Joy and Happiness

Those of you who follow this blog may have noticed a new tab, the one labeled Jātaka Tales. I am taking the time to edit and illustrate the 547 stories from that collection. I hope that you will read through them. It is a wonderful body of literature.

As I write this I have just posted Jātaka 10, the story of Bhaddiya. It is a charming story about the joy and happiness that being a Buddhist monk/practitioner can bring. And that brings me to a favorite topic of mine, and that is the cultivation of joy.

One reason that I started almost everything you see on this web site is a result of my dissatisfaction with the way meditation and the Buddhist path are usually taught. Like many people I spent years gamely struggling through retreats and maintaining a daily sitting practice. It felt like a thankless, Sysiphean task. And like most people I pretended to live that way out of love and graciousness. But frankly, I was mainly deceiving myself.

The good news is that the more I read the Buddha’s original teachings in the Pāli Canon, the more I realized that I was not practicing the way the Buddha taught. For example, the first 6 steps in his teaching of Mindfulness of Breathing (MN 118) are:

  1. Know when the breath is long.
  2. Know when the breath is short.
  3. Expand your awareness to experience the whole body.
  4. Calm and tranquilize the whole body.
  5. (Step 4 leads to) Experiencing joy.
  6. (Step 5 leads to) Experiencing happiness and contentment.

This is the core of the first phase of a meditation practice. It is your home base. Whenever things are not going well, either in your meditation or your life, this is where you return. It is a sanctuary, a safe and calm place, a protected harbor.

Now of course, this is not easy. This takes considerable time. But if you are only taught, as I was, to be with whatever arises, or, as in Zen, that nothing happens until you have the great breakthrough, not only do you not have the proper objective, it is a futile way to proceed.

The Buddha taught the gradual path. You get better at it over time. You develop serenity and stillness, and you use that serenity and stillness to watch ever more subtle movements of the mind. This leads to even greater serenity and stillness. Along the way you will experience the freedom of a happy, blissful non-self, and ultimately you will let go of all of that and attain the freedom of awakening.

That is always the objective. It is a happiness that does not depend on sense pleasure. Even a few precious moments of stillness are incredibly healing. They are a taste of the great peace that comes with awakening.

So you do not have to wait until some miracle happens, or simply learn to tolerate whatever comes up in the mind. The Buddha never taught either of those things. He taught us to cultivate, step-by-step, moments of great peace, contentment, and happiness, moments that finally become permanent. For Nirvaṇa is the only thing that is, in the end, permanent. And that is quite a statement. The Buddha’s great discovery was not the Noble Truth of suffering. It was that by understanding the Noble Truth of suffering that we can attain final, permanent bliss and happiness.

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