A Zen’s-Eye View: Four practices that cause happiness

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Happiness is not something that is visited upon us by an external being. Atisha, an ancient Buddhist teacher, described four practices that we can undertake to insure that we realize happiness under all conditions, even if those conditions are tragic. But, like all Buddhist practice, we have to do the work ourselves, because the grace that brings happiness is a natural result of how we live our lives.

The first practice is to build up an unshakeable pattern of expressing the teachings of compassion in every act of body, speech and mind. When we fully invest ourselves in doing good for others, we create a world that is based in kindness and generosity; we build a habitual response of helpful intention in every situation. We no longer ask how each situation will benefit us; instead, we find ways to massage the situation to increase the happiness of others. In Zen, the sign that we have done this is that we gain stability in our meditation practice.

The second method is to lay down harmful acts. In the second method we make an effort to recognize and acknowledge the harm we have caused in the past. When the harms have been identified, we feel deep regret for what we have done, or neglected to do. Then we resolve to refrain from repeating those harmful acts. In the second method, we cut through the self-deception that has locked us into the victim position. For years, I blamed my family for abusing me, and my ex-partners for using me. That blaming was based in self-deception and it supported my denial of the harm that I had caused in those situations. In the second method we let go of past harmful acts completely.

The third method to realize that happiness has to do with training not to repeat harmful acts that we have recognized. We train to undo our conditioning so it no longer controls our words and actions. For example, I learned harmful defensive maneuvers in my natal family. In method three, I train to stop using those obsolete maneuvers in all situations. This training takes the form of zazen (sitting meditation) and basing my daily life on the Zen precepts of moral behavior. To the extent that I can do this, I can “cease all harm.”

Method four is to offer my life unconditionally all day long to whatever situation is surrounding me. For me, it means keeping the zendo schedule that I’ve posted (see www.zenwords.ca/march_2011.pdf), it means training within my vows as best I can, it means sitting, standing, walking and lying down with awareness of mind so I can recognize and let go of harmful thoughts, notice beneficial thoughts and then figure out the best way and time to act on those beneficial thoughts.

Suggested practice: When you do something good, try to let go of self-congratulations or righteousness. When you make a mistake, let go of self-punishment or guilt. Instead, simply commit yourself to refraining from such actions in the future. Tune in to whatever arises as a way to reconnect with awareness and kindness.

This column is a long series of short essays exploring the meaning of the Lojong Slogans. It is inspired by the work of Judy Lief.

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. She can be reached at 250-428-3390.