The Four Noble Truths are among the very first teachings of the Buddha. The first truth is the Truth of Suffering. However, as Lama Govinda points out “those who like to emphasize this forget that it is only half the truth.” The other half is the antithesis, the Truth of Happiness.
I have the impression that some of us don’t like this word “happiness.” We might question whether happiness is a legitimate Buddhist ideal, or even if happiness isn’t just a myth. Maybe happiness sounds too New Agey, like “feel good” dharma, too sweet and syrupy and when we hear the word happiness we immediately think of Snoopy and warm puppies. Yet, when we look at the word’s origins, we find that it means “good fortune” (1520s), and “pleasant and contented mental state” (1590s), the latter being precisely one of the goals of Buddhist practice.
The word “happiness” is connected with “hale” which in its original sense meant “whole,” “that which has also survived,” “keeping the original sense” (pardon the redundancy), and “to heal.” “Heal” is linked with “weal” and “wealth,” and with “holy,” which meant “health,” “excellent,” and “perfect.” Originally, to be “holy” meant to be whole, healthy, healed, and wealthy – to be happy.
In the Soka Gakkai, they used to talk about creating “indestructible happiness,” a rock solid condition able to withstand any suffering or adversity. “Never let life’s hardships disturb you. After all, no one can avoid problems, not even saints or sages,” Nichiren once wrote.
This is not unlike the sentiments we see expressed in Taoism with its ideal of the sage who, unperturbed and attuned to the natural rhythm and flow of life, “lets all things rise and fall, nurtures, but does not interfere, gives without demanding, and is content.”
The Buddhist term for this state of being is upekkha or equanimity, described by the American Buddhist monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi as “evenness of mind, unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain.”
What is equanimity? It is a mind which abides in the state of non-attachment, non-hatred, and non-deludedness coupled with assiduousness. It is quite dissimilar to a state that gives rise to emotional instability. It is a state where mind remains what is it is – a state of being calm and a spontaneous presence of mind. Its function is not to provide occasions for emotional instability.
This sounds like being healthy, whole, being holy. It sounds like a “pleasant and contented mental state” – a state of happiness.
Enlightenment comes in many forms. Happiness is one. Enlightened people are happy, with themselves and with others. They don’t blame others when they are unhappy. They are pleasant, and careful about being harsh with their words. They don’t have complaining natures, and are usually at ease and contented, sometimes even when they are in the midst of great suffering. They engage in ethical behavior. And they probably don’t speculate much about whether they are happy or not, but if you asked them, they’d say “Sure.”
The point is not to turn people into mellowed-out robots, rather it’s about cultivating equanimity, and if you’re working towards that and doing your best to abide in a contented and peaceful frame of mind, then you are not harsh, not arguing, not blaming, complaining and so on.
It is also not the point to turn Westerners into Asians, which I think is in the mind of some people who resist the idea of being pleasant, which is not an Asian thing at all, it is simply being pleasant. We can resist forever, and analyze this stuff to death, and while there are times when critical analysis and investigation are called for, there are also times when we just need to relax, go with the flow, and embrace a thought as simplistic and cutesy as “don’t worry, be happy.” Or “May all beings be happy.”
Earlier I mentioned Snoopy, the dog from the comic strip Peanuts. Some readers may not have been around when Snoopy’s slogan “Happiness is a warm puppy” was popular. Although I suspect that many are familiar with the Beatles’ takeoff, found on the so-called White Album, “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”
Happiness is more than a warm puppy, and yet, we can find a measure of happiness in just such a simple thing. Happiness is more than doing whatever makes us feel good, but if we are not feeling good, then we are probably not happy. Happiness is not a myth or a delusion, but a real possibility. We need a good understanding of what happiness is and what it isn’t and, this is a big one, we should know that happiness will not come unless we make an effort to obtain it. We have a right to be happy, but for some reason, we need to earn it.
Writing this, I am reminded of a guy named Biff Rose from New Orleans, a comedian and singer-songwriter (David Bowie recorded one of his songs, “Fill Your Heart”), and in particular, of a song I used to hear on Radio Free New Orleans back in the day, called “It’s Happening”: “Happy people don’t go around throwing rocks, throwing stones, calling names, breaking bones . . .” That sums up a hell of a lot of dharma.
Or you can visit this Biff Rose website and look for it there.