A Zen’s-Eye View: Slogan 38: Don’t use pain for your own happiness

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This saying is the last of 15 slogans in the Lojong teachings that are about arresting common human traits that impede spiritual practice in everyday life. If we fail to pay attention to these 15 slogans, we curtail our spiritual training practices, and won’t derive benefit for self and others from those practices.

The final slogan in this section reminds us of the human tendency to gain happiness that depends upon the suffering of others. It tells us to be alert to the habit of wishing for the failure of others because we expect to benefit from their misfortune. We hope that someone else will lose, so that we can win. We develop the dog-eat-dog or your-pain-my-gain mentality that is most obvious in politics.

This slogan is really about exploitation — that is, about taking advantage of others to maintain wealth and privilege. European colonizers built empires all over the world by ignoring the spirit of this slogan. If we apply its principle of generosity to our attitude to Earth we would give up the habit of take, take, take, and drop our blindness to the consequences of self-serving action.

It is embarrassing to recognize the extent to which we base our own happiness on the pain of others, and when we do, our so-called “happiness” is threatened and begins to ring hollow. So we cover up this reality in a cloud of vague ignorance. We act as though our good fortune is our due and has nothing to do with anyone else’s problems or suffering. But often, in fact, our own happiness and the suffering of others are inextricably interconnected. Even the orange we enjoy with breakfast might have been a source of suffering to a migrant worker who contracted disease from the pesticides the orchard owners sprayed to insure large profits.

According to this slogan, if our happiness is based on the suffering of others it cannot be true happiness because it is tainted, flimsy and dependent on external conditions.  True happiness is free of external conditions. It is a state of mind that can persist under all conditions, and it is developed through spiritual practices that foster generosity, kindness and selfless service in our families and in our community. Ask any volunteer and he or she will report that working for the benefit of others has brought more joy than working for their own happiness.

So once again, as in so many other slogans, the habit of putting ourselves first and looking out for number one proves to be a completely dysfunctional approach. It is based on winning while others lose, and on false hope. Happiness that depends on conditions will disappear when conditions change. Happiness that comes from developing generosity and kindness will persist under all conditions.

Today’s practice: Whether you think of yourself as privileged or as underprivileged, contemplate the effect of buying into the paradigm that increasing your own happiness depends upon decreasing the happiness of others.

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. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-3390.