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The Buddha’s Guide to Happiness. An adapted talk. Sunday 1 October 2023, Wise Lotus Centre, Herts, UK
An edited and adapted talk during a daylong non-residential retreat.
We have a theme for the day. The Buddha's Guide to Happiness.
Nshorna, my daughter and founder of the Wise Lotus Centre, (Letchworth Garden City, Herts) kindly made a noble effort yesterday due to the train strike. I travelled by taxi, buses from Totnes in south Devon to Bristol. She organised the journey including driving to Bristol to pick me up. We arrived back at her home at 11.15 pm after a long journey in different vehicles of 300 kilometres.
I can truly say I am happy to be here.
Let me give you an outline of our time together. I have not written any timetable but will let it flow. The day will include two 25-minute talks and guided meditations on happiness. There will also be regular references to the deep and profound teachings of the Buddha in connection with happiness. We will have small groups for sharing experiences and a question-answer period.
Let me begin with some teachings on the significance of happiness. I will draw upon my years in the East as a Buddhist monk. I will touch upon my experience in a cave on an island in Thailand for nine months. The experience makes clear the difference between the field of pleasure and happiness
View from the ledge in front of the cave in the hills of Koh Pha Ngan island. A mindful happiness due to presence of snakes, spiders, scorpions and other creatures of the Earth.
In the Buddha’s teachings, there are distinct differences in the language of pleasure and happiness. The field of pleasure has its relevance for us. We reach out for the pleasures of life, via our senses, eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch. We go to the shop to buy an item. The purchase of the item gives us pleasure.
The self, the I, easily identifies with the pleasure. The confirmation of identification with the pleasure is repetition. I want to have again that experience. The human creature abiding on this earth, lives vulnerable to wanting to repeat, vulnerable to habit, vulnerable to developing an addiction. This acts as a shadow over human consciousness, which blocks the receptivity to much more.
Why? We are habitually looking for pleasure, and its maximisation. The desire for pleasure and pursuit of it inhibits happiness. Happiness is of a completely different order to pleasure. The solitude, the creatures, natural world and meditation practices revealed much happiness, day after day, during this period in the cave.
The Buddha was asked “What will bring destruction to this world?” - an important and question. He gave a one sentence response. He replied, ‘Addiction to pleasure.’
The addiction is strong. The desire for gratification of what we want, slowly and systematically, destroys the Earth and its resources. This is serious at the personal, social, environmental and global level. I would not call living in a cave with a certain austerity an opportunity for the maximisation of pleasure. There is nothing to buy, nothing to gain, nothing to pursue.
I found out happiness, reveals one of the most beautiful of human experiences through a depth of receptivity and expansion of consciousness.
Happiness is not confined to a feeling. Feelings can set the limits on happiness. Happiness uplifts the human spirit, an important step towards transcendence of suffering. We don't meditate on happiness enough. We are not mindful of it enough, nor pause to appreciate the movement, the manifestation of happiness.
Happiness comes to us every day, sometimes quietly. It is never apart from the human experience, even in the troubled and most difficult of times. One of the patron saints of the Dharma (teachings), the late, beloved Leonard Cohen made a beautiful statement in a concert in the U2 stadium in London. Before the concert, he spent five years as a Buddhist monk.
In the stadium, he gave the list of the medical drugs he took including anti-depressants and much more, year after year for decades. He listed them. I wrote them all down and checked them, including side effects in the medical dictionary. Wow - one heck of a lot of drugs for any human being to absorb.
He told the audience “Cheerfulness kept breaking through.” Five star. Not even heavy mind-numbing drugs could block out cheerfulness.
A feature of our practice today includes engagement in reflection, to meditate on happiness. What touches us in daily life? What makes us happy? It is 50 years ago since I meditated in the cave during 1973 in my time in the shaven headed Buddhist club and wearing orange curtains.
Happiness comes in different ways.
Here are some examples. Happiness comes through living an ethical life, deeply important for the welfare of ourselves, others, creatures and the Earth. Abuse and demands on others, blame, exploitation, or whatever inflicts suffering upon others due to our unhappy state of mind. Such states of mind rob us of happiness. Ethics means beings dedicated to non-violence, an indispensable ground of these teachings, requiring a real commitment to wise action, speech, and heart-mind. Dedication to non-violence and non-exploitation functions as a training bringing happiness and peace of mind for oneself and others.
Those living violent lives, exploitive lives, bring harm to themselves, to others and to creatures in the natural world. Their price for that way of life include a loss of happiness and a sacrifice of peace of mind. Living with an ethical foundation, we dwell happily when we know the heart is in the right place.
Happiness comes from clarity, mindfulness, meditation and reflection. The Buddha was extremely keen on meditation. He confirmed meditation in all the postures – sitting, walking, standing and reclining.
Sculptures of the Buddha serve as symbolic reminders to us of the power of meditation. Meditation brings a receptivity to the deep and to experience more depth than our everyday mind produces. We become receptive to the deep through inner listening. That doesn't mean to say, what arises from within, is always going to be happiness. Life doesn't work on what you and I like. We would dump much of what goes on in our mind if we could.
Like it or not, challenging stuff arises. Sometimes, there is clarity about the need to work with what arises from within. Those dark corners of the mind, forgotten, felt, or held back have been denied or avoided. The calm, the relaxation due to the practice might touch the challenging places within.
I have the privilege of being a servant of the Dharma for half a century including offering 700-800 residential retreats. I have listened to countless numbers of mind states over these years, You can appreciate this if you are working in the field of emotional mental health. We might touch difficult spots while meditating. Issues may arise which require real attention and cannot be ignored, forgotten or neglected any longer. Sometimes, the arising of stuff that's not easy to face can bring about a quiet happiness. ‘I know what I've got to deal with.’
The issue is no longer pushed away. It's no longer denied. You are clear about this. The Buddha’s teaching made this clear, too. Be mindful with clear comprehension of all experiences.
Don’t ever think for one moment, you can make all the inner changes by yourself. There is no evidence of this. I've never met anybody who can do it all by themselves. There's no teaching of the Buddha which says it either. The teaching says, ‘I go for refuge to the Sangha.’ The Sangha consists of men, women and other who share certain values and practices. We can openly speak and communicate with a sangha, including the deeply wise called the noble ones, the sangha of dedicated practitioners, the sangha of teachers and the sangha of those who we trust can listen to us.
We share our experience. The dialogue of sharing our experiences confirms an expression of going for refuge. Another person or group can listen and shed light on our experience. Others can touch us deeply. We feel happy to have that opportunity for contact with such people. Never think the burden of life rests all on me.
Let us not think we have to work out our issues all by myself. I don't see the evidence for it. Plenty of you in the room know what it means to support others through your precious work and with your family. Such people take refuge in your wisdom. This is another expression of happiness.
There is the happiness of the unplanned and unprepared. This happiness comes out of the blue. Cheerfulness keeps breaking through serious issues. A burst of happiness can occur at any time. Some of you might travel on the moving zoo of human creatures - called the London Underground, or crowded bus or train.
One retreatant said to me, she was standing on the packed underground train in London going to work. Many had their faces buried in the mobile phone - a tragic waste of life A handsome guy aged about 30, looked up, and she spotted him. He was the first love of her life in her mid-teens. He looked across, and they immediately connected, smiled remembering their teenage passion. Out of nowhere, this blissful sensation of this guy she has loved so much arose. She felt the sensation strong throughout her body. The Buddha referred regularly. to the importance of strong, happy sensations felt in the body. That which touches us comes from the deep. It moves through the being. Wow.
The two exchanged phone numbers. They met. The woman said to me “Christopher, it was wonderful to see him again after 15 years. It was beautiful. But he was happily married with two kids.”
The Buddhist tradition says: “Develop equanimity. Practice equanimity.” Happiness can arise in a spontaneous and unexpected way. May each one of you regularly have such sensations of happiness. There is no need to look for it on the underground train to find your first lover.
There are quiet expressions of sublime joy coming out of the depth of the being. Situations touch us. This morning before we started, I made my pilgrimage to a secular church (nearby coffee shop) for holy communion – an oat latte and croissant. I enjoyed the pleasure of communion. While walking to the centre, I saw in a shop window a painting by a Ukrainian artist - a magnificent picture showing a person squatting in their fullness being with their arms wrapped around Gaia (the living Earth) in the lap of the being.
I love the word Gaia with its Greek origins sharing the same pronunciation of the village, Bodh Gaya, of the Buddha’s supreme awakening to the realities of life on Earth. I co-founded a meditation centre in south Devon, which I named Gaia House.
I took my time looking at the painting. What a joy to witness this work of art. The joy would have been mixed with pleasure of owning if I had wanted to buy it. People will pay a lot for the pleasure of possessions; the teachings point to knowing and experiencing the joys, the happiness of life.
To summarise. Happiness comes through the ethics of non-violence in body, speech and mind. There is the subtle happiness of peace of mind through ethics. There is the happiness of mindful living, of meditations and reflections for understanding. We have a basic underlying principle. ‘May I, as a human being, treat others as I wish to be treated. May I, as a human being, be dedicated to the welfare of others. May I be devoted to treating others as I wish to be treated.’
If you can take that principle into your being, the principle will influence your ethics. The experience of human happiness comes through clarity, mindfulness, and meditation. Such happiness can arise even in difficulties sometimes very, very challenging. You may not feel happy but you are up for the challenge. Who do I need to communicate with to support this challenge?
You experience a happiness knowing the challenge will test your mettle. My goodness me, life can test us. Life is not a picnic while a picnic comes and goes.
There is also happiness, precious and unexpected. To give a small personal example. Sam Harris, the US neuroscientist and Dharma meditator, and I had a dialogue together some months ago for his Wakingup series of podcasts. I received last week from one of his team, an email, inviting me to contribute 10 Guided Meditations exploring deeper themes than what's normally offered.
I asked the person if I could transcribe the podcast into text. In my networks, some do not have 90 minutes spare to listen. Sam had already provided me with a top-quality audio recorder and microphone. His assistant sent me an AI transcript of our recording together – saving me hours of work. Wakingup offered me $1000.00 to make these ten 10-minute audio recordings. Whoa. Christmas has come early.
Happiness arose for the gift of the equipment, AI transcription and gift of money. I had no expectation of any of these three gifts. Hence the happiness.
Finally, happiness has the potential to uplift the human spirit. One person currently is going through a massive health issue with the uncertainties that go with it. She said to me: “Christopher, despite the daily physical pain, these practices have shown me happiness is not far away. I am always very close to it.” That's wisdom. That's clarity. That's the Buddha's guide to happiness.
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