Ricard’s “Happiness”

As much as I enjoy the writings of Matthieu Ricard, in part because of his combination of a science background and his vocation as a Buddhist monk, I wish his 2006 book was titled other than Happiness. Perhaps his English-language publisher insisted on the title. The original French, published in 2003, is Plaidoyer pour le bonheur, literally, Plea for Happiness, which is more palatable. Instead of his jolly portrait on the French cover, one could almost cringe at the prospect of a yellow smiley on the English. But it is safely plain.

The word happiness has been much abused, as Heidegger prophetically noted in his Discourse on Thinking in 1959, referring to modern science and technology:

Through this atomic business a new era of happiness is envisioned. Nuclear science, too, does not stand idly by. It publicly proclaims this era of happiness. Thus in July of this year at Lake Constance, eighteen Nobel Prize winners stated in a proclamation: “Science [and that is modern natural science] is a road to a happier human life.”

But Ricard knows these nuances. He is careful to distinguish well-being and euphoria, pleasure and happiness, and, especially, the experience of suffering versus objective suffering.

It bears emphasizing, and Ricard mentions this though not emphatically, that modern Westerners bring upon themselves degrees, scenarios, and experiences of suffering that are contrived by their perceptions and do not amount to physical and socio-economic suffering that is objective.

As with many books informed by Tibetan Buddhism, Ricard follows neurology and psychology closely, especially experiments on meditators. He decides that optimism and pessimism, the use of time, perceptions of self, others, and the universe, are all factors in deciding what happiness is.

Ricard mentions that 15 per cent of Americans experience loneliness.

Anyone who cuts himself off from others and the universe, trapped in the bubble of his own ego, feels alone in the middle of a crowd. But those who understand the interdependence of all phenomena are not lonely; the hermit, for example, feels in harmony with the entire universe.

Ricard identifies ethics as a key to happiness, not the modern view of ethics as in what to do that is right or wrong, good or evil, but ethics in terms of what to be as a person, a human being. This trajectory takes us directly to the question of what is death, and how we can approach death not as the cessation of things we do but the completion of what we are. The author quotes “the Tibetan hermit and wandering bard Shabkar” and concludes with a testimony of his own life.

Some premises are not fully explored, but the book is a popularization, after all. There are existential and what Ricard would consider “pessimistic” sentiments that need expression in this debate. Religious faith can curtail human situations and simply present a given palette of “beyond happiness and suffering” (to cite a subheading in the book). Happiness and suffering are not absolutes of human good and evil, and the enormous task of life is to reconcile them with “mere” contentment or equanimity.

Products of thought

In an essay “Total Action Without Regret,” J. Krishnamurti argues that everything around us, every aspect of culture and environment in which we are born and socialized — “the world of politics, the world of economics, the world of business, of social morality and all the religious structures” — are ultimately products of thought. We might substitute “products of human contrivance.” Likewise our relationship to all this is the product of our own thinking and feeling.

This is not entirely true — at a certain level. We cannot propose the radical ontology of Bishop Berkeley and dismiss everything around us as unreal, or even propose the more widespread tenet of New Age thought that since everything is identical in essence, we should just get over our negative thoughts and feelings and make progress, whatever that means.

A fine line between subjectivity and objective suffering and misery ought to compel us to probe into this dichotomy of mind and everything else. The philosophical question as to why there is something rather than nothing resolves itself existentially into “Why this something rather than that something.” We aren’t going to hide in the notion that it’s all in the mind. As the Zen tale goes, a student was talking at length about how everything is the product of thought, everything is empty and without reality, etc. Suddenly, the master slapped the student’s shoulder loudly with a bamboo stick. “And I suppose that pain you are feeling is not real either?” he asked the student.

Suffering is surely the touchstone for the discussion of what is objective and subjective. Popular religion understands this existential dilemma but masks it by providing doctrine that “pre-absorbs” suffering, stifling the experience and dismissing it as a necessity of the human condition. If we suffer starvation or are dying of disease, we can still see the comfort of others contrasted to our plight and feel anguish at that contrast. How much more so if we perceive that our plight is in part due to conditions created by human contrivance. The first response is subjective. We sense the temporality of self. We sense the turning of the karmic wheel. But the second sense is objective, and in this sense we will have to work hard to realize what is the true cause.

If we have consciousness such that we can alter behavior, expectation, reflection, and action (versus animal consciousness), then we give lie to the notion that, after all, suffering has always existed and will always be with us.

When physical suffering becomes individualized in our minds, we see that it does no good to console the sufferer with nostrums of psychology or spiritual liberation. Put mildly, being in intense physical or psychological pain has the tendency to obliterate thought and reasoning, let alone equanimity.

Equanimity is a more realistic term for happiness. To achieve equanimity means foregoing action. We cannot act with forethought, and we cannot think with equanimity. We cannot have equanimity if we have desire, especially the desire to change external things, to change the things around us. This does not equate to amorality or apathy but rather points to the idea that we must first and foremost undertake the rigorous task of understanding the mind, of identifying where our assumptions, opinions and perceptions come from. Then we will be able to place suffering in perspective, let alone place the external world around us in perspective. For perspective, not thought, is what orders things around us, or, rather, what orders our minds so that the things around us take their places.

To understanding mind requires suspending thought, abiding in silence, long and deep silence from which will come the shuffling, the remix, the that-which-is-necessary-and-no-other.

That is how we can take up Krishnamurti’s challenge to understand how society and culture and the world around us is very real in the sense of pain and suffering, yet is contrivance and construed thought. Only then can we achieve equanimity and justify action.