What brings us true happiness? Everyone thinks seriously about this question, and it is a very difficult one, but I think that in the end the answer comes down to being grateful and humble.
For example, you go out without an umbrella and on your way home it starts to rain. Just as you are about to make a dash through the rain, a stranger offers to share his or her umbrella. At such a time, each of us would feel a natural gratitude and thank the stranger for his or her kindness.
Why do we feel grateful? Because we feel that we do not deserve such kindness; a sense of humility, of our unworthiness, comes over us. We could say that humility makes us grateful. It is one of religion's tasks to cultivate in us an attitude that is a combination of gratitude and humility.
We are not born into this world through our own efforts. Our parents are, of course, the direct cause of our birth. If we pursue the matter further, however, we realize that we have received life through the supreme activity of the gods and buddhas, the fundamental power of the universe.
Nevertheless, we tend to think we have come as far as we have in life through our own efforts. As long as we are convinced of that, it is difficult for us to feel humble; but such thinking is shallow and lazy, since it fails to take into account the truth that our existence is sustained not through our own efforts but by the gods and buddhas.
All the material goods and natural riches that sustain us, from food, clothing, and shelter to the air we breathe and the water we drink, lie beyond our control. Once we digest that fact, we cannot help feeling humble and grateful for our existence.
Unless you are grateful to be alive, you cannot be said to be really living. A cafeteria lunch ticket is nothing but a useless scrap of paper unless you know that it can be exchanged for a nutritious meal. In the same way, though you have human form and human capacities, you cannot live fully as a human being unless you know the true meaning of life. To know life's true meaning, you must be grateful for life as a gift and a blessing.
We can find true, unshakable happiness in profound contemplation of the role of the gods and buddhas in our lives. We rarely direct our thoughts to the gods and buddhas when things are going well, when we are free from cares and troubles; only when faced with a major problem do we become serious and seek salvation in their teachings. In this case, sufferings are a force for spiritual progress. Through our efforts to triumph over such sufferings, we can cultivate gratitude for the gift of life.
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We conceive of time only in terms of the present. We call this moment in time the present; what has already happened is in the past, and what has yet to happen is in the future. Our conception of time is similar to our perception of a boat floating down a river: before it reaches us it is upstream; it draws even with us; then it moves downstream.
But life in fact moves with time's flow. The present moment is gone in an instant, and what was the future becomes the present in the next instant. It is mistaken, then, to try to establish a particular "present" in our lives and view all time from that perspective, dividing it into past, present, and future. If we view the unceasing flow of time from the standpoint of the unceasing flow of our own lives, we will realize that the past was once the present and that the future will soon be the present. We live always in that unceasing flow of the present. Once we understand this, our conception is more like that of a passenger in the boat than a spectator on the shore.
Though we age with the passing years, we want to stay young at heart. We must not worry about distinctions between past, present, and future; instead we must keep fresh our commitment to working to relieve human suffering.
The number of people who consider themselves truly happy is surprisingly small. In general, happiness and unhappiness are relative. Our ideas of happiness are based on comparing our own lives with those of other people.
Suppose someone wanted to go to college but could not and is unhappy about that. As long as this person compares himself or herself with those who did go to college, he or she will always be dissatisfied. But if instead this person thinks of someone who could not even go to high school, the person may think himself or herself fortunate.
As long as they think in relative terms, even people who seem completely free to do as they please are not assured of happiness, since they may compare themselves with people who appear better off rather than worse off.
Yet if we take just one step into the world of faith and study the Buddha's teachings, we learn that although we may have thought we were living through our own efforts, we actually depend on many people. As we look further into the truth, we realize that we are sustained by the gods and buddhas and feel deeply grateful for the gift of life. This feeling of gratitude does not result from comparing ourselves with others; it is a deep emotion that brings us such absolute happiness that we are no longer swept from joy to sorrow by changes in our circumstances.
When we have experienced such happiness, we are grateful for everything - for each day we live, for life itself - and we naturally come to appreciate the value of each day and find true peace of mind.
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When people look back over their lives, they decide whether things have gone well or not. Whatever they decide, it is very important that they look for the causes of their happiness or unhappiness. Those for whom things did not go well should first ask themselves what was wrong in what they thought or did. Those who are satisfied should take stock of their own efforts through the years and recall just how much they were helped by those around them. When they have identified the causes of their happiness or unhappiness, they should repent what should be repented, correct what needs to be corrected, and then set out again with a fresh resolve to do their best in the future.
We all want our wishes fulfilled; we all want to be happy. But happiness means different things to different people, depending on their spiritual state. Some think they are happiest if everyone in the family is healthy. Others regard business success as the supreme happiness. Of course health and success are possible sources of happiness, but deeper thought shows that the greatest human happiness lies in being alive and knowing the meaning of life.
Buddhism teaches that all human beings have the buddha-nature, that is, that everyone can attain buddhahood. It also teaches that there is no greater privilege than being born human. Unfortunately we usually forget this. Even though we may seem to be aware of it, when something bad happens we blithely blame others, which indicates that we have not really grasped this truth.
The late Haruchika Noguchi, a physician and proponent of holistic medicine, wrote: "The things people make always originate in their minds. Though there is a desk in front of me, it did not exist from the start. It was preceded by thought. If there had been no thought of a completed desk, a desk could never have been made, no matter how much wood was cut. Thought is always foremost. Then come words. If you always follow this order, your wishes will come true and a new world will open before you."
These remarks on the order in which we should act to realize our wishes teach the importance of effort in consummating thoughts, words, and deeds. Noguchi went on to write: "It is important to believe that you already have what you want. Only someone without wealth desires it; only the sick person longs for health. The very words you use to express a wish to be rich, healthy, or happy confirm that you suffer the opposite - poverty, sickness, or sorrow. You are fixing images of these negative things in your mind. Think instead that you are already rich, healthy, and happy and start from there. This is crucial."
I find great freshness and power in Noguchi's words. Our thinking must begin with the belief that we have what we want. Happiness is a matter of self-awareness. Yet happiness is meaningless if it is ours alone. Unless everyone is happy, human wishes are not being fulfilled. If we wish for the happiness of everyone, we are the happier and the greater for it.
The vicissitudes of life give us opportunities to change course. The happiness and sadness we experience open our hearts and minds. With the courageous conviction that we must make even greater efforts, we can face the future. A bright future awaits everyone who adopts this attitude.