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A Connoisseur of Happiness
A couple of years back, I got a phone call from a friend who had attended a Dhamma talk where the teacher had said that “life is suffering ‘ is the second noble truth. The friend called up to scoff at the teacher, saying that, of course, everyone knows that that’s not the second noble truth, that’s the first noble truth. And I had to tell him that it wasn’t any noble truth The Buddha never said that life is suffering. He said there is suffering in life. That was his first noble truth And he identified what that suffering is, but he went on to say that there is a cause for suffering that you can abandon and there is a path to the end of suffering that you can develop, so that you can reach the end of suffering, all of which can be found in life.
So life isn’t just suffering. It’s important to underline that point, because so many people misunderstand the Buddha’s attitude toward happiness and suffering. Just this last weekend, I heard someone saying that the Buddha’s basic teachings are that all things are inconstant and all things are suffering.
That’s not the case, either. As the Buddha once said, if there were no pleasure in the five aggregates, we wouldn’t be attached to them. They do offer pleasure. And we need to understand the different kinds of pleasure they offer so we can use that pleasure as a means to the highest happiness or the highest pleasure: nibbana.
The Pali word for pleasure and happiness is sukha. It’s one of the Buddha’s most basic terms, and—as is so often the case with the most central terms in the Buddha’s teachings he doesn’t define it. Sukha can be translated as bliss, pleasure, ease, wellbeing, or happiness. Mllat the Buddha does describe in detail are the different levels of sukha and the different ways that sukha functions. In other words, he describes what’s practical to know about sukha so that you can know which kinds of sukha to pursue and which to avoid.
I think one of the reasons he doesn’t define sukha is because, as you practice, your sense of what counts as happiness is going to develop and get more refined. So it’s important that your idea of happiness doesn’t get nailed down too tightly when you’re starting out.
The Buddha’s own search was a search for true happiness, a happiness that doesn’t age, grow ill or die. That’s what he was looking for. After having spent years indulging in the intense sensual pleasures of the palace, he did what so many people do when they have been indulging in sensual pleasure that way: He went to the other extreme and practiced austerities in his case, for six years. He denied himself food, forced himself not to breathe, and grew very emaciated because he was afraid of pleasure. One of the most important insights of that period, though, was that denying yourself any kind of pleasure at all is not the way. It doesn’t lead to liberation.
So then the question arose in his mind: Is there another way? And he thought of the time when he was a child, sitting under a tree, and had entered the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. Recollecting that, he had an instinctive sense that that would be the path, but then he asked himself: am I afraid of that pleasure?” And he realized it was nothing to be afraid of. It wasn’t intoxicating; it didn’t cause any harm to anyone. Those are the two defining aspects of any pleasure that’s unskillful: It’s harmful and it’s intoxicating. We see so many pleasures in life that involve oppressing other people. The people enjoying those pleasures may not be conscious of the fact that they’re causing oppression or hardship. To whatever extent they do notice, they’ll often close their minds to it and deny that it’s causing anybody any harm—or if it is causing somebody harm it’s causing harm to people or beings who don’t matter. That attitude is one of the things that makes that pleasure unskillful. Not only does it harm other people, but it also fosters unskillful qualities of indifference and lack of shame. Intoxicating pleasure is the kind that dulls the mind so you can’t really see what you’re doing The most obvious examples of this sort of pleasure are those that cone from alcohol and drugs, but there are other intoxicating pleasures as well. Anything that excites a very strong addiction that dulls the mind, dulls your perceptions: That’s a kind of pleasure to be avoided. The pleasure of jhana, though, is neither harmful nor intoxicating. Sometimes modern Dhamma teachers will warn you about the dangers of getting attached to the pleasures of jhana, that somehow they’re a major peril to be avoided and feared, but the Buddha never talked in those terms. Quite the contrary: He said that if you don’t have the pleasure of jhana or something better than that, you won’t be able to let go of your attachments to sensual pleasures. To let go of a lower-level pleasure, you need something higher to hold on to, something to substitute for it. Otherwise, you go sneaking back to your old ways, denying the fact that you’re doing that. Or you grow attached to your pride that you’re so strong, so resilient, and so tough in the practice that you don’t need pleasure—but then that pride becomes a major obstacle to seeing where the mind is actually looking to feed. As the Buddha said, the pleasure of jhana is a necessary part of the practice. It’s the kind of happiness that allows you to have a sense of wellbeing, a sense of nourishment along the way, and yet keeps the mind clear so that it sees what it’s doing. The Buddha actually talks of jhana in terms of food. He says we feed on rapture when we meditate. And he describes jhana as a storehouse of provisions. He compares the practice as a whole to building and maintaining a fortress on a frontier. Mindfulness is the gatekeeper who knows whom to let in and whom to keep out. Discernment is the well-plastered wall that the enemy can’t climb because they can’t gain a foothold on the plaster. Persistence is your army of soldiers. And jhana is your storehouse of grain, honey, oil: all the food you need in order to keep the gatekeeper and the army strong. So the pleasure of jhana is a necessary part of the practice. It keeps you nourished As for the danger of getting attached to that nourishment, I can find only one passage in the Canon where the Buddha talks about the danger of jhana, and it’s relatively minor. He says that once you can attain jhana and you decide you don’t want to go any further, it’s like holding a stick covered with sap, and your hand gets stuck to the stick because of the sap. But jhana doesn’t make it impossible to get stuck. In fact, you need the stillness of jhana to look objectively at the pleasures you’ve been attached to so far in your life, to see that they’re no match for the pleasures of concentration. Only then are you encouraged to ask yourself: Are there any drawbacks to this state of concentration? Is there something better than this? That reflection becomes a solvent that removes the sap from your hands.
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