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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > Bringing Buddhism Down to Earth > Session Six: Two Further Issues – Becoming a Buddhist and Happiness

Bringing Buddhism Down to Earth

Alexander Berzin
Munich, Germany, June 1996

[lightly edited transcript]

Session Six: Two Further Issues – Becoming a Buddhist and Happiness

Conversion to Buddhism

We’ve been speaking about some of the various difficulties that many people have in working with Buddhism. We’ve seen that it’s very important to have a realistic attitude. In terms of this, one of the pieces of advice that His Holiness the Dalai Lama repeatedly gives to Westerners is to be very careful about changing religions. His advice raises the whole issue concerning, when we follow the Buddhist path, does that mean that we’ve changed religions and that we’ve converted and now, instead of wearing a cross around our necks, we wear a red string?

I think that, in many ways, thinking of our commitment to the Buddhist path in terms of conversion is not very helpful. Certainly, if we say we’ve converted to Buddhism, it very strongly alienates others who come from our tradition of birth, whether that’s Christian or Jewish, and especially if it’s Islamic. Conversion out of our birth religions doesn’t meet with great enthusiasm from our families or from our societies, does it? They see it as a personal rejection of themselves. So His Holiness always says that we have to be careful and very delicate about the whole issue, and I think that we can understand this from a psychological point of view, besides just from the social point of view of family and society.

It’s very important in life to be able to integrate our whole life so that all its parts fit together harmoniously. In this way, we become comfortable with our entire life’s history. Having an integrated view of our life allows us to be more balanced in life. Sometimes, when people convert to another religion, what happens is that they have a very negative attitude toward what they were previously doing. A certain mechanism described in psychology is helpful in understanding this. This is the basic need that people have to be loyal to their ancestors or their family or their background in order to feel a sense of self-worth. This need or drive to be loyal in order to somehow prove our self-worth is often unconscious. What happens is that if we deny that there were any positive aspects about our past – say religion or family or nationality – then unconsciously we still have the drive to be loyal to it and so, unconsciously, we become loyal to negative aspects of it. This is a destructive form of loyalty.

Destructive Forms of Loyalty

A good example of a destructive form of loyalty is the experience that some people from the former East Germany have had. The whole situation of East Germany being integrated with West Germany was one in which almost everything of East German political culture was denied and was identified as being “wrong” and negative. What happened was that everything from that previous system was thrown away in the garbage and people were left with a sort of terrible feeling that they were stupid and that they had wasted their entire lives in something negative – especially if they had been politically active in support of the state. That makes for a very difficult psychological state, obviously.

What happened, then, was that for some people from the East, unconsciously, there was the need to be loyal to their past in order to have some sense of self-value, and so they were loyal to negative aspects like totalitarianism. From that, we get the skinhead and neo-Nazi phenomena. Neo-Nazism contains a very strong hatred of foreigners and a glorification of oneself and one’s race. This sort of loyalty to intolerance of outsiders was characteristic of East German society. On the other hand, if people can point out and acknowledge the positive aspects of their past, this allows them to be loyal to that, and this makes for a much better integration of their whole life. And there were many positive aspects of East German society. One example is the heart-to-heart warm relationships that some people had who could sympathize with and trust each other. Because they were all being so severely controlled externally, then when they were within a safe environment of friends, they could establish such type of warm relationships. It was very positive.

The same problem of destructive forms of loyalty often comes up when we change religions. If we just think, “This previous religion that I had was stupid and terrible” and then jump into something new like Buddhism, then again unconsciously we tend to have a drive to be loyal to our past. In such cases, we stay loyal to negative rather than to positive things. For instance, if our background was Christian, we might find that we become quite dogmatic or very heavy into fear of hells and what should I do and what shouldn’t I do, and sometimes we can become quite sectarian as well. In order to avoid that, it’s very important to acknowledge the positive things in our religion of birth, the religion of our family, as well as the positive things in our culture – the positive aspects of being German or Italian or American or whatever our background might be.

There are obviously tremendously positive things in a Christian background, with all its emphasis on love and charity, particularly helping the poor, the sick, and the needy. This is tremendously positive. There’s nothing contradictory between that and Buddhist practice. We can be both Christian and Buddhist in a sense, because there’s no need to throw away these positive aspects of our Christian background. Whether we conceive of ourselves as a Buddhist or not, I don’t really think that that’s an issue in Buddhism. It never was an issue, like it was in medieval Europe, of “What’s your religion?” and we have to identify ourselves before an Inquisition. That’s not the Buddhist way.

The Position of Lay Buddhists in Traditional Indian Society

I think we can see this from the example of ancient India. In ancient India where Buddhism developed, there wasn’t a very clear distinction between Buddhists and Hindus. We have this fallacy that Buddhism in India had no castes and that Buddha was against the caste system. But actually that was only the case with the ordained community. For the monks and nuns there were no castes, but that was not the case with lay followers of Buddha. We see in some inscriptions on the ruins of ancient Buddhist monastery walls that “This amount of money was donated to the monastery by the brahmin so-and-so.” These inscriptions always gave the caste of the lay person who was the patron. That’s a clear indication that the lay Buddhists did not form a community separate from the Hindus; they were part of Hindu society. That meant that in India there weren’t separate Buddhist marriage ceremonies and these sorts of things. The lay Indian Buddhists actually followed the Hindu customs for that.

There were advantages and disadvantages to that. The advantage was that basically everybody in India was part of an integrated society and each person followed their own school and spiritual teacher. So, whether you followed a Buddhist school or whether you followed this or that form of Hinduism, it didn’t really make that much difference, because the society itself included everybody harmoniously without anyone having to say, “I’m a Hindu” or “I’m a Buddhist” in such a strong way. Of course, if you became a monk or a nun, that was obviously a strong commitment in joining a separate community. That was different. We’re talking about the position of lay people in traditional India.

The disadvantage was that when the Buddhist monasteries were no longer functioning in India, most of the Buddhists were very easily absorbed into Hinduism, especially since Hinduism acknowledged Buddha as a form of Vishnu, their God. So it was very easy to be devoted to Buddha and be a perfectly good Hindu.

Following Buddhism and Still Going to Church

Obviously we need a balance to not go to an extreme of just trivializing Buddhism or the extreme of “I’ve converted to Buddhism and now I’m forbidden from ever going to church.” The question really becomes, “What does it mean to take refuge as a ceremony and does that mean that now I’ve become a Buddhist in the sense of a Christian conversion like a baptism?” I don’t think that it’s the equivalent of a baptism. I don’t think that it’s helpful to look at it that way.

I believe that the spiritual path that we follow needs to be something that’s quite private. To walk around with dirty red strings around our necks, especially if we have a collection of thirty of them, makes us look really strange – a little bit like a Ubangi African with all these metal coils around their necks. If we want to have these strings, we can keep them private, to ourselves, for example in our wallets or something like that. It’s not necessary to advertise what we’re doing. There’s no reason to feel that it’s forbidden for us to go to church or that it’s in any way threatening to our commitment to Buddhism.

Often when people turn to Buddhism, in the beginning they become defensive about it. That’s because they’re insecure and not comfortable with it yet. So, in order to justify our choice of spiritual paths, we feel psychologically that “I can’t go to church and I can’t think anything positive about my past.” That’s a big mistake. Obviously, if we’re sincerely following a Buddhist spiritual path, we need to put all our energies into that. However, that doesn’t contradict practicing Christian love and being inspired by great Christian figures like Mother Theresa and trying to serve the needy in the way that she did. It’s absolutely not contradictory to the Buddhist path. How could it be?

If we’re practicing meditation and various other types of Buddhist training in our lives, there’s no reason for that to make us feel uncomfortable to go to church if the occasion arises in which that seems like the thing that needs to be done. It’s no problem. And when we do go to church in that situation, it’s not really helpful to sit there and feel threatened by it so that we have to say mantras the whole time. If we go to church as a Buddhist practitioner, there’s nothing wrong with participating. What is important is our attitude during the whole experience of being in church.

Now, obviously, in any form of organized religion, we’re going to find things that are attractive and things that are not so attractive. So if we’re in a situation where our family says, “It’s a special holiday; come to church – it’s Christmas” or whatever it might be, then to say “I’m not going to go to church with you, I’m a Buddhist” really offends them. They take it personally as a rejection. So it’s better to go to Christmas service with our families. Instead of focusing on things that perhaps might have annoyed us in Christianity and that we might have been critical about in the past, focus on the positive things, because there are positive things. This way, internally, psychologically, the result is that we feel much more like an integrated person. We’ve made peace with our personal history. That’s really very helpful.

Happiness

Finding peace with ourselves brings us to the topic of “What place does happiness have in Buddhism?” I think a very big issue for a lot of newcomers approaching Buddhism, especially if they come from a religion that’s emphasized that we’re all sinners, is, “Am I allowed to be happy?” We hear in the Buddhist teachings that everything is suffering and that we could die at any moment, so don’t waste any time. And so, often we get the feeling that it’s not allowed to go to the movies or to relax or to have fun. That’s a big misunderstanding. We have to first look at the definition of happiness and understand what happiness is. Some people don’t even know that they’re happy or what happiness is. They have to ask somebody else, “What do you think, do I seem like a happy person?”

There are several definitions of happiness in Buddhism. The primary definition is that happiness is the feeling that ripens from positive constructive action. It’s the ripening of positive karma. If that’s the definition of happiness, then obviously in Buddhism we want to be constructive so that we can experience happiness as a result. With Buddhist practice, we’re specifically trying to be positive and constructive; therefore, obviously, we’re going to experience happiness as a result and we’re “allowed” to experience it. It can’t be the case that Buddhism is saying that it’s not allowed to be happy. If happiness were not allowed in Buddhism, then Buddhists would go around being destructive all the time, because that would insure that they’r e never going to be happy!

Also, there’s a basic teaching in Buddhism that everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy. If that’s the case and, with love, we’re wishing everyone to be happy, and we’re also working to bring happiness to everybody, obviously we’re wishing also for ourselves to be happy and we’re working to bring happiness to ourselves as well.

Happiness is also defined as that feeling which when it arises, we would like it to continue; and when it goes away, we would like it to come back, but not in a clinging type of manner. Basically, happiness feels nice.

Points of Confusion Regarding Happiness

Confusion about the issue of happiness seems to arise over two points. One is that we often think that to experience happiness, the feeling needs to be dramatic. The other point is confusion over what form happiness would need to take in order to qualify as happiness. This second point relates to the question of what actually is the source of happiness?

First of all, happiness doesn’t have to be dramatic in order for it to count as being happiness. Often we think that a feeling needs to be really strong in order for it to actually exist. We have sort of a Hollywood attitude toward things. If a positive emotion is on a low level of intensity, it doesn’t make a good movie; it doesn’t make a good show. So it has to be very strong, maybe even with dramatic music in the background. That’s not the case. As I said, happiness is the feeling that we experience as nice and would like it to continue – it’s very pleasant. Happiness doesn’t have to be one of these "Whoopie! Wow! Fantastico" stereotypically Latin American or Italian demonstrative, enthusiastic type of thing. It could be a more subdued British thing as well.

As for the second point, remember, when we talk about feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness, it’s the way that we experience the ripening of our karma – it’s the way that we experience things in our life. Then the question is in what kind of form would we experience that happiness? Does the form that our happiness takes have something to do with our being entertained, amused, distracted from our humdrum lives, or having fun? Do we have to be having fun in order for a feeling to qualify as being happiness? And, on an even more basic level, is doing something to have fun an actual source of happiness?

Fun

“Fun” is a very interesting word. It’s very hard to define. Once I was with my teacher Serkong Rinpoche in Holland and the people that we were staying with had a very large private boat – a yacht. One day, they offered to take us out on their boat to “have a good time.” The boat was in a very, very small lake – a very large boat in very small lake. There were many other large boats and small boats in this little lake as well. We went out on this boat and just went in a circle around this lake with all the other boats, which reminded me of an amusement park where there’s a children’s ride with little cars going around in a circle. It was like that. After a short while, Serkong Rinpoche turned to me and asked in Tibetan, “Is this what they call ‘fun?’”

My point is that if we look at happiness in terms of cause and effect, what’s the cause of being happy? From the Buddhist point of view, the cause of happiness is constructive behavior. It’s not going out and doing something frivolous to “have fun,” which is then going to make us happy. We can go out and do something that’s so-called “fun” by society, like going out on this boat or going to some movie or some party or something like that, and be absolutely miserable. On the other hand, we could be sitting at our work in our office and be very happy and content. So, if we’ve built up the causes for happiness, which is constructive behavior, then we’ll experience happiness in any type of situation and not necessarily only in situations that are traditionally called “fun.”

When we have a choice of what to do and how we’re going to spend our time, we may choose to work, or relax, practice a sport, go swimming, or whatever. But I think that it’s important to have a clear understanding in our minds as to what the source of happiness will be in that activity. We could choose to go swimming or work in accordance with the criterion that “I want to do this to be happy,” but I think there are other criteria that we could use. The other criteria would be that “I’ve been working very hard. I’m very tired and, in order to be more helpful in my life to myself and to others, it will be much more productive to relax right now. It’s no longer productive to continue working.” If we can use a metaphor, the horse has to go out to the pasture and graze; it can’t run forever.

Life is difficult, which is the First Noble Truth. It’s difficult having a body like this. It’s not capable of working twenty-four hours a day forever. We have to relax; we have to sleep; we have to eat. There’s no need to feel guilty about that. We’ve already dealt with the issue of guilt when we spoke about accepting the fact that life is difficult. It’s a fact that life is filled with all sorts of problems. If we can accept that fact, then we don’t feel guilty about it. But, if we have the idea that “Now I have to have fun,” and we push ourselves to have fun and be happy, it usually doesn’t work. If we don’t have the expectation that going to the movies or swimming or out to a restaurant is going to make us happy or the expectation that having fun like this means that we’re happy, then we’re not going to be disappointed. But it’s quite possible that these activities might help us to recharge our batteries, in the sense of giving us more energy and so on by relaxing. That they can do – but only maybe, there’s no guarantee. Whether or not we’re happy while doing these things is another question. And also, if we experience some level of happiness during the activity, it doesn’t have to be a super intense, hot Latin experience.

This is true not only with going to a movie or going swimming, but this is also very helpful to keep in mind in terms of our relationships with other people – friendships and spending time relaxing with others. Some people think that when they go to visit a friend, they have to go “ do something” together: they have to go out and have fun together, doing something. They can’t really appreciate a low level of happiness and contentment of just being with that friend, without it mattering at all what they do. They could even go to the supermarket together and buy the groceries, or do the laundry. I find this point quite useful and I think it’s in general very helpful to consider this in being able to let go of strange expectations about what happiness is or having guilt about it.

Recognizing the Level of Happiness That We’re Feeling

Let’s do a little bit of self-observation. Let’s sit and just experience being here and try to notice what the feeling is that we have. “Feeling” is defined here according to the Buddhist definition of the second of the five aggregates – namely, feeling is the way in which we’r e experiencing what we’re seeing, what we’re hearing, what we’re thinking, etc., in terms of the variable of happy, unhappy, or neutral.  Just try to recognize and identify that. We’re not talking about feeling hot or feeling cold, or feeling some physical sensation like pleasure or pain. It’s the level of happiness or unhappiness that accompanies any physical or mental activity, in the sense of experiencing it as nice or not very nice.

For example, I find it nice to look at the flowers in this vase. Look at the flowers. How do you feel? How do you experience that? Try to identify and recognize the feeling of some level of happiness that you experience when you look at the flowers or at the pictures on the wall, or you look outside and see the trees – what level of happiness do you feel? We try to recognize that, in fact, we do have a lot of happiness. It’s not a super Brazilian experience, but it’s there.

Please, observe in yourselves what the feeling is. And keep in mind that happiness is that feeling which, when it arises, we would like it to continue, and if it goes away, we would like it to come back. And unhappiness is that feeling which, when we experience it, we want it to end; we want it to go away.

[pause]

I think practicing like this doesn’t need to be a formal meditation exercise. Rather, it’s something that we can do at any time, to become more and more mindful that a lot of the time we really are happy. It is not the case that “I have no feelings,” which is what some of us might think.

Are there any comments?

Participant: (transl.) It was difficult to switch from first listening to you, which is quite an active process, to just being thrown into having to feel what’s happening. He felt a little bit thrown into this observation. This morning when he went through a park, he had this very open feeling; he had this feeling of “Yes, things are okay and I’m quite happy” and this happened quite naturally.

Alex: I think a very important point is to be able to recognize that we have feelings constantly, whether we’re doing something that we find really relaxing or we’re doing something that’s very intensive. Sometimes we’re too much in our heads and we don’t really recognize that, in fact, there’s a certain quality to how we experience everything and that quality is this dimension of happy or unhappy. It’s occurring all the time. The importance of this is that so often we go to this extreme of “poor me” and “I’m not happy and I want to have fun. I don’t want to be in this boring office” and we have all these sorts of complaints. But, in fact, we can experience being caught in a terrible traffic jam with an inner, peaceful feeling of happiness and contentment. Remember, happiness doesn’t have to be dramatic.

Participant: Isn’t there a difference here between what’s going on in your head and what’s going on in your heart? The Tibetans always point here at the heart for your feelings.

Alex: Tibetans point there for thinking as well. From the Tibetan point of view, the intellectual, emotional, and feeling aspects of our experiences of things are all coming from one place and they localize it in the heart. Actually, it doesn’t matter where they’re localized. They’r e seen as a whole, rather than as a dichotomy or split between body and mind, or intellect and feelings, as is often regarded in the West. So, we can be happy at the same time as being intellectually very involved with something. As I say, this is very important to recognize especially in relationships with others. Sometimes we think, “I have to be in love in order to really be happy” – sort of like having a teenage type of experience. In fact, that feeling of happiness of being in a loving relationship with someone can have a low level of intensity, but nevertheless still be extremely satisfying.