Western philosophy and Buddhism on the relationship between goodness and happiness Barry Magid May 16th 2015

Download Talk

We all face two basic questions in our lives: How can I be good? The second: How can I be happy? And as we begin to explore these questions, they immediately give rise to a third, which is: How does the first relate to the second? Are they compatible? Are they in competition with one another? We could do a very long, ongoing graduate seminar in the history of philosophy and religion and psychology and ethics, looking at how, throughout history, in various times in various cultures, people have gone about answering those two questions, and particularly how they go about understanding the relationship between goodness and happiness.

People typically start with one and then try to adapt to the other. Plato started with an investigation of the good. Aristotle was unusual, and he started with an investigation of the nature of happiness. Most religions are defined by their conception of the good. Certainly, in western religion, the good is identified with following God's commandments in one form or another. And very often, these commandments are at odds with our ordinary daily notions of happiness, if we equate it with our pleasure, particularly our sexual pleasure, but in general there are all sorts of ways in which goodness is defined in terms of prohibitions. In fact, you might say one of the main reasons people think up the idea of heaven is that there is such an inherent disjunction between doing good and being happy, that we have to create an afterlife in which things are finally going to get balanced out.

It's very possible to go to extremes if you privilege either goodness or happiness at the expense of the other. Typically, we think of goodness as reining in our desires, as if our happiness is, if unchecked, going to lead us to want to get and grab as much as possible, often at the expense of our neighbor. And it's certainly easy to see that the unchecked pursuit of happiness and forms of pleasure of possession could lead to greed and selfishness and dominance and all sorts of things, and that we can easily see the ways in which we can become a monster in the service of the unchecked pursuit of stuff.

But we have to be equally cautious that we don't become monsters in the pursuit of goodness. There's certainly the version of goodness gone awry that we can see in things like the Inquisition, where we become so certain of our own notion of goodness that we feel justified in doing anything to anyone who doesn't share it. But there are also much more subtle versions of ways we can become monsters of goodness, and I would say that, for our purposes, they are ways in which the whole question of our own personal happiness, or even our own personal needs, become delegitimized in the service of goodness, or in our case, practice.

I've encountered quite a few people who grew up in very religious or very political or very socially-conscious households, where the message they got very early on was that wanting things for themselves was selfish and the only legitimate desire one could have was to help others. I think this is a kind of perversion of goodness that permeates a great deal of religious practice, and it leads to what I've called the version of vowing to save all beings minus one, where we have no notion of the legitimacy of our own needs, and can only serve the needs of others.

I've written about how I think even Joko was someone who often taught in that kind of manner, when she talked about love as something that is given totally and unconditionally, without expecting anything in return. This leads to people who are quite capable of giving love, but who deny that they ever need it. This imbalance rarely works out very well, and it becomes even masochistic or prude-like, one way or the other.

How about our practice and Buddhism? As much as I would like to do a magical mystery tour of the entire western philosophical history here, we probably should talk a little bit about Buddhism. Buddhism, of course, does not directly address the idea of happiness. It starts at the opposite end, with the problem of suffering, and the problem of suffering, basically, we can say, comes from the pursuit of happiness. In Buddhism, the problem is that happiness, as we usually think about it, is predicated on having and holding onto something, whether we think of it as an internal state of mind, such as getting into a certain state of calmness, or equanimity, or, if you want to be fancy, enlightenment. It’s about obtaining some internal condition and staying there, or getting some stable form of life where you can feel happy and secure. Buddhism's basic message is that both of those projects are doomed to failure, and the attempt to create or hold onto anything must fail, because all dharmas, all things, are intrinsically empty, or impermanent, and suffering is precisely the attempt to control or hold onto the uncontrollable and the impermanent.

This basically creates a model that says you need to stop doing these compulsive, grabby, clingy kinds of things, and let things go, where there is no direct pursuit of getting happiness, but there is a belief of an endlessly failing project. The original precepts, for the Buddhist community, were organized around this idea that we should live our lives in accordance with this relationship of impermanence: Having no fixed possessions, no fixed personal relationships, and no fixed abode, and where the community is of homeless, mendicant monks. I've often said this is based on the principle that if you ain't got nothing you ain't got nothing to lose. So it doesn't speak very directly about happiness. But what's interesting to our discussion, is that the end of suffering creates, as its by-product, an ethics, because our ethical dilemmas are presumed to arise from our failure to realize the impermanent nature of things. And so our ethical dilemmas arise out of one form or another of grasping, of imagining things are separate and permanent, and "I can get ahold of my pile at the expense of you and your pile." So in an interesting way, the ethics grow out of that kind of realization of emptiness and mutual interdependence and karma.

Personally, I think that we're not really here simply to end suffering. I think that we are, all of us, actively attempting, one way or another, to be happy, and happiness is not going to be just a matter of "Stop beating your head against the wall." We want it to have a positive quality, not simply the absence of something. I modified our meal chants recently with that in mind, where we previously used to say "Fourth, to support our life, we take this food," where food is instrumental and utilitarian, if not medicinal, in that kind of model. I changed that to, "Fourth, to enjoy our life, we take this food." We should take pleasure in it, and the taking pleasure in it is not a guilty, sneaky pleasure, but it is, in some way, very basic to what we're doing. We want our practice, in some very deep sense, to be a flavor enhancer. We want practice to generate things like delight and appreciation and gratitude, deep enjoyment about our life and how it is and the way the world is.

Joko's idea of practice, in a sense, was geared to just noticing, moment after moment, how we don't do any of those things. Basically, she said that moment after moment, we're essentially saying to ourselves, "This isn't it. This isn't it. This isn't it. My nose itches. My knee hurts. My mind is wandering. The room is too hot. The person next to me smells a little bit." Whatever it is, there's a kind of complaint about life that is a constant stream of our existence. And so her idea of practice was to notice, moment after moment, that sense of rejection and resistance.

The important move is that we're not attempting to stop doing those things, but to make those moments themselve it. That's our life: those itches, my knee hurts, I'm thinking too much. All these thoughts, feelings, they're just stuff, they're just the moment. There's nothing wrong with any of it. We want our practice, in a certain sense, to make all these things that we normally think of as intrusions or problems to be the very flowers of life, the way Philip Larkin said that "Deprivation is for me, what daffodils were for Wordsworth." We need to take the so-called negatives of our life and turn them into the very object of our attention and appreciation. I do think that we want this to end up with a positive valence at the end. It's not as if we are aiming for a great and final neutrality about everything. We're certainly not sitting, I hope, to cultivate a kind of toughness or indifference where we just train ourselves to sit through anything no matter how painful or boring. There has to be some sense that we're doing this because we enjoy it.

I hope we can enjoy our practice and our lives together.

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.