Sunday, November 2, 2014

Tips on Happiness, by Shang Rinpoche

Shang Longrik Gyatso Rinpoche Blog ImageIt has been my weekly routine to meet and spend time with a few students who have been studying for over 2 decades. Recently I had a chat over tea with some of these long-term students. Without a predefined subject or agenda, we talked about pretty much everything on a wide range of topics and everyone asked their questions. I personally prefer this type of spontaneous interaction with them. When I am giving lectures overseas I normally do so without a fixed topic or prepared script. I believe, in this way, you set the tone for completely open interaction and communication without any reservations. I am fond of this sort of open dialogue and it is during these interactions that I am often exposed to questions and perspectives that had never crossed my mind. Chatting with my students in this way brings me tremendous joy. A few days ago, some students made an appointment with me and as usual we chatted over a few cups of tea. One of them asked, ”Rinpoche, since you have studied under many great teachers from the major Buddhist schools, surely you must have a few tips on how to attain true happiness. We, on the other hand, have been studying Buddhism for over 2 decades and have read scores of sutras, recited the mantras of different deities, and meditate, do prostrations and perform repentance every day, yet somehow there are times when we feel an inexplicable heaviness and can’t really can’t put our finger on it. We often ask ourselves whether we are able to remain in a mental state as if there was nothing really to do, but to be totally honest, it’s extremely difficult.”

Let’s put all religious viewpoints aside and approach this from a modern perspective. I personally think that whether one can obtain ultimate happiness depends not on one’s external environment but on how one perceives that environment. In other words, it depends not on anything about that person or their situation but entirely on their attitude. No one can assist you with managing your happiness but yourself. By the same token, the only person that makes you unhappy is yourself. Obviously there are many ways to create happiness for yourself. Most people, however, get themselves bogged down in attachments to trivial matters or simply cannot forget their past, dwelling on some matter to the point of torturing themselves and those around them. I often tell fellow practitioners that to survive in this modern world is already a daunting task given that everyone is already stuffed to the brim with pains and troubles. Even when someone stumbles fortunately across Buddhism hoping to find a little more peace in their life, they still meet with gloomy days and drive themselves mad until they fall off the deep end. In the end, there is not a single person or thing in this world outside of yourself that can promise you happiness, and any found will be temporary at best.

In the past, I would share with my students a koan of Buddha Shakyamuni when teaching his disciple Heizhi. Brahmin Heizhi had been a diligent student of the Buddha and subsequently attained certain supernatural abilities. One day, he brought a pair of vases using his supernatural powers to the Buddha, hoping to make an offering to him. The Buddha, however, told him, ”Let go!” Mistaking the Buddha’s instruction, Heizhi put down the vase in his left hand. After he had done so, the Buddha again said, ”Let go!” Heizhi thought to himself, ”Now that I have only one vase in my hand, he must have meant to tell me to put it down too.” After he placed the other vase on the ground, the Buddha smiled and said to him, ”You still haven’t let go!” Heizhi was puzzled and put his palms together, respectfully asking the Buddha, “My hands are already empty, so I do not know what else is left to put down.” To which the Buddha replied, ”What I wanted you to put down was not the vases but your six sense organs (6 roots) and the (corresponding) six sense objects (6 dusts). If you are able to forgo them all, you’ll be able to attain ultimate liberation.” After having heard this teaching from the Buddha, the Brahmin Heizhi achieved realization.

The description of this koan may seem so simple that most people will not look deeper. But we know very clearly that this is nothing short of a profound teaching. All the afflictions and attachments of humanity stem from two sources. One is the desire, anger and ignorance created by the six sense organs. If one is attached to the sounds, colors and conditions of the external world, then it is impossible to achieve true liberation. The twists and turns of events presented in your daily life should be viewed as Dharma that teaches impermanence. As is expressed in this poem (by the famed Japanese Zen master Muso Soseki): ”The green mountains have turned yellow so many times, the troubles and worries of the world of things no longer bother me, one grain of dust in the eye will render the three worlds too small to see, when the mind is still the floor where I sit is endless space.” The ability to completely let go and attain the ultimate wisdom of emptiness cannot be achieved just by reciting sutras. As another zen poem points out, ”Bodhidharma brought not a single word from the West, basing all of his efforts on the mind alone. If one wished to write Buddhism on paper, the quill would dry up the waters of Lake Dongting.” So the answer is obvious. True happiness stems from, as the Buddhadharma illustrates, the ability to put down attachments and truly let go. In particular, forsake your past and set it free. Do not dwell on the past of others. Do not keep hitting the rewind button on your life and learn to view it with a touch of humor and light-heartedness.

Humor comes when the mind is relaxed. When you have something on your mind, even if you watch the funniest talk or comedy show on TV, it will seem dull and dreary to you. The laughter in you cannot find its voice for your mind is bothered, leaving you unable to relax. People’s habitual pattern is to grab things from the outside and stuff them into their baggage. I rarely see people tossing things out or giving things away. Over time, the emotional load gets quite heavy. Some take pleasure and feel fulfilled chasing fame and wealth. Some derive great pleasure from seeing the figures climb in their bank account. However, when you look into these matters more deeply, you will see how some people experience even more stress than before they became famous. Some finally find the relationship they’ve always dreamed for, but are not necessarily happier for it. Some strike it rich and get buried in even more stress. All these examples point out that pursuing things externally does not bring people happiness.

I've found what Zen master Wude taught his students very appropriate for people today. If we interpret his zen poem in modern language, it would look something like this, ”If you obtain fame but not recognition and appreciation from everyone, that is not true happiness. Real love is to selflessly devote and give oneself to the other person, lighting up their life and never expecting anything in return. It also means that you place your partner’s happiness before yours. That is true happiness. Being able to unconditionally donate portions of one’s riches to anyone who needs it more than oneself brings true happiness that cannot be replaced by money.” The main reason why people now cannot find happiness lies in their inability to let go and put down their attachments and stubbornness. In addition to that, they cannot resist the temptations around them so that overtime they lose sight of the true meaning of happiness. So if I were to answer the question, "What is true happiness?” I would say, ”Totally exposed and blended in, free of any boundary, unattached to any notion of self and others, unrestrained and at one with all the elements; such is the state of a free and unfettered one.

This is an excerpt from a conversation that I, Shang Longrik Gyatso, had with a group of a long-term students.

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