Purpose and the Search for Happiness, by John Aske

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Doctor Johnson wrote a story about Rasselas, a prince of Abyssinia, who lived in a Happy Valley supplied with everything the heart could desire. But after a while, the pleasures and distractions that had pleased him at the beginning, began to feel hollow and unsatisfying, and he became more and more thoughtful, and spent more time by himself. He began to ask his friend, the poet Imlac who had travelled out into the wide world, what there was to be found there and how people lived, and what happiness they found.

Scene of Temptation from the Sutra of Cause and Effect (Kako genzai e-ingakyo), late 13th century Kamakura period, Japan. © Metropolitan Museum of ArtImlac answered the prince as well as he could, but it soon became clear that he would have to leave the Happy Valley and explore the possibilities of the world beyond for himself. But the emperor, the prince’s father, had locked the valley with an iron gate to prevent the prince and his brothers and sisters leaving.

The parallels with the story of the young Prince Siddhartha 2500 years earlier are clear. As childhood with its certainties (if we are lucky) and its securities, moves into adolescence and then maturity, we are all confronted with the opportunity of opening up to the world (and ourselves) and exploring it, or turning away from it and trying to restore the gilded cage we once lived in.

If we opt for the second, we will have to ignore much that does not fit our rather narrow picture of how things are, and spend a great deal of effort defending our position, and maintaining our point of view. As we grow, we construct a frail barque of self from all the flotsam and jetsam we encounter in our lives and try to secure it against all the storms that threaten it, emotional or physical.

Sometimes, something drives us forward to effect change; something pulls against the outer appearance of our world and implies further dimension, something unknown, mysterious. Once I rode up onto the Ashdown forest on my bike. The climb was slow, and by the time I reached the top I was pleasantly exhausted. As I looked out over the forest, there was a kind of shift, and I no longer saw the landscape as a straggle of grass, trees and fallen branches, but as a unity in which what the Chinese call the ‘ten thousand things’ were just one thing of which I was part. All was not as I had assumed.

Ashdown Forest View Near Greenwood Gate Clump © Wikipedia

So beneath — or perhaps with — the apparent solidity and separateness of things, lies not another reality, but the continuum to which the apparent parts belong. It is not that there is an underlying reality, and another place, but that our way of seeing things (and appropriating them) has displaced the natural and turned it into the ten thousand things — we miss-see the nature of things. As Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is all about you, but you do not see it.’ The drive towards individuation and change push us into areas where we must learn to find our way or remain stuck in the previous stage like the axolotl lizard. In the case of the axolotl, Professor Huxley gave a shot of growth hormone and saw the final stage of a process that had never been completed in all the previous millions of years. Rather like the axolotl, we are complete but our completeness is unrealised.

And so the two princes, Rasselas (actually having to dig his way out of the lovely valley of his childhood) and Siddhartha, went out into the world, leaving the only homes they had ever known, to enquire into the sources of happiness and unhappiness and what might lead to them.

For Rasselas, the search was simple, he wished only to discover a happy man or woman, and the cause of their happiness. But after long travels, all were found to have some flaw or hidden sadness; the worm in the bud. The one understanding he came to was that the surest route to happiness was to make others happy and he thenceforth returned to Abyssinia with that purpose in mind. I remember Ajahn Sumedho once being asked, ‘What are we here for, Ajahn?’ and him replying, ‘Well, if you think you are here for you, my friend, you are in for a rather pointless and boring existence.’

Prince Siddhartha on the other hand went beyond this to seek the roots of unhappiness and suffering and how to deal with them; ‘Suffering I teach, and the end of suffering,’ he said after his enlightenment. He had gone out into the world and failed to find the answer there, then studied with the greatest teachers he could find, equalling them in the depth and power of his search. But the enquiry was still an attempt to find something else, something out there, something to acquire. And Siddhartha began to realise that that was precisely the problem. Like the axolotl, the problem was not out there, and he did not actually lack anything.

Photo of Ambystoma mexicanum (axolotl) at the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco. © Stan Shebs WikimediaFar from lacking things, we are always adding them to the world around us, as if to anchor ourselves in it more securely, controlling what we can, and putting up barriers against what we cannot. We do not see things freshly; we formulate ideas about them and make assumptions about them.

There was once a man who came to bring a gift to the Buddha. As he approached, the Buddha said, ‘Drop it!’ The man dropped it. ‘Drop it!’ the Buddha said again, and when the man hesitated, the Buddha said again, ‘Drop it!’ and finally the man understood. Giving (dana) does not require an agenda. Nor does happiness.

But the Buddha went further. Happiness and unhappiness are themselves conditioned states and not reality itself (tathata). That reality lies beyond the sphere of happiness and unhappiness, good and bad, and is untouched by any of these.

It is the ‘unborn, unmade, unconditioned’, and it is, as the nun Mae Chee Kaew said, ‘Forever unborn and undying. This is the end of all suffering.’

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Categories: Beginners, Buddhism, John Aske

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4 replies

  1. The Place Beyond happiness and unhappiness is the present moment.

  2. Back in 1999 I read Rasselas for an English Lit class at Cal State LA. During discussion I pointed out the similarities to the Siddhartha story. The professor went off on me saying I didn’t know anything and that Buddhism was unknown in England at that time. After much research I found that England had exposure to Buddhism ideas though not extensively. I wrote a paper arguing for the Buddhist influence on Rasselas and got a “D” for poor thesis. I am glad to see I was not wrong and others see the buddhist influence.

  3. ‘Forever unborn and undying. This is the end of all suffering.’


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