Two types of happiness

All of the quotes in this post are taken from an excellent article by Mu Soeng called “Worldly Happiness/ Buddhist Happiness”. I recommend reading the full text here:

There are two kinds of happiness, O monks: the happiness of the senses and the happiness of renunciation. But the happiness of renunciation is the higher of the two. (from Anguttara Nikaya, II: VII)

This could be another way of thinking about the origins of dukkha. We seek worldly, me-centered pleasures because we’re not aware of the possibility of a lasting, non-me-centered happiness.

Throughout the Pali Canon, the Buddha makes a distinction between worldly happiness and happiness obtained through letting go/renunciation. The language of the Buddha interweaves the themes of “carnal happiness” and “sensual pleasures” as a way to communicate what might be called the distinction between lasting happiness and pleasures of momentary gratification.

The canon (and other sources) makes a sharp distinction between worldly happiness as pursuit of sensual pleasures, and lasting happiness as letting-go of the same pursuit. We are fundamentally confused if we think that happiness lies in the direction of satisfying our sensual cravings. We can temporarily relieve specific forms of suffering, but the relentless buffeting of our own cravings can only be stopped by our letting go of those very cravings, by shifting our focus from “I want this” to “what is this?”

The article points out the growth and dangers of the “Happiness Industry”, a cultural trend that takes many forms, both secular and apparently Buddhist. We are encouraged to think we can achieve happiness by arranging our worldly circumstances in a better way. But with even minimal attention, we must have noticed that as soon as one desire is satisfied, another pops up to replace it. The alternative to this endless cycle of wanting and getting (or wanting and not getting) is not to feel empty, but to feel free.

The psychological life of disenchantment and dispassion, as a hallmark of Buddha’s teachings on happiness, is not an existentially negative condition. If anything, when it is built upon a long cultivation of preceding stages of joy, rapture, tranquility, and happiness, it offers a psychological matrix of completion; the feeling of being complete without seeking pleasure or gratification from external sources [bold added].

This is the key – the feeling of being complete without seeking pleasure or gratification from external sources. As long as we are seeking a feeling of completion through the ego, through personal accomplishments or rewards, we will be dissatisfied. Because the sense of “I” is so transitory, it can never settle down in contentment. But simply being aware, maintaining mindfulness through all our activities and periods of rest, without the score-keeping of the ego — this is a feeling of completion. It’s not stasis, but a gentle flow from one moment to the next. Nothing more to do, nowhere else to go. Just here. Just this.

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Where does dukkha come from?

Now this, bhikkhus, is the ennobling reality of suffering: birth is suffering, old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and anguish are suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not getting what one wants is suffering; in short, the five aggregates of clinging are suffering. (SN 56.11, translated by John Kelly)

Old age, sickness and death are obvious categories of suffering that come to all of us eventually. There is also an infinite variety of sadness and misery in the world, visible to us through the media every day. But what regularly aggravates most of us falls more into the category of having to be with people and situations we find unpleasant, and not being with people and activities that we find pleasant — in short, not getting what we want.

Our minds can keep an endless tally of “I like this”, and “I don’t like that”. This is a subtler but more pervasive type of dukkha than physical pain. We can work with the liking and not-liking in our minds wherever we are, throughout the day.

We can’t stop ourselves from having preferences. The best clue to how to work with liking and not-liking is in the last phrase of the sutta verse above: “in short, the five aggregates of clinging are suffering.” The five aggregates are usually translated as the ordinary human experiences of form, feeling, perception, sankhara (thoughts and emotions that follow from perceptions), and consciousness. We’re not going to analyze the aggregates right now, but it is important to note that it’s the CLINGING, not the aggregates themselves, that are the problem.

What does this mean? When we identify with (cling to) our thoughts, emotions, physical symptoms, ideas, perceptions, etc. — that’s where dukkha begins. When we invest our bodily sensations, feelings, perceptions, and opinions with “me-ness”, they take on a life of their own. We end up feeling we have to defend our ideas, opinions, thoughts, emotions, etc. – which are by nature transient – and we get stuck.

When we identify with things, we expose ourselves to pain. My house, my car – if something happens to them, we feel it’s happened to our person. If someone disagrees with an idea of ours, we feel we’ve been disrespected.

Can we tell the difference between letting our sensations and thought-forms arise and pass away naturally vs. identifying with them (turning them into “me” or “mine”)?  This is a rich area for investigation. Is our point of view the only valid or interesting one? Are our physical sensations different from, more important than, those of other people? What might it be like to have thoughts and feelings that we don’t identify with?


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Theory and practice

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.  — attributed to Yogi Berra

We’ve been considering the Buddha’s first truth, that there is dukkha. A conceptual understanding of this truth is a good start, but it’s only an idea until we put it into practice. The difference between believing that something is correct and trying it out for ourselves is the difference between reading about how to ride a bicycle and actually getting onto one. The process involves trying something new, losing balance, starting over, perhaps having a crash or two, but persisting until one day, it seems we’ve known how to ride forever. Similarly, once we start recognizing dukkha in our lives, the mechanics of how suffering is generated reveal themselves and this understanding becomes an essential tool for living well.

An example: For many years I wanted my mother to be a “best friend” to me. I wanted to be able to share my fears and hopes and to talk of deep spiritual matters with her. Despite many attempts, my efforts were met with resistance. My desire for a particular result blinded me to the fact that my idea of friendship did not match with hers. Eventually, I saw that my quest was hopeless and I learned to accept and appreciate my mother just as she is. She has many strengths and virtues that I admire. She is reliable, competent, practical, fair-minded and generally contented. She also doesn’t have what I would call very close relationships with anyone; she keeps people at a (small but clear) distance and has some subjects that she avoids. At the same time, she is kind, trustworthy, and is good company. Once all this came into focus, the dissatisfaction that had surrounded our relationship fell away. I was no longer pushing her and both of us could relax. We started to laugh together more often.

Frequently we create suffering around minor aggravations like accidentally breaking a dish, having difficulty of finding a parking space, or encountering an unanticipated obstacle to our plans. It may be easier to start with these “ground-level” irritations. We can feel impatience rising up, see it, and investigate it on the spot. What expectation of ours is being frustrated? Whether that expectation is reasonable or not is irrelevant. Most of our dukkha comes from thinking events and people should be other than how they are, but we rarely question those thoughts. It takes a form of reflective inquiry; we have to step back from being the person in charge and make our focus panoramic, taking in the lay of the land. Many unexpected things are happening all the time. Can we adjust? Can we be with what is without constantly aggravating ourselves?



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The dukkha of thinking

When we think of the Buddha’s first truth, the truth of dukkha, it’s easy to understand physical pain as an example. But day to day, by a wide margin, the largest proportion of dukkha is produced by our thinking.

Consider the innocence of a young child at an adult party, who asks the group of adults what they would do in this situation: “Imagine you are surrounded by hungry tigers with a cliff behind you. What would you do?” Each adult comes up with a different creative solution, but the boy just shakes his head. So they turn to him and ask, “What would you do?” The boy smiles and says, “I’d simply stop imagining.” (from Chapter 6 of Shift into Freedom by Loch Kelly)

This story points to the primary way in which we cause difficulty for ourselves and others. Consider these possible imaginings:

  • We think we can be the perfect friend/hostess/relative and hold ourselves to an impossible ideal, guaranteeing failure.
  • We think we cannot stand to be in the same room with a particular person – maybe not even in the same universe.
  • We imagine that others are judging our every action and thought.
  • We imagine that a particular action or inaction will result in apocalyptic disaster (any exaggerated consequence can fit here).
  • We think that if we don’t get on to Dean’s list or the [whatever] team or any other “in crowd”, we will simply die.
  • We think that if we disappoint someone, it will mark us forever as bad.
  • We decide to take responsibility for outcomes that are beyond our control. The scope of what is “our fault” widens.
  • We think that others are wise and accomplished and that we are faking it and will soon be exposed as a fraud.

Each of us can conjure up imaginings that we live with and suffer from.

While sometimes these thought habits are difficult to perceive, they all have one thing in common: we cling to them. We have an idea and (sometimes unconsciously) make it an organising principle for our plans and actions, which then leads to frustration. If we can, for a moment, drop everything else and remind ourselves to take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, our attention can turn inward in a different way. Rather than measuring ourselves, we can widen the scope of awareness and ask “what do I know to be true?” and “what don’t I know?” What is the source of our dissatisfaction? It is always some form of clinging, usually to an idea or thought of how things (our how we ourselves) should be. When we see this process clearly in our direct experience, we have the power to release our clinging and entirely eliminate this particular form of suffering. Poof!

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What’s bothering us?

The previous post addressed some options for responding to major events in the world. The same approaches can be used regardless of what’s bothering us. The Buddha said, “There is suffering” and posited that as the starting point for developing wisdom. A lot of misunderstanding has flowed from this statement. The first truth states “there is suffering”, not that there is ONLY suffering or that EVERYTHING is suffering, but just the obvious fact that in life, dukkha exists. It is right in front of us and yet our impulse is to deny it. So our duty with respect to the Buddha’s first truth is to acknowledge and understand it.

The first Noble Truth is all about accepting or welcoming unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukkha) rather than trying to resist it. You will notice then that its nature is to change and drop away. The way to liberate the mind from the subconscious fears and anxieties that we all have is simply by allowing them to be. Good psychotherapy is based on allowing things to become conscious. If life is just one long effort of denial and repression, it is misery, isn’t it?…No matter how frightened you are or how much you think you cannot stand it or cannot bear it, actually, you can. The voice that says, ‘Oh, I can’t do it! I just can’t take it!’ – don’t believe that. — from a talk by Ajahn Sumedho, “Beyond the Ego”

We can start to recognize what we don’t like in our lives less as things that shouldn’t be as they are and more as dukkha. We can take a half-step back from our involvement and see that dissatisfaction, aversion, and anger are labile emotional states. We can make these states grow by feeding them justifying words, or we can loosen our clinging to them by seeing them as not-mine, as states that visit everyone from time to time. We can make a home for these unhappy states of mind by clinging to them and identifying with them, or we can patiently wait and watch them until they finish and peter out.

Another approach is to have compassion for our own unhappy emotional states. Here is sadness or grief, frustration or anger, helplessness or unworthiness; we can turn our awareness onto these states and investigate them with kindness. We can often treat others’ unhappiness with compassion. Can we do the same for ourselves?

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Friends, in a short span of time the USA was rocked by its biggest ever act of domestic terrorism/gun violence and the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Economic, political, and social systems around the world seem to be in crisis.

If we have taken refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, how are we to relate to major events such as these?

The point is to see that the conditioned realm is something to contemplate and understand rather than to make assumptions about it or try to control and bend it to our desires and will. The more we try to control the conditioned realm, the more disappointing it will become, until we finally feel despair, fear, depression and all the negative mental states that can dominate our conscious experience. –from a talk by Ajahn Sumedho, “Beginning to Sense the Unborn”

Many of us have recently been made aware of assumptions we made that are (seemingly) suddenly null and void. Our faith in some major institutions has diminished or been extinguished. We like to think that a few world leaders have the power to “fix” things, but it is increasingly apparent that this is not the case. Our sense of security on a personal, local, national, and planetary level is being challenged.

It is useful to remind ourselves that many people who started their lives in situations that seemed stable are now confronted with war, displacement, loss, dire poverty, and a multitude of uncertainties. For those of us living in relative comfort, the uncertainties we face also rattle our sense of ourselves. We thought things would be one way and they have turned out to be another way. This is a clear example of the Buddha’s first truth: there is dukkha. There is uncertainty where we want certainty, confusion where we want clarity, security where none is to be had.

We can come back to the Buddha’s first truth and try to understand it as it unfolds in our own lives. Were we counting on national leaders to pull together? Did we think that someone would come to the rescue? Did we assume that the electorate (in whatever country) was basically forward-looking and charitable? Whoops! None of these turns out to be correct. If we look into our own hearts we can discover what assumptions or clingings are the source of our current discomfort.

The conditioned world cannot provide us with a reliable sense of comfort or security.

Relying on the Dhamma, we can remember that thoughts and emotions rise and fall. What is true right now? What information are our six senses giving us? What is the state of the body, the breath? What mind states are passing through? With wisdom and calm we can know what we can control and what we can’t, what to pay attention to and what to set aside. We can look deeply into causes and conditions from a non-personal perspective. When we act from this understanding, our actions are more likely to be effective and not simply thrashing about in response to fear and confusion.




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The subject of intoxicants can be fraught. Perfectly reasonable people can use alcohol or marijuana as an everyday tonic, with no apparent ill result. However, suggest that they take a “vacation” from their intoxicant of choice and watch the fireworks. We form an intimate attachment to the things we use to sooth ourselves. Let me be clear that I do not include prescription drugs, used as directed, in this category.

Sometimes drug or alcohol addiction becomes a problem that can’t be hidden. It can result in an inability to function in ordinary life: family relationships dissolve, work becomes problematic. Anyone who knows a person in this situation can see what’s happening and empathize or judge (or both). There are organzations and programs that can help those affected. But we all know that the main result is heartache for everyone concerned.

From a spiritual point of view, the deliberate act of clouding one’s mind is a move in the wrong direction, away from mindfulness. It places one’s own desire to have a particular feeling, or to not have a particular feeling, above our concern for others. It alters our decision-making and induces a degree of carelessness that may make right speech and action seem irrelevant.

In many parts of the Pali canon, only the first four trainings are mentioned. It may be that the precept advising against intoxicants came later, perhaps even after the Buddha’s life. However, consider that all the training rules laid down by the Buddha, for laypeople and for monastics, came about because of observed behaviors. In the vinaya or training rules for monks and nuns, there are often stories about the specific incident that resulted in the Buddha forming a rule for all monastics. It’s a very practical approach; if something is causing a problem, look into it and see how the cause can be eliminated or mitigated.

I’ve yet to see the person who was, in my perception, improved by intoxication. They might feel better, but the people around them are unlikely to enjoy the change. Intoxication makes it hard to take in information, hard to listen to others or notice what they are doing or feeling. It turns us more towards our own immediate, selfish desires and blinds us to the needs of others. Isn’t this a good enough reason to cut down or eliminate intoxicants in our daily lives?

For some practical information on this subject, see:

1. I undertake the training rule to refrain from destroying living creatures.
2. I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking what is not given.
3. I undertake the training rule to refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. I undertake the training rule to refrain from false speech.
5. I undertake the training rule to refrain from intoxicants which lead to heedlessness.


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