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The pursuit of happiness vs. wanting others to be happy; happiness from absorption in activity

Teachings on Happiness for Dancing Mountains Sangha newsletter
Date: February 3, 2007
Location: No Abode Hermitage 


Transcribed by: Frances Collins May 2008


Is it in the Declaration of Independence where it is stated that all men are created equal, the declaration of independence from colonial domination by the English empire? Now this wonderful country has become an empire, it seems. I've heard that in the 18th century, what was meant by the phrase ‘all human beings are created equal’ was that we are all created equal in our capacity, or in our nature, for compassion. This is one understanding of what they meant at that time by equality. They didn't think that men and women are equal or that free people and slaves are equal, but in the realm of the ability to be kind, the understanding that was circulating among them was that all human beings had this ability to be kind, to be compassionate and to love. One of the main authors, elaborating on this point while looking at a young slave boy, commented on how kind the boy was, that his ability to be kind was quite well developed even at such a young age.

Sometimes people ask me where the buddha way starts. It's hard to say where it starts but I think the seed of it is compassion. So then I might be asked if it really starts with suffering and I say, okay it can start with suffering. That’s fine. So there is suffering in the world and the buddha dharma is concerned with teaching people the causes and conditions of suffering; but this teaching comes from compassion. So there is suffering, but then there is a feeling that maybe a certain type of suffering would be good to become free of—if it is possible. It's not about freedom from pain in childbirth; it's not about freedom from pain when you have an infection in your mouth. These are useful pains—they tell you go to the dentist or they tell you that the baby is coming and to get ready. A pain in your ankle is telling you to stop walking because you've sprained it; a pain in your fingers is saying don’t close the door any more on my fingers, and so on. Pain is a useful aspect of life. But even when we don't have painful sensations, we sometimes are afraid and miserable. Sometimes we experience the possibility that we may become free of this suffering; then we come to a place where we want this for ourselves and for others, and finally we think of becoming really skilful so that we could really work full-time on helping suffering beings.

The current Dalai Lama has a way of making the buddha dharma very simple by saying that it is kindness, basically compassion, and that is not separable from wisdom. But it is possible without highly developed wisdom to feel a lot of compassion. The practice is basically to let this compassion be fully developed, to allow all the skills of compassion to become fully developed. In order to do that we need wisdom, so that the compassion that is the seed of our practice can grow and blossom to its full potential.

The essence of our practice, the essence of a religion that is about happiness, is compassion. The heart of a religion about happiness is compassion. I think Buddhism is a religion of happiness. The Buddha was talking about happiness 2500 years ago. He was also talking about suffering, but not just suffering, also happiness. Not all religions talk about happiness, maybe… I don't know. But this one does mention happiness way back before happiness was discussed in many cultures. I feel that compassion is basic because it is our nature. The way we are actually is compassion. It is our nature to nurture and be nurtured. That’s the kind of thing we are: we have the nature to nurture and be nurtured. We are actually the consequence of being nurtured and nurturing. However, it is also our nature that when we do not understand what I have just said, we suffer in a very painful and unnecessary way; painful in the sense that when we do understand our nature we are free of suffering. Even though suffering may still be there it is no longer a problem—it is an opportunity. It's our job and we love it. It is our nature to be nurtured and to nurture. It’s our nature to be compassionate toward others and it is our nature to receive compassion from others. We are here because we do receive the compassion of others. That's what brings us here into being, and we are compassionate towards others. That is also what brings us into being. That is our nature and we need to understand this.

One of my favourite Chinese characters, she, or setsu in Japanese, can be translated as compassion. But literally it has many different meanings. Basically it means to embrace, sustain, and nurture. It can also be quite clumsily translated as to be embraced and to be sustained; to be embraced and to be nurtured. It means both those things. It goes in both directions. It means to care for children, to nurture them and to help them grow up. It also means to receive the Buddha’s teachings and the Buddha’s compassion and to be matured to happiness by receiving the Buddha’s compassion. It is giving compassion and receiving compassion. It isn't usually translated as compassion because it is emphasizing the giving and receiving dimension of compassion. It's telling us that you do embrace other beings and that you do sustain other beings, and they embrace you and sustain you. This is the character that is used in the bodhisattva precepts, the three pure precepts. This is the character that is used with regard to the forms of Zen practice, and the ceremonies of Zen practice—the ceremonies of the Buddhist practice. So you embrace and sustain the practice, first. You are embraced and sustained by the practice. Then you embrace and sustain all sorts of good activities, which are not formally speaking the practice, and you are embraced and sustained by them. These are all the kindnesses that people do informally, untraditionally, randomly, as we say. Lastly, this is what you do with all sentient beings—you embrace and sustain them and this is what they do with you; they embrace and sustain you. They mature you and you mature them. The Sanskrit for this is sattva-krya-samvara-sila. Krya means to purify, work or develop. Samvara means discipline, or training. It is actually an exercise programme. This kind of sila is the precept of exercising this mutual maturing between yourself and all beings. It is referring to the actual exercise process of compassion. It also means to collect. It is like our word “sesshin.” Sesshin means to collect or gather your heart, gather your mind. But it also means to collect everybody’s heart and everybody's mind.

The Declaration of Independence also says that you have an inalienable right. It is not just people in the United States that have this inalienable right—everybody has this inalienable right. When making this declaration on this continent it was stated that we have this inalienable right to life, to liberty and to the pursuit of happiness. I appreciate it being pointed out that it says life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that it does not say life, liberty, and happiness. It says the pursuit of it; that's a bit of a problem. Also, may I point out that the word ‘pursuit’ in the 17th and 18th century did not mean what it means today. It had a dark meaning of pursuing with hostile intent, pursuing like a fugitive. That aggressiveness is in that word, which is a problem for our history. Another word that we can use in buddha dharma is that you have the right to seek happiness and it is a right, I would like to mention today, that you should pass up on. You do have the right to seek happiness, but I recommend that you do not seek it.

From ancient times it has been observed that those who seek happiness for themselves are not very often successful. You are entitled to seeking, but…don't seek it. If you want it, don't seek it. In ancient times they saw that seeking it was not good for the seeker; realised people have realised it without seeking. Generally speaking, seeking happiness is not conducive to achieving it. What is conducive to achieving it is thinking about the happiness of others without seeking it. Compassion, wanting others to be happy, feeling our suffering, feeling joy at the thought of their happiness, wanting others to be free of suffering without seeking that—that is conducive to happiness for one and all.

Another way to put it is that what is conducive to happiness is absorption in your activity, being absorbed in your activity without seeking. Seeking is a distraction from being absorbed in your activity. Being absorbed in your activity is basically happiness—concentrating wholeheartedly on what you are doing, on your activity. The first level of happiness that comes is being absorbed on your breathing. That will bring you concentration, absorption and happiness. However, if you stop concentrating on your breathing you might flip right back into your usual understanding and be unhappy again. So the concentration that I most highly encourage is concentration on your activity as it actually comes to be. In other words: concentration on how you are embracing and sustaining everybody and how everybody is embracing and sustaining you. Being absorbed in how you are actually functioning, how you are actually acting, will be the deepest happiness, which cannot be disturbed even if you are not focusing on your breathing or some other object.

Somebody said that happiness is regarded most usefully as a by-product of absorption. I can see that it can be a by-product, but I also think that absorption is the activity, which is happiness—both. As we become more absorbed in what we are doing we come to see that what we are doing we are not doing all by ourselves. When you first start looking at what you are doing you probably think that you are doing it in relationship to the world. As you study more, you get closer to the realisation that you and the world together are your activity, that you are acting together with the world.

But we start by admitting that we think that we do something in relation to, or toward, the world and we just keep on looking at that until we get over it. Paying attention to the movement of your body, or your speech, or your breathing can lead to a concentration, which is happiness. When you are absorbed you can start looking at what you have been concentrating on. So you're not only absorbed in what you are doing, but you're starting to examine the nature of what you are doing. I would say that the nature of what you are doing is the same nature as what you are. You are made into an active being, and as an active being, you embrace and sustain all beings and you are embraced and sustained by all beings. So you start by looking at your activity in any way you can and become absorbed in that. Be happy—it should be happy. If you don’t get absorbed, you don’t feel happy. If you don't feel joy then you are not yet absorbed in what you are doing. Once you are joyful and absorbed then you can look at what is the nature of what you are doing. That brings a deeper level of happiness and also unleashes your capacity to help others, which comes with being able to see how you are helping others and how they are helping you.

We use forms as ways for us to bring our attention to our activity and to see if we happen to view our activity, for example, as “I'm doing this and it's not doing me”; or “I’m embracing this and it's not embracing me”; or “its embracing me but I'm not embracing it”; or “I’m embracing this but I’m not embracing everything”. You get to see your view of what you're doing, and by studying it you will realise the emptiness of your activity, the selflessness of every action of your life and the selflessness of everybody else’s actions. It will become clear that nothing has independent self, that at the centre of that light of clarity is compassion, now unhindered by your ideas of what it is and everybody else’s ideas of what it is. Unhindered also means it’s not any of your ideas, yet it’s nurtured by all your ideas and nurtured by everybody else’s ideas—everybody else's weird ideas about what emptiness is, about what Zen is and about what compassion is. None of them can be found anyplace and they all contribute to everything.

What I am saying is a ceremony to help us to find Zen or to find Zen meditation; to find happiness by passing up on seeking it. You can pass up on seeking it when you realise that you can’t find it. So again I remind you that to find emptiness is to realise happiness by realizing that you can’t find it, to want happiness for all beings and to realise that without seeking, because you know it cannot be found. Then it is realised and you want everybody to realise it. But don't seek that, because it is already here. We are entitled to the pursuit of happiness; we are entitled to something strenuous. I would like to see us being strenuous without seeking. It's hard to learn how to exercise strenuously without seeking, but this we need to learn. A lot of people can be not strenuous when they are not seeking. A lot of people can say, “Hey, I’m relaxed. I’m not pursuing anything.” But to be strenuous and exercise your energy completely with no gaining idea is what we are challenged to learn.

The buddha way is how to realise compassion. Learning is a wisdom practice, and I just want to say again that basic happiness is being absorbed. Basic happiness is a by-product and an activity of absorption. And I would say that if you want to learn the buddha way, you have to be happy before you can learn it. If you're not happy you can try to learn it, but I recommend before you try to learn the buddha way, before you start to learn about yourself, first of all be happy. How do you be happy? Be absorbed. Be concentrated. Be tranquil. Be relaxed and happy. If I were happy why would I want to learn the buddha way? Well, because you are not completely happy and you notice other people need help and they are suffering and if you're happy you might want to help. You see suffering and you want to help, because the happiness that comes to you is compassion. Because you are absorbed it is not enough. The happiness that comes to you is not enough. You're happy but also there is a dent in your happiness. The etymology of the word karuna means dented happiness. So you're happy; you're compassionate. Compassionate people are happy. Uncompassionate people are not happy. You're compassionate; you practise absorption; you're happy. Now, the absorbed concentrated happy person is going to start learning about the self. How do you learn about the self? Look at what you are doing! Pay attention to your activity; study it; learn about it. Learn about the mental activity and how you see yourself in relationship to the world. Now you are studying the self.

At first, whenever you look, it seems as if the self is separate and that continues for a while. You see your body separate from other bodies: my body, other bodies—two. Then you practise for a long time and finally you see: my body, other bodies— not two. So you practise and you think “I'm separate from other people,” or “I’m helping some people but not all people,” or “Some people are helping me, but not all people.” As you know, some people look and say, “I'm not helping anybody, and nobody is helping me.” This of course is the most horrible situation for human beings. This is hell. Then we want to commit suicide because we see that way, and we believe it because we haven't learned about it. Most of us don't have such a terrible picture. So we see that we are helping some people and that some people are helping us. It's not totally horrible. The human realm is kind of like that. Some people are helping me and others aren’t. Some are my friends and some are my enemies. That is the human world. Learning about that pattern of consciousness is learning about the self.

The more you study the content, the more you see it is dynamic. When you first look at your mental activity it doesn't seem very dynamic. In fact it looks like you're doing the same thing over and over. When you keep watching, and you think that you are doing the same thing over and over, then you see that you are not doing the same thing over and over. You'll see that actually the activity is constantly changing. So by giving close attention to studying this in a concentrated state you get to see that your self and your activity are not abiding and not graspable. You realise the impermanent selfless nature of all your mental activity. Basically that is your mental activity that you are attending to in the process of learning about the self. But you have a short version of it; you look and then you say, “Oh!” Just look and you wake up. Some people are actually that fast but most people take a little longer. Most people have to have quite a few moments of noticing that they don't get that the self is not separate.

In the path of purification, the Visuddhimagga, when it teaches loving-kindness meditation, usually you start with yourself: “May I be happy; may I be free of fear and anxiety; may I be buoyant in body and mind.” It starts with the self in that text. When some Mahayana practitioners hear about people wishing themselves well, they say that isn’t Buddhism. They say Buddhism is about wishing well for other people's welfare. But I think this comes from a culture where people naturally wish themselves well. They grow up wishing themselves well. They know how to wish themselves well. Then Buddhism comes along and says enough of that. But these people grow up in a simple society where it is very clear that their mothers love them and they love their mother. They are not so evil as we are here in America where people say, “I hate my mother or my mother is a monster. I don't want to be like my mother.” They don't talk like that in some cultures. They are in a different place. They teach people how they love themselves because their mothers showed them how to love others. But in the Visuddhimagga teaching it says if you can't love yourself, pick someone that you do already love or respect. So start with a teacher that you respect. Then when you can wish your teacher well, you can move to yourself. Then when you can do it with yourself pick someone neutral, then pick someone you have some affection for. If you start by choosing someone you have affection for it can turn easily into lust. So warm up to the people that you find very attractive by working with yourself and neutral people first. Then start working with people who you believe have hurt and betrayed you, abandoned, attacked and mutilated you. That is, of course, the hardest generally. But even focusing on someone you find attractive is very hard to remain focused on their welfare, rather than beginning to focus on being with them and having more of them, which is not what loving-kindness is about.

It's a bit like being on an aeroplane. If you're travelling with people who need your assistance you’ve got to put your own oxygen mask on first. The Buddha gave an example of acrobats where the father acrobat says to the daughter acrobat, “Now you take care of me and I will take care of you.” She says, “No father, you take care of yourself and then you will be able to take care of me. I'll take care of myself and then I will be able to take care of you.” The Buddha said that the apprentice is right; first practice the four foundations of mindfulness: pay attention to your own posture, your own breathing, and your own feelings. First you tune into your body and your feelings, and then pay attention to your karma, your intentions and your actions. Then you will be able to help others. So how can we take care of others? If you take care of yourself in this way you can care for others.
How do you take care of others in such a way that it takes care of yourself? It's not the same, it’s a little different: take care of others with non-violence, loving-kindness and patience. When you relate to others that way, that is the way you take care of others, and that takes care of yourself. But if you don't take care of yourself, if you don't keep track of your own stories, your own mental activity, then you see others doing various things, hurting themselves or hurting each other. You see that but you don't realise that this is your version of what is going on there because you're not taking care of yourself. It goes like this: I have this story that these people are blah blah… and you become impatient because you believe the story. You're not aware that you are angry with them because of the way you are thinking about them. But when you are aware that you are angry with her because of the way that you are thinking about her, then you can think, “I should be restrained here. I'm like someone who is on the verge of impatience. It's hard for me to practice loving-kindness now because of the way then I'm thinking about what this person is doing.” This is mindfulness of my own state, awareness of my mental activity. If I am absorbed, I can see that this is a story that I have. But here is another story. This is the story that is not really true because what I think about you is not what you are. That's another story. That's not true either but it puts me more into a questioning mode. So when I see you I can say, “What are you doing?” I can say this non-violently, lovingly and patiently because I have studied and confronted my own story and other stories. Now I have more of a question about you; I don't see you as my story. I see you as a question and I am interested because I am taking care of myself and I am basically happy. So this early Buddhist teaching is to take care of yourself in such a way that you can take care of others, and take care of others in such a way that it takes care of you. It goes both ways. Embrace and sustain others and see how they embrace and sustain you. If you don't see it yet, become calm, concentrated, and joyful and then study. Learning this is learning the buddha way. It is not just learning concentration, which is basically part of our job as happy beings, to be absorbed. When we are absorbed we can go to work and try to practice these precepts.

When you are meditating on your nature and when you understand it, it will be natural not to seek. Sometimes you take a break—the world makes you into someone who is not trying to get something out of life for a moment and you experience what a relief it is to actually experience something without trying to get anything: It happened just now. How great! It can happen. When you understand, it will be that way all the time. You will be doing good things without trying to get anything out of them. Before that you will be doing things sometimes not trying to get anything out of them, and sometimes trying to feel happy by doing something that is good and not trying to get anything; just doing it because it's good. You're doing good to do good. Period. But sometimes we’re doing something that is perfectly good but we are doing it to try to get something. So we ruin it; not completely but just a little bit. We put this little pollution in there of seeking, which is antithetical to the happiness. Now if you want to be unhappy, then seeking goes really well with it. It helps it a lot. If we notice that we have this element of seeking and grasping, then we confess and repent that, so that we evolve out of it more and more over the years.