HOW OFTEN DO WE hear people say ― or even say it ourselves ― "I'm not happy," as if it is their lawful right to be happy? By thinking in this way, we do not give ourselves a chance, and cause ourselves to be unhappy. If we understood this, our minds would be much more receptive to, or capable of, happiness; we would open the door to let happiness come in ― if and when it will ― instead of barring the door to it.
Now, why should we, in the first place, even think that we ought to be happy? Who says we should? Where is it written? It is an unwarranted assumption, is it not? Observe nature all around you, and you might realize that the only right we have is to struggle, and perhaps to carry forward the torch of human endeavor for a few steps, before passing it on to someone else waiting in line, and then stepping back, having played our parts as components in the unfolding of the great drama whose text is written as we act, instead of before, no one knowing what will happen next.
For, just as we ― you and I, and all others like us ― have inherited the sum total of human history, so we must pass it on to those who come after us; it does not begin or end with us; we are merely links in a chain that stretches out to infinity on either side of us, but our links, like those on either side, are indispensable for the continuity. Thus, we participate, and in so doing, happiness might be found, or stumbled upon, but as a result and not as something that we deliberately set out to achieve. Struggle, in this sense, might be joyous, and not necessarily something sad or miserable. Our efforts to achieve happiness for ourselves individually are doomed to failure.
There is a saying: "Give him an inch and he'll take a foot," meaning that it is common for people to be discontented with what they have of what they are given, soon take things for granted, and begin demanding more. There is always a very real risk that when 'rights’ such as freedom of speech and movement are accorded to everyone equally without them being sufficiently prepared through education about the responsibilities that accompany them, that some people will not understand and appreciate, and it will not be long before abuse sets in. Just imagine what would happen if food were served on porcelain dishes to a group of monkeys: would it be surprising if some of the porcelain got broken? Or would it not be more surprising if it didn't?
Freedom is not a right but a privilege, and to bestow it on those who do not understand the responsibilities that go with it, or who will not accept them, and who are therefore not ready for it, will only result in the destruction and loss of freedom. Take the widespread and increasing vandalism in our society, for example: the smashing of phone boxes, the slashing of seats in buses and trains, the spray painting of ugly graffiti on any available surface, and so on; this is done by barbarians ― and let's call a spade a spade ― who have had freedom served to them without earning or deserving it. I am not suggesting that we should have a society with two kinds of people ― those who have freedom, and those who don't ― like in days gone by when slavery still existed, but that we should be educated about the meaning of freedom, of the struggle involved in achieving it, and of the importance of treating it with respect, as the treasure it is, before being given it; in other words, we should be initiated into freedom. It's too late, in many cases, to do this, but it could be started now, in the hope that future generations will learn from past mistakes. And it is a matter of education; much could be done to correct the situation if we took the time and trouble to explain to kids in school about things like this; if you throw mud at a wall, much of it will fall off, but some of it will stick there. We need not wait for people to evolve and understand by themselves, for though some undoubtedly would, most would not; many of us need someone to explain things to us, or better, to show us.
If I live next door to people who make a lot of noise, I will try to tolerate it as far as possible, without crying about 'my rights,' and will try to avoid doing anything to annoy them; if they annoy me, it is one thing, and I can make allowances in my life for that, because I feel that, having understood something of the Dharma, I have the moral high ground, and the responsibilities that go with it; but if I annoy them, it is another thing, for which there is no excuse. We cannot expect too much from people who don't understand.
A few years ago, I lived next door to a young couple who frequently quarreled, and sometimes, in the early hours of the morning, I was awakened by screams, shouts, and other loud noises made by the husband beating his wife up. She would then rush out of the house, calling for help, jump into her car, drive off, and wouldn't be seen for a few days. But, after they had both had time to cool off, she would return, and everything would be fine until the next explosion. Needless to say, I didn't feel very good about all this, and contemplated calling the police; perhaps I failed in my civic duty, and should have done. At other times, I thought the wife was a damn fool for staying with such a man. Anyway, I put up with it while I was there, and when it came time for me to move, and I informed my neighbors that I was leaving, they seemed genuinely sorry that I was going, and said I had been a good neighbor! I wish I could have said the same about them!
And, three doors from where I was staying recently, lived a woman who had ambitions of becoming an opera singer; she would spend hours every day loudly practicing her scales, and I felt really sorry for the people who lived next door to her, as it was bad enough from where I was. She obviously felt great about singing like that but that did not mean that everyone else enjoyed it. When we are living in close proximity to others, we cannot do just whatever we feel like doing, but must consider their feelings, too, otherwise problems might easily arise.
The 'rights' that we so fortunately enjoy under the laws that we have made are of recent origin only; moreover, we should take care of them, as they are fragile, ephemeral, subject to change, and are often flouted and bent by those with the power and inclination to do so. And, just as I have said that freedom is not a 'right' but must be earned, so too, happiness is not a 'right.' If it were, we might pass laws commanding everyone to be happy, with the proviso that anyone caught with a sad or unhappy face would be fined or imprisoned.
The concept of 'rights' has turned our heads, it seems, and we have come to expect more from life than is reasonable, as if life is something that we can control in every way. We would not complain so much about things if we understood more about the nature of life. And what is the nature of life? Can we ― dare we ― define it? We may try ― we have the freedom to do so ― if we wish, and I will do so here, in an attempt to grasp it by the heel and make some sense of it. In doing so, however, I will avoid theology (which I do not consider to be a 'logy' [a science or a branch of knowledge], at all, but merely a matter of speculation and conjecture about a God or gods), but will refer to the biological and psychological aspects of life.
It must be realized that Nature is not anthropomorphic (that is, having the form and qualities of human beings), and does not see things through human eyes; it does not operate by our concepts of 'good' and 'bad,' or by our new found ideas of 'rights.' Rather, it is impersonal, impartial, and impervious to suffering, pain, and tears, and cares not who lives or dies, nor how many, or in what manner. If we expect life to adapt to us and our desires, we will surely be disappointed, and it will be useless to complain; it is we who, having understood something of Life's ways, must adapt to it when we cannot change it. Our bodily functions of excretion, for example, are things that we feel rather embarrassed about and perform in private, and no matter how much we would like to be free of such functions, we cannot; each person has to answer the calls of nature, and cannot delegate them to another (some people consider them so 'earthy' that they deny that great Masters like the Buddha or Jesus had any need to perform them, yet perform them they did!)
I would like to quote here from THE LIGHT OF ASIA, Sir Edwin Arnold's epic poem about the Life and Teachings of the Buddha:
The First Truth is of Sorrow. Be not mocked!
Ache of the birth, ache of the helpless days,
Sweet is fond love, but
funeral flames must
Beauteous is earth, but all its
Ask of the sick, the mourners, ask of him
This appears to be a very gloomy picture, but that is not all there is to it; it is merely a diagnosis of the condition of life as lived by most of us, and though this aspect is very real in context, there is much more to life than this. But, even though most of us know little more than this, life is dear to us, and we are reluctant to let go of it and die, even on our death beds; we cling to life out of fear of death and of what lies on 'the other side.' If we had a broader vision of life, and saw more of its opportunities, we might think of it as something to rejoice over.
If we were genuinely concerned about happiness, instead of just superficially, it would help us to know that to search for happiness is the greatest obstacle to being happy; the more we search for it, the further away we drive it. It is rather like trying to catch the wind in a bottle: you may catch air, but not wind. Open your hand and stretch it out, however and the wind may blow through your fingers, but it can never be yours, as a possession.
The Way is not difficult to understand, but to understand it is not enough; it
must be applied in our lives. So, we must begin with ourselves (as there is no
other place to begin), and then see others as we see ourselves. This means, of
course, applying the Golden Rule, which has been enunciated by all the major
religions, in different forms:
C H R I S T I A N I T Y:
C O N F U C I A N I S M:
B U D D H I S M:
H I N D U I S M:
I S L A M:
S I K H I S M:
J U D A I S M:
J A I N I S M:
Z O R O A S T R I A N I S M:
T A O I S M:
The Golden Rule has not been superseded over the ages, and is still an excellent rule to follow; but if, in your attempts to live by it, you do not immediately become happy, don't be discouraged; maybe in the process, you will discover something more important and rewarding than your own personal happiness: you might come to a vision of life such as you never knew before in your narrow concern for yourself alone. And I would like to use some of Christmas Humphries' words, taken from his book, THUS HAVE I HEARD, as appropriate to what I am trying to say here, and because they say it better than I could:
"It is because life is filled with suffering that happiness, to one whose eyes are opened by frank, courageous thought, is an Illusion. For even if all the circumstances for the moment unite in a state of 'happiness,' what of one's neighbor lying ill, of one's friend's affairs, of the vast unconquered forces of illusion in one's own mind? Happiness can only exist while the rest of life is, for the moment, forgotten, and as such, is the poorest of the many goals which men have set themselves on the road of life. Happiness in this sense, itself an infrequent product of the pursuit of pleasure, is utterly different from peace of mind, an inner serenity, an illumined joy begotten of the heart's quietude. This comes from work, a determined treading on the Middle Way to the heart's enlightenment, from obedience to the Buddha's final exhortation: 'Work out your own salvation with diligence.'"
We do not live alone, cut off and separated from all other forms of life, so our progress towards enlightenment is not just for ourselves; in fact, whatever we are doing, at any and every time, is contributing to the ocean of cause-and-effect which is our world; it has been said that "nobody can sin, or suffer the effects of sin, alone;" and it is so with every kind of action we do. So, to increase our level of enlightenment (realizing that enlightenment comes in many degrees, like the gradations on a thermometer; it is therefore only right to suppose that everyone is partially enlightened, even if only to a very tiny degree), means adding that much of positive karma to the ocean of collective force.
So much suffering results from our insistence on seeing ourselves as individuals, separate from the rest of existence, whereas if we saw ourselves as part of it, involved with it, and subject to the common conditions ('we are all in the same boat', kind of thing), we would ask far less for ourselves, and, at the same time, try to participate more. The world does not exist for us, but because of us; if we would like to see the world in a better condition, we must do something to make it so, instead of complaining and blaming others for it; there is so much that we could all do, alone, and in cooperation with others.
Yes, we must come back to ourselves, and begin with, and learn from, ourselves; it is the only place we can begin, and if it means starting all over again, so be it; it is never too late to begin. And we begin with ourselves by understanding our feelings, just as they are: What do we like? What do we want? Everybody likes things, and wants to have things, and I think it can be safely said that we all want to be happy ― who would disagree with this? We want others to treat us well, to be kind to us, to help us, and not to hurt or disturb us in any way. Right or not? If this is what we want, it is entirely legitimate and understandable, but we should not stop there. Take a look around you at other people. Having identified what you want, it is then easy to see what they want: exactly the same as you! It's amazing in its simplicity! Who doesn't know this?, you might say. Yes, everyone knows it, but not everyone knows what it means; many people think that anything so obvious cannot be very important; they think that anything important has to be mysterious and difficult to understand; but this is not so.
There was once a truth seeker who went to visit a renowned teacher, and asked for instructions about following the Way. The teacher looked at him, and said: "Cheat and steal from others whenever you have the opportunity without getting caught; lie, deceive, and enjoy yourself without considering others, and you'll be alright." The seeker was shocked to hear this, and went away in dismay. Some months later, the teacher asked his disciples if they had heard anything about this man, and was told that he was living an exemplary life in a nearby town, but that he was telling people that the teacher was a devil in disguise, who had tried to mislead him. The teacher laughed in delight at this, and said: "If I had told him what he expected to hear, he would have paid no attention to it as he had known it all his life; instead, I chose to help him realize, by himself, what he should do, instead of depending upon my answer."