Self-Fulfilling Happiness is Not the Goal

landscape framed
Wangdu-Phodrang Valley, Bhutan

For the past few weeks I have been in meditation on the 7 Points of Mind Training.  This course of study is focused on Lojong, a practice of training the mind.  One of the precepts of Lojong is the idea that we “give all profit and gain to others and take all loss and defeat on ourselves.”  Essentially, that by focusing on improving the lives of everyone we ultimately benefit by helping to make the world a better place to live for all of us.

These Lojong teachings raised a big question for me: is the path or the goal happiness?

I am here to argue that Happiness is not the goal, the path, or the focus.  At least, not for a while (a long, long while).

Stay with me for a moment.  I often teach to my classes a story by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  In the story, LeGuin tells the tale of a great society of beauty and light.  The cities are opulent, clean, and wonderful in just about every way.  People have every thing they desire and have long since given up wars, greed, and just about everything we consider a drain on human society.

The society, however, is based entirely on the suffering of one small child locked in a small room in the basement of a building.  For the society to have all of this wonder and greatness, the rules state that this one child must sacrifice its happy life for the good of the entire society.  As Le Guin said, “In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect…The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes-the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear.”

In this story and the world Le Guin created, the child’s suffering is the price of wealth, clean streets, full libraries, great festivals, and perfect art and music.

And that leads me back to happiness.   Le Guin is saying that our personal happiness cannot exist without the happiness of those around us.  As such, our work in this life is to focus on the happiness, the care, the support of all of the people we can support….in fact, every single sentient being on the planet.

Until we accomplish this task, the task of extending happiness to every single individual we encounter, then we won’t ever really experience the kind of release and joy that comes from experiencing happiness.  As long as one person suffers our lives must be attuned to the needs of those who suffer.




The First Rule About Fight Club…

Studying, Practicing, and Sleeping

“Until you perfect the power of inner realization’s noble qualities, it is inappropriate to tell whomever you meet the stories of your spiritual experiences. Keep your mouth shut.” Dudjom Rinpoche

The question any participant on the path faces is whether or not to explain, tell, or provide information about experiences on the path.  Each individual’s experience is their own and the Ngondro / Vajrayana path is the “secret” mantrayana and as a result needs to remain hidden, private, sacred.

Dzongar Jamyang Khentsye put forth a clear description of what one can and cannot say. His social media guidelines are very helpful in explaining what is appropriate and not appropriate to say or discuss.  In my postings here, I am explaining some of what I have experienced; I share it only as a way to think about a path.  My goal is not to create any disharmony or difficulty (of course, there is no way I can know if what I post creates disharmony, right?).  Following on the path of one who is a teacher and offers ideas as a means of helping students purely for the sake of knowledge and understanding.  Of course, I also welcome the debate, the challenge, the strong opposition to what is written here.

In fact, for years I struggled with this concept of posting anything about my experience or practice.  As a teacher of History and Philosophy, it runs counter to accepted notions of teaching information to hide historical facts from students.  Hidden knowledge is often abused to keep those in power powerful.  Thus opening discussions of the past and exposing the destructive and unifying qualities of power in Historical context is not just important, it is vital for human societies.  Does a religious/spiritual system meet those same expectations?

When describing personal experience and knowledge, no longer are we basing our descriptions on vetted historical or cultural information.  Once one crosses the line between research-based information and personal experience, the information is blurred and the factual nature of the comments are untestable.  In effect, as truthful or accurate as I might be, we are talking about my impressions, ideas, and concepts in a way that no one can verify.

So, where is the line that Dudjom Rinpoche and Dzongar Jamyang Rinpoche talked about?  What can I not share and still be someone who can comment on my experience in a way that might (might) offer some insight to a reader?

First and foremost, I am not an expert in this knowledge and as such cannot communicate information about practice as “the” practice.  While I have training, my training does not align with historical training of lamas for centuries.  As flawed as that system might or might not be, I cannot hold claim to knowledge that I can then communicate to folks about the practice, Buddhism, or whatever.

What I can do is explain experience in a way that offers some insight into how someone struggles through and finds direction in a practice.  Much like I can talk about and coach basketball or teach photography or history or how to read a document, I can offer insights into experience that can be guides.  Ultimately, those guides are as useful as someone perceives them to be.  Acknowledging that I am not expert, savant or realized being is the first step in making sure that folks who read my thoughts are not deluded into thinking I have stumbled on a path.

The reality is that I am writing down these thoughts for me, more than anything else.  Whether they are read for not is not a part of my experience (as I have said and will continue to say).  These words really are just a place for me to work through my ideas and concepts.  As simple as that. (Yes, we could deconstruct the previous statements….please do, if you like)

Entering the Stream

I remember a Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode in which the Security Officer, Odo, a changeling, returned to his home planet to become one with his people.  Odo had the ability to blend into any situation by changing his looks.  On his home world, Odo merged with his people into a stream of these beings.

In a funny way, entering the stream of Buddhist teachings is much like the idea of merging one’s mind with the mind-stream of teachings.  Imagine that all Buddhist teachers share a common heritage traced back to the Buddha Shakyamuni.  Imagine, too, that the mind of the Buddha, an awakened mind, is a singular construct.  Once one achieves the awakened state one is literally in the same state or same mind as the Buddha.

What fascinates me about that idea is that Hindu thought supported the idea that all beings are one with atman which is an extension of the Brahman state of being.  In essence, we are, at our core, all connected and the same. (A gross simplification, here)

As I put more energy and time into practice, I started to connect to the idea that Buddhist teachings are very much like a stream; a stream of thought and ideas traced back to the Buddha and his enlightenment.  While Buddhism itself is not a singular idea or concept, the idea that teachers can trace their connection to teachings through a lineage that extends far into the past is fascinating in and of itself.

And, as I am sure you read, I was drawn to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism more so that those of Zen or other groups.  I think it is because I liked the path as laid down by the so-called second Buddha, Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche.  This particular branch of Buddhism includes a rich history and a path that follows a proscribed set of teachings beginning with the preliminary practices known as Ngondro.

Kindly, the Rigpa organization lays out this path in a series of courses that lead to the accomplishment of Ngondro and then on to other more specialized paths.  It was this path, Ngondro, and the teacher Sogyal Rinpoche that drew me into Buddhist teachings.

The thing that is fascinating about Rinpoche is that he states, clear, consistently, that he is a messenger for the teachings.  He offers the teachings in such a way that the instructions are relevant and meaningful.  I dove into these teachings and signed up for courses.  Each course is roughly 3 months long and introduces specific ideas about Buddhism and the various aspects of the teachings of the Buddha.  It took me more than three years of courses just to reach the Ngondro basics.

The brief instructions about Ngondro also can be found in Patrul Rinpoche’s book The Words of my Perfect Teacher.  In this text, Patrul Rinpoche presents the Ngondro practices in an easy-ish to understand set of teachings that lead to some comprehension of the path.  However, as you might guess, the teachings are a bit more complex than just reading a book.  Truly understanding the instructions takes a bit more investigation and the guidance of an experienced teacher.  As far as written material goes, their is also a guide to the book called A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang.  The Rigpa courses follow the teachings of these two books along with more pith instructions from other sources.

My path, laid before me, I set out to reveal what the whole nature of mind was and where it was headed.  Having taught Philosophy for year, I understood, intellectually, the concepts I was reading.  However, it is quite another thing to embrace an idea and shepherd it in such a way that your mind is, literally, changed…becoming more and more aware of how thoughts and feelings affect and shape attitudes.  Letting go of those thoughts is one of the most difficult things I have done.

Emptiness and the Mental Conundrum

If I ever form a band, I’m going to call it “Emptiness and the Mental Conundrum.”  Of course that band will have a brief career and disappear into obscurity very quickly.

In studying the nature of mind,  it’s clear that one important piece to understanding mind is to be with emptiness.  When I first heard the term, I immediately thought about nihilism; the notion that nothing really matters because everything we experience is meaningless.  The reality that we are “born to die”, in the immortal words of about 1000 poets, is one source of nihilistic thought.

The trick to understanding the Buddhist concept of emptiness for me was to understand that the idea is not, in any way, nihilistic or depressing.  The point is to recognize that all experiences, thoughts, things are inherently of “empty essence.”  It does NOT mean that things do not matter; we are affected by cold or hot weather, illness, anger, laughter, a new car, a happy baby,  all of those life events and material objects we possess do affect us.  We are not detached, zombie-like, to the world around us.  We are present in the world; we feel, we act, we express, we understand. I’ve thought that if I can really comprehend this idea, my understanding of the world might open.  Hmmm.

In a recent teaching from Sogyal Rinpoche, he mentioned this concept, the concept of emptiness, and explained that when we say “empty” we don’t mean “nothing”….the meaning, the idea is better expressed in Tibetan: tongpanyi = anything can arise in the unnamable space.  With this understanding, it’s easier to comprehend that anything can arise in our world.  A cup can be brought into existence using clay, hand work, and fire.  A cup can be destroyed by dropping it on the floor, the pieces flying in all directions.

Staying with this idea, all things come into and out of existence through “dependent arising” or “interdependence” or “cause and effect”.  Using this idea, I grasped or understood that a thing, an idea, an emotion, comes and goes…it is, in fact, essentially “empty”…only present from a very brief moment.  Once I realized that all things begin and end, rise and fall, I am no longer attached to that thought, cup, event, in the same way.

I say “in the same way” because we know the person, thing, idea is present in the moment.  Those things are not nothing and so we are not going to wander the earth destroying things, people and such.  We are ethical creatures (most of us are!) and we are not going to create chaos and destruction.

So as I weave my way through these ideas I sometimes get lost.  It’s like a forest with a path that appears clear only to slowly disappear in the distance.  I think I get it….and then…well, you get the idea.

So, I played around with the notion that a thing is empty of essence.  Here’s the thought experiment I used: I drive a car.  It’s a small Nissan that zips around town…nothing fancy or special.  I like that car.  My daughter says I “wear the car” but whatever.  I am attached to the car, driving the car, owning the car, playing music in the car, just being in the car.  Maybe that’s uniquely American to just be able to drive and drive on roads that seem to go forever.

And I know, I really know, that this car will pass.  I will no longer own this car.  In the distant future the transmission might go out, engine cease to function, or the car gets damaged and becomes unworkable.  Or I sell it and I buy another car.  Regardless  of what happens to it, it will be gone….it’s pieces broken into a myriad of smaller pieces….parts to be sold, reused, or disposed of.  At some point this car I so loved and cared for will no longer exist as a car….the metal will breakdown, crumble; the paint will fade, flake off, or wash away.  The car as I know it now will no longer exist.

Nissan Versa
The Car I Wear Each Day

So the fun question is, did it really exist?  Of course it did.  It was designed, manufactured and sold (to me).  The car came into existence through a series of events: it’s existence in my possession was dependent on a series of decisions, actions, tools, metal, glass, plastic, etc.  It exists.  At some point, however, it will not.

Staying with that theme, at some point the car will not exist. I can visualize, imagine or think about how the car did not exist at some point, did exist, and then did not exist.  Further, even as I now own this car, the plastic, the metal, the glass is comprised of molecules and atoms.  Those atoms are made up of electrons, etc.  Those protons electrons etc are further made up of quarks.  All of those pieces of the car work together to make up what I know as a car.  However, any one of those pieces alone are not a car.  The mirror is not a car.  The glass window is not a car.  Simply put, the car is an idea and a construction dependent on all of these other pieces together.

Mark Epstein, M.D. wrote a book about this idea of everything being dependent on another thing using a psychological approach: Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart.  In this book, Dr. Epstein talks about the whole idea of seeing the world as dependent on various pieces….and by extension that our minds, our thoughts are also made up of these pieces….we don’t like something or someone because of some incident or thought about that thing or person.  Letting go of these attachments to ideas we think can help free us from our own mind!

As I sit here today, I wonder at the my own thoughts and what those thoughts say about me (to me).  If I am a collection of thoughts and those thoughts fly away from my mind each second then who am I? Fun stuff.