A Zen Buddhist Perspective on Happiness

Today I would like to discuss three important questions about the states of happiness and unhappiness we experience every day, even every minute of our lives: Where are we?  What keeps us trapped here? How do we escape?

Where Are We?

About 2,500 years ago, a young man was desperate to discover what it is about human nature that results in the seemingly never-ending cycle of dissatisfaction and unhappiness that pervades life.  After consulting the experts of his day and being disappointed with their answers, he decided he would have to find the answer himself.  So he embarked on a period of deep introspection into his own mind and came to a rather stunning realization.  As he traveled around teaching others about what he discovered, he became known as Buddha, the awakened one.

Amazingly, Buddha’s description of the nature of human suffering, and the potential for release from suffering, corresponds quite well with recent science in the burgeoning field of neuroscience and brain research.  While my focus today is not to detail the findings of neuroscience, and there is certainly not time to do so, I believe a few key points will be helpful for understanding our quest for happiness.

  • Your brain contains over 100 billion neurons and each neuron has about five thousand connections to other neurons.
  • A typical neuron fires between 5 and 50 times every second. You could take note of this constant brain activity during our brief silent meditation a few minutes ago.
  • The number of possible combinations of 100 billion neurons firing or not is approximately 10 to the millionth power – that’s a 1 followed by a million zeros! To put this quantity in perspective, the number of atoms in the whole universe is “only” about 10 to the 8th
  • Your brain interacts with other systems in your body, which in turn interact with the environment outside your body, plus it is shaped by the mind.
  • Your mind is made by your brain, body, the natural world, human culture, and by the mind itself.
  • The mind and brain interact with each other so profoundly that they are best understood as a single, co-dependent, mind/brain system.

Of course, we don’t yet know from scientific research exactly how the brain makes the mind, or to say it another way, how the mind uses the brain to make the mind.

But I’ll just mention a few scientific findings that illustrate the mind/brain interdependency.  Research clearly shows that as the brain develops in infancy and childhood, so does the mind; that subtle shifts in brain chemistry will alter mood, concentration, and memory; that using powerful magnets to suppress the emotion-processing limbic system of the brain changes the way people make moral judgments.  Even some spiritual experiences have been found to correlate with the brain’s neural activity.

The brain that we, this particular animal we call homo sapiens, are endowed with is the result of millions of years of evolution of both our species and the various predecessor species.  Its fundamental purpose over those millions of years was to ensure the preservation of the species, the passing on of genes.  Over the last 100,000 years, let alone the last 10,000, very little if any change in the structure and functioning of the human brain has occurred.  This is important as we will see.

Where we are then, is right here, now, in this moment of living with the brain/mind that our species is endowed with by evolution.  The result is that, although life has many pleasures and joys, it also contains recurring unhappiness, discomfort, sorrow, anxiety, and pain.  As the hymn we sang this morning said: “we are made for joy and woe.”

What Keeps Us Trapped Here?

This is, we might say, the unfortunate side effect of three key strategies that all animals, including us human beings, evolved to ensure the survival of their species.  Ironically, for sheer survival these strategies work great – we’re still here after all – but they are also the vehicles of human suffering.  The strategies are:

  • Create a boundary between self and the world to react to and defeat external threats.
  • Create mental stability within an ever-changing environment to maintain internal systems within tight ranges.
  • Hold onto fleeting pleasures and escape inevitable pains in order to approach opportunities and avoid threats.

Each of these strategies sets off internal brain alarms that lead to specific mind states and behaviors.  Most animals don’t have nervous systems complex enough to allow these alarms to become pervasive and grow into significant distress.  But our more complex brain/mind system is fertile ground for a harvest of suffering. 

Only we humans worry about the future, regret the past, and blame ourselves for the present.  We get frustrated and unhappy when we can’t have what we want, and disappointed and unhappy when what we like comes to an end.  We get upset about being in pain, angry about dying, sad about facing yet another day in which we are unhappy.

This kind of suffering - that encompasses most of our unhappiness and distress – is constructed by the brain.  And that phrase, “constructed by the brain,” is the key to the Buddha’s deep insight into the human condition that leads to suffering and that also opens up a path for release from suffering. 

Buddha’s teaching says that the conditions that cause our suffering and unhappiness are not inherent in actual reality, but rather are constructed or created by the brain/mind.  As Shohaku Okumura said in the earlier reading:

“The world we live in is the world we create, based on how our mind encounters the myriad things in our lives.  We cannot prevent our minds from creating the world as it does, but it is possible to realize that the world of our creation does not reflect true reality.”

How Do We Escape?

Now we come to my third question - how do we escape the seemly never-ending cycle of dissatisfaction and unhappiness that pervades our lives? 

As I began a few minutes ago, I described the Buddha’s realization and insight into the mind, into human nature, as stunning.  By that I meant that it is stunning that 2,500 years ago, his insight parallels contemporary scientific knowledge about those three key strategies of the brain/mind that evolution has bequeathed to us human beings.

  1. Our brain/mind system creates or constructs a boundary between us and the external environment, when in reality there is no boundary – this is the Buddhist teaching of no separation, of oneness.
  1. Our brain/mind creates stability, constancy, and permanence whereas in reality everything is constantly changing, EVERYTHING – this is the Buddhist principal of impermanence or transiency.
  1. Our brain/mind system holds onto fleeting pleasures and seeks to escape from threats and pain – This is the Buddhist teaching of clinging or acquisitiveness as fundamental a cause of suffering.

These three core Zen Buddhist teachings that reflect actual reality: oneness, impermanence, and clinging, are self-evident and observable to both personal introspection and scientific inquiry.

So then, how can we escape from being trapped in the suffering created by human nature, by the constructions of the mind/brain system.  In a very real sense, there is no escape from our homo sapien brain/mind system.  It would be like a fish trying to escape from the water and negate its fish nature. 

There is a profound saying from ancient Indian/Hindu wisdom that predates Buddha’s time.  It’s written in the Bhagavad Gita:  “The mind is strong, turbulent, and unyielding; as difficult to tame as the wind.”

Wow, this seems like bad news!

We can’t beat it into submission or eliminate it. It is not possible to erase human nature that has evolved over millions of years.  It’s with us, kind of like a rather unpleasant constant traveling companion.  And ironically, fighting with it, just reinforces its power and control.

However, as John Tarrant said in the first reading, we can take an indirect approach and open the door to happiness by subtly subverting or undermining unhappiness.

So, Buddha’s prescription for curing this seemingly intractable problem is that, while we can’t get rid of it, we can develop a different relationship to this unpleasant companion.  The Buddhist path for the building a different relationship with our evolutionary brain/mind system, for undermining unhappiness and suffering, has three general components.

They are:  Cultivate virtue; Practice mindfulness; Develop wisdom

Cultivating virtue means to cool the fires that drive us to desperately cling to pleasure and run from painful experience, that fuel greed and hatred.  Cool the fires in order to live with integrity, love and compassion.

Practicing mindfulness involves using meditation to steady and concentrate the mind in order to see through its confusions and misrepresentations of reality, and to finally be right here, now, accepting our reality as it is.

Developing wisdom means to experience liberating insight into the true nature of reality.  An insight that is beyond a mere mental idea or concept, that is experienced with your whole mind and body that actually is one with everything.

Through this kind of practice, we build a different relationship with our unpleasant companion.  We can now say, “yes, I see you, I know you are there, but I you no longer control my thoughts and actions, I can let go of you and sit on the ground of actual reality where true happiness and contentment fill the minutes of my life.