Happiness In and Out

Venue: Hokkien Cemetery Pavilion

Today’s talk is not from the suttas but based on a poem sent to me via e-mail. The title and author of the poem were not mentioned. However, I’d like to name today’s talk “Happiness In and Out”. Let me read out the poem and comment on it.

By being unselfish
we develop the sense of sympathy in ourselves.

We cannot truly enjoy happiness 
without being in sympathy with our fellow men.

The best way to be happy, therefore, is to make others happy.

Every kind act is twice blessed:
blessing him who gives and him who takes.

If we are to promote the spirit of fellowship, 
we should forget our “I” in the service for all. 
We should do everything we can for the sake of others.

This is an important poem to bear in mind especially in a religious community like ours comprising many volunteers and semi-volunteers from different walks of life. Each individual has to interact closely with others to ensure that community service and dissemination of the Dhamma are smoothly carried out in an uninterrupted, peaceful and harmonious manner.

To be selfish means to care only for oneself and not others. In the context of the Dhamma, selfishness is related to our desire for objects of the six senses. When people’s desires are thwarted in any way and expectations are not fulfilled, they can get all riled up and agitated. They respond by sulking or getting angry. This kind of behaviour not only hurts them but also affects those they associate with and is therefore a form of selfishness. They have not yet learnt to forgive and forget—to let go.

During my younger days as a university student, I was searching for spiritual fulfilment and came across the Four Noble Truths. The first one is the Noble Truth of Suffering. The Buddha taught us that birth, old age, sickness and death are suffering. To associate with those we dislike is suffering. To be separated from those we love is suffering. Not to get what one wants is also suffering. The Second Noble Truth tells us about the cause of suffering, which is craving or greed; the Third Truth says that suffering can cease through the utter cessation of craving; and the Fourth Truth describes the Noble Eightfold Path as the way leading to the cessation of suffering.

Even though I was quite new to Buddhism at that time, and had not yet started to learn meditation, I tried to verify these Truths in my daily life by frequently reflecting on my thoughts and feelings. By watching my expectations, which are subtle forms of craving, I noticed that whenever they were unfulfilled, suffering ensued. For example, during my first year at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, in 1974, I was put in charge of a construction project as I was in the School of Housing, Building and Planning. As project manager, I had to coordinate the entire job, delegating tasks where appropriate and ensuring that each and every member of the team kept the deadline for their respective assignments. My expectations were high and I required the others to perform in the same manner. However, not everyone was as diligent or as responsible. Needless to say, I was disappointed on many occasions, and in many ways. The suffering I endured resulted in insomnia, loss of appetite and pure misery. Eventually, I couldn’t take the stress any more and resigned from the post.

It was only in my third year that my interest in spirituality intensified, bringing me to seriously investigate the practicality and relevance of the Four Noble Truths in daily life. When I reflected on the fiasco in my first year, I realised that it was my expectations that brought me my entire misery. After going through innumerable repetitions of such scenarios, I learnt to ‘programme’ my life in such a way that expectations, while still essential, must be well managed and not allowed to run riot. In other words, I had to learn to let go of attachment to expected results. I try to understand and see the other party’s point of view and difficulties. There’s an English adage: To understand is to forgive. Sometimes, people cannot fulfil their promises and duties not just out of spite, but because the necessary supportive conditions are not there. By getting riled up, we only succeed in hurting, firstly ourselves, and then the people around us. There is pain everywhere.

When I learnt to meditate, it became even easier as I could now watch my unwholesome thoughts and feelings as they arose. By being mindful and aware when displeasure arises, the anger and ill-will will actually abate and we learn to let go of the thoughts that are making us angry. We are no longer selfish because now, we stop to think about others too. That is why during meditation sessions, yogis are taught to practise the four establishments of mindfulness (Satipatthana), i.e. being aware of

1. Body (Kaya) – bodily sensations, e.g. heat, tension, hardness, movement, rise and fall of the abdomen, breathing process.
2. Feelings (Vedana) – pain, displeasure, comfort, pleasure, indifference.
3. Mind (Citta) – mental states, e.g. anger, sadness, disappointment, lust, greed, attachment, delusion, distractedness, concentration, lethargy.
4. Dhamma – senses and objects of the senses, defilements that arise due to sense perceptions, how our thoughts and emotions arise due to various causes and conditions.

It is relatively easy to watch bodily sensations as they are coarse and physical in nature. For example, when we are angry, we can feel the tightening of our chest, increased sensation of heat and we breathe harder as our heart beats faster. Feelings, however, are more tricky because they are closely related to thoughts. There is anger and ill will towards the perceived offending party. If the meditator is experienced, he is then taught to observe the mind as it begins to rationalize his anger. For those not so well trained however, they are advised to be vigilantly aware of the emotion of anger felt as uncomfortable bodily sensations. Bodily sensations are easier to be aware of because they exist in the present whereas feelings and mind tend to get caught up in reflections of the past or worries about the future. By directing one’s attention to bodily sensations, one stops feeding the negative thoughts that produce these uncomfortable feelings.

While I was seeking spiritual fulfilment, I read a lot of other religious texts besides Buddhist ones, among them, the Bhagavad Gita. There I learnt that whatever one does, one should not hope for returns. Just do it with a full heart and soul. Every moment that passes by should be in the present. Do not live in the past or the future for life is unpredictable. Every situation that we meet can be turned to our advantage if we know how to make use of it. This knowledge changed my view of life. For example, when I plan to do certain things but am unable to do so due to unforeseen circumstances, I learn to turn a potentially negative situation into a positive one. I try not to get all worked up when things don’t go my way but instead use the opportunity to learn to reduce my greed, hatred and delusion by practising understanding, forgiveness and metta. This is a form of meditation. My mind gets calmer and not so easily agitated.

It will be extremely beneficial if a meditator can continue to apply the peaceful mindfulness developed during formal meditation sessions in the handling of his day-to-day life crises. It is just like charging a hand-phone battery and using it daily instead of letting the energy fizzle out in storage. He will live a happier, stress-free life. Such a person is healthy and at peace with himself.

This poem also tells us that the best way to be happy is to make others happy. At the start of our recent Closer-to-Reality DhammaVinaya Seminar held in November 2006, I was rather stressed out due to last-minute preparations. A participant who could ‘sense’ peoples’ auras told me that my aura looked dull and unhealthy then. However, as I was giving my presentation, he commented that my aura started getting brighter. It is true that once I start to share the Dhamma, my spirits soar and fatigue is left behind. Buddhist devotees often extend their help readily whenever there is any function. There is an excellent spirit of give and take. Even when the duty is not theirs, they still do what they can. Indeed every kind act is twice blessed, “blessing him who gives and him who receives” – a win-win situation.

When we forget our ‘self’ in the course of extending whatever help we can render, the egoistic “I” disappears. It is really wonderful for we are then able to promote the spirit of fellowship and do everything we can for the sake of others.

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