Friday, August 27, 2010

Can we pursue happiness? Should we pursue happiness?

A recent post on the Tricycle blog talked about "The Pursuit of Happiness Project," which is some kind of conference:

Hosted by Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, the conference marks the fifth year of a project in which 18 senior fellows studied the traditional teachings of happiness versus scientific understanding of what happiness is.

It's at Emory University, which I believe is in Georgia (Atlanta area?), and its website states:

Most famously formulated in the American Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of happiness" theme is an ancient and enduring Western ideal grounded in various Hebrew, Greco-Roman, Christian, and Enlightenment sources. Recent developments in positive psychology have brought the idea of happiness back to public attention with a flurry of books and undergraduate courses. By putting religion and science in conversation, and by focusing on the relation between altruistic love and happiness, our project will retrieve some of the rich traditional teachings captured in this ideal and reconstruct them for our day in light of the new findings of the human and social sciences and of the new liberties of constitutional democracies.

Before I go any further, the Voice of Cynicism (see? I can do Big Mind speak too!) in me wants you to know about the rest of the story, also from their website:

Project Accomplishments
  • Roundtable, October 13-15, 2006
  • Roundtable, April 20-22, 2007
  • Roundtable, October 12-14, 2007
  • Roundtable, April 11-13, 2008
  • Roundtable, April 17-19, 2009
  • Roundtable, October 16-18, 2009
  • Roundtable, April 16-18, 2010
The John Templeton Foundation and an anonymous donor

Voice of Cynicism:  Now, I tell people regularly working on my project never to write in status reports, "We had a meeting"  and call that an accomplishment.  What I, and those in upper management want to know is the results: inquiring minds want to know just which rich traditional teachings were captured in this [Judeo-Christian and Western philosphical]  ideal and reconstructed for our day in light of the new findings of the human and social sciences?

Blogging Me: Of course the John Templeton Foundation's famous for not asking  questions that result in answers that can stand up to criticism (just ask Richard Dawkins), and it's a good gig, I suppose, for those that can make the right pitch.  OK, well, that's the Voice of Cynicism for you; always trying to ask about those damned results.  
 But, as I often do, I digress.

I want to know, and perhaps it's worth asking in depth: should we be happy? Should we pursue happiness?

I once admit I actually bought and read the book to the left above here; it's probably still in my house somewhere.  I don't remember the details other than a warm and fuzzy feeling throughout.   But I also remember the book I  read to the left below here (many times in Japanese hotels, and finally obtained a copy in a Pure Land Japanese-heritage Buddhist temple); and especially it brings to my mind the story of the Buddha himself.

The Buddha lived in the lap of luxury; he had a family, and yet was still disturbed at the sight of sickness and death.  The Buddha came to realize that sickness, death, and suffering were our lot.  It is the condition of being human.  There is simply no escape from this.  We are born to die. 

So what's this about happiness anyway?

Well, the Buddha said,

A man struggling for existence will naturally look for something of value.  There are two ways of looking -- a right way and a wrong way.   If he looks in the wrong way he recognizes that sickness, old age and death are unavoidable, but he seeks the opposite.

If he looks in the right way he recognizes the true nature of sickness, old age and death, and he searches for meaning in that which transcends all human sufferings.  In my life of pleasures I seem to be looking in the wrong way."

The true nature of these things,  like happiness, is that they are fundamentally empty.   There is no essence of happiness; the pain is really felt, the happiness is really felt, but it cannot be captured and mounted like a butterfly. Happiness is pleasurable, and that should set off warning bells right there that from a Buddhist standpoint, it is neither to be craved nor avoided.  Yes, one should not be attached to happiness in the same way that one should not be attached to the avoidance of suffering.

Of course, deep mindful  practiced existence of this will bring relief via transcendence of suffering via profound, heavy compassion for all beings.  But to want to "get happy" by doing these things is simply another attachment, and you'll be sure to avoid the happiness that comes from radical acceptance of what is really there..  The highest principle in the transcendence of unhappiness is vast emptiness and nothing holy.

Just do your best with what you have at the time; remember the sufferings you feel are echoed in every other being and their sufferings are resonating in your suffering.

And just forget about pursuing happiness.  You'll be happy When the Revolution Comes. Or Jesus. Or Maritreya, or the 12th Imam. Or Bono.

You're not there anyway, so maybe it'll be a good idea to try to be nice to those around you and give them a break.


Chana said...

I like this post. It seems that happiness is the ultimate goal for many people. They will stop at nothing less. But there are many people who have other motivations for living. They could be politically motivated to make the society function in a better way. They could goal oriented like a athlete, or martial arts devotee. I can think of so many other motivations for living life other than the pursuit of happiness.
But all these pursuits come from a conditioned mind that conjures its' future and expects success. This is not what Buddhism teaches. It teaches that we forget about ourselves, which in reality has no real existence. In whatever way one tries to fulfill the illusionary belief in a personal self, there will follow a great amount of suffering. Illusion begets illusion.

Anonymous said...

Sweet website, I had not come across previously in my searches!
Continue the good work!

sean koon said...

Happiness is a side effect of pursuing (or allowing) the right things, light sunlight through a window. Perhaps is happiness is replaced with the word "peace" would it make sense to pursue that then? Even it were an indirect pursuit of happiness?