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16 Contemplating Happiness

Happiness arises from the timely company of friends.
Happiness arises from having few needs.
Happiness arises from having accumulated virtue at life’s end.
Happiness arises from seeing beyond suffering.

Dhammapada, verse .331

In the practice of the Buddha’s teaching we regularly hear about going for Refuge. When we first encountered Buddhism some of us might have had the impression that going for Refuge was an interesting traditional way of talking about believing in a teacher. Perhaps it was part of the way one became a member of the religion – you went through a ritual called ‘going for Refuge’.

I know in my own case that it was not something I considered important when I first discovered the Buddha’s teaching. I wanted to align myself with a way of understanding the world that emphasised meditation. The practice of going for refuge and precepts seemed rather secondary. It took a good number of years before I began consciously to sense how profoundly important it is to have a refuge; to have a sense of something that one is committed to, something beyond getting what one wants.

Of course, we are all committed to getting what we want to some degree, and there is a certain type of pleasure – a feeling of gratification – to be derived from it. If I get what I want, I generally feel more comfortable than if I don’t get what I want. In our effort to cultivate awareness, however, our perception of this usual state of affairs changes. We begin to understand that the pleasure of getting what we want has a hook on it; it gradually becomes apparent that there is more going on in the process of wanting and getting than we ordinarily suppose.

Assuming that you have to get what you want in order to be happy is very limiting. If I’m addicted to getting what I want, I can’t help feeling an embarrassing sense of dependency. The second line of verse 331 in the Dhammapada reads ‘Happiness arises from having few needs.’ That is a message one rarely hears – that there is a pleasure that comes from not needing more than we already have. Usually we associate pleasure with getting what we think we need or what we want, yet the Buddha wisely pointed out that the very condition of clinging to wants and needs is what stands in the way of a deeper happiness and contentment.

This verse from the Dhammapada is about the nature of real pleasure. In each line there is a reference to the Pali word sukha which means ‘happiness’ or ‘pleasure’. This verse provides a pertinent contemplation for us to consider the way we seek happiness. We are all interested in happiness – we all value well-being – but if we don’t stop and consider carefully then we can easily settle for a happiness that falls far short of what wise beings have realised is possible.

The Buddha would sometimes use this word sukha when talking about nibbana, for example, ‘nibbanam paramam sukham’. This is a line in a stanza that we recite regularly, and it means ‘nibbana is ultimate happiness’. People sometimes question this and say, ‘How can you use the word ‘happiness’ when you talk about nibbana? Nibbana is supposed to be about freedom from desire, and happiness is tied up with desire isn’t it?’ Even a fully enlightened Buddha cannot say what nibbana is. It is not possible to say what this state of enlightenment, liberation, or total inner freedom that Buddhas have reached is like, because all words and concepts about the experience are merely pointers to something inconceivable and inexpressible. However, when asked what nibbana was like, one of the ways the Buddha described it was as ultimate happiness. What we want more than anything else is to experience this happiness is.

Valuing friendship

A fully enlightened human being will tell you that it is not true that happiness only arises when we get what we want. When happiness arises, in whatever manner, we are encouraged to look at what it is that we are experiencing and calling ‘happiness’, and how we relate to it. An example is the happiness of the first line of that stanza – ‘Happiness arises from the timely company of friends.’

Over the last few weeks I have often reflected how fortunate our community here is to have so many good friends, and how beneficial, how truly wonderful it is to have such friends. This year we decided to have a party. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve there was a children’s party, and in the evening we had our own little party. We all sat round the fire and, miraculously enough, good friends of the monastery turned up with bottles of punch – non-alcoholic of course! So we spent the whole evening together – just being together as a community. We weren’t delving deep into the great mysteries of life, but were simply enjoying each others’ company. There is a pleasure in being with people you feel you can trust and a pleasure in being remembered by people that you have shared something with.

Unfortunately, we can sometimes take each other for granted. Even though we care for and value each other, we perhaps don’t express it – we never mention it to each other. Perhaps some of us have suffered the consequences of this in relationships in which there hasn’t been enough expression of appreciation of friendship. There is a skill in expressing appreciation that we have to work to develop. The Buddha himself recognised the danger of not valuing friendship, and spoke a lot about the qualities and the value of friendship, the great blessing that is true spiritual companionship. When we find it, we experience happiness, and there is an encouragement to allow oneself to be fully conscious of our appreciation; to feel nourished by good company. In the recent issue of our monastery newsletter I let it be known how much we appreciate all the Christmas Cards that we get here. I know that if people stopped coming here on Sunday evenings or on New Year’s Eve and there was just the nine of us, life wouldn’t be the same! Having friends come and join us in a shared reaffirmation of things that we respect and value is something we treasure.

Seeing deeper

The second line of the verse says, ‘Happiness arises from having few needs.’ It might be difficult to hear what is being said here if we don’t engage ourselves in a meditation practice; if we haven’t recognised for ourselves the possibility of inner quietness – a place where we are not wanting anything in particular. Meditation provides the means to observe that if there are ripples of wanting passing through the mind we can see them just as they are – as ripples, movement. There’s much more to us than what the active mind leads us to believe. Sometimes we seem to be filled with a continuous stream of desire in our minds and our hearts. Such activity is quite exhausting. If we don’t choose to draw our attention inwards and enquire into the nature of this active mind with its ideas and wantings then the way it appears to be is who and what we feel ourselves to be. We believe, even feel convinced, that the only way that we can be happy is by getting what we want.

Some time ago I was told a story about a meditation student who lived in London and had a busy working life. Unlike many who live in London, she had consciously decided to walk to work every day. Over a period of time she began to realise that she had developed a problem. As she walked to work she would pass a particular French patisserie, and was unable to walk past without buying not just one but several pastries. The process of buying and eating these pastries stemmed from some inner compulsion rather than from any natural desire to satisfy hunger. Over a period of time she became aware what was going on and yet, although she recognised it, she could not stop buying the pastries! This was a humiliating experience for her, because in many areas of practice she was quite able. But when she came to walking past this pastry shop it all fell apart. One day, after acutely feeling the absurdity and oppressiveness of the situation, she simply decided to walk to work by another route. She made a resolution, a strong determination, that she would not walk past the pastry shop. She made a gesture of renunciation.

The student, feeling quite pleased about herself, reported all this to her teacher, but the teacher said, “I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood the teaching – that isn’t the spirit of the practice at all. The choice you have made to walk another way is a strategy to avoid what is really going on. What you need to do is walk to work as normal but prepare yourself beforehand, both in the evening and the morning before you begin your walk. As you take your walk follow the process step-by-step and watch what is going on in your body and mind.”

It is understood in our practice that disturbances of mind come to us with differing degrees of intensity and that we need to respond appropriately in each case. This particular phenomenon was of the sort where what was called for was the need to prepare oneself beforehand. What is necessary in such a situation is to slow down and to see what is happening as it’s happening and just see it, just know it, not being fooled by the way things appear to be, believing one won’t be happy until one gets the pastry.

This student was fooled regularly by the thought, ‘I will not be happy until I get a pastry.’ So, following her teacher’s advice she prepared herself beforehand. The next morning she walked to work as normal, taking the route past the patisserie. She approached the shop remaining fully aware of her feelings and thoughts. Soon she was outside, standing there, fully conscious and knowing, ‘I want to go in and get a pastry.’ It was quite clear she wasn’t kidding herself – she wasn’t trying to convince herself that this was the case, she simply recognised with an interested awareness that she wanted to go in and buy a pastry. As she stood there it started to get a little easier to feel the wanting, until she was just observing and knowing the raw energy of wanting. Soon enough the wanting disappeared and she experienced a momentary ending of suffering.

Because of her patience and right effort this student had an insight into the truth that this second line of the verse points to. Getting more, in her case, was diminishing the quality of her life, although those pastries looked as though they would add quality to her life! We often believe that we need such things when we’re fooled by the way desire appears. Desire has that apparent nature to it. There is nothing wrong with this appearance as long as we recognise it.

When desire arises there can appear to be some need. In relationships, for example, the feeling can arise that there is something we really need to tell the other person. It is not uncommon for someone to come to see me to say, ‘I really need to tell you something.’ They get it off their chest and feel better afterwards. I try to encourage people to slow down; I ask them if they could try substituting ‘I really want to tell you something.’ Then we can come to an agreement that if they want to tell me something and I’m ready to hear it, we can enter into a discussion. We have these ideas of what we need in all areas of our life. There is an encouragement in our practice to investigate the relationship we have with what we feel are our needs.

So what this teaching points out is that, often enough, when we have less we actually have more. This is not to judge apparent needs or desires when they arise, but to generate an interest in looking deeper at how we are as we are. For example, over the last ten years, on two or three occasions, the feeling has arisen in me, ‘I need to get out of here!’ Thankfully, I have had whatever it takes to not follow such impulses. In fact I’m very grateful that I didn’t follow them because behind the apparent need there is generally something else. We cultivate in ourselves an interest in what is taking place when we have strongly felt needs arising in order to see beyond the way things appear. This is because there is something to be seen beyond the way things appear to be: reality or Dhamma. The way things appear to be is ‘the world’. The way things actually are is Dhamma. To see beyond the way things appear to be is a source of great happiness and pleasure.

Practice as preparation

The third line of this verse says, ‘Happiness arises from having accumulated virtue at life’s end.’ That is something that would not necessarily have occurred to me if I hadn’t read those words. It isn’t a thought I would generally dwell on. But this is something the Buddha spoke about often – not to waste our time, not to be heedless. We don’t know when we’re going to die – it could be soon. He encouraged us to prepare ourselves. A lot of what we are doing as spiritual practitioners is, in fact, preparation. Ajahn Chah said that true practice is not sitting on a cushion – that is preparation. The true practice happens when the passions impact on the heart. If we can be there in the moment of contact and stay there in the middle and not wobble, that is when we are practising. But if we don’t prepare ourselves… Well, I’m sure you all know from your own experiences what happens.

Even if we prepare ourselves it is not easy, when the passions flare up, to stay there in the midst of the fire. It is much easier to go with them, to get carried away by them and act them out physically. The other common response is to go up into the head and rationalise or fantasise our way through their manifestation – perhaps in scenarios of heavenly sensuality, or in theatres of horrendous violence: our fantasies can take us to the most extraordinary limits. If we get carried away by the passions, we act on them and do things without due care, driven by wild energy. So our task is to be able to stay there in the centre, when the energy is raging, without repressing, without pushing down so we get a stomach disorder or a heart attack. We neither indulge in fantasies, nor act out passion, but follow a middle way of being sensitive, yet still and centred, when the passions are in full flight – this is the means by which we can gradually undo our habitual patterns of avoidance.

How is formal sitting preparation? When we sit on our cushion we are encouraged to be still and not to move, even if we want to. As we sit we just observe whatever is happening in body and mind without trying to achieve anything special. We experience thoughts and fantasies and different sorts of feelings and sensations. We allow things to be as they are. The more we try to forcibly stop our imagination and internal dialogue, the more vigorous our mental activity becomes. One skilful way of working is to try seeing ourselves as being a host to visiting guests – we treat them with kindness and courtesy and give them space to be themselves. It is not our duty to get unnecessarily involved with them. Sometimes our preoccupation with the momentum of our worldly activities means that we do not attain any real peace. I have recently spent whole meditation sessions designing the interior of our new retreat house! It does not necessarily matter that we do not attain deep tranquillity. It is more important to know that there is no obligation to be carried away by our thoughts and reactions. The discipline of meditation is a way of practising to be with reality as it is. This is what we are preparing for – how to be with what is, fully present in body and mind, so that we can learn from what is, instead of being caught up in ‘what if’ or ‘if only’.

The ‘what if’ disorder is endemic: ‘What if that didn’t happen?’ ‘What if this happened?’ The ‘if only’ disease is also a very painful and sad condition which we all suffer from to varying degrees. Instead of suffering the agony of being caught up in the ‘if only’ disease we could be experiencing the pleasure of learning from what already is – the way things naturally are. This takes training, however, and one of the ways the Buddha encouraged us to become more focused in our efforts is to think about our death and what’s it going to be like.

I have a very good friend who lives in a rest home in Newcastle. She was independent until the age of ninety-seven, but in the past three years has retired to a home where she receives nursing care. She was telling me recently, “I really feel for the other people in this home. Most of them haven’t prepared themselves for being here.” She sits in a room, pretty much all day long, peacefully preparing for dying. Every time I go to see her she says “I was preparing to die last night.” She describes how on occasions she has woken around three in the morning filled with a sense of awe associated with a perception of vast, free, edgeless awareness. On starting to open her eyes, or on moving physically, she observed a collapsing or a limiting of this awareness. From this experience, she says, she has developed a practice of learning how to inhibit this movement of contraction and to dissolve back into edgelessness, which is how she imagines dying will be. We have often talked about it in a calm and clear manner. She manifests a genuine inner contentment. I could see that she felt real pity for the people who distract themselves watching television all day long. She tends not to get involved in the various activities that are arranged for people living in the home. She feels that death is too important for her to be distracting herself with such things. So most of the time she happily stays in her room. She reads the Dhammapada and one or two other Buddhist books. She meditates and contemplates dying. I find this a great inspiration. When I read ‘Happiness arises from having accumulated virtue by life’s end,’ I sometimes think what the alternative is – the terrible sadness that arises when you realise your lot. The image the Buddha gave for somebody who hasn’t spent their life developing virtue is a scraggy old heron standing lonely at the edge of a dried up lake without any fish in it. At the end of their life they haven’t accumulated any virtue; all that remains is an inner sense of poverty. Contrast that with the possibility of the real pleasure that can be there if we come to the end our life knowing we’ve applied ourselves to what really matters and is genuinely worthwhile.

Real refuge

This brings us to the last line of this stanza: ‘Happiness arises from seeing beyond suffering.’ To be able to see through suffering is to have a refuge. To have such a refuge is like having a compass. If you are ever out on the ocean or in the wilderness and you have a compass, you can find your bearings. In that sense a compass is very valuable. That’s what I understand by refuge. It means skilfully enquiring into life and finding out what is really worthy. In the Pali language the word for an enlightened being is arahant, which literally means one who is worthy. Such a person is worthy because they have understood what is truly worthwhile from the perspective of reality. In the practice of the Buddha-Dhamma one is gradually finding out what is really valuable in life, and thus one gains a true orientation. This orientation is synonymous with taking refuge in the Buddha.

And remember what ‘Buddha’ means. There is the historical Buddha, of course, the human being who lived in India two and a half thousand years ago. For his humanity, teaching and example we are humbly grateful. But it wasn’t his person that he left behind. The reality of the Buddha here and now in which we can go for refuge is a quality of mind that has the integrity and wisdom to see through the appearance of suffering, not by ignoring it, but by looking ever more fully and bravely at the reality of it. The Buddha said, ‘If you want to see the Buddha, see the Dhamma.’ See the reality, see actuality. To come to see reality clearly, just as it is, is to realise that it is the most valuable refuge that we could have.

To take Refuge in the Buddha is to cultivate the potential that we all have for living out of an awareness that isn’t limited by our reactions to our experience. The historical Buddha was certainly a human being. He sat and he ate; he walked and he bathed himself just as a normal person does. He suffered the experience of ageing and would sit in the morning sun to find relief from pains in his back. What was different about him was that his awareness wasn’t limited. We, on the other hand, experience limitations of awareness all the time. A clear example of this is when we come up against the reaction of, ‘I can’t take it any more.’ Now, whenever we experience this reaction, if we have developed awareness, there is a part of us that knows that this feeling of being limited is not the ultimate truth. We have all at times endured past the experience of ‘I can’t take it any more’ and found that we can take it. Perhaps we have been on retreat and begun to experience an excruciating pain; or perhaps some fear or other emotion arose, and we felt unable to bear it. Instead of simply giving up, inspired by faith we have been able to breathe through these experiences, remaining focused on their reality, and what we have discovered is that the pain dissolves or we experience a release from the overwhelming emotion. We realise that the apparent reality of ‘I can’t take it any more’ was just that – an appearance, an apparition; it was the apparent reality. If we had been completely fooled by the world, or by the way things appear to be, we would have grasped at that apparent reality, believing it to be the real state of things. Then we would have fixed that imposed limitation on awareness and defined ourselves as just that, thereby suffering the consequences of feeling inherently limited.

There are many other examples in our lives where we feel, ‘I must have…’ or ‘I cannot put up with that.’ The promise, the hope and the inspiration that is offered us in the example of the Buddha and all his enlightened disciples is the message that undefiled awareness is not limited. It is inherently limitless. Appamano Buddho, appamano Dhammo, appamano Sangha – ‘Limitless is the Buddha, limitless is the Truth, limitless is the Sangha.’

Consider for yourself the possibility through your own investigation that, when you feel limited, that is how it appears to be. Just consider that – don’t simply believe it – then witness the experience of the heart and mind expanding, and the resulting potential for living increase, with more room, more possibility. If you learn something from that, consider what happens if you keep going until there aren’t any limitations any more, as you have let go completely. To quote Ajahn Chah again, ‘If you let go a little you have a little peace, if you let go a lot you have a lot of peace, if you let go completely you have complete peace.’

We take these three jewels as our refuge: the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. We consciously contemplate our true refuge and hold it up as of supreme value. Suffering is inevitable when we impose limitations on our hearts and minds. The Buddha was free from suffering because he had freed himself from all such habits. For us there is suffering – appropriately, accordingly. For us there is freedom only in small moments.

When we learn to experience suffering so that we don’t believe in the way it appears to be, and we endure in the way that we need to endure – with here-and-now judgement-free awareness – sooner or later we will experience a letting-go, bringing relief and joy. This is the happiness that comes from seeing through suffering and this is the happiness that strengthens our faith. Faith that is discovered like this doesn’t get us into arguments or lead to contention. This is a personally verified form of faith and is what can give us bearings in life. Even though at times we might find ourselves without light or any outer signs that we are heading in the right direction, we can feel secure in an inner sense of trusting that comes from our heart’s orientation towards truth.

Thank you very much for your attention.



© 2005 Aruna Publications