for unhappiness is unawareness or confusion. Confusion can be replaced by understanding. The more that we examine, we find that confusion doesn’t hold up to reason; whereas correct understanding does: it is valid. Understanding and confusion are exact opposites; we cannot both understand and not understand at the same time. When we have correct understanding, it totally replaces incorrect understanding. And because this correct understanding can be substantiated or validated, it will stand up to any test. So, if we are able to maintain that correct understanding all the time, the confusion won’t return.
If we look at this question from another point of view, untainted happiness or joy is the innate nature of the mind or of the experiencing of things because it can be combined with a correct understanding of reality, voidness. By combining untainted happiness with a correct understanding of voidness here, I don’t mean focusing on the voidness of happiness. I mean focusing on voidness with an untainted happy state of mind. In such cases, that understanding of voidness will need to be with a nonconceptual cognition, but let’s not make our discussion even more complicated by bringing in the subtle differences here between conceptual and nonconceptual cognition of voidness with a happy state of mind.
In general, then, a correct understanding of voidness will not destroy an untainted happy state of mind that accompanies it. This is because the correct understanding of voidness does not destroy the absence of confusion that characterizes untainted happiness. Moreover, the depletion of confusion from our mental continuum comes about from the correct understanding of voidness. And so a correct understanding of voidness experienced with untainted happiness cannot hinder the process of that depletion. It does not hinder the build-up of pure positive force that will enable that depletion. Rather, a correct understanding of voidness builds up the pure positive force that is needed to gain that depletion.
Even in the case of tainted happiness, a correct understanding of behavioral cause and effect experienced with tainted happiness does not destroy that tainted happiness. It’s just the opposite. A correct understanding of behavioral cause and effect helps us to act constructively and to restrain from destructive behavior, and acting that way is the cause for building up the positive force that ripens into our experiencing of tainted happiness.
On the other hand, if we try to combine a correct understanding of voidness with an unhappy state of mind, the unhappiness can never last. An unhappy state of mind is always tainted with confusion – it always comes from confusion and is accompanied by confusion, although it may not necessarily produce more confusion. A correct understanding of voidness is without any confusion, and therefore its attainment is simultaneous with an absence of confusion for as long as that understanding is maintained. Because of that, a correct understanding of voidness cannot be experienced with an unhappy mind.
What about a correct understanding of behavioral cause and effect? Even if it is experienced with an unhappy state of mind, it will help to prevent the build-up of further causes for the future experiencing of unhappiness. This is because when we understand and are fully convinced of the suffering consequences of destructive behavior, we will act constructively by restraining ourselves from acting destructively. We may not be happy about refraining from an inappropriate sexual act at the time of restraining ourselves, for example. But our restraint acts as a cause for the future experiencing of happiness and not unhappiness.
The implications of this discussion are very profound. The implication is that the suffering of unhappiness and even the suffering of tainted happiness – the suffering of change – are fleeting phenomena. They are not part of the innate nature of the mind; they are not part of the innate nature of our experiencing of things. Understanding and becoming convinced of the truth of this fact, though, requires a lot of analysis and deep thought. But, if we really understand this and are convinced that it is correct, it gives us great encouragement that unhappiness can be removed, whereas happiness is something that can last. Although our ordinary tainted happiness will inevitably end, untainted happiness is something that will never end. It is important to understand and be convinced of this based on reasoning, not just based on somebody saying, “Believe, and then you could be eternally happy.”
We can work on strengthening our happiness on two levels. We can work on strengthening our happiness either while it is still tainted with confusion or when it is no longer tainted with confusion. Actually, we need to work on both levels, one after the other. But, before we can work on strengthening it, we need to be able to identify or recognize correctly what we mean by happiness.
First of all, “feeling” in Buddhism is defined as the way in which we experience the ripening of our karma. We experience with happiness, unhappiness, or a neutral feeling whatever things happen to us that ripen as a result of our previous behavior. Actually, this definition covers only our tainted experience, which is before we become an arhat, a liberated being. After that, we experience untainted happiness or an untainted neutral feeling, which is something else. But, let’s not get into that here.
“Happiness,” then, is defined in Buddhism as that feeling, either physical or mental, which when it accompanies our experiencing of things, we like it and we want it to continue. That doesn’t imply that we are attached to this feeling. “Attachment” means that we exaggerate its good qualities and then don’t want to let go. The definition of happiness just means that we would prefer for this feeling to continue. For example, we may experience happiness watching our young children play at night. We enjoy it, but when it’s time to go to bed, we are not attached to the happiness we derived from watching our children play. That is the definition. Happiness can be any level of intensity; it does not need to be dramatic.
“Unhappiness” is that mental or physical feeling which, when it accompanies our experiencing of things, we don’t like it and we want it to end. Again, the definition does not imply repulsion or aversion, which is an exaggeration of the bad qualities of something and the strong wish to destroy it. Unhappiness can also be any level of intensity.
This point about different levels of intensity means that there is a large spectrum here, spanning from extreme unhappiness or pain on one side, to a very low level of unhappiness and discomfort, then a very tiny point of neutral feeling in the middle, and then continuing to the other side of the axis going from a tiny feeling of comfort up to intense bliss.
As for this point in the middle, we need to differentiate between feeling nothing and feeling neutral. So long as our mental continuum goes on, we feel something in every moment. When we say we feel nothing, this actually means that we are insensitive to the feeling that is accompanying our presently happening experiencing of things. We are not being mindful of it, either because we are too busy or because we are afraid of the feeling. There are all sorts of possible reasons why we imagine that we feel nothing. But if we are totally sensitive to the feeling that is accompanying our so-called experiencing of feeling nothing, we might discover that we actually are feeling neutral, but that is very rare. Usually in such cases we are feeling a very low level of intensity of either happiness or unhappiness. In fact, most of the time we are experiencing low intensity feelings.
We can recognize what we mean here by low intensity feelings by just taking a few moments and looking around the room or out the window until something catches our attention and we stay fixed and look at it. It could be the wall, the thangka painting on the wall; it could be anything – the back of somebody’s head. The fact that we stay looking at that and we don’t feel uncomfortable and want to shift our focus elsewhere indicates that we are experiencing seeing this object with a low level of enjoyment. If we experienced seeing it without even the slightest enjoyment and so were dissatisfied, we would look away. That would indicate a low level of unhappiness. With this low intensity unhappiness, we experience looking at the object as, “I’m tired of looking at that.”
Try that for a moment just to recognize what we mean by low intensity happiness and unhappiness. Try to appreciate that low level of intensity. You know, happiness doesn’t have to be like a musical movie where we are dancing down the street, singing a song.
So, look around until you find something that you like to look at.
Notice the low level of enjoyment and happiness.
When you get tired of looking at it, notice the low level of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
I think you can understand from this exercise and from your own experience that low intensity enjoyment is not dramatic. Nevertheless, it can be very calming and satisfying. We would call it “relaxing.” That, in fact, is quite important to remember. When we are feeling tense or stressed, if we just calm down and look at a flower or a tree out the window or something like that, the low level of enjoyment we experience is very worthwhile. The same is true if we are feeling depressed, bored, or just “blah.” Some people are using this type of method when they put a picture of a loved one on their desk at work. Occasionally looking at it can give us a little bit of happiness when we’re going crazy with our work.
Of course we want the happiness we experience to continue, but if we are attached to it, we destroy whatever happiness we have. And if we have longing desire for happiness, we sabotage our chances to experience it. Remember, attachment is an exaggeration of the good qualities of something we have and not wanting to let go of it. Longing desire is the same type of exaggeration, but directed at something we don’t have and wanting to acquire it. It’s the attitude, “I’ve got to be happy and gain happiness,” and so we roam the streets and bars at night trying to find happiness. Or we spend an unbelievable amount of time searching through all the stations on the television to find something that we will like and that will make us happy. How much time do we waste doing that? For some weird reason, we feel that we have to be entertained every moment of our life. That is longing desire for happiness.
It’s amusing because, even if we find something that we like, we think maybe there is another program that will be even better and so we go on searching the stations. We can’t even enjoy the happiness that we find! By the time we get back to the first program we liked, it’s finished! That, I think, is a good example of how our longing desire for happiness sabotages or destroys any happiness that we find.
As for attachment, it occurs when we find something that gives us pleasure and, thinking it’s so wonderful, we don’t want to let go of it. It is like when we’re lying in bed with a loved one and we have our arm around the person, but they’re lying on top of our arm. We don’t want to let go and so our arm falls asleep and starts to hurt. This is an example of the suffering of change, but we’re so attached to embracing our loved one, we don’t want to release our embrace and let go of the person. We mix our happiness with the confusion of exaggerating the good qualities of the warm pleasant feeling we experience while embracing our loved one. We don’t realize that this happiness is actually an example of the suffering of change.
So what is attachment? As I’ve been explaining, it’s a mind that exaggerates the good qualities of something – in this case, happiness – and does not want to let go of it. Attachment makes happiness appear to exist discordantly – in other words, not in the way that it actually does exist. It makes the happiness appear as if it were a solid thing that we could hold onto and that would make a seemingly solid “me” secure and happy. And in making the happiness appear seemingly solid, attachment makes it appear as if the happiness did not depend on changing factors for its existence, and so it could last forever. That is the eternalist view, that if we could just have this happiness or have enough of it or not lose it, this would eliminate all of our problems.
When we experience happiness tainted with confusion like this, the habits of our confusion are causing our minds to make our happiness appear in these strange, impossible ways. With confusion, we then believe that happiness exists in the way our minds make it appear and, with attachment and longing desire, we act impulsively in such a way that it destroys any happiness we might be experiencing. For example, we feel that we have to verbalize the happiness in order to make it concrete and “real.” We are with somebody and we have to verbalize: “Aren’t we having a good time? I am so happy!” And as soon as we say that, it destroys the whole mood. Or we are enjoying a meal and we stuff ourselves with even more food to enjoy it even more. So, in fact, we destroy the enjoyment we were having from the food.
That’s an interesting question, by the way – how much of a delicious dish do we need to have eaten in order to have enjoyed it? Or we are making love with somebody and we push on to orgasm, which actually will end the whole thing. Then we both go to sleep and, because we were grasping to have the peak pleasure, we brought the experience to an end. This is what we are talking about when we talk about tainted happiness. We want to continue to experience it because we like it, but we destroy it by mixing it with confusion.
But happiness doesn’t need to be mixed with confusion. We can understand that happiness arises from causes and circumstances that are constantly being affected by other causes and conditions, and so are unstable. Because of that, the happiness that arises dependently on these ever-changing causes and conditions can never be stable. It can only be a temporary situation.
Any ordinary happiness that we experience will of course end, simply because it arose from causes and circumstances. When we can understand and accept the truth of this fact, this enables us to enjoy whatever happiness we experience while it lasts, without trying to unnaturally prolong it. We enjoy a visit with somebody and when it is time for them to go, it is time to go. We don’t get into this whole melodramatic scene of pleading, “Don’t leave me!” and so on.
What are the causes for happiness? We could say good music, food, good friends, sex, but these are actually just conditions. They are merely the focal objects of an experience. Because of that, we could experience good music, food, or being with friends or sex – , in fact, we could experience seeing, hearing, tasting, or touching any object – with happiness, unhappiness, or a neutral feeling. If we had our favorite food served to us three times a day every day for a month, we would eventually no longer experience eating it with pleasure, would we? And how long can we hear our favorite song over and over again before we get tired of it? Eventually even if we are with our closest friend, we would like them to go home. Sex is not always equally pleasurable. Like this, these objects – food, and so on – aren’t really the causes for happiness; they are conditions that can bring on a happy experience of them, but not necessarily.
Let’s go on and examine what we mean when we say, “I am happy when I experience one of these things,” and let’s use the example of friends: “I feel happy when I am with my best friend.” We believe that being with him or her is the cause of our happiness, and might think, “I’m alone; I’m lonely; and what would bring me happiness is to be with my dear loving friend.” But often what we call “happiness” may actually be what is called in Buddhism “incorrect consideration.” The classic example is calling suffering “happiness.” For instance we could ask, “Why do I like being with my friend?” It is an important question to examine, actually. If we had a lot of time, we could have a group discussion, but let me just cite some of the answers that are typically given.
Some people say, “I like to be with my friend because it excites me.” But often this excitement is a disturbing type of energy because we have expectations. We have expectations that the person is going to make me laugh, that the person is going to show me a good time, say nice things to me, and so on. So there is a tension present along with this excitement of being with the person. Although we might call that excitement “happiness,” actually it is a form of tension and so it is a form of suffering.
Other people answer the question and say, “I like to be with my friend because it makes me feel more alive.” What does this imply? It implies that we are not alive already. It is mixed with a great deal of confusion about how we exist and it leads to a great deal of neurotic longing: “I have to be with this person in order to be alive; otherwise I am not really a person. I need them to affirm or confirm my humanness.” Now of course it is true that having some sort of relationship with others is necessary for us to stay alive. Infants, raised like laboratory specimens with no warm human contact, and old people, abandoned in nursing homes, quickly die because of being ignored. But the attitude that “I need to be with my friend in order to feel alive” has, underlying it, the belief that the company of our friend makes us truly existent as some sort of solid “me.” That’s false.
Other people say, “It makes me happy to be with my dear friend because we are helping each other to develop. We complement each other and it makes me feel worthwhile and needed.” But this risks the danger of being mixed with an unconscious attitude of exploiting the person in order to feel needed. Also it is based on the confusion that there can be somebody who exactly complements us and whom we exactly complement – my “other half”; without this person, I am not whole. That is based on, again, a naive and linear view of reality because it implies that we and the other person are like two static pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that fit together perfectly all the time – as if we were solid. But neither of us is solid, because all of the characteristics of each of us are constantly changing. Each of us undergoes different moods and so on, and so it is impossible that we could possibly fit together all the time, forever, as if we were two static things, like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. That is also a very profound point which requires thought. It is very true.
All of these are serious answers to the question, “Why do I like to be with my friend? Why does it make me feel happy?” But these various aspects that we gain from being with a friend – being “turned-on,” having our energy be excited, being inspired from feeling “alive,” and having the happiness of helping each other – none of these need to be mixed with confusion. They don’t need to be disturbing. These things, in and of themselves, are not disturbing. It is when they are mixed with confusion that they are disturbing and, unfortunately, this is most often the case.
If we look a little more deeply at what the cause for ordinary, everyday happiness actually is, according to the Buddhist teachings it is constructive behavior: we act constructively and happiness is what ripens from it. We may not experience that happiness immediately, but eventually we experience it regardless of the focal object of our experience. Somebody could feel happy eating a delicious meal; somebody could also feel happy while digging a ditch. This happiness that we feel is not solely dependent on the object of our experience. Happiness is a ripening of previous constructive behavior and attitudes.
What do we mean by constructive behavior? It is acting, speaking or thinking without neurotic longing, attachment, anger, or naivety about cause and effect or about reality. It is done with a sense of values – we understand what is positive and what is not – and we have a sense of scruples – we are not going to act in destructive ways that would bring disgrace on ourselves, on our family, our teachers, and so on. We have a sense of self-pride or dignity, and we have consideration for our family, teachers, and so on. This is constructive behavior, and happiness is what comes from that.
With a constructive state of mind, we restrain from destructive behavior because we see its disadvantages. What we do may hurt other people; but it is not sure that it will actually hurt somebody else. If you steal somebody’s car, for example, it may not hurt them at all. They may actually be delighted that they got rid of it and they can collect the insurance. But we restrain from acting destructively because the person that it is certain it will hurt is us. Eventually, the karmic aftermath of our destructive behavior is going to ripen in our own experience of unhappiness. The more destructive we are, both in intensity and frequency, the stronger our habit of being destructive becomes, and consequently, the more intense and more frequent the unhappiness is that it brings us.
But acting constructively is not only refraining from acting destructively by seeing the disadvantages of negative behavior. It is also engage in positive behavior because we see the advantages of so doing. Now, we may act constructively in this manner and do things to try to help others, but still it is not certain that it will help them or even make them happy. For example, we might make a very nice meal for somebody and they choke on a bone and have to go to the hospital. The person might even choke to death. So, it is not certain that any constructive action that we do, even if we undertake it with a pure motivation, is going to bring happiness to the other person. But what is for sure is that the habit of being constructive and positive will eventually ripen into our experience of a happy state of mind. It benefits us, but not necessarily in a selfish, narcissistic type of way. Our constructive behavior can also lead to fortunate rebirths in which we continue to have circumstances conducive for working for liberation and enlightenment.
So, the happiness that we want to experience here is the happiness of having the circumstances that are conducive for working further on the spiritual path. But the happiness that we gain from acting constructively is mixed with confusion. Or rather, to put it more precisely: Until we become an arya and gain some portion of true stoppings of the causes for suffering, any constructive actions that we do are going to be mixed with some portion of confusion. So the happiness we’ll experience from them will also be tainted with confusion. In spite of that, we still want to have happiness in future lives even if it is mixed with confusion, because even tainted happiness is a circumstance conducive for working toward liberation or enlightenment.
Of course, too much tainted happiness, for instance with a rebirth as a divine being on the plane of sensory desires, can make us so complacent and lazy that we make no effort to progress on the spiritual path. But, what we do want here is a minimal amount of the suffering of suffering or of gross pain, because it is really difficult to work on our spiritual path if, for example, we are starving to death.
This is a delicate point here. It is true that when we are suffering with unhappiness, like in a difficult relationship filled with disturbing emotions and unpleasant scenes, we can more easily become motivated to renounce that pain and seek liberation and enlightenment. If the relationship is smooth and we are happy in it, we might not be motivated to change anything or to do anything spiritual. So, to gain the initial motivation to renounce and overcome suffering, experiencing the suffering of suffering is far more effective than experiencing the suffering of change, which is our ordinary form of happiness. However, once we are motivated to renounce and overcome the suffering of unhappiness, then a happy state of mind is far more conducive for spiritual practice than a mind that’s in pain or is sad and depressed. The happy mind, even when mixed with confusion, has far more energy for spiritual practice than the miserable mind.
The happiness mixed with confusion that we have in a fortunate rebirth helps us toward enlightenment or liberation in another way. Not only is it an absence or minimal amount of the suffering of suffering, but it is also the presence of the suffering of change. And so, because tainted happiness is a form of suffering, if we understand the conventional nature of this happiness correctly, it can lead us to a purer level of renunciation. We need some experience of tainted happiness in order to recognize it as a form of suffering and thus become motivated to get out of it and to seek liberation.
That’s an important point. Why do we want to get more happiness that is mixed with confusion? It is not just because it is a lessening of the suffering of suffering so that we can work harder toward liberation and enlightenment. It is also because ordinary tainted happiness is the suffering of change and recognizing it as such motivates us further toward liberation, because we want to get out of the suffering of change as well. We need to be clear about that, otherwise we might wrongly think, “Well, just to get a little bit more happiness, even if it is mixed with confusion, is good enough and that is my final goal.”
Mind you, just renouncing the suffering of change is not the fullest form of renunciation. Everyone wants to get out of the suffering of pain, even animals; and many religions teach us to renounce worldly happiness and seek heavenly bliss. The actual Buddhist renunciation is the renunciation of the all-pervasively affecting suffering of uncontrollably recurring rebirth with tainted aggregates – body, mind, emotions, and so on – that are the basis for experiencing the sufferings of suffering and change. But, before we can renounce all-pervasively affecting suffering, we need to renounce the suffering of change that is the conventional nature of ordinary happiness mixed with confusion. And to renounce that form of suffering, we need to experience it.
Happiness mixed with confusion, then, is a stepping stone on the way to liberation and enlightenment. It is not only a stepping stone, but also a springboard, because experiencing it is going to help us to go further. Let me give an analogy. It has gotten us further in the sense that if we were on the shore of a stream and there were an intense fire there – namely the suffering of suffering – we have now leaped on to a rock in the middle of the stream. The rock represents tainted happiness. Being on this rock has gotten us further because we are no longer on the burning shore, but who wants to be stuck on a rock on the middle of a stream? So getting to the rock motivates us to go further to reach the other side of the stream, because just by itself, being on the rock is unsatisfactory. It’s frustrating, even though it is better than being on the burning shore. After all, we couldn’t just jump from the burning shore to the other side of the stream.
Another important point is that the happiness that arises from constructive behavior doesn’t come immediately. For example, when we are on a diet, restraining ourselves from acting out of greed and having dessert is a constructive action. But it doesn’t necessarily make us happy turning down the piece of cake, does it? The happiness that comes is nonlinear; it takes a long time to come. And even when it does come, it will come just in spurts because, as we discussed yesterday, experience goes up and down in organic systems. We need to be unconfused about behavioral cause and effect, about how happiness will ripen from constructive behavior. If we are confused about cause and effect, then we become disappointed, disillusioned, frustrated, and so on, because we complain, “I’ve been trying so hard to be good, but I am still miserable!” By acting constructively, what we are doing is building up positive force and habits. This is going to lead, in the long term, to more and more happiness in our experience of life.
How do we increase or strengthen our happiness? Basically, what we need to do in order to experience happiness is to eliminate the causes for our unhappiness. Remember, if happiness is the innate nature of the mind or of experience, but it is clouded over by the fleeting stains of unhappiness, which come from causes that are temporary, if we rid our minds of the causes for unhappiness that are overlying our innate happiness, we will be left with happiness. This is a dual process involving both strengthening happiness and removing unhappiness. The more we eliminate unhappiness, the more happiness there will be.
The first way to strengthen our happiness is to act constructively. As I was just explaining, constructive behavior and thought is equivalent to refraining from destructive behavior, which is a cause for unhappiness. Although we might feel unhappy while helping somebody to wash the dishes, helping the person is a constructive action. We have refrained from the destructive action of “I don’t want to help you.” Despite our not enjoying washing the dishes; nevertheless, in the long run, this helping attitude will bring happiness. Restraining ourselves from not helping someone is eventually going to bring us happiness.
The next method is to generate love. Love is the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. It eliminates ill-will, hatred, and anger, which are the wish for others to be unhappy. Here we have to be a little bit more precise. Sometimes we can say that eliminating a cause for suffering is going to bring us more happiness; but in other cases we can say that building up a cause for happiness is going to eliminate a cause that is going to bring us suffering. In this case, working on love eliminates hatred, which would be a cause for our unhappiness. Restraining ourselves from acting destructively is itself constructive and brings us happiness. But restraining ourselves from hating somebody doesn’t necessarily mean that we love them. It is a slightly different mechanism here, but in any case, with love we are eliminating a cause for our suffering.
Also, unlike refraining from destructive behavior, such as refraining from refusing to help wash the dishes, which doesn’t necessarily make us temporarily happy – we may not feel happy while washing the dishes – nevertheless, when we have thoughts of love toward somebody, this makes us temporarily happy. It does that even while we are engaging in the mental activity of focusing love on that other person, wishing, “May you be happy.” In other words, we can start out thinking, “I am miserable, but I wish for you to be happy,” but while we are imagining the other person being happy, we are at least vicariously experiencing some happiness at the same time. It is very difficult to imagine happiness without also some flavor of happiness as part of that experience.
A further way to enhance our happiness is to rejoice in the constructive actions and good qualities of others, as well as those of ourselves. We are not talking about rejoicing in destructive actions or negative qualities. In the case of others’ good qualities or accomplishments, rejoicing in their positive things eliminates jealousy and envy. While experiencing jealousy, we feel unhappy about what the other person has done or about their good qualities. But if we are not at all jealous or envious, then we can start to see how wonderful it is what the other person has accomplished and we can feel happy about it and rejoice. Jealousy and rejoicing are mutually exclusive: you can’t be jealous and still rejoice; and if you rejoice, you are not jealous. Rejoicing is naturally accompanied with a feeling of happiness – for example, “I am so happy for you: you did well on the examination.” We feel happy.
[See: Dealing with Jealousy.]
The same analysis holds true for rejoicing in our own constructive actions and good qualities. Here, rejoicing is the opposite of regret. Rejoicing in our own positive things, we feel happy about them; while regretting them, we feel unhappy about them.
If rejoicing is difficult for us, we need to focus on the benefits that will come from the positive things that others have accomplished or the positive things that can come from their good qualities. We use the same method for learning to rejoice about our own positive accomplishments and good qualities.
Also, rejoicing in our own positive accomplishments is one of the best ways to increase the positive force built up by them. This, in turn, strengthens the happiness that will ripen from this force. In the case of rejoicing in the positive accomplishments of others, doing so builds up in us positive force either equivalent to or even greater than the positive force of the other person.
Next is developing an attitude of cherishing others. We act destructively and cause ourselves unhappiness because of being selfish and having a self-cherishing attitude. With such an attitude, we consider ourselves to be the most important person in the universe and we feel that our primary task in life is to fulfill our personal needs and satisfy our selfish desires. Because of that, we consider others’ needs, feelings, and so on as being less important, or even not important at all, and we ignore them. We might go further and exploit or even hurt others in order to get our own way. This self-cherishing attitude causes us to act destructively, fortified by disturbing emotions such as greed and anger. Such action is then the source of our experiencing unhappiness in the future.
When we equalize our attitudes about self and others – seeing that everyone equally wishes to be happy and not to be unhappy and that we are all interrelated – and, based on that, we exchange our self-cherishing for cherishing others, we then act constructively to help fulfill others’ needs and to avoid hurting them. This brings about our experiencing of happiness in the future.
Next is the joy of having a quiet mind. When our minds are no longer filled with worries and the verbal junk that normally goes through them, when the noise and various ideas and projections that we have about ourselves, others, and situations in life are stilled, we experience a type of peaceful joy that is like a tremendous sense of relief. It’s like the sense of relief that we feel when someone using a power lawnmower shuts it off and there is no longer this loud, disturbing noise bombarding our ears.
Gaining the Exhilarating Joy of the Sense of Fitness that Comes with the Attainment of a Stilled and Settled State of Mind
The next method is to gain the perfect state of concentration of shamatha – zhinay in Tibetan, a stilled and settled state of mind. Such a state is accompanied by a sense of fitness that includes an exhilarating, uplifting feeling of physical and mental joy. It uplifts, but not in a disturbing way. It is not like the exhilaration of being on a roller coaster ride. It is a very serene exhilaration, not an adrenaline rush. This comes from eliminating flightiness of mind, mental wandering and mental dullness, which are causes for being unable to use our minds in any constructive or productive way. Also, when our minds are wandering after things we long for or when our minds are dull, we are in an unhappy, dissatisfied state of mind. Here with shamatha, the happiness we feel is the exhilarating joy of being able to focus on anything we want and being able to stay fixed with that for as long as we want.
Gaining the Exhilarating Joy of the Additional Sense of Fitness that Comes with the Attainment of an Exceptionally Perceptive State of Mind
The next type of joy is the exhilarating physical and mental joy that accompanies the additional sense of fitness that comes with the attainment of vipashyana – lhagthong in Tibetan, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. We can attain a state of vipashyana only on the basis of already having attained shamatha. So, in addition to being able to concentrate perfectly, a state of vipashyana is free of the inability to comprehend either the relative or deepest facts or truths about anything. Normally we can’t fully comprehend what things are, what’s happening, how do things that we experience exist, and so on. We are perplexed and confused about these things and so are unhappy. Here, the joy that comes with vipashyana is the exhilarating state of being totally free of that. It comes with the sense of fitness that our minds are able to perceive deeply what everything is, how it exists, and they are able to keep all the facts about anything straight and in order.
If we can use some worldly examples to get an impression of what the joy of shamatha is, it is what extremely well-trained musicians or athletes would feel. They feel totally trained and fit that they can play any musical work with perfect concentration and do it completely beautifully, or they can run a race and do it really well. It is an exhilarating feeling of joy that you can do such things. While the joy of vipashyana, if we can use a worldly analogy, would be an extremely brilliant scientist or mathematician or even an auto mechanic for whom when any problem comes up, there is this sense of fitness and total joy that they can see everything clearly and solve the problem. It is a very exhilarating state of mind.
There are other types of bliss that we can experience only with advanced tantric practices of working with our subtle energy systems. For instance, with advanced practices on the complete stage of anuttarayoga tantra, we become able to cause certain subtle creative energy drops to “melt” and descend within the central channel of our subtle energy system. This involves the practice of tummo – the inner flame, which requires the attainment of shamatha and vipashyana beforehand, plus other accomplishments on earlier stages of the complete stage. With the descent of these subtle creative energy drops, we experience within the central channel four increasingly intense physical feelings of joy – the so-called “four joys” – as the drops reach progressively lower chakras. As a result of these joys, the energy-winds become more subtle and start to enter the central channel, eventually enabling us to access the clear light level of mind.
In addition, there is the joy that comes from having the energy-winds from our two side channels enter into the central energy channel and eventually stay there and dissolve. We accomplish this with advanced complete stage anuttarayoga tantra practices based on either the four joys or on complex yoga methods for manipulating the energy-winds. When our subtle energy-winds are flowing through the side channels and other secondary channels, we experience physical and mental nervousness and tension, and wild, uncontrolled conceptual thoughts. When they are brought into the central channel, we experience the joy of being free of those disturbances of our subtle energy.
The next one is the joy or bliss of being rid forever of disturbing emotions and attitudes, such as anger, greed, naivety, and so on. This level of joy comes from gaining a true stopping of confusion about reality, and that true stopping is experienced with an extremely joyous state of mind – namely, with untainted happiness. What a relief! We can understand it with an everyday example. We experience joy and relief when we finally take our tight shoes off at the end of the day and are rid of their restriction. Imagine how much more of a joyous relief it would be to be rid of all our confusion and disturbing emotions, and to be rid of them forever..
With the sutra methods, we rid ourselves of first the confusion and disturbing emotions and attitudes that are doctrinally based. Then, through stages, we rid ourselves of the confusion and disturbing emotions and attitudes that automatically arise. With the anuttarayoga tantra methods, we rid ourselves of both of these levels all at once, at the same time. We do that with a blissful clear light awareness of voidness, once all the energy-winds are dissolved in the central energy-channel.
The last joy or bliss that we will speak about is the bliss of being rid forever of deceptive appearance-making. Except when we are totally absorbed nonconceptually on voidness, our minds, in a very subtle way, are making everything appear to exist in impossible ways – such as each thing existing solidly by itself, independently of everything else. These appearances are deceptive, because it seems as though they are referring to how things actually exist. Based on believing that these appearances correspond to reality, we develop a self-cherishing attitude, disturbing emotions, destructive behavior, and so on.
The clear light mind is naturally free not only of confusion, disturbing emotions and attitudes, and conceptual cognition; it is also free of deceptive appearance-making. However, only when such a level of mind is generated as a blissful awareness of voidness does it gain true stoppings. As just explained, first it gains a true stopping of our confusion and disturbing emotions. But the more often we generate this state of mind and the longer we sustain it, the more we gain portions of the true stopping of this deceptive appearance-making. Eventually, when we are able to sustain blissful clear light awareness of voidness uninterruptedly forever, our minds never again gives rise to deceptive appearances. At this stage, we are fully enlightened Buddhas and we experience the blissful awareness of a Buddha.
These are some of the ways that we work with Buddhist methods to try to increase and strengthen our happiness. We do that by eliminating progressively deeper causes for our experience of suffering.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (25%)