Tag Archives: joy

Why is the Buddha Smiling?

Why, if there is so much suffering going on, is Buddha smiling?

Sculpture by Jen Brom

And how are we supposed to ever be truly happy and joyful when, as soon as we move beyond our own suffering, we are immediately assaulted with the huge amount of suffering going on in the world all around us?

My Son, Suffering Terribly from a Pitched Fit

In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching Thich Nhat Hanh discusses real love, one aspect of which is “karuna,” which means “the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows,” and could loosely be translated as “compassion,” but without the meaning of having to actually participate in the other’s feeling.

Hanh then explains how it is possible for the Buddha, and for us, to smile and be happy despite the suffering of others:

When I was a novice, I could not understand why, if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn’t he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha has enough understanding, calmness and strength; that is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to be aware of suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna is there. That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.

My first impulse is to feel rotten if I happen to be happy when I become aware that others are in pain. It feels wrong, selfish and uncaring to even consider dwelling in joy when others dwell in misery.

But if it’s true that we can only help from a position of strength? And if that strength comes from being tapped into a good place where we understand joy, love and wisdom? Perhaps that is the only chance we have to help pull someone over to the other side. Perhaps our smile of contentment and calm is the thing that can reassure the other person that there is something else in this world besides their suffering, and that as we are sharing our smile with them, the world will also share its joy.

Pure Joy, Freely Shared

What do you think? It is selfish to be happy while others suffer (as long as you are working, as Hanh says, to “transform the situation” with them)? Or is the only way to be helpful to keep one’s head above the ocean of tears so we don’t drown and become useless?

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The Pain of Joy

Shadows and Light - Grand Canyon, 2007

I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy lately, which keeps me mindful of sensory experience, the fleeting nature of thoughts, interbeing and the simultaneous possibilities of suffering and joy.  Our animal nature instinctively wants to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and so the idea that we might accept both of these in order to reach joy takes some getting used to.

Parenthood has taught me a lot about accepting the paradox of opposites emerging from the same situation, existing in the same space and time.  Among other mind-blowing revelations surrounding my first child’s appearance on this planet, it occurred to me that as I gave birth, I also gave death.  We cannot bring a person into the world without simultaneously condemning them to face their last breath someday.  The pain of joy!

So philosophically I’ve understood the idea of the connection between pain and pleasure, but my body finally truly got it the other evening.  I was driving to teach my Spanish class and mentally reviewing the events of the day, which included some wonderful news from several members of my family.  I began to feel proud, relieved, excited, happy.  Instead of judging these feelings as “good” or “pleasurable,” I just felt them as they welled up.  I quietly watched how my body was responding to these emotional thoughts.  (Somehow I kept driving too… not the best situation to get distracted by an awareness exercise, but that’s about the only quiet time I get these days.)  My eyes were tearing up, my chest was squeezing tightly, my breath was shallow and strained, my head felt like it was going to explode.  From my removed perspective, I realized that it felt exactly like grief.  This overwhelming wave of happiness resembled exactly my recent experiences with crushing sorrow over the loss of my Grandma, except that normally I would have labeled it “good” and so it would have felt amazing.  When it is about something “bad” then it feels awful.

I’m not sure what to do with this new physical awareness. Does “good” become tainted with “bad”?  Having seen the man behind that curtain, do they both become irrelevant?  Is there no longer pleasure or pain?  Can we trick ourselves into thinking “it’s all good!” and avoid pain forever?

The Overlook - Grand Canyon, 2007

Is there a new place to dwell, a mountaintop above these paradoxical dualities, where we can see something more true and real than animal emotions and senses which flash hard and random like lightening through our conscious minds?

A Big Resolution

On this New Year’s Eve, I have lots of small resolutions I could list: projects I mean to finish, people I mean to keep in better touch with, ways I mean to take better care of my family.

But if I could just make one resolution come true it would be this: to develop a core of wise calmness with which to respond to people and situations instead of my current strategy, which is to give into the temptation to lose my cool and stomp around hollering like a crazy person.

I fully sympathize with the pressure I’m under on a daily basis.  I frequently have many people clamoring, often not so quietly or politely, for my attention and my assistance.  I can (after the fact) look back at myself in a certain situation, say, with two pots working on the stove, my husband calling to have me edit a story, my three year old refusing to listen to his 8 year old sister’s demand that he stop whacking her with a dinosaur, all the while having a screaming baby beside me, and I can say, wow, no wonder you started hollering when one of the kids wrinkled their nose and said, “Ew! I don’t WANT that for dinner!”

But the reality is, I don’t want to excuse myself, however much I may understand that my angry response is natural.  Stressful situations are a part of everyone’s life.  When my kids are grown there will still be something that tries to push me over the edge.  I want a new response.  One that might not fix everything, but which will truly be the best response possible, and one that I won’t have to feel like crap about afterwards.

A few years ago, I went through a dark emotional time where I was intensely jealous of my husband.  I used to have to get out of bed and take my stewing to the living room, because I was absolutely consumed with pain throughout my heart and my body.  I sat with the horrible feelings, I wrote about it, I talked to people, I prayed, I desperately tried everything.  I have no idea what did the trick, but that nasty agonizing jealousy went away.

I believe the same thing can happen with my anger.  If I can only have one big change this year, I want it to be a connection to Oneness so deep that love and joy cannot help but infuse themselves into the world through my heart.

From Essential Sufism edited by James Fadiman & Robert Frager

“Some Israelites insulted Jesus one day as he walked through the marketplace.

He answered them only by repeating prayers in their name.

Someone said to him, “You prayed for these men.  Do you not feel anger at their treatment of you?”

He answered, “I could spend only what I carry in my purse.” — Attar