Both Happiness and Unhappiness are Unsatisfactory, by Ajahn Chah

Seated luohan (arhat) in a grotto. China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When we say that the Buddha and the Enlightened Ones killed defilements, it’s not that they really killed them. If they had killed all defilements then we probably wouldn’t have any! They didn’t kill defilements; when they knew them for what they are, they let them go. Someone who’s stupid will grab them, but the Enlightened Ones knew the defilements in their own minds as a poison, so they swept them out. They swept out the things which caused them to suffer, they didn’t kill them. One who doesn’t know this will see some things, such as happiness, as good, and then grab them, but the Buddha just knew them and simply brushed them away.

But when feeling arises for us we indulge in it; that is, the mind carries that happiness and unhappiness around. In fact they are two different things. The activities of mind, pleasant feeling, unpleasant feeling and so on, are mental impressions, they are the world. If the mind knows this it can equally do work involving happiness or unhappiness. Why? Because it knows the truth of these things. Someone who doesn’t know them sees them as having different value, but one who knows sees them as equal. If you cling to happiness it will be the birthplace of unhappiness later on, because happiness is unstable, it changes all the time. When happiness disappears, unhappiness arises.

The Buddha knew that because both happiness and unhappiness are unsatisfactory, they have the same value. When happiness arose he let it go. He had right practice, seeing that both these things have equal values and drawbacks. They come under the Law of Dhamma, that is, they are unstable and unsatisfactory. Once born, they die. When he saw this, right view* arose, the right way of practice became clear. No matter what sort of feeling or thinking arose in his mind, he knew it as simply the continuous play of happiness and unhappiness. He didn’t cling to them.

When the Buddha was newly enlightened he gave a sermon about indulgence in pleasure and indulgence in pain. ‘Monks! Indulgence in pleasure is the loose way, indulgence in pain is the tense way.’ These were the two things that disturbed his practice until the day he was enlightened, because at first he didn’t let go of them. When he knew them, he let them go, and so was able to give his first sermon.

So we say that a meditator should not walk the way of happiness or unhappiness, rather he should know them. Knowing the truth of suffering, he will know the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the way leading to the end of suffering. And the way out of suffering is meditation itself. To put it simply, we must be mindful.

*Right View: The first of the eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path.

[From The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah]

Click here to read more teachings from Ajahn Chah.

Categories: Ajahn Chah, Beginners, Foundations of Buddhism, Theravada

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6 replies

  1. This is a great explanation of some causes of suffering by Ajahn Chan.

    It would seem there may be a better way to phrase the following without using potentially insulting terminologies: “Someone who’s stupid will grab them, but the Enlightened Ones knew the defilements in their own minds as a poison, so they swept them out.”

  2. The pursuit of happiness is at the very core of the Buddha’s teachings! The point is that grasping and blindly attaching to any manifestation of experience, whether happy or unhappy, undermines the pursuit of happiness.
    To say that happiness is suffering is wrong; to say that unhappiness is suffering is equally wrong. Both happiness and unhappiness are as they are neither dukkha nor non-dukkha, just experiences; our grasping and blind attachment is suffering (dukkha), not the experience itself. To say that either are unsatisfactory is also wrong as that is a value judgement that is not in the objective experience itself. Happiness only becomes unsatisfactory when there is grasping. If there is no grasping then we are free to completely enjoy every aspect of that moment of happiness, which is what Buddha wanted for us.

  3. It’s a tough teaching to grasp yourself fully and tell people about, especially how our entire society revolves around the pursuit of happiness being a fundamentally good thing and one of the ultimate goals in life.


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