What is your biggest goal in life? To become rich? Make a lot of money? To get married and have a family? Depending on your age and circumstances, you may say, "to graduate from school," or "get a job."
In probing deeper inside a person, ultimately I think the answer is really "to be happy." If being happy is truly at the root of human desire, then it must be the reason why so many people work so hard, worry so much and struggle through each day.
Where can we find happiness? People assume it lies in "having a successful career," "raising a family," "making money," "buying nice things" or "having more leisure time." Does it really?
First, what is happiness? The dictionary defines happiness with words such as pleasure, exhilaration, bliss, contentment, enjoyment and satisfaction. We can certainly feel exhilaration at graduation from college, feel contentment at having raised a family, and enjoy retiring after many years of work. However upon closer examination, we see that after graduating from college, we worry about finding a job, after raising a family, we worry about being lonely, and after retiring, we worry about growing old. Happiness once grasped seems to slip away.
Sometimes, people confuse happiness with the expectation of happiness. Having fallen in love, it's easy to dream about the happy days that lay ahead once we are married. But marriage is no guarantee of a happy life. We are elated when we find a job, but once it starts, we face a new set of worries. This expectation is like walking in a desert and seeing a mirage of an oasis. Just the thought of drinking from its waters provides a certain pleasure, which alas, is only fleeting and never satisfying.
The Buddha observed that people are easily attracted to such appearances, although there is no substance behind them, like the mirage in the desert. We badly want to be happy, so we'll grasp at anything that promises it.
Yet, people are so firm in their belief that they know exactly what makes them happy-love, money, possessions, fame or power-they spend their whole lives chasing after it. So strong is their belief that even when they get what they want and don't find happiness, they think acquiring more is the key.
The Buddha told the story of a man, a widower, who left his son at home to go to work. When he returned, he discovered that his house had burned down and that the charred body of a child lay close by. The man cried and cried, and soon had the little body cremated. The ashes were put in a small pouch, which he carried everywhere.
Late one night, the man heard a knock at the door and asked, "Who's there?" A little voice said, "I am your son, Daddy, please let me in." The father answered, "My son is dead and I carry his ashes. You must be a naughty boy trying to play a trick on me." The man refused to unlock the door. The boy eventually left and never returned. Thus the father lost his son forever.
In telling this story, the Buddha warned people against becoming attached to their views, ideas and perceptions, which can become obstacles to the truth. To believe so strongly in things that make us happy, when they never provide lasting happiness, is the kind of attachment the Buddha spoke about.
The Buddha observed and taught that all of life is impermanent and constantly changing. We see this truth in the mirror everyday as we see ourselves aging. We see this truth in the temporary happiness we experience when we get what we want, but which swiftly disappears in our desire for something else. This means that we are not something permanent experiencing something permanent. Rather, we are something impermanent experiencing something impermanent. In this constantly changing universe, how can we ever attain lasting happiness?
In Buddhism, happiness is not the goal we should seek. Rather, our enlightenment or "awakening" is most important. Constantly looking for happiness in things that never truly make us happy means to live in a world of dreams and illusion, like a sleepwalker. Waking up from that dream world means seeing the true nature of life.
The true nature of the world is that we are all connected to one another, interdependent and One. It is an illusion to think we exist alone in life, only to satisfy our selfish desires. Rather, we create life together with the earth, the oceans and the sky. We create life together with each other. That is why we can't be happy alone. We cannot be happy if our loved ones are suffering. We cannot be happy if the earth is suffering. Your suffering is my suffering. Your happiness is my happiness.
Wake up to this truth and our life transforms from a self-centered existence to a life that reaches out to the world around us. Instead of being consumed with the desire for only our own happiness, our concern extends to the happiness of others. We no longer live for just ourselves, but we live for each other. Your suffering is my suffering. Your happiness is my happiness. Wake up from the dream world and truly begin living in a world of wisdom and compassion, the Pure Land, a place of true happiness.