Thursday, December 11, 2008

Things That Make You Go Hmmmmm….Advent 2008

As a part of my Advent devotionals this day, the following reading prompted reflection:

From Lama Surya Das, The Big Questions, How to Find Your Own Answers To Life’s Essential Mysteries (NY: Rodale Publishers, 2007), the following consideration:

A Tibetan lama once told me that the main problem with worldly people is that they are constantly seeking happiness and fulfillment outside themselves, where it cannot be found. Epicurus thought that a beautiful righteous and wise life was both the cause and the product of happiness. Plato famously said that the happiest man was the one who had no malice in his soul. Buddha himself further outlined what he called the five kinds of happiness:
  • The happiness of the sense of pleasure
  • The happiness from giving and sharing, including both external virtuous acts and mental states and attitudes
  • The happiness, inner peace and bliss arising from intensely concentrated states of meditative consciousness concomitant with purity of mind
  • The happiness and fulfillment coming from insightful wisdom and profound understanding.
    Nirvanic happiness, everlasting bliss and contentment, serenity, beatitude, and oneness
What I find interesting in this list of five kinds of happiness is how reductionist our American consumer culture’s approach to happiness is. We focus heavily on the first – seeking pleasure, avoiding pain. We tell ourselves that our possessions make us happy and we are willing to work ourselves into poor states of health to have the money to buy those possessions. We overeat, overmedicate ourselves and overextend our budgets seeking happiness. And only once a year do we even seriously consider a second source of happiness – giving and sharing, but rarely due to internal mental states that are happy. We give because our consumer advertising industry conditionalizes our sense of ourselves and prompts us to give out of fear of loss of face and guilt when we fail to live into conventional imperatives. Where the Buddha is pointing toward five kinds of happiness, we settle for one, two at most.

Ironically, it’s precisely the focus on the surface – the superficiality of consumerism – and the constant state of distraction that our consumer goods provide us that prevents us from meditating, intentionally engaging reflection out of which insightful wisdom arises. And it’s our attachment to the perception of happiness that our consumer goods can provide us that prevent true Nirvanic happiness and a sense of interconnected oneness that Buddha taught was the ultimate good of the Noble Path.

I often ask my students, “If our lives of privilege really make us happy, why do we spend so much time, money and effort distracting ourselves from them? Why do we numb ourselves to our supposedly happy lives? “ Lama Surya Das provides an insight on this: “[H]appiness is part of our natural state, obscured only by attachments that veil our radiant, innate nature and limit our potential. The Hevajra Tantra teaches, ‘We are all Buddhas by nature; it is only adventitious observations which veil that fact.’ What we seek, we are. It is all within. This is the Buddha’s secret.”


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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