Do we want a life of meaning or a life of happiness?
A guest article by Michelle E Grimwood
A friend was talking to me recently about an article she had read which posed the question of ‘What is more important in life, happiness or meaning?’ The inference was that people chose either a life of happiness or a life of meaning. The article she described considered these were two were separate and conflicting choices. People either worked towards securing one or the other.
This raised an interesting repose from me. As a Buddhist and having studied many of the texts explaining the path to enlightenment, it was very clear to me that the question in itself was flawed, it showed a lack of understanding that meaning and happiness are not conflicting and contradictory terms, in fact they were co-dependent and inter related. One was not in possible without the other. The fault in this line of this questioning in my view was mainly in understanding what happiness is, and what we mean by the expression a meaningful life.
In the extensive teachings Buddha gave, which he shared to help humans achieve their potential for both happiness and meaning, he asked the question of “what is the most meaningful thing one could do with a human life?“ When he encouraged humans to contemplate deeply the point and purpose of their life, he asked “what is our deepest wish for ourselves?” Expanding on this further he asked “when we think about others that we care for, what are our deepest wishes for them?“ He concluded that as humans we share a common wish, a universal wish, as humans our deepest and most consistent wish for ourselves and those we cherish, is that we wish for happiness.
He went on to explain that the most meaningful thing we can do with our life, the greatest meaning in human life was to achieve our potential to be happy. In this way we could help others to never be separated from their happiness. Therefore meaning and happiness were dependent related and one was not possible without the other.
It was from this understanding and motivation that he went on to give one of the most extensive and comprehensive discourses on human happiness known as The Four Noble Truths. In this he explained that if we understood the true causes for happiness we could develop it. In order to do this he focused on the need to understand the things that stand in the way of our happiness, the nature and origins of human suffering. Through having considered and understood these, then through developing wisdom, it was possible to follow inner methods that would eventually release all living beings from these sufferings . In this way we humans can overcome the inner obstacles which stand in the way of our happiness.
If we want success in our strive for happiness, according to Buddha compassion and wisdom are the two key principles to cultivate.
Compassion is the mind that helps us understand suffering and is how we recognise our deep wishes for ourselves and others. Wisdom is a mind that helps us consider truth and the true nature of things, which helps us overcome our mistaken views, so we can relate better to our self, others and the world.
Compassion in Buddhist philosophy is defined very simply as ‘the mind that wishes others to be free from suffering’. Love is defined as ‘the mind that wishes others to be happy.’ Behind these simple definitions there are extensive method practises explained in order to understand and cultivate minds of love, compassion and wisdom. These include the teachings on the six perfections.
In ‘Eights Steps to Happiness’ and ‘Universal Compassion’ the author Venrable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains the methods Buddha outlined in developing love and compassion, he explains how we can consider suffering in ways that are helpful in developing both our own good qualities and our potential to be happy. The key messages in these teachings are that there are many good qualities in suffering and through deeply contemplating these, we can learn more about the mind of renunciation, affection, cherishing and love. It is love and compassion that will both protect us and motivate us on this path of finding happiness.
Wisdom and compassion are described in ‘Modern Buddhism’ as like two wings of a bird, just as a bird needs two wings to fly, we humans need both wisdom and compassion if we are interested in actual happiness, an enlightened mind that is free from suffering and its causes. We may be able to develop the best intentions through cultivating compassion; however, compassion alone is not enough for us to be truly happy. We also need wisdom.
In the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, wisdom is defined as a mind that realizes the ultimate nature of all phenomena. The wisdom teachings explore truth as a concept and the true nature of all things. Generally speaking there are two divisions in truth, conventional truths and ultimate truths. The former relate to how things appear and the later relate to how things exist.
Buddha explained that as humans we make a fundamental mistake as we go about our daily lives, we believe the things that appear are real and true and so we relate to this appearance accordingly. That is why we get confused, continue to create suffering and in our search for happiness we are actually often destroying our chances of achieving it. We are mistaken.
It is only through understanding our mind, that we can consider deeply the conventional nature of all things and understand what we see, how the things that appear to us differ from how they actually exist.
The wisdom teachings are as easy as they are complex. The easily read version concludes, things do not exist in the way they appear. Everything we experience is created by mind. There is no creator other than mind. Everything is dependent on the mind that perceives it. Our experiences and perceptions are simply the result of causes and effect. Conditions coming together and conditions dissolving.
Once we understand this profundity, that things do not actually exist in the way we perceive them, that the way things appear and the way things exist differ, we are close to understanding the distinctions of conventional and ultimate truth. Once we understand this, we will no longer hold mistaken views. Our happiness will then be possible as we will be able to relate to our world and all things in it correctly.
Ultimate truth, as set out by Buddha, is that all things lack inherent existence, there is no permanent phenomena to be found in the world we inhabit. All things are in a state of change, conditions are changing moment by moment. Things appear when the conditions come together and then dissolve or cease when the conditions change.
There is no permanence. Everything is simply a transitory experience of conditions, causes and effects, things coming together, arising, appearing and dissolving. This is the essence of the teachings on emptiness; things lack the solidity we ascribe to them. Once the causes are created, we experience the effect; therefore everything we know is in a state of coming and going, either arising, appearing or dissolving.
We do in part understand this, but also as humans we have a great skill in ignoring or denying this. This is our fundamental mistake in our search for happiness, meaning and real freedom. We have a tendency to think this logic applies to some things, but we deny this applies to everything.
We know for example that when certain causes come together certain appearance will follow; on a sunny day when it also rains it is quite likely that a rainbow will appear in the sky. Although we know that the rainbow is simply a transitory appearance, appearing through certain conditions coming together, what appears is a rainbow. A rainbow appears to anyone who may happen to be looking in that part of the sky at that time, for those in other places or not looking at the sky, no rainbow appears for them. The rainbow will only appear to those who apprehend it and it is simply an appearance caused by certain conditions coming together.
If we are looking at the rainbow and it appears for us, we also know that the rainbow will dissolve, as soon as the conditions change, we recognise it is not permanent it is transitory, it will dissolve, disappear as an appearance, at some point it will no longer appear.
We also know that if we search closely for the rainbow we will not be able to find it, it is just an appearance to the mind that apprehends it. If we are trying to take a picture for example of the appearing rainbow and we zoom our camera lens in very closely, we will not find the rainbow, the closer our lens takes us, the more elusive the appearance becomes.
We may at a certain point find a coloured spectrum of light, but if we continue to zoom in, the closer we get to the appearing rainbow, the more elusive it becomes, the quicker it will dissolve. The more obvious its lack of existence becomes. Yet when we take our eye from the camera, again a rainbow may vividly appear. It is the same with the blue of a blue sky, the closer we get to it, the more we realise we cannot find it, it is but an appearance.
In understanding the way the rainbow appears, due to causes and conditions, we also understand that the only thing for us to do is consider the appearance as it manifests, enjoy it whilst it appears, and understand it is temporary and will dissolve.
We do not get sad when the rainbow dissolves, because we understand that is its nature. We do not think we could put the rainbow in a box and take it home to enjoy whenever we fancy, because we understand the rainbow only arises from certain causes and conditions.
This is how it is with all phenomena. There is nothing in our appearing world that is exempt from this. We can only realize this with wisdom. Wisdom helps us to overcome ignorance, and gives us confidence and logical methods to understanding the nature of truth, this truth and all truth. The true nature of all things. Ultimate Truth. With wisdom we understand that we do not need to be angry or afraid of what we might lose if we accept the true nature of things.
With wisdom and compassion, happiness and meaning are not only possible but inevitable. There is no contradiction between happiness and meaning just as is there no separation. With both we are more like a person seeing a rainbow and smiling, enjoying it while it appears. Knowing and appreciating it for what it is.
Without wisdom and compassion, we are more like a person wanting to take the rainbow from the sky and keep it for ourselves, foolishly thinking we can claim and hold on to the rainbow, put it in a box for own pleasure, only to be surprised and disappointed, feeling it unfair that someone else had stolen our rainbow, when opening the box we find it empty.