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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Incorrect Consideration and Voidness > Session Three: Incorrect Consideration of Suffering as Happiness and Unclean as Clean

Incorrect Consideration and Voidness

Alexander Berzin
Arco, Italy, October 2007

Session Three: Incorrect Consideration of Suffering as Happiness and Unclean as Clean

Unedited Transcript
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We were speaking about our incorrect consideration in terms of things that change. We consider that something like a relationship is going to last forever, whereas in fact it is eventually going to come to an end. And we consider that, even while it lasts, that it is static and unchanging, whereas in fact it changes from moment to moment.

Our belief that this projection of our incorrect consideration is correct can be doctrinally based. We read all sorts of fairy tales, and see Hollywood movies, that we’re going to live happily ever after, and so we have this expectation that’s false. It can be doctrinally based, but even if we understand that the propaganda we have been fed, and that we’ve been believing, is false, that this is absurd, even when we understand that, that life is not a fairy tale, nevertheless we don’t really want to accept that. There’s still that automatically arising incorrect consideration. There is a great deal of resistance, if you examine yourself, to accepting what we know is really impossible.

So we examine more deeply, and we find that there are other types of incorrect consideration that, in a sense, feed each other, feed this misconception of everything being static and unchanging. Why do I want to consider this relationship as stable, and static, and so on? Because I consider it to be happy, “I have a happy relationship,” and, “it makes me happy to be with you.” The next level is to understand that we have this incorrect consideration of what’s called “suffering as happiness.”

What does this really mean? It’s very much connected with this process of change. We think, for instance, that “holding my loved one’s hand is happiness, it makes me feel happy.” Well, if it really made us feel happy, it should do so forever. But, the longer we hold somebody’s hand, eventually it becomes very uncomfortable. You want to do something else. You don’t want to go through the next twenty years being glued to the other person’s hand. Then it starts to sweat…it becomes very uncomfortable.

If our loved one strokes our hand, or some part of our body, well, if they continue doing that for an hour, we’re going to get very, very sore. It’ll turn into pain. Or, if you sleep with somebody, and have your arm around them, very quickly it falls asleep, and is very, very uncomfortable. So if this were true happiness, the longer we had it, the more happy it should make us, but obviously it isn’t. So this is a false conception that any of these things are true happiness, because they’re going to change, they’re going to end, of course.

No matter how much we love somebody, if we stay with them too long, they start to get on our nerves, “Please, I need to be alone for a little while.” We don’t want them to follow us to the toilet. Again, we could have this misconception based on some sort of doctrine: we were taught that this is true happiness, “If you buy this car, you will truly be happy,” and so on. So we could be fed this by propaganda, an advertisement, or it can just automatically arise. This doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as happiness, and that Buddhism is saying that everything is miserable and horrible. It’s not saying that, but we need to understand the reality of things and not exaggerate. “It’s very nice to be with you, but.”

Things change. Things change, and what we consider to be happy, we can enjoy; but ultimately it’s not going to satisfy. It will change; we will feel frustrated, and so on. So there are a lot of problems still involved. We get bored with something if we have it all the time. I might like ice cream very much, but if I were to have to eat only that for the next several years, I would get very bored with that. All of us would. This is the incorrect consideration of “suffering as happiness.”

Let’s analyze, let’s spend a little more time thinking about this. What do we really consider “happiness?” Are we exaggerating it, or what are we doing? What’s our attitude toward it? Try to understand the connection between our expectation about happiness and the misconception that we might have in terms of things being stable, always staying the same. Because – to relate this to our discussion of voidness, although this isn’t yet in the domain of voidness – what we have to understand is exaggeration, and that this is what we have to clear out, that we exaggerate things, and then we imagine that the reality corresponds to that exaggeration.

Question: What do we mean by happiness?

Answer: This gets into a very complicated question. Is it, “Oh! How wonderful,” and, like in a Hollywood movie, we go dancing down the street, and singing us some song, or is it contentment, “Well, it’s not so good, but, OK, I’ll shut up and be content about it,” or what actually is the definition of happiness? That’s an important question.

Happiness is, first of all, a “feeling.” We’re talking about feeling some level of happy or unhappy, that is the way that we experience the ripening of our karma – very interesting definition, or explanation. From acting destructively, we experience – being with you, talking, seeing something, listening to music – with unhappiness, and as a result of constructive behavior, we experience it with happiness. That’s in general, just conventionally, what are we talking about, when we’re talking about happy or unhappy, where does it come from?

Happiness is then specified as that feeling that, when we experience it, we would like it to continue, and unhappiness as that feeling, when we experience it, we would like to be parted from it. We’re talking here just naturally. We’re not talking about the mental factor of “craving.” “Craving” is actually the Sanskrit word that’s translated, usually here from the Tibetan as “craving.” What it actually means is “thirst,” “I’ve got to be free of this pain,” and, “I have to hold onto this happiness.” We’re not talking about this exaggeration, we’re just talking about conventionally, “happy” is that feeling, “it would be nice for it to continue,” and unhappiness, “I’d like to be parted from it.”

We’re not talking about exaggerating happiness into, “this is the most wonderful thing,” and unhappiness as being “horrible, horrible,” just naturally this occurs. Here, when we’re speaking about the incorrect consideration, it’s based on exaggeration, that we think that whatever happiness we have is going to last forever. It’s not. It’s going to be frustrating.

Now, of course, the unhappiness isn’t going to last forever either. Nevertheless, because we would prefer happiness to unhappiness, we have problems with really exaggerating the happiness. It’s not only exaggerating, because you might not be happy very often, but we have this expectation, this hope, that somehow, “If I could be with my loved one all the time, I will be happy,” or “If I had a huge amount of money in the bank, I would be happy.”

Obviously there are many, many things that we could say about happiness and unhappiness, and how you deal with it, and so on, but that’s for another time.

Question: All sentient beings wish happiness, or to have happiness. For example, if some animal finds food for its offspring, it feels happy, and “even just giving a morsel of food” makes for some positive force, and results in happiness. Aren’t we getting stuck on our mental defilements, or negative mind, in this discussion of happiness?

Answer: This is why I’m making the differentiation here. Conventionally, we have happy and unhappy. Everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy. But, in our topic here of incorrect consideration, it’s how you consider that happiness, what’s your attitude toward it, what is your expectation of it? Not to exaggerate it, and consider it incorrectly as, “Ah! It’s fantastic!”

Incorrect consideration – exactly what the term means. Take the example of democracy and freedom. What does that imply? That implies many, many choices. You choose what you like. So, there was a study done about this, among the various scientific studies that His Holiness is participating in and sponsoring, in terms of investigating happiness. What was discovered was that the more choices you have, the more unhappy you are. If there are a hundred and fifty different types of soap or breakfast cereal in the store, you go there and, “I don’t know what to choose, I don’t know what is best.” We think that, “It should make me happy that I can get what I want,” but what happens? You choose something, and then you think, “Maybe this other one would have been better,” and so you’re never really satisfied with what you have. You’re always doubting it.

It’s like when there are six hundred different, possible channels to watch on the television, you find something, but then you think, “Maybe something else is better.” So, the more choices you have, actually, the more unhappy you are. It has to do with expectation. If there are so many choices, you expect something is going to be perfect. But there is nothing that’s perfect. Having all these choices, which is actually suffering, we consider this as happiness. We’ll go to war to bring that to countries that don’t have that. This is absurd. Why? Because we have this incorrect consideration that “this is happiness.”

Participant: In my life everything used to be fine, with my parents there was a lot of love, and with my friends, and everything that I wanted became true, but on the other hand, I would wake up every morning and wonder, “What am I doing here?” I realized many material things, and they weren’t happiness. And now, even if I were to lose what I have, I wouldn’t be sad about that. So now, it’s truth, that makes me happy. Happiness is when I have some glimmering of the truth, when I can see some truth out in the light.

Answer: This gets into another level of discussion. There’s something called “tainted happiness and untainted happiness.” When something is tainted, there’s usually a stain. There’s happiness, which is mixed with confusion, stained, or tainted. It’s mixed with confusion, unawareness of how it actually exists, and so on. And that will ultimately be unsatisfying, a big problem, and so on. But then there can also be happiness that’s not mixed with this confusion. It doesn’t arise from confusion; it doesn’t make more confusion.

So, if we speak about what is lasting happiness, lasting happiness comes from a separation from confusion, a separation from – it’s usually translated as – “ignorance” or “unawareness.” It’s like a feeling of relief, like you take off your tight shoes, and being parted from that restriction is a happiness. Now, we’re not talking about a temporary separation. It’s not like I eat, and temporarily I’m parted from hunger, but it’s going to come back. We’re not talking about that. This is this problematic happiness that I was talking about. We’re talking about when your confusion, your unawareness and everything, is gone forever, is never going to come back. That’s a lasting happiness. That’s different; that’s a different level we’re talking about.

The happiness of seeing “the truth” is certainly something that’s discussed in Buddhism. But one needs to go really deeply, because we could think that we’ve understood the truth, whereas we haven’t gone deeply enough, and then sometimes we get very, very disappointed, and frustrated. So, this is a very important point in the Buddhist teachings, never to think that “I’ve understood enough,” until you become a Buddha. Always go deeper and deeper and deeper. Often we think we’ve dealt with a problem, and we don’t have that problem anymore. Or we think, “If a problem were to come up in the future, I’d be able to deal with it OK.” But when it actually happens, we find that it’s not so easy.

So let’s spend a few moments thinking about, “Do we have a false way of considering happiness?” And, if we are exaggerating happiness, and what we consider to be happy, to deconstruct that, to see, “Well, it’s not really like that. We enjoy what we have, but realizing that this is not ultimate happiness, it may change,” etc., etc., and let’s try not to be naive into thinking that this is easy in actual life. It’s not easy in actual life, because we have so much automatically arising grasping for that happiness to last, and for it be ultimate happiness, and to “really, really make me happy.” We do – it automatically arises, particularly with other people.

We might not be so attached to material objects, but with other people and love, we’re talking about something very delicate. Now it starts to get very personal. “I want to be loved by you.” Is that happiness? What is it? Interesting question. Tell me, “being loved by you,” is that happiness or suffering? Now we’re talking about a special you, the one that we want to love us. Is that happiness – or is that suffering? What do you think?

Participant: Love contains a potential for, the risk of future suffering. It’s like eating fugu, the Japanese pufferfish that is poisonous and lethal if prepared incorrectly.

Answer: Alright, so being loved by somebody, or loving somebody, carries with it the risk of pain, when they don’t love us anymore. What about the expectations that the other person has, that come along with them loving us? They expect that we’re going to be available for them whenever they want, for example? They expect us to be perfect, a perfect fit for them?

Another participant: So for example, I was very much in love, and it ended badly, and I suffered a lot. But if I think about the whole story now, I’m not suffering anymore, because I learned a lot from that.

Answer: Right, we learned a lot from that. Does that mean that we’ll no longer be hurt in another relationship in the future, if it breaks up? This is the point that I was making before, “How deeply have we gone in overcoming the cause of the problem?”

Another participant: In the standard Buddhist teachings it says that there’s suffering and there’s the suffering of suffering.

Answer: That’s referring to having physical pain, and then on top of that having mental pain. There are certain levels of intensity of suffering, that’s true. But being loved by someone – what are our expectations? Do we expect them to express that love in the way that we would like it be expressed? What about if they don’t express it? And do they have to express it all the time? Do they constantly tell us that they love us, in order to reaffirm that? How often do they have to tell us?

Because, in fact, as nice as it is to feel that we’re loved by somebody, what exactly is it? What are our expectations? Most of us know how terrible it feels, when we feel that the other person doesn’t love us anymore, we don’t have that love anymore. What is being loved by somebody? Why is it that being loved by someone that we don’t care about doesn’t count? I want to be loved by you, by this one. So, being loved by that one isn’t happiness, but being loved by this one is happiness. This is strange. Being loved by my dog is not enough.

Participant: Sometimes that’s enough.

Answer: Sometimes, yes. Well, are we content with that? “Well, my mother loves me. That’s it.” These are things to think about. There’s no clear, immediate answer, but these are topics that we have to work with. What we want to overcome is this incorrect consideration, which is based on exaggeration.

Now, why do we consider it happiness “to be with you?” If we go the next step, then the next incorrect consideration is considering something – and these are the words that are used – “unclean as clean.” The phrase that I like in terms of this is, “If it’s my lovers cup, it’s clean; if it’s the cleaning lady’s cup, then it’s dirty.” “I’m very happy to share the cup, and the drink, with my loved one, but I don’t want to share it with the drunk on the street, or the cleaning lady. That’s dirty, if it’s my lover’s cup, it’s clean.” This is strange, isn’t it?

“If I kiss my loved one and stick my tongue in their mouth, this is clean, this is happiness,” but if I stick my tongue in the mouth of the drunk on the street, is that happiness, is that clean? “Oh, in my lover’s mouth, it’s clean,” and we feel happy based on that. This is very strange. This is another level of incorrect consideration. It’s very funny, if you think about it. It’s perfectly OK to stick our own finger in our mouth and pick our teeth, or even to stick our own finger up our nose, but if somebody else sticks their finger in our mouth, then what? Our finger is clean, their finger is dirty? It is funny isn’t it? “I can pick my own nose, but I’m not going to pick somebody else’s nose. That’s dirty, mine is OK.”

Participant: My nose is not clean, but it’s mine, that’s the difference.

Answer: Oh! I see, that’s the difference, then. This is strange. From an objective point of view it’s the same. That gets us to the next level of incorrect consideration, which has to do with the whole topic of “me” and “mine,” and we’ll get to that. It’s correct, they’re connected, these four types of incorrect consideration, nonstatic as static, and suffering as happiness, and unclean as clean, and “no separate self” from “believing in the separate, solid self.”

Considering something dirty as clean can be doctrinally based. We can use an example from India: “If a brahmin serves the food with their hand,” as Indians do, “then, to me, that’s clean; but if an untouchable serves it with their hand, it’s dirty.” So, it can be based on some propaganda, some doctrine, or it could automatically arise. Nobody has to teach us that: “My lover’s cup is clean, and the drunk’s cup is dirty.” That becomes an interesting topic. Does a baby make any difference? Not really. It’s very interesting, with a small child, you teach a child what’s dirty. Do you teach a child what’s clean? “Don’t put that in your mouth, that’s dirty!” Do you teach them, “Put that in your mouth, it’s clean?”

Again let’s think about that in terms of relationships. One can take this on many, many different levels. From a Buddhist point of view, one gets into the whole topic of the body. We take it as being beautiful and clean, whereas if you peel off the skin, is it still beautiful and clean? If you look inside the stomach, is it beautiful and clean? The food is so clean and wonderful, and you put it in your mouth and then spit it out, and is it still so clean and wonderful? There are many, many topics that are studied.

Now, the consequence of this is not that, “I consider my body bad and horrible,” and like that, and then we have a big aversion and hatred of the body, or anything for that matter. That’s not the point. The point is not to exaggerate. That’s important to remember. Incorrect consideration is an exaggeration of something, making it into a big thing and not really seeing the reality – the conventional reality here, we’re talking about. Why are we so happy to be with our loved one? Why are we so happy to hold their hand? Why are we so happy to share the bed with them, and not somebody else? It’s because we consider them special. “This is beautiful, this is clean, this is happy.” I hope that you can see that all of this is leading to the relationship of these factors with the mind, how you consider things. That’s where we’re leading to.

Let’s think about this for a moment, in terms of this incorrect consideration of what is unclean as clean.

Do you have any questions?

Question: You explained “considering suffering as happiness,” and “considering unclean as clean,” as two distinct steps. Are they unrelated, or do they concern the same issue?

Answer: They’re related to each other. Perhaps we can find examples, in which they’re not necessarily both involved in a situation. But we can certainly think of a situation where all of these factors are involved. I’m lying with a loved one in bed, and I think that this is going to last forever, whereas obviously it’s not. I can think that this is happiness, whereas in fact my arm falls asleep, and the other person is on top of me, and I want to roll over, and if I do that, I am going to wake them up, so this becomes very awkward. Or we are lying on top of each other and “so clean, I’m so happy,” but then we start to sweat, both of us are sweating. Is this still happy, is this still clean? These things relate to each other.

In this example of lying with somebody, with a loved one, then also the fourth incorrect consideration can come in there: “It’s with you,” so this is special. If I were lying here with the drunk on top of me, or the dog on top of me, it’s not the same. I consider, “It’s with you, so it’s special, it’s happiness, it’s clean.”

But these things don’t always come together, “It’s summer, I consider this happiness.” That’s not related to the situation of, “Is the summer clean or not clean?” But is this happiness? Well, if it’s happiness, then if it’s forty-five degrees [Celsius], it should still be happiness; but obviously it’s not. So, with summer, it has nothing to do with unclean or clean. But to consider summer happiness, then it should be happiness, regardless of how hot it is. But often these come together and those are the more interesting examples, actually, because usually they’re the ones that are the most emotionally charged, and emotionally disturbing, and involve the most attachment.

Question: Are there other examples, besides the body, for clean and unclean?

Answer: “If my own room is disorderly and the bed isn’t made, well, that’s OK; it’s clean. But if somebody else’s is like that, particularly my children’s, then that’s dirty,” we get very annoyed. “If I’ve worn my pants for a week, well, that’s OK, it’s still clean, I can put it on again. But if it’s the pants of somebody else, who’ve worn it for a week, that’s dirty. I don’t want to put it on.” There are many examples, but that’s enough.

There are so many things like that, and often it’s related with the next thing, it’s done by a special person. “If my loved one cooks the meal, it’s clean,” you trust it. But if somebody else cooked it, well, then we don’t trust it anymore. Maybe they didn’t wash the dishes properly. “If I just washed the dishes, I just put it under the cold water and just wiped it with the old dishrag that I haven’t changed in a month, it’s clean. If somebody else does that, it’s dirty.”

Question: How about, “If I eat at my mother’s house, it’s one thing, but if I eat at my mother-in-law’s house, that’s something else?”

Alex: Right. Right, exactly. This restaurant is clean, that restaurant is dirty, permanent, static...

Question: Maybe it’s true?

Answer: Maybe it’s true this one time, but is it static, is it always? “Everything that I eat at this restaurant is going to bring me happiness?” I think it’s really funny, because you can observe this. I go to this restaurant: I don’t like a lot of choices. If there’s too many choices, it really does bring unhappiness, so I tend to eat the same thing at a restaurant. I found one thing that I like at this restaurant and I eat that, but one time I have it and, “Look, they put too much salt in it.” The cook forgot that they put salt in and put salt in a second time, or the cook was sick and somebody else cooked it. But we have the expectation that it’s going to be happiness, always, never changing.

Question: Usually, situations are much more complex, and other things happen everyday, which influence the quality of our experience, even if we go to the same restaurant. Isn’t it too simple to just separate between clean and unclean, when many more factors are involved?

Answer: That’s very true, but our point here, of why we’re looking at these issues, is that if I expect that the restaurant is always going to be the same, and is always going to be delicious, and bring me happiness, and is always going to be clean, then we have a great deal of attachment, “I really want to go there.” We have this great hope. And if it doesn’t fulfill that hope, that expectation, we get very angry, very disappointed and frustrated. So this is what we want to avoid, this suffering that comes from these expectations, and considering that it’s always going to be like this, and always happiness, and so on. Things change. What you say is true, they change.

If I have a big problem at home and I consider getting drunk, or shooting up some drug as, “This is going to be happiness,” well, come on, that’s not going to be happiness. The problem is not going to go away just because we’re drunk or we’re high on some drug. Being drunk or high on a drug could cause other problems, so is this happiness? Eating chocolate, is that going to make me really feel better when I’m unhappy? How long is it going to last? What do I expect from eating the chocolate?

It can help, maybe, maybe. “I like chocolate, and so if I’m really in a horrible mood, OK, I’ll have a piece of chocolate,” for example, “but I don’t expect that this is going to perform a miracle.” If you realize, “OK, this might give momentary happiness, it might not,” so if it does, you enjoy it, if it doesn’t, you don’t, and you go on. You don’t make a big deal out of it.

The point is “Don’t exaggerate.” When you exaggerate and project something that is totally unrealistic, the result is you’re going to have problems; you’re going to be unhappy. That’s what Buddhism is all about, how to overcome suffering. But we’re talking abut gross levels here. When we get into the discussion of voidness, then it gets more and more subtle, but first we have to deal with these gross levels.

Let’s end here, and we’ll meet again after lunch.