The Core of Happiness
1. A Definition for Happiness
2. Purifying the Mind 3. Illusion and Awakening 4. The Power of Feelings 5. Inner Peace and Happiness 6. Our True Possession
7. The Path to Happy Living 8. The Breath: Staying in the Present 9. Experiencing Reality 10. Fulfillment of Life
Happiness is a goal that we all share in life. While each of us may have a different view of what would make us happy, the “core of happiness” is the same in each one of us. It is a state of deep well-being and a source of positive and peaceful emotions that is generated from within the mind. All feelings, including happiness and suffering, are states or expressions of the mind, and are generated from within the same mental foundation. A healthy, wholesome mind will result in happy and positive emotions. To be happy, we need to cultivate, develop, and take good care of the mind. When the mind is strong, healthy, and wholesome, we have inner peace and serenity, even if there are adversities in our lives. On the other hand, if mind is agitated and restless, we lack the capacity to generate the energy of happiness, even if we have everything that we desire in the outside world.
In this book, the author wishes to share his experience and perspectives on the world of the mind, in particular, how to transform suffering into happiness by developing wisdom through cultivation of the mind. The author hopes that this text may play a small part in encouraging the reader to take the first step on the path to attaining inner peace, serenity, and happiness.
Zen Master Khai Thien, Ph.D.
Los Angeles, May 2012
Translated by Viet Ngo
Happiness is always available to us. But we will not be able to attain it if we cannot activate the core of happiness within us. In searching for happiness, there are two potential paths: external and internal. The external path requires an outside object or external conditions from which we can derive happiness. For instance, we may believe that having a great job, wealth, and fame will make us happy. We may work very hard to pursue these ambitions. And if we achieve them, we may experience great satisfaction, delight, and happiness. But with respect to happiness that is dependent upon outside conditions, we should be mindful of two things. First, we have very limited control over outside conditions. Often whether we are able to achieve our dreams depends upon other individuals and factors and conditions that are beyond of our control. Second, happiness that comes from the outside generally does not last long due to the impermanent, ever changing nature of life, and such happiness will fluctuate with life’s ups and downs.
The other path to happiness is to seek it from within. With this path, we ourselves serve as the foundation of our own happiness. While success in the outside world is important, with the internal path to happiness, we look inward. Here, what is required is that we tap into and cultivate the potential for happiness that already exists within us. Specifically, we cultivate, practice, and train our mind so that that it becomes strong and healthy and better able to generate positive and happy emotions. The potential for happiness inside of us is a stream of vitality and positive emotions that will not fade nor governed by life’s ever changing conditions.
Four Noble Truths regarding Happiness
To be happy one must recognize and accept the reality of life. The Buddha taught that happiness and suffering are two aspects of life. To build a life of happiness, we need to understand the nature of suffering. In his teachings of happiness, the Buddha spoke of the Four Noble Truths: (1) the truth of the nature of life as dukkha, a Buddhist term in the Pali language that is often translated to mean suffering, anxiety, stress, mental dysfunction, or dissatisfaction in life; (2) the truth as to the causes of suffering; (3) the truth of the cessation of suffering; and (4) the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering. The Four Noble Truths set forth the most important purpose in life. Indeed, the Four Noble Truths provide a “road map” to a life of peace, serenity, happiness, wisdom, and enlightenment. As the Buddha taught, we cannot be happy if we are averse to suffering and attempt to run away from it. Rather, we must look deeply, identify, and eliminate the root causes of the suffering (not just the manifestation of suffering, but the root causes). Why do we suffer? What are the reasons or factors that are causing us to suffer as we do? Once we have identified these causes, we can begin to take steps to reduce and eliminate these causes through wisdom and cultivation of the mind. Contemplation and mindfulness as to the causes of suffering is the path to wisdom. It will not only give us the power to end suffering but also provides us insights and wisdom, calmness and mental clarity that will enable us to experience things that we have never experienced previously. This is an individual realization—a priceless experience that cannot be bestowed by another person. It can be achieved only through each person’s individual efforts.
Four Noble Virtues of Living with Happiness
To build a life of happiness, we need to embrace and develop the following four Noble Virtues: (1) loving-kindness, (2) compassion, (3) sympathetic joy, and (4) equanimity.
Loving kindness means to have a good heart and to wish others to be well and happy. We are comfortable and at ease when we encounter a person who is good and decent. When we receive a warm greeting or a pleasant smile from a friend or even a stranger, we are immediately put at ease and made comfortable. Loving-kindness is a basic foundation in our relationship and interaction with others – as well as in our own lives. An atmosphere of happiness and peace, whether inside or outside the home, cannot exist without loving-kindness.
Compassion is the understanding, sympathy, and willingness to share and empathize in the suffering of others as well as of our own. If we do not treat others or ourselves with kindness and compassion, our lives will be dry and barren. A baby cannot survive and become an adult without the love and care of the mother. Likewise, an old or sick person cannot get better without assistance from loved ones or others. Compassion is the fountainhead of life; it nurtures our lives in the most practical sense. If there is no compassion, happiness cannot exist.
Sympathetic joy is the sincere and genuine happiness that we experience when we genuinely share in and celebrate the success and happiness of others. Sympathetic joy is key to cultivating our own happiness. When we learn of the success of a person whom we know, such as a family member, a friend, or a colleague, we should be happy for that person, and be proactive in reaching out to congratulate and cheer that person’s achievement. A simple expression of “congratulations” or “job well done” will go a long way to acknowledge and share in that person’s joy. This practice will help us with our own happiness – we become happy when our actions bring happiness to others. The joy in witnessing and sharing in others’ successes and happiness is the shared breath of happiness between the self and the others. In contrast, envy or jealousy, which is the opposite of sympathetic joy, causes us to be uncomfortable. We are agitated when we are jealous or envious of the successes of others. Happiness needs the proper environment to be cultivated and to exist. We alone cannot create the proper environment for happiness if there is no understanding and sharing with others. Indeed, we will lose our own happiness if we cannot be happy with others’ success and happiness.
Equanimity is to have the correct view, an accurate perception of reality, seeing something as it is, without attachment or aversion. Such a view makes our mind peaceful and at ease. With equanimity, we will worry and suffer less with life’s ups and downs. And importantly we will not become obsessed with the eight impermanent, worldly concerns: gain, loss, praise, blame, pleasure, pain, fame, and defame (defamatory words). To live a life that is free from these worldly conditions will help us to live in calmness and acceptance. If we have equanimity as the foundation in our lives, our happiness will strong and enduring.
In sum, as we cultivate and develop these four virtues, the seeds of suffering will not have the necessary nutrients to grow, and we will be less affected by fluctuations in the outside conditions.
Two Approaches to Meditation
Meditation is the key to cultivating, training, and purifying the mind. Meditation serves to calm the mind, develop compassion, and attain a deeper understanding of life. There are two basic approaches to meditation. The first approach is to meditate on the four foundations of life consisting of the (1) physical body, (2) feelings or emotions, (3) the mind, and (4) the mind’s objects. Meditation in this context means to maintain our awareness of the physical and mental reality—namely, the workings of the body and mind —in order to recognize its nature of constant changes. This method of mindfulness will help us to transform our lives in a positive way due to the light of awareness that already exists within us.
The second approach to meditation is to be mindful of the breath. This practice helps us to stay in the present. Bringing awareness to the breath and following each inhalation and exhalation will calm and focus the mind. By being mindful of the breath, the mind will reach a state of concentration and tranquility, and will be freed from anxieties, worries, fear, and suffering. This is the most effective way to cultivate the pure energy and peace for the life of the inner mind. If our mind is calm and peaceful, we are also calm and peaceful.
Opening the Mind and Living in Acceptance
When we close our mind, it is as if we voluntarily imprison ourselves in a tight and narrow world. While we may want life to unfold in accordance with our wishes and preferences, living in this world means to accept both the positives and the negatives, and the ups and downs of life. If we try to avoid the negatives by closing our mind to them, we have made ourselves only more distressed and unhappy. But if we are willing to accept both the good and the bad as part of life, such an attitude will help us to become more accepting and at peace. We will struggle less and suffer less. When we are prepared to accept the bad, it does not necessarily mean that the bad will occur. Rather, with an open and accepting attitude, we strengthen our courage, make our inner peace more robust, and make our mind clearer. This will enhance our ability to make decisions and respond to crises. Further, by living with openness and acceptance, we will be able to perceive things that we have never seen before, and those things may—in one way or another—help us transform our anguishes and sufferings.
The Art of Renewal
Renewal is the art of maintaining and developing our lives in a better and more wholesome way. An old car, if not properly maintained, will not operate well. In the same way, our lives are often filled with difficult and unhappy experiences, and at times, we may feel tired, worn down, and exhausted. For this reason, we need to renew our lives and adopt a new and fresh perspective. But to renew ourselves, we need to change the old perspectives, routines, and lifestyle; we cannot follow the same routine and expect to renew ourselves. Here, we need to implement a real and sincere renewal of life. In so doing, it is important to recognize that it is not possible to give up an old habit without replacing it with a new one. For example, if we want to change the bad habit of oversleeping, we need to consciously do something different in order to create a new routine, such as going to sleep earlier at night. The same should be done in the art of renewal. To renew our life, we must change our view, our way of thinking, our attitude —more precisely, our own mind. When our outlook changes, our life will change as well. However, while the physical life can quickly change, it is not as easy to change the mind overnight. This task requires long-term efforts and patience.
Transcending the Boundaries
In the pursuit of happiness, one method is to use the power of the mind—the power of renunciation. Renunciation here means letting go, setting free, or releasing all obsessions to which we may be clinging, such as the eight worldly, impermanent concerns. If we are able to transcend attachment to these eight worldly concerns, we will exceed the boundaries that presently confine and restrict our lives. In practicing renunciation, we do not have to exert any extraordinary efforts. Instead, we simply need to reduce the attachments that we have in life. The life of renunciation is that of a non-dualistic mind that is not centered around an individual self (ego) in order to be happy. To be happy, we need to let go of our pettiness and selfishness – and to let go of attachment to the self.
One of the Buddha’s key teachings is that everything in this world, including happiness, is dependent upon other things or factors to exist. Therefore, we cannot be happy if we are concerned only about ourselves and our well-being. Throughout life, we need help from others, and we need to help others. Just as we need air in order to breathe, happiness also needs to the proper environment to thrive. The environment for happiness is our kindness and friendliness towards others. It is in our mind; the larger the mind is, the fuller and deeper our happiness becomes. Our happiness will be unsettled if others do not treat us in a kind and friendly manner. We need to have a heart of kindness and compassion in order to maintain our own happiness.
Living in Harmony
To have a happy life, we need to be in harmony with ourselves, with others, and with the world around us (our environment). Disharmony is the root of unhappiness. If our body lacks harmony or is unbalanced, it will lead to illnesses. Harmony is essential for happiness as happiness will arise only when there is harmony between feelings and the mind. When the mind is comfortable, we are comfortable. But when the mind is restless, we are also restless. Happiness is the product from harmony between feelings and the mind.
Re-discovering Peace and Happiness
At times in life we may find ourselves in a situation of despair and a sense of hopelessness. In such situations, it is imperative that we do something quickly in order to regenerate a sense of peace and calmness. The quickest way is to perform a good, wholesome deed. The simple act of performing a good, wholesome deed -- no matter how modest in scope -- will help to restore calmness. When we see that our action, regardless of how small it may be, has meaning, we will recognize that our lives continue to have meaning. This will help to restore self-confidence. The deed of goodness here is not limited to helping others, but it could also be a simple task of goodness, such cleaning the house, doing yard work, or doing laundry. It is important to note that while performing the deed, we should focus completely on the task and to put everything else aside. In so doing, we may be surprised as to the magnitude of the effect when a sense of goodness arises in our mind.
Charity and Service
Charity and service are ways to cultivate happiness. We gain much by cultivating a feeling that we have been charitable and generous, and we will feel happier in recognizing that our action is in the service of others. The effect of charity and service is always doubled -- for both the giver and the receiver. It is a gift to the receiver and contributes to the happiness for the giver. Charity and serving others is the very action of improving oneself, perfecting the value and meaning of one’s own life. Therefore, we should be happier in service rather than taking pride in the service we provide to others. A normal person might say, “I serve for the sake of others.” But a wise person may say, “I serve others in order to complete my own life.”
There are many reasons for us to appreciate the things that allow us to have a life of peace and happiness. But there is also another purpose behind appreciation. When we express gratitude to a person or we acknowledge a virtuous action, we generate notions of wholesomeness within us. To express appreciation is not simply to be thankful for the act, but it also part of a noble path in life. In the secular life, we should express appreciation and gratitude to our parents, teachers, friends, our country, etc. In the spiritual life, we should express appreciation and gratitude to enlightened individuals who illuminate the path to a life of deep and lasting happiness. The inability to express appreciation leads to the inability to recognize and treasure the important values in life. As to our personal happiness, the more we appreciate our lives, the happier we become. That is the value of appreciation.
Perspective of Equality
While each person has a different destiny that is driven by that person’s individual’s karma, all of us want to be happy, and no one wants to suffer. There is no difference in our desire for happiness or aversion to suffering relative to others’. Recognizing this common characteristic in the human condition will help us be more empathetic and understanding. This is the view of equality as to the human condition; this view will help us overcome feelings of jealousy and aversion. On the path to seeking happiness, the more balanced our views are, the more open our mind will become. Living with an attitude of equality, we will gain more friends, and our tendency to make distinctions or to discriminate against others will be reduced. Such equality is the nature of life. The more one tries to differentiate or distinguish oneself from others, the lonelier one will be.
One-pointed Mind, Breathing, and Smiling
Concentrating, breathing, and smiling are the key necessities of happiness. When the mind is scattered or distracted, we will not be able to generate happiness nor enjoy the happiness state, even though our lives may be going well. The one-pointed concentration focuses the mind. When the mind is concentrated, it will itself create a stream of positive energy, making both body and mind peaceful and happy. However, because the nature of the mind is inherently noisy, it cannot naturally focus by itself. The mind needs to be trained through mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness of breathing is an effective technique to focus and calm the mind. As we pay attention to the inhale and exhale of the breath, we will be able to make our breathing more tranquil; consequently, our mind becomes calm and pure. Therefore, practicing mindfulness of breathing will help us to generate peace and happiness in the mind. When the mind becomes peaceful and happy, a genuine smile will appear. Smiling is a manifestation of happiness.
In sum, if we activate and strengthen the core of happiness that is within us, we will be able to cultivate and enjoy a happy and complete life.