It is you who must make the effort. The Great of the past only show the way. Those who think and follow the path become free from the bondage of Mara.
If we all have an instinctive wish for happiness, these words taken from the Dhammapada tell us where to begin the search to fulfil it. We are our own refuge. The key to fulfilling our need for happiness lies within, not outside, us. This means that we have all we need right here, inside, without looking to external things. And more good news—it’s cheap! We don’t have to pay for our happiness!
I cannot emphasise enough how powerful and accurate this verse is. Everybody, all the time, is trying to fulfil the instinctive wish to attain happiness and avoid unhappiness, and yet no one seems able to do so. Here, however, is the simple truth: the source of our own happiness is within ourselves.
We are still not really aware of the inner refuge that the Buddha says we should understand, because we have not reached the level where we can tap it. Until we do, we will continue looking for happiness outside, and there will be no way to satisfy that instinct. Bringing that internal refuge to life is what Dharma practice is all about.
It is really up to us. The Buddha says in the Dhammapada that we should work for our own liberation because the buddhas can only show us the way. They can give us the tools, but we must use them ourselves.
One very important point that the Buddha mentions in his first teaching is to avoid the two extremes, which are as follows:
The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial.
Because these two—excessive self-indulgence and excessive self-denial—are easy traps to fall into, it is very important to be clear about them. The Buddha’s words in this case were directed at the five monks who were his first audience, but I think that these words are very valuable even outside the monastic context. They are relevant to our own daily lives. If we fall into one extreme, indulging ourselves in sense pleasures by merely living for sensory gratification, we devote our entire lives to something useless, robbing ourselves of any energy for what is worthwhile.
Self-mortification, the other extreme, seems an archaic concept in this material world, something more suited to the Indian forests of two thousand years ago. On the surface it seems that nobody we know punishes his or her body by not eating or drinking in order to find spiritual salvation. There are people, however, who push themselves too hard in their search for something spiritual, ending up sick and unhappy. And it is quite common to find people who mortify their bodies for worldly reasons, too. In both cases, self-denial is ego-driven.
Seeking sense pleasure is definitely the bigger danger for most of us. Our society and the media—especially advertising—promote the compulsion to indulge our sense pleasures. Advertisements are always saying, ‘You need this, you need that,’ whereas upon investigation it has nothing to do with need and everything to do with sensory gratification. There is a big difference, however, between devotion to sensory gratification and satisfying our daily needs. The Buddha says:
He who fills his lamp with water will not dispel the darkness, and he who tries to light a fire with rotten wood will fail. And how can anyone be free from self by leading a wretched life, if he does not succeed in quenching the fires of lust, if he still hankers after either worldly or heavenly pleasures. But he in whom self has become extinct is free from lust; he will desire neither worldly nor heavenly pleasures, and the satisfaction of his natural wants will not defile him. However let him be moderate, let him eat and drink according to the needs of the body . . . To keep the body in good health is a duty, for otherwise we shall not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom and keep our mind strong and clear. Water surrounds the lotus flower but does not wet its petals.
Growing out of mud and water, the petals of the lotus are still clean and dry. We live in the desire realm surrounded by the objects of our senses—our sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch—but the sense objects do not have to drown us. At present they overwhelm us and rob us of time to practise Dharma. Also, they never really satisfy us—like drinking salt water, the more we drink, the more thirsty we become.
The Buddha’s life is an example of the journey beyond both extremes. After his early palace life of utter sensory gratification, like many spiritual practitioners of the time, the Buddha deliberately deprived his body of what it needed in the belief that this could bring salvation. After six years the Buddha realised that this was not the way to fulfil his instinctive wish for happiness and freedom from suffering. He found that the only path was through what he called the middle way, which he summarised in his first teaching in the form of the noble eightfold path.
We need to be really clear on this ourselves before we even begin our journey. Is following the middle way, avoiding both extremes, the only way to fulfil our instinctive need for true happiness? And if that is so, what does following the middle way entail? If we are clear that it really leads to happiness, we will develop great motivation to sincerely follow this path. There is no doubt in my mind that this is so, and if Buddhadharma has even the potential to reduce the problems and difficulties we face these days, then it is our responsibility to do our utmost to practise it.
If that is true, it is also our duty to stay healthy. Without the body in good health we will not be able to ‘trim the lamp of wisdom’ and keep our minds strong and clear, which is the first step in our exploration of our inner selves to find that well of happiness. This process depends on keeping the balance between the two extremes.
Responsibility to Ourselves and Others
When we observe how animals react if they are harmed even a little, we can see that they naturally try to protect themselves. Scientists say that this instinct to survive and avoid harm is a biological function. But our existence is more than that; it is a combination of our biology, emotions, sensations, and other mental components. It is very beneficial to observe what actions we perform in our daily lives. Ideally, we should be continually mindful, examining everything that we do and the intention we have while doing it.
Sometimes we may feel that we do things without any kind of conscious intention. But if we are truly mindful, we can notice ourselves as we act; and if we trace the motivation back, we will definitely see that we have an instinctive wish to enhance our happiness or reduce our difficulties in some way. Through mindfulness we can glimpse this instinctive wish while it is arising.
We can even go further, recognising that regardless of superficial differences, deep down all beings possess this same instinctive feeling: At this deepest of levels is complete equality among all sentient beings. Understanding this is fundamental if we want to truly help others.
In fact, if we naturally saw our motivation at such a deep level, we would not need to try to generate a good motivation; it would come effortlessly. We would simply know that all beings have as much right to happiness as we have, and we would naturally want to help them. This is the basis of ethics. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says:
My own view, which does not rely solely on religious faith, nor even on an original idea, but rather on ordinary common sense, is that establishing binding ethical principles is possible when we take as our starting point the observation that we all desire happiness and wish to avoid suffering. We have no means of discriminating between right and wrong if we do not take into account others’ feelings, others’ suffering… Ethical conduct is not something we engage in because it is somehow right in itself but because, like ourselves, all others desire happiness and to avoid suffering. *
I find his words very powerful. There can be no ethics—no sense of right or wrong—without taking others’ feelings into account. Right from the beginning we should try to see that the feelings and rights of others are important and work toward serving not only our own welfare but also the welfare of all others.
Without any religious dogma whatsoever, by using simple common sense, it is important to judge what is right and what is wrong, what is happiness and what is unhappiness. We can only really do this if we can understand that the feelings, rights, and needs of others are every bit as important as our own.
More articles from Geshe Tashi Tsering here.
* Gyatso, Tenzin, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium, (New York: Riverhead, 1999), 29.
Geshe Tashi was born in Purang, Tibet in 1958, and with his parents escaped to India in 1959. He studied at Sera Monastic University in India for 16 years and graduated with the highest level Geshe degree.
© Geshe Tashi Tsering and Jamyang Buddhist Centre. Excerpted from The Four Noble Truths with permission of Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm Street, Somerville, MA 02144 U.S.A. http://www.wisdompubs.org