Zen and the Pursuit of Happiness

Sunday Sansenkai #470, 12th July 2009
Jikishoan Zendo Melbourne
Guest speaker: Geoff Dawson, Ordinary Mind Zen School, Sydney.

Thank you for inviting me here to speak Ekai, and it’s good to see so many people around the room that I’ve sat with before. The topic I wanted to talk about today is the way of Zen and the pursuit of happiness.

Ever since human beings have been able to think, they have been pursuing happiness. Originally the word happiness meant luck, so originally happiness was considered just something that happened by chance. Words such as happening, happen-stance or hapless come from the same root. In centuries gone by, the idea of whether you were happy was something determined by the Gods and they decided whether you had good fortune or bad fortune, just on a whim.

And then it was the Greek philosophers – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle for example – who started to reflect on what a human life was about and whether it was actually possible to work toward a state of happiness. However they didn’t call it happiness, they called it a state of virtue, and they equated virtue with happiness. If I remember correctly, Aristotle said that happiness is the state of a person practicing virtue. In other words, practicing an ethical life and cultivating truth is happiness. But the issue in Greek philosophy, regarding this pursuit of happiness, was that they believed happiness was for an elite few, that it was not something that was open to everyone to accomplish.

When Rome became the centre of European culture, Christianity spread through that empire to various other countries, and with the rise of Christianity came the view that you could only really be happy when you went to heaven and you were united with your creator. However instead of it being limited to an elite few, everlasting bliss in heaven was open to anyone who had the faith. People in those days however didn’t really think that you could ever be truly happy here on Earth. If you led a virtuous life then you would get your reward in heaven. Now that view became modified through the centuries, so that you could perhaps be reasonably happy on earth, then you went to heaven.

By the time of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, which was around the time of the Eighteenth Century, there was quite a dramatic change, with a lot of new ideas and fresh views. By this time Christian/European culture had started to overcome its guilt about experiencing pleasure. They began to really embraced pleasure and equated happiness with the pursuit of pleasure and the maximisation of pleasure. Philosophical thought at the time focused on the individual and the rights of the individual to experience happiness right here on earth.

This time was also the beginning of Utopian Socialism – the idea that happiness could only really be found by creating the ideal social order, of harmony and equality. From one of these two philosophical strands, Utopian socialism, Communism developed. And out of the other strand, focusing on the individual, came Capitalism and free enterprise.

In the meantime, the colonization by Europeans of America and Australia and other newly discovered places in the world, began to take place, and particularly in the USA this idea of the individual being able to pursue happiness really started to take off. For the first time, the right to the pursuit of happiness was documented as a political statement. It’s enshrined in the American constitution. Communist countries followed their own socialist paths, none of which seemed to be great experiments in human happiness.

The free enterprise, American individual work ethic didn’t seem to be entirely successful either in creating happiness. The same is true here in Australia. From it came the idea that the individual had the right to work, to accumulate wealth and through that you would become happy. The problem is that we work so hard to create wealth, we’ve become addicted to it, and we’ve got to get more and more and more to keep up, until we don’t have any time left to enjoy it. What happened is that people became so preoccupied with working to obtain material wealth, that their leisure time ended up becoming rather superficial or shallow, for want of a better word. Leisure became based mainly on pursuing pleasure in tourist resorts and shopping malls, rather than leisure being used for reflection, or creativity, to just be, and to just appreciate life as it is.

So we became a doing culture rather than a being culture. This led to a kind of cultural malaise, a kind of sense of emptiness – not emptiness in the Buddhist sense but emptiness in the sense of flatness or deadness of spirit – which we still experience to this day. This is very well expressed in the literature of T.S Eliot in his poem “The Waste Land” and other of his poems, which captured that sense of the pointlessness of living in the Post-Industrial age.

Out of this cultural malaise developed psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, and some people began to enter psychoanalysis as a way of pursuing happiness. People thought they could overcome their feelings of depression or anxiety or neurosis, and find some kind of fulfillment in the talking therapy. Those of us who were born last century grew up in a culture where psychotherapy and personal growth then became a widespread way to find some kind of happiness in life. Perhaps along the way we experimented with some chemical approaches to pursuing happiness as well. Not only was there alcohol, but a few other strange, exotic chemicals to sample. By the 1980’s people also attempted to overcome their feelings of unhappiness through the chemical companions to psychotherapy – anti-depressants, Zoloft, Prozac, etcetera.

I work as a psychologist and a psychotherapist, as well as practicing Zen and for many years I’ve been interested in the differences and similarities between the two. There is an overlap to some degree between the two, but in many ways they are very different, and I want to emphasis some of those differences in this talk tonight.

Psychotherapy does work to a certain degree to assist people to overcome feelings of depression, anxiety, personality disorders, etcetera. It does work, otherwise we wouldn’t do it, and I wouldn’t do it. But it doesn’t seem to me to work on as deep a level as Zen practice does. Zen practice is in my bones, it’s a deeper kind of experience than what I’ve ever experienced in psychotherapy.

In the past many schools of psychotherapy focused a lot on psychopathology – problems, what is wrong with us – it followed the medical model. Now there is a new form of psychology, which is called Positive Psychology, and it looks at enhancing happiness and cultivating optimism. Is this the same as Zen practice? I’m not sure. I don’t think so. It may bear some similarities but I don’t think it’s the same. Optimism is a certain preconceived view that we have about the future that it will turn out okay and pessimism is also a pre-conceived or fixed idea of how the future will be. But have optimism or pessimism got anything to do with the present moment? They are a projection from the past or the present onto how the future will be. But is it about just experiencing this moment as it is?

When we look at the pursuit of happiness and we look at the processes involved in it, it’s interesting to go back and listen for example to one old Taoist philosopher, the Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tsu, who said that happiness comes to those who do not pursue it. A very interesting statement. The American writer and naturalist Thoreau made a statement that is very interesting as well. He said that pursuing happiness is like pursuing a butterfly, the more you pursue it, the further it gets away from you. But if you sit still, it will come and sit gently on your shoulder. So there is something mistaken I believe, in the way we actually go about pursuing happiness in the first place.

And where the problem lies is that if we are coming from a position of being stuck in our own separate ego identity when we pursue happiness , we are grasping at something, trying to get something and hold it to ourselves. My understanding of Zen, and Buddhist practice generally, is that the grasping itself and the aversion itself is the cause of unhappiness. If we don’t examine that, then I think that our sense of happiness is very superficial.

A few years ago I was invited to speak at a conference that is run annually in Sydney called “Happiness and It’s Causes”, which is sponsored and conducted by a Tibetan Buddhist group. They invited me to speak one year, and so I committed myself to going, and then I wondered “well what are the causes of happiness?”, and I had to admit to myself that I didn’t know. At that point I thought – well, I have committed myself but I actually don’t know the answer. So I fell back on my Zen training and just surrendered to the fact that I didn’t know, and when I did that I immediately felt happier! [laughter from audience] I’m quite willing to be corrected here because my academic understanding of Buddhism isn’t great, but I’ve never come across anything in Buddhism that states there is a cause of happiness.

If we go back to basic Buddhism and look at the Four Noble Truths – suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path that leads to the end of suffering – We might see that the four noble truths are a medical metaphor. It’s like we’re sick, we’re suffering from a psychological ill-at-ease-ness or dis-ease and we’ve become inflamed with the causes of unhappiness or the causes of suffering, which are grasping, aversion, and ignorance – or greed, hatred and ignorance. Now my understanding of what the word nirvana means is the absence of those things. It’s not the gaining of something, it’s the absence of grasping, aversion and ignorance. And Zen practice is one of the ways to dissolve that grasping and aversion, that ultimately unsatisfying relationship to life.

So when we look at it in that way, there are causes to unhappiness or causes to suffering but not causes of happiness. That is basic to a Buddhist understanding of life. I believe it is naive to think that there is some way you can manipulate yourself, through a therapeutic procedure or by thinking in a different way, or by developing a different attitude like being optimistic that will bring deep abiding joy. I think that the Zen perspective on happiness or a fulfilling life is that it actually arises naturally. That is, you remove the causes of unhappiness and what is left is just something that is naturally there without effort. Which is being the moment as it is, where there is nothing missing, it’s complete in itself.

One of the things that I think is important to emphasise in practice, and is perhaps not quite understood yet in the way that Buddhist practices like mindfulness are adapted into secular settings like psychotherapy, is that Zen practice is not just about concentrating on the moment. If you concentrate on the moment, you are separate from it – it’s about being the moment, being this very body, being this very circumstance. While we’re concentrating on it, there’s still a separation that occurs. Zazen is not a competition with yourself against the monkey mind that wants to wander off. That’s dividing yourself. What is at the essence of Zen practice is surrendering into the moment, accepting into the moment, releasing into the moment. Something is let go of. The grasping and aversion is released. This surrendering process is at the core of it, and it’s really at the core of all genuine religious practice, whether it’s Buddhist, Christian or whatever. You see it in all religious literature, the importance of surrender, of humility. That’s at the core of it, that’s at the core of practice. In the Ordinary Mind Zen School we recite our practice principles, which are –

Caught in the self-centred dream
Only suffering.
Holding to self-centered thoughts
Exactly the dream.
Each moment life as it is
The only teacher.
Being just this moment
Compassion’s way.

Those are the principles that guide us through practice. One of my teacher’s, (Joko Beck’s), favorite sayings, which I think was the subtitle of one of her books, is an old Zen phrase.

On a withered tree, a flower blooms.

When the old ego, with it’s grasping and aversion dies, when it is completely dead, then the blossoms of compassion burst forth – The flowers of joy, the flowers of warmth and friendship, and the flowers of equanimity.

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