Against The Stream ~ SEEKING HAPPINESS,
WE WOULD THINK
IT funny if we saw someone climbing an apple-tree
searching for bananas, would we not? But this is not
as strange as it sounds. Looking for happiness in
places where happiness cannot be found is stranger
and less rational than searching for bananas up an
Some years ago, I was requested to speak
to the Asian Buddhist students of a certain high school
in Sydney. I observed that they straggled into class
late, were not interested or attentive, and had lost—
or discarded— their traditional Asian manners
In order to get their attention, I asked
them what they thought people all over the world wanted
or were looking for. Well, because most of them were
refugees from Vietnam or Cambodia, several of them
said "Freedom", but I countered this by
saying that many people have that already and so are
not looking for it; indeed, some people have too much
freedom and don’t know what to do with, so abuse
and destroy it instead of taking care of it like the
treasure it is. This means, of course, that they are
not ready for it; freedom is wasted on people who
do not or will not understand, appreciate or take
care of it; it must be earned, not given to us, for
if we do not strive for it, we will not value it,
and thus, it will easily be wasted and lost.
Some others said "Money", but,
again, although many people— maybe we could
even say most— are looking for it, and though
money is, without a doubt, the ‘religion’
with the most devotees in the world, not everyone
is looking for it. There are some rare folks who have
money and who are not looking for more (Bill Gates
is not one of them, obviously). Someone said "Love".
Well, you know, even though the word has been so over-used
that it is almost worn-out, Love— the quality—
is still something we all need, in one form or another.
The answer I wanted from them was "Happiness".
I asked them: "If you had been happy in your
own country before, would you have fled as refugees?"
"No", "Probably not", came the
answers. "So, you fled your country because you
were not happy there, because life there was too difficult".
I have been to about 40 countries and have
seen that, although there are differences between
people, the basics are the same: Everyone wants to
be happy; no-one wants to be sad or to suffer. "Therefore",
I continued, "happiness must be something very
important, no?" "Yes", they agreed.
"Well, since happiness is very important, do
they teach you about it here in school?" There
was a unanimous cry of "No, never!"
How strange, that something so very important
as happiness is completely neglected in our schools!
Why should this be? Is it because happiness cannot
be taught, but must be earned or found by the individual
himself? Can or should nothing be said about it? Or
has it been shunted aside as ‘too emotional’,
thrown into the trash-can in favor of the over-emphasis
Personally, I regard the education-system,
as it stands today, as Public Enemy Number One, for
it inculcates in people many qualities that the world
needs much less of instead of more, and which lead
directly to conflict: competitiveness, ruthlessness,
selfishness, pride, greed, envy, acquisitiveness,
thoughtlessness about others, etc.
Some people will argue that without competition,
we would not progress, but I would disagree, for we
would probably make better progress, and with much
less conflict, if we learned how to cooperate with
each other for the common good. And I believe that
we can be taught and shown, from a very early age,
how to cooperate. World War Two— to name the
most outstanding of senseless conflicts— caused
the death of 50 million people, and untold irreparable
damage and destruction. But we still haven’t
learned; the Twentieth Century was the bloodiest of
all. And, right now, there are numerous conflicts
of various sizes going on in the world, and it looks
as if we’ll be very lucky to avoid a Third World
With the present education-system—
which, in reality, is the ‘American system’
that everyone else seems to take as their model—
are we happy? Far from it! We have turned the world
into a jungle full of wild and savage animals, where
it is not safe to go out on the streets at night—
or even in the daytime!— in some places! It’s
amazing— is it not?¾ how we can put men
on the moon and send them to the bottom of the ocean,
but we cannot teach our children — for this
is where it must begin— how to live together
with others in understanding and peace.
The ways in which we seek happiness are
countless; seeking happiness and trying to avoid unhappiness,
are pursuits that take up a great proportion of our
lives. We may safely generalize and say that everyone
wants to be happy and avoid pain; we all have this
in common. But how many of us are happy? We are happy
sometimes, and some people are happier than others,
but do you know anyone who is happy all the time?
Some people seek happiness in ways that
are harmless to others, while others willingly hurt
others in their efforts to find it; they will kill,
steal, lie, cheat, etc., if they think it will yield
the happiness they seek in their frustration. But
are they happy? A little, perhaps, and briefly, but
when their actions ripen, where is their happiness?
There are many formulas for happiness that
people hold, the most common being Money = Happiness.
"Oh, if only I were rich, I would be happy",
they think. Of course, it would be very difficult
to be happy if one’s family was hungry or homeless,
but riches, in themselves, do not solve all problems
or bring happiness. Many rich people are very unhappy.
Other formulas go like this: "If I
had a beautiful girlfriend (or handsome boyfriend),
I would be happy". "If I were young again
/ healthy / powerful / famous / popular / had many
friends, etc., I would be happy". But can happiness
be formulated? Perhaps it would be better to pause
awhile and ponder on man’s frantic and eternal
search for happiness.
Happiness cannot be sought and found, for
it— and unhappiness, too— are results
of the way we live our lives and how we see things.
In fact, the search for happiness is the greatest
obstacle to finding it, though we usually do not see
this until after we have sought for it to the point
It has been said that: "Happiness is
a perfume that you cannot sprinkle on others without
getting a few drops on yourself". This is the
key: Forget self and help others, do what is right
according to the situation, and happiness may find
us, though really, this should not be our motive for
helping others. We should do so simply because we
have the opportunity and capacity to do it, and not
for what we think we might get in return, for that
is the same as seeking, and usually results in disappointment.
Why do we look for happiness? If we were
happy already, if there were no pain and suffering,
there would be no need to look for it! It is because
we are not happy, because we are subject to pain and
suffering, that we search for it.
What is pain? It is a response to certain
causes or conditions; it is the effect of causes,
like everything else, and if we can discover and understand
the causes, we might be able to avoid the effects
we don’t like.
There are two kinds of pain: physical and
mental. We have a body, so naturally, we experience
various bodily pains; though many of these pains could
be avoided if we took better care, some pains are
unavoidable, as it is natural and inevitable for the
body to break down and decay— like any machine—
and one day, it will die. This is why Lao Tsu said:
"Accept misfortune as the bodily condition, for
without a body, how could there by misfortune?"
Or, as someone else said recently: "Exercise
regularly; eat moderately; die anyway".
Mental pain, on the other hand, is not inevitable,
as it is possible for us to be in much greater control
of our minds than we are. We cannot prevent the body
from growing older and dying, but the mind is ours
to control, if we will. We need not suffer from worry,
grief, despair or anger; we need not give way to jealousy,
revenge, malice and pride; our minds need not be filled
with greed, hatred and stupidity. But they often are,
aren’t they? And we suffer so much because of
the presence of these negative and harmful emotions;
they cause us pain even on the physical level, through
the mind acting on the body. What a lot of trouble
comes from the mind!
Now, nobody— at least, no reasonably-sane
person— likes to suffer. Most people try to
avoid pain, most hate and fear it, but few try to
understand it, to listen to it, to hear what it is
saying— and it does have something to say. Pain
is Nature’s way of telling us that something
is wrong— out of balance— and needs attention.
It is not really the enemy we think it is, for if
we listen to it and learn from it, it becomes useful,
and may be considered a friend in disguise —
a teacher— even if its face is ugly. From our
own pain, we begin to understand the pain in others.
This gives rise to Compassion, the greatest virtue,
and Compassion is what compelled the Buddha to go
out to show the Way to those who were ready to see.
If we have never suffered ourselves, it is difficult
to sympathize with others.
Our world is a sad place, though it often
wears a mask to conceal its pain, because to face
the pain constantly would quickly drive us mad. Sometimes,
when we are sensitive, we can feel the infinite sadness
of the world, and if we have no knowledge of the Law
of Cause-and-Effect, we might easily feel overwhelmed
by it. But, knowing that there are no accidents in
the Universe, and that everything arises from causes,
imbues us with a feeling that we are not impotent,
and that there is something we can do about it.
Again, there are two kinds of suffering:
natural suffering and man-made suffering. As our knowledge
increased over the ages, we have been able to lessen
the suffering caused by Nature. We are able to predict
earthquakes, storms, volcanic eruptions, etc., and
are able to take precautions against them; we can
mitigate the effects of drought and floods; we have
eliminated or controlled many killer-diseases, and
undoubtedly will do so with many more. Most of the
suffering, and all of the evil in the world, however—
such as war, crime and drug-abuse— is not natural,
but man-made, and it is in this field that we can—
using intelligence and compassion— have the
greatest success. And this is perhaps the most important
thing I have to say in this book: Each and everyone
of us has the capacity to increase of decrease the
suffering in the world. And the same can be said about
happiness. We might not have much of an impact, but
we can do our share, and every little bit helps. It’s
our world. Won’t you join us?