Apr 20, 2013
“For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” (Day 9)
Yesterday I discussed what “well” means when we say “May you be well.” It’s not as straightforward as “physical health.” Today I’d like to talk about what “happy” means when we say “May you be happy.” Again this isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
I was prompted to think about this because of questions people had about the recent bombings at the Boston marathon, and what it means to cultivate lovingkindness for the bomber or bombers. But this applies to many of the people we find difficult, and whom we bring into the fourth stage of the metta bhavana practice.
One person commented that some of the people he finds difficult are destructive and “cause problems for those around them, and inflict pain on others, in family or work contexts.”
So naturally we wouldn’t want them to go around wreaking destruction in this way, but being happier as they did so! And in fact he spelled that out:
I have no difficulty wishing that they be physically healthy and safe. But I imagine their “happiness” or “living with ease” as very probably involving the detriment of others – if they do not change their behaviour.
It’s the last part — “if they do not change their behaviour” — that’s the key. Because from a Buddhist point of view, real happiness isn’t an add-on extra that you can simply bolt onto an existing life that’s deeply unskillful. Real happiness is actually the outcome of a life lived skillfully, and so in wishing that the difficult person be happy, we’re wishing that they be the kind of person who is kind, and mindful, and who creates happiness.
There are different kinds of happiness, according to Buddhist teachings. For example there is, according to one sutta, worldly happiness, unworldly happiness, and a still greater unworldly happiness.
I won’t go into these in detail, but the point is clear that there is a hierarchy of types of happiness, from the worldly (which includes the pleasure people get from being unkind), to the unworldly (which includes the happiness we get from meditation, although this would include all happiness that we get from acting with mindfulness and kindness), to the “still greater unworldly happiness” which arises in the mind that is freed of greed, hatred, and delusion.
So when you’re wishing that someone who normally acts destructively be “happy” you’re wishing them at least the “unworldly” happiness that comes from being an aware, empathic, ethically responsible human being, and maybe even the “still greater unworldly happiness” that comes from being enlightened.
And actually, this is a tough thing to wish on anyone! When we move from acting unskillfully to becoming more mindful and loving, there’s a time when we look back at our lives and have to accept responsibility for the harm we’ve done. And this is a very painful thing. In thinking of the true happiness of awakening, I’m reminded of Rilke’s words, “For here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” The mind of compassion that develops within us, becomes the place where we are seen, and so our lives must change — sometimes painfully.
Now I’m not suggesting that we wish pain on anyone, but just pointing out that to wish someone real happiness is not to wish that they be given a free pass that absolves them of the harm they’ve caused. It’s to wish that they be seen by their own conscience, and that they do the hard work that this “being seen” demands.
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