Ah, a nice cup of tea and a chance to put my feet up – that’s better.
Is it better? For how long? Before long I’ll need to get up and stretch my legs; then I’ll keep needing to pee because of all that tea I drank. So I nip to the loo and Ah! That’s better! Really? For how long? If going to the loo really made things better, just stay on the toilet and your life would be rosy.
Buddha said that if something really was a cause of happiness, the more you had of it the happier you would feel. I often think that if I could just stay in bed I’d be happy – but when I was ten, I had an operation and had to stay in bed without moving for two weeks. Let me tell you, it was not a cause of happiness. When the doctor eventually told me I could get up, I was so excited: I leapt out of bed, and immediately vomited and passed out! So getting out of bed turned out not to be a true cause of happiness either.
In all the worldly things we do, we’re never really finding true sources of happiness; we’re actually just changing one suffering for another. For example, if we have a headache and we take a painkiller, our headache goes and we feel happy: but that happiness is in fact just a reduction of our previous suffering. If we were to conclude from that that painkillers are a real cause of happiness, we’d be in trouble (and probably having our stomach pumped). In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says:
Buddha called the pleasurable feelings that result from worldly enjoyments `changing suffering’ because they are simply the experience of a temporary reduction of manifest suffering. In other words, we experience pleasure due to the relief of our previous pain. For example, the pleasure we derive from eating is really just a temporary reduction of our hunger, the pleasure we derive from drinking is merely a temporary reduction of our thirst, and the pleasure we derive from ordinary relationships is for the most part merely a temporary reduction of our underlying loneliness.
How can we understand this? If we increase the cause of our worldly happiness, our happiness will gradually change into suffering. When we eat our favourite food it tastes wonderful, but if we were to continue plateful after plateful our enjoyment would soon change into discomfort, disgust, and eventually pain. The reverse, however, does not happen with painful experiences. For instance, hitting our finger with a hammer again and again can never become pleasurable, because it is a true cause of suffering. Just as a true cause of suffering can never give rise to happiness, so a true cause of happiness can never give rise to pain. Since the pleasurable feelings resulting from worldly enjoyments do turn into pain, it follows that they cannot be real happiness. Prolonged indulgence in eating, sport, sex, or any other ordinary enjoyment invariably leads to suffering.
I sit down until I become uncomfortable, and then I stand up. I stand until I become uncomfortable, and then I sit down again. Our whole day: stand up, sit down; stand up, sit down; get tired of it all and collapse in a heap. Rince; repeat. Is our whole life just a variation on standing up and sitting down?
We say a change is as good as a break, but maybe now it’s time for me to say: all this changing one suffering for another is getting me nowhere; what I really want is to break away from suffering altogether. We have an opportunity to do this, because at last we know what a true cause of happiness is: inner peace. Check it out: the more I have, do I become happier and happier? Is there ever a point where I say ‘that inner peace is becoming painful now, I need to stop and feel grumpy instead’? We have a true source of happiness within our grasp – so reach out and grab it.
I was watching the lambs this morning, so bouncy and joyful; but my enjoyment was tempered by thinking of all the suffering that lies in store for them. Do the few moments of happiness they achieve make up for a life of suffering? I think not. So why don’t I apply this to my own situation too: I want more than a life filled with just fleeting moments of changing suffering. I want a permanent cessation of all suffering, thank you very much.
Buddha did not encourage us to abandon daily activities that provide necessary conditions for living, or that prevent poverty, environmental problems, particular diseases, and so forth. However, no matter how successful we are in these activities, we shall never achieve permanent cessation of such problems. We shall still have to experience them in our countless future lives and, even in this life, although we work very hard to prevent these problems, the sufferings of poverty, environmental pollution, and disease are increasing throughout the world. Furthermore, because of the power of modern technology there are now many great dangers developing in the world that have never been experienced before. Therefore, we should not be satisfied with just temporary freedom from particular sufferings, but apply great effort to attain permanent freedom while we have this opportunity.
We can see from this that Buddha never said that we couldn’t appreciate the pleasure we do manage to find: when we’re hungry, we eat; when we’re in pain, we take a painkiller. But we can do that while at the same time remembering that we can achieve so much more than this. A change might be good, but a proper break will be even better.