From the time we first heard about handsome princes meeting beautiful princesses and living happily ever after, we have been chasing the concept of Happily-Ever-After-Land. Our child-like faith that perfect partners and possessions will provide the contentment we seek has been eagerly exploited by the advertising and entertainment industries, and we have fallen for their myth of perfect people living perfect lives with perfect possessions. Seeking to impress the person of our dreams, we part with our money to disguise the imperfections of our bodies with cosmetics, perfume, and fashionable clothes. As true happiness fails to materialise with the passage of time, we put on a jovial manner to conceal our inner sense of unease and doubt about where our lives are leading. Suffering from the universal neurosis of self-consciousness, we compete with each other and pretend, both to ourselves and to others, that we are happy. We are afraid to admit our failure.
Before you lose heart, I must tell you that perfect happiness is possible, not so much in our ordinary lives, but in the experience of nirvana, where the mind is free from disturbing emotions and superstitious beliefs about the world and ourselves. Superstitious beliefs and the emotions of selfishness, anger, pride, and longing desire are the real obstacles to happiness. Nirvana is not a paradise in the sky, nor is it created by anything. It is our natural potential to experience enduring peace and happiness made manifest by eliminating those emotions and superstitious beliefs. Our present happiness is short-lived because we have no control over the world or our minds. We will never gain control over the world, but understanding karmic cause and effect will protect our mind from being disturbed when the undesirable events of life occur. Also, we can gain control over our minds. Disturbing emotions and superstitious beliefs can be cleansed from our minds by first cultivating the
thought of renunciation, then meditative concentration, and finally the wisdom perceiving the ultimate nature of the self. This wisdom extinguishes the self-centred ignorance that is the root of all disturbing emotions and false beliefs.
Renunciation means letting go of our mistaken belief that the world, our bodies, and even life itself are “good” in the sense that there is nothing better. Through renunciation we understand that perfect peace cannot be found anywhere in the wheel of life. Renunciation is the intelligent abandonment of faith in an untrustworthy world and the turning of one’s aspiration towards the actualisation of nirvana. Other religions teach the folly of sensual indulgence and guide their adherents towards rebirth in heaven by renouncing human pleasures. But because the world, the body, and life are seen as creations of the Almighty, and therefore “good,” when the faithful reach heaven they still have desire for pleasure and remain within the wheel of life. They are not liberated from suffering because they have not overcome their mistaken belief in an intrinsically existing self, or soul, and the belief that ordinary life can be perfectly happy. When their karma for the heavenly life is exhausted, they will again be born in lower realms. Buddhism is unique in identifying the world and life itself to be products of ignorance and desire. It teaches renunciation of the pervading suffering of being trapped within an unsatisfactory universe by our personal ignorance and karma, and it provides the solution: cultivation of the wisdom that directly sees the emptiness of self.
Renunciation is acquired by investigating every aspect of suffering, seeing how it arises from karma and disturbing emotions, and turning our mind towards the attainment of nirvana. This implies that we have to move against the tide of society that mostly flows in the direction of self-indulgence. Within the bounds of Judaeo-Christian morality, Western society encourages our innate urge to seek pleasure and avoid pain. For most of us, the main purpose in our life is to experience the sensory pleasures of looking, listening, smelling, tasting, and touching. Even if we had the method, which we don’t, we put no effort into subduing our crazy minds and cultivating wisdom. Instead, we tranquilise our minds with drugs and alcohol, and seek distraction in sport and other hobbies. When desire for pleasure is the only reason for living, the history of humanity shows that we are heading for trouble. Hedonism, not religion, is the opiate of the masses.
“Give me a break,” you may say. “What is the point of living without desire for pleasure? It energises me to overcome my problems and, even if I do not find perfect happiness, there is always some satisfaction.”
Be careful. Gamblers are encouraged by small wins to make the big bet that becomes their ruin. The odds in life are stacked so heavily against us that none of the billions who have come before have ever won. How can we be the first? Desire for worldly happiness is the greatest and most damaging addiction in the universe, the mother of all addictions. Your self-centred pursuit of happiness is very harmful.
How can you overcome your problems in life? It’s easy. Forget them by forgetting about yourself, and start thinking about the problems of others. Energise and motivate your life with loving-kindness. Every time you put a smile on somebody else’s face, that gives real happiness.
Why is desire for happiness such a problem? Buddha taught six shortcomings of the pursuit of worldly happiness. The first is uncertainty. No ordinary relationship or pleasure can be trusted to remain forever. Marriage sets us up for the pain of divorce, or separation at death; the birth of a baby is the cause for our eventual parting from our child; experiencing any pleasure is a condition for the misery of losing that pleasure. Every happy situation brings with it the anxiety of trying to keep the objects of happiness — friends, possessions, and so on — with us for as long as possible. Fighting the progress of time, however, is a losing battle; the sources of happiness slip from our fingers no matter how tightly we cling to them. Friends become enemies, possessions wear out, times change. Even our body is unreliable. There is no complete guarantee of happiness in any worldly situation.
The second shortcoming is dissatisfaction. Even though a nature-loving friend of mine once declared, “I will die happy if I get to see a Sumatran rhinoceros,” there is no pleasurable object anywhere that can give complete satisfaction. And, from the side of our own mind, when we do acquire friends and possessions, dissatisfaction causes us to lose interest, to see faults, and to seek something or someone better. Callously, we discard our sources of happiness, often with subsequent regret, but then it is too late. Our dissatisfaction has ruined our lives.
The next shortcoming is having to abandon our bodies repeatedly. No matter how attractive our bodies are as humans or divine beings, they let us down; we die and are reborn with ugly bodies in horrible places. There is no pure essence to our bodies, nor to the pleasure we gain from them, and yet, especially in the West, we see and worship our bodies as temples of pleasure. How much time and energy have we spent in cleaning, feeding, exercising, grooming, and dressing our bodies? How much unhappiness have we experienced because
our bodies have not measured up to the socially acceptable? Ultimately, it is all to no avail. Our bodies will grow ugly with age, become racked with pain, and will have to be abandoned at death no matter how much we have cared for them. And where have all the pleasures gone, the pursuit of which has occupied our entire life, and for which we have created so much negative karma?
The fourth shortcoming is having to be reborn again and again. In this degenerate age, more and more people seek suicide as the answer to their woes, but this is no solution. Whether we want it or not, our karma forces us into a new life; and if we die with despair or anger, the next life cannot be better than this one. Whatever suffering we have experienced, we have to experience it all over again, time after time. The tears we have wept in sorrow in our past lives would fill all the oceans of the world.
The next shortcoming is losing our status again and again. In life, all collections are inevitably dispersed. Whatever is born will die, the high will become low, and friends will be parted. Human history and our own lives repeatedly illustrate the rise and fall of the mighty; and yet we still strive for power, perfection, and the impossible goal of living happily ever after. The rich become poor, families disperse never to meet again, the powerful become weak. Humans are reborn as animals, gods are reborn in hell.
Finally, there is the shortcoming of always being alone. We experience the pain and fear of both birth and death alone. Nobody is there to comfort us during the terrifying experience of being born; nobody can come with us when we die. The suffering of loneliness is also with us throughout our life. We marry for companionship, but after a while we wish our spouse would leave us alone. Even in the best of relationships it is impossible to completely share our inner feelings, no matter how close we are. Yet the loneliness when our partner has gone is even more intense than before.
Contemplation of these six shortcomings will give us the courage to renounce our mistaken belief in the outside world as a reliable source of happiness. Renunciation will enable us to open our hearts to others without fear of personal loss, and we will be energised to meditate and light the torch of wisdom that will reveal the eternal garden of bliss in our own mind.
Buddha’s Teaching on the Six Shortcomings of Seeking Worldly Happiness:
- Having to abandon our bodies repeatedly
- Having to be reborn again and again
- Having to lose our status again and again
- Always being alone