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  • Writer's pictureStanislas Wang-Genh

Happiness... who doesn't aspire to it?


It was during a summer camp at the Zen temple of La Gendronnière that I had heard: "Even a man tying a rope to a beam to hang himself, aspires to happiness". In the dojo, dead silence. The lips were detached, the eyes were crinkled like dried leaves and the Zen master who had just pronounced this sentence was in the middle of teaching about suffering, life and death, I don't know... all that is linked. In any case, we recognize the style: sharp as the blade of Manjushri*, striking as the mallet that hits the Han**.


*Bodhisattva of wisdom who holds the sword that cuts illusions

**the wooden block that a monk hits with a mallet to announce the beginning of zazen


Of course, this raises questions. So I wondered if the happiness he was talking about and to which we all aspire absolutely, implied the end of suffering, therefore a lasting and deep state.


Happiness... here is a word that stands out from the others and that we use all the time. We would like to reach it at all costs, without even knowing its deep meaning.

Since the beginning of my journey, a lot of people have asked me, with a touch of sarcasm, of course, the secret formula of happiness. Well yes, a Zen monk must know. What a strange wise man he would be otherwise.

I will certainly disappoint this same bunch of people by answering that, like them, I aspire to it with the same intensity and that the fact that I am a monk does not give me direct access to happiness. But perhaps my experience in Zen as well as the teachings I have received within the community allow me to share my experience today.


First of all, what do we mean by the word happiness? Recourse to the world of words. The dictionaries speak roughly of good fortune, favorable luck, events that bring some satisfaction.

I had fun asking people around me what this word meant to them. There was everything: to be able to realize one's desires, to experience strong sensations, the simple things in life that make one feel good, to feel good about oneself, in confidence, to feel alive at any moment in life, success, family, youth, health, etc.

All this corresponds quite well to the definition given by the dictionaries. We are talking about a relative happiness, I guess.


But if you ask a practitioner of the path, he will express himself in a more absolute dimension. Besides, Buddhist texts do not use the word happiness very much. One can read more formulas such as: liberation from suffering, completeness, peaceful joy, deep peace, end of samsara or Nirvana.


If taken in its absolute sense, the happiness we are talking about here is rather a lasting and deep state. It is not an accumulation of joys that come and go.


The question of happiness is linked to what will push a person to come and experience Zen in a place of retreat for the first time. And that brings me back to another memory, that of a Zen master who was teaching at Green Gulch Zen Monastery near San Francisco. She asked, "Who among you came here because you were suffering? Three quarters of those present raised their hands. Then she continued, "Now, who among you found out that you were suffering while you were here?" The rest of the people raised their hands.


I do not try to oppose the notions of suffering and happiness with a clear-cut, dualistic mind. I prefer to see them as two sides of the same coin. Or like a puddle of water that evaporates in the presence of the sun after a cloud has passed.


In any case, the happiness of which Buddhism speaks is not limited to an accumulation of small personal pleasures or passing enjoyments. It is a profound deliverance. Happiness is to stop the struggle. The struggle with oneself, the struggle with others. The origin of this struggle, the Buddha defined it very well in the Sermon of Banares by exposing the 4 Noble Truths. He develops the reality of Dukkha (suffering, malaise) and the birth of it. But he does not stop there. He also explains the path - the Eightfold Path - that allows us to free ourselves from it. He shares with his audience what has been the object of his awakening. We are far from a relative approach to happiness. It is a real dive into what is deepest in each of us.


I am not going to embark here on the scabrous exercise of a summary of what he has exposed. The fact that suffering has its origin in the human being's thirst, in his attachment to his desires. In his attachment to the identity he has created for himself, this "self" without substance, which is supposed to last in a world plagued by impermanence. But if you are interested, I can only recommend the very accessible and well-written book by Walpola Rahula: "What the Buddha Taught".



What I would like to do through this blog post is to share with you what I have learned through the practice in community and which is verified every day during this journey. One lesson sums it up. It is not from me, but from Master Dogen, the Japanese monk who went to China to find the essence of our practice, and then taught it in Japan during the 13th century. He teaches in the Genjo Koan: "To study oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to become one with others and with the order of things.


Happiness is systematically confined to the scale of the individual. What a pity! What we learn from the community life in a Zen monastery is that true happiness, authentic peace, the peaceful joy of which the Buddha speaks, manifests itself naturally and immediately when we do not seek to satisfy our own desires. Conversely, it is when one turns towards others, when one harmonizes with the manifestations of life, that a profound liberation is felt. Then, one reaches something greater, more vast, more genuine.


If we insist on defining happiness as a quest for personal satisfaction, we hit a wall, we take the wrong path, we feed the cycle of rebirths (samsara), we repeat the same patterns that make us go from joy to despair, from well-being to suffering.

Just look at the giant advertisements that line our cities. They make us believe that we can reach happiness by satisfying venal and purely individualistic desires. We can read: "My well-being...", "my comfort...", "my freedom...", "my desires...", "my dream...", "my life...", etc. Beautiful formulas that reinforce our greed and cut us off from the collective. And the worst thing is that we end up believing in them.


Everyone has already had the experience of devoting themselves to others. And it's amazing to see how much we forget our little torments and desires from the moment we dedicate ourselves to the common good. This is the profound generosity that the Buddha speaks of. The one that is naturally manifested when we forget ourselves through others. The gift of self, without calculation or expectation of return (Dānā, the first paramittā). The gift, the generosity that is not practiced from the ego, but is naturally manifested, as a vital impulse.


The secret of happiness? Perhaps it lies in not seeking it for oneself. But then, how can we learn to forget ourselves?

It is not a question of losing oneself, of annihilating oneself and turning into a vegetable, quite the contrary. "Forgetting oneself" means to stop feeding the hungry bug that we all have inside us. This ego that constantly desires, that is never satisfied and that always asks for more. This ego that judges, names, compares and has an opinion on everything. Learning to dominate it is a long road full of obstacles, for the ordinary man as for the wise.


Through this journey, I teach the posture of zazen to all who are willing to experience it. Zazen is a path of direct liberation.

In zazen, we are naturally in unity with others. The ego dissipates and the practitioner naturally harmonizes with the manifestations of the living, the phenomena. He no longer tries to control them but observes them with clairvoyance. Desires are inhibited, intentions are limited to simply BEING FULLY in the moment that presents itself.

So naturally, we are present, available, in a state of giving, of natural generosity. It is in this that zazen is a profound liberation, a true happiness.



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