Compassion as the Source of Happiness
Nottingham, England, 24 May 2008
Transcribed and lightly edited by Alexander Berzin
With clarifications indicated in violet between square brackets
We are here; we exist and we have the right to exist. Even non-sentient beings like flowers have the right to exist. If negative force is exerted against them, then, on a chemical level, flowers repair themselves to survive. But [more than that], we human beings including insects, even amoebas, the smallest beings are considered sentient beings. [And as sentient beings, we have even more mechanisms to help us survive.]
Things that can move under their own will or desire, that’s what a “sentient being” means, according to the discussions that I’ve had with scientists. “Sentient” doesn’t necessarily mean being conscious or being human on a conscious level. Actually it’s difficult to define what “ consciousness” or “conscious” means. Usually it means the clearest aspect of the mind, but then, is it that there is no consciousness when we are semiconscious or unconscious? Do insects have it? Maybe it’s better to speak of “cognitive faculty” rather than consciousness.
In any case, the main point that we are referring to here [by cognitive faculty] is the ability to experience feelings: pain, pleasure, or neutral feelings. Actually, pleasure and pain [and happiness and unhappiness] are things that we need to examine in more depth. For example, every sentient being has the right to survive and, for survival, this means having a desire for happiness or comfort: that’s why sentient beings strive to survive. Therefore, our survival is based on hope – hope for something good: happiness. Because of that, I always conclude that the purpose of life is happiness. With hope and a happy feeling, our body feels well. Therefore hope and happiness are positive factors for our health. Health depends on a happy state of mind.
Anger, on the other hand, is based on a sense of insecurity and brings us fear. When we encounter something good, we feel safe. When something threatens us, we feel insecure and then we become angry. Anger is a part of the mind that defends itself from what harms our survival. But anger [itself makes us feel bad and so, ultimately, it] is bad for our health.
Attachment is an element that is helpful for survival. So, even a plant, without any conscious element, still has some chemical aspect that causes it to protect itself and helps its growth. Our body, on a physical level, is the same. But, as humans, our body also has a positive element on the emotional level that brings us to have attachment to someone or attachment to our own happiness. [Anger, on other hand, with its] element of causing harm, pushes us away from things [including happiness]. On a physical level, the pleasure [that happiness brings] is good for the body; while anger [and the unhappiness it causes] is harmful. Therefore, [from the perspective of the pursuit of survival,] the purpose of life is to have a happy life.
This is the basic human level that I am speaking about; I am not speaking about the religious, secondary level. On the religious level, of course there are different explanations of the purpose of life. The secondary aspect is actually quite complicated; therefore, it is better to talk just on the basic human level.
Since our goal and the purpose of life is happiness, what is happiness? Sometimes physical suffering can even bring a deeper sense of satisfaction [like with an athlete after a grueling workout.] So “happiness” means mainly a sense of deep satisfaction. The object of life or our goal, then, is satisfaction.
Happiness, sadness or suffering – for these, there are two levels: a sensorial level and a mental level. The sensorial level is common with tiny mammals, even insects – a fly. In a cold climate, when the sun comes out, a fly shows a happy aspect: it flies around nicely. In a cold room, it slows down: it shows a sign of sadness. But, if there is a sophisticated brain, then there is even a stronger sense of sensorial pleasure. [In addition, though,] our sophisticated brain is the largest in size and, therefore, we also have intelligence.
[Consider the case of] humans who feel no physical threats. They have a happy, comfortable life, good friends, salary, and name. But, even then, we notice that some millionaires, for example – they feel that they are an important part of society, but often these people as persons are very unhappy persons. On a few occasions I have met very rich, influential people who showed a very troubled sense that, deep inside, they had a feeling of loneliness, stress and worry. So, on the mental level, they have suffering.
We have a marvelous intelligence, so the mental level of our experience is more dominant than is the physical level. Physical pain can be minimized or subdued by it. As a small example, some time ago I developed a serious illness. It was very painful in my intestines. At that time, I was in Bihar, the poorest state of India and I passed through Bodh Gaya and Nalanda. There, I saw many very poor children. They were collecting cow dung. They had no education facilities and I felt very sad. Then, near Patna, the capital of the state, I had a lot of pain and sweating. I noticed one old sick person, one sick man, wearing white cloth, very, very dirty. No one was taking care of that person; it was really very sad. That night in my hotel room, my physical pain was very severe, but my mind was thinking of those children and that old man. That concern greatly reduced my physical pain.
Take for example those who train for the Olympic Games. They do very vigorous training, and no matter how much pain and hardship they experience, on the mental level they have happiness. Therefore, the mental level is more important than physical experience. Therefore, what is really important in life is happiness and satisfaction.
Now, what are the causes of happiness? I think that since this body element goes well with a calm mind, not with a disturbed mind, therefore a calm mind is very important. It doesn’t matter our physical situation, mental calmness is most important. So, how can we bring about a calm mind?
Now, to get rid of all problems, that would be impractical; and to make the mind dull and forget about our problems, that doesn’t work either. We have to look clearly at our problems and deal with them, but at the same time keep a calm mind so that we have a realistic attitude and we are able to treat them well, deal with them well.
As for those who take tranquillizers – well, I have no experience. I don’t know if, at the time when people take tranquillizers, their intelligence is sharp or dull; I have to ask. For example, in 1959, when I was in Mussoorie, my mother or maybe it was somebody else was disturbed and had a lot of anxiety: the sleep was disturbed. The doctor explained that there were some drugs that they could take, but this would make the mind a little dull. I thought at that time that that’s not good. On one side, you have a little calmness of mind, but on the other side, if the effect is dullness, this is no good. I prefer another way. I prefer having the intelligence fully functional and attentive and alert, but not disturbed. Undisturbed mental calmness is best.
For this, compassionate human affection is really important: the more compassionate our mind is, the better our brain functions. If our mind develops fear and anger, then when that happens, our brain functions more poorly. On one occasion I met a scientist who was over eighty years old. He gave me one of his books. I think it was called We Are Prisoners of Anger, something like that. While discussing his experience, he said that when we develop anger toward an object, the object appears very negatively. But ninety per cent of that negativeness is in our mental projection. This was from his own experience.
Buddhism says the same. When negative emotion develops, we can’t see reality. When we need to make a decision and the mind is dominated by anger; then chances are, we will make the wrong decision. No one wants to make a wrong decision, but at that moment, the part of our intelligence and brain that functions to differentiate right from wrong and make the best decision, that works very poorly. Even great leaders experience it like that.
Therefore, compassion and affection help the brain to function more smoothly. Secondarily, compassion gives us inner strength; it gives us self-confidence and that reduces fear, which, in turn, keeps our mind calm. Therefore, compassion has two functions: it causes our brain to function better and it brings inner strength. These, then, are the causes of happiness. I feel it is like that.
Now other faculties, of course, are also good for happiness. Everybody likes money, for example. If we have money, then we can enjoy good facilities. Usually, we consider these the topmost important things, but I think it’s not like that. Material comfort can come through physical effort, but mental comfort has to come through mental effort. If we go to a shop and offer money to the shopkeeper and say that we want to buy peace of mind, they will say they have nothing to sell. Many shopkeepers will feel that this is something mad and they will laugh at us. Some injection or pill can maybe bring temporary happiness or calmness of mind, but not at the fullest level. We can see with the example of counseling that we need to tackle emotions through discussion and reasoning. Thus, we must use a mental approach. Therefore whenever I give talks, I say that we modern people think too much of external development. If we pay attention only to that level, that’s not enough. Genuine happiness and satisfaction must come from within.
The basic elements for that are compassion and human affection, and these come from biology. As an infant, our survival depends solely on affection. If affection is there, we feel safe. If it’s not there, we feel anxiety and insecure. If we become separated from our mother, we cry. If we are in our mother’s arms and held tight, warmly, then we feel happy and we’re quiet. As a baby, this is a biological factor. One scientist for instance, my teacher, a biologist who is involved with anti-nuclear violence – he told me that after birth, a mother’s physical touch for several weeks is very important for enlarging the baby’s brain and development. It brings a feeling of safety and comfort and this leads to proper development of physical growth, including the brain.
So, the seed of compassion and affection is not something that comes from religion: it comes from biology. We each came from our mother’s womb and each of us survived due to our mother’s care and affection. In the Indian tradition, we consider birth from a lotus in a pure land. That sounds very nice, but perhaps the people there have more affection for lotuses than for people. So being born from a mother’s womb is better. Then we are already equipped with the seed of compassion. So, those are the causes of happiness.
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