How do I wish all beings to be happy when there is unavoidable suffering in the world?

A student writes:

I still don’t really know what my ‘Heart Wish‘* is. Of course I wish everyone to be happy but that is not the nature of things. There is suffering. How do I wish for everyone to be happy when ALL of my experience and understanding tells me that that is not the nature of human life on earth?

Lama Shenpen replies:

The Heart Wish that we seek to discover within us is not the thing wished for, but the wish itself. The expression ‘heart wish’ could be understood to be referring to some dream we long for, but in the context of the Living the Awakened Heart Training [the training in meditation, reflection and insight all Lama Shenpen’s students are engaging in,] it means the longing itself, the longing within our heart for happiness for ourselves and others.

It is because we long for happiness for ourselves that we long for the happiness of others and we long for the wisdom and knowledge that would enable us to win such happiness for ourselves and others. It is as if we intuitively sense that something is fundamentally wrong. Things do not have to be like this. If we could somehow discover and understand the truth, we would be able to put things right.

We long for truth because we realise that we do not know fundamental things about the nature of our life and experience that we would need to know in order to be happy, and in order to find meaning and satisfaction in life. Without knowing truth from falsehood, how can we know that any happiness that we find is true and lasting happiness?

So we are left simply with the feeling of unease and longing for lasting happiness and knowledge. It is not as if we have any choice about this actually. Whether we want it or not, whether we admit it or not, however much we try to ignore or dismiss it, that wish is always there. It is part of what awareness is. It is what being a person is. We cannot escape this wish. It is our nature. It is the nature of all beings and maybe also the nature of the Universe itself. Who knows what there is to discover once we really get going!

There would be no point in linking in to this heart wish if it did not lead to liberation. So we need conviction about the path to liberation. We may get that from being inspired by others who have trodden this path before us. We may get it from trying the path out a little and finding that it seems to lead somewhere. It is as if we pick up the scent of something and find ourselves following it even without being quite sure why.

In my experience, it is a path that seems to lead on and on into ever greater clarity and happiness. But you have to really trust the path that is opening up to you and that only comes about through realising that only this path promises the fulfilment of the deepest heart wish. Every other pursuit leads to misery.

The Buddha was always very careful to point out that the nature of human life, in fact the nature of every form of life in every dimension of existence, is fraught with suffering. The best we can hope for is to grow old and die. He did not suggest that there was some kind of Utopia to work for. He did not say that if we do this, that, or the other, everything will turn out fine. He said the opposite. He said that even what seems to be happiness has to end.

The only solution therefore is to wake up. Using the analogy of the dream, he pointed out that once we have realised dreams to be dreams we waken to a different ‘reality’. This different reality is the one we are seeking to discover and is what our heart wish seeks to discover. It is not that this reality has to be created. It is already reality. What we need to do is to see it properly. So the task is to notice deluded ways of thinking and acting that create a false ‘reality’ and then to give them up, so that we awaken to reality, which can then be seen and enjoyed.

You may ask how this helps us bear the sufferings of others. How can we be happy in the undeluded state while others still suffer? The answer seems to be that we can be happy even though we are sad. There is a kind of poignancy about seeing that everyone is essentially the same, primordially perfect and yet they do not realise it. Knowing they are fundamentally ok means we are inspired to show them the truth in whatever way we can, confident that once they see the true nature of their being and experience, they too will be filled with joy.

Even though I am not in a position yet to talk from first hand experience about the enlightened state, I can imagine that somehow. Even from where I am now, I can sense that must be how it is. I already find my heart filled with sadness at the sufferings and delusions of myself and others. That sadness doesn’t feel bad like when it all feels hopeless. It feels like a fullness. It’s a feeling of love and sympathy for myself and others, and it’s that feeling that prompts me to follow the path to Awakening and motivates me to work to awaken others, too.

It must be the sadness of compassion, I suppose. I would not want to not be able to feel it. It is different from the sadness of frustration and anger, the sadness of depression and despair. So there seems to be two kinds of sadness, one that is suffering and one that is not.

The Buddha’s path to Awakening is about waking beings up to a state of liberation. This does not depend on human life evolving into anything in particular. It’s a process independent of the limited view of history we have. Without changing society at all, all beings could be enlightened here and now. And in a timeless sense they are already enlightened.

It is possible to have quite a lot of happiness in a human life in samsara. The trick is not to be too attached to things, not to mind things going wrong, and our not getting our own way. Sometimes we can scrape through life with very little suffering by being like this. But the fear is that the suffering will get too much for us to shrug off in this way, isn’t it? We learn to let go of a lot of the things that cause unnecessary suffering but there is always sickness, old age and death. We always hope we won’t have too much sickness and that old age and death will be kind to us. But there are no guarantees are there?

That is why samsara is said to always lead to suffering. It is not that there is no happiness in samsara; it’s not that we can’t minimise our suffering by adopting a sensible attitude. But that is not the same as Awakening. Positive ways of thinking are the path in the sense that it is the beginning of the path, but that in itself is not enough. That approach is limited in what it can achieve in terms of happiness. It could even limit the amount of happiness we are able to experience, because we are so busy trying not to suffer disappointment that we try not to want or like things any more. That is a very impoverished approach to life.

We cannot hope to achieve much in terms of bringing about the lasting happiness of others. We can be kind and compassionate without any hope that this will be the end of people’s suffering. We have to be prepared to just go on being kind and compassionate forever. This is always going to be needed even though we cannot make others happy. We are limited at present because we do not really believe we have any power to help much. But the Buddhas say our power to help others is limitless.

We don’t believe it because we don’t understand the true nature of our being, or of others, or of the Universe. Why should we believe it? It all boils down to whether we believe there is a path to Awakening or not. Or rather it is a matter of being prepared to give it a go, to see if what Awakened beings have said is the case; is so or not. We can start in a small way looking at our own experience. Is what they are saying about our present experience true or not?

If it is maybe what they say about Awakening is true too. I find it very reassuring when I discover truths within myself that are irrefutable. Then I reflect on it a bit and realise this is what the Buddha said, but I hadn’t really understood what he had said until the insight arose in my own experience.

The wisdom of taking Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha helps one discriminate about how one spends one’s time because one realises life is short and we need to spend every minute focused on the path to Awakening. Why waste time chasing all and everything when that does not lead to Awakening?

Lama Shenpen Hookham

*Heart Wish – is what Lama Shenpen calls the chitta in the Living the Awakened Heart Training – it’s the seat of our deepest longings and sense of truth. It relates to our inner drive, volition, aspiration, dedication, commitment etc. It’s the drive that comes from the Indestructible Heart Essence itself, our Buddha Nature. There’s a curious paradox here, we need this drive, the Heart Wish in order to connect to and align with the Indestructible Heart Essence, yet the source of its power is no other than the inherent power of the Indestructible Heart Essence itself.

Lama Shenpen’s students are all studying the Living the Awakened Heart Training – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training, that’s open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at www.ahs.org.uk/training

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