Suffering as Happiness and Unclean as Clean

The Relation between Incorrect Consideration of Nonstatic as Static and of Suffering as Happiness

We were speaking about our incorrect consideration of things that change. We consider that something like a relationship is going to last forever, whereas, in fact, it is eventually going to come to an end. Then, we consider that, even while it lasts, we incorrectly consider that it is static and unchanging, whereas it also changes from moment to moment.

Our belief that this projection of our incorrect consideration is correct can be doctrinally based. We read all sorts of fairy tales and see Hollywood movies that tell us that we’re going to live happily ever after, so we have this expectation and that’s false. It can be doctrinally based like this, but even if we understand that the propaganda we have been fed is absurd and false, even when we understand that life is not a fairy tale, nevertheless, we don’t really want to accept that. There’s still automatically arising incorrect consideration. There is a great deal of resistance, if we examine ourselves, to accept what we know is really impossible.

We need to examine more deeply, and we find that there are other types of incorrect consideration that, in a sense, feed each other. They feed this misconception of everything being static and unchanging. Why do I want to consider this relationship as stable and static, and so on? Because I consider it to be happy, “I have a happy relationship,” and, “it makes me happy to be with you.” The next level is to understand that we have incorrect consideration of what’s called “suffering as happiness.”

What does this really mean? It’s very much connected with this process of change. We think, for instance, that “holding my loved one’s hand is happiness; it makes me feel happy.” Well, if it really made us feel happy, it should do so forever. However, the longer we hold somebody’s hand, eventually, it becomes very uncomfortable. We want to do something else. We don’t want to go through the next 20 years being glued to the other person’s hand. Then, their hand and ours start to sweat and it becomes very uncomfortable.

If our loved one strokes our hand or some part of our body, well, if they continue doing that for an hour, we’re going to get very, very sore. It’ll turn into pain. Or, if we sleep with somebody and have our arm around them, very quickly our arm falls asleep and is very, very uncomfortable. If this were true happiness, the longer we had our arm there, the happier it should make us, but obviously, it doesn’t. This is a false conception that any of these things are true happiness. They are not true happiness because they’re going to change into unhappiness and they’re going to end, of course.

No matter how much we love somebody, if we stay with them too long, they start to get on our nerves, “Please, I need to be alone for a little while.” We don’t want them to follow us to the toilet. Again, we could have this misconception of suffering as happiness based on some sort of doctrine: we were taught that this is true happiness, “If you buy this car, you will truly be happy,” and so on. So, we could be fed this by propaganda, advertisement, or this incorrect consideration could just automatically arise. This doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as happiness and that Buddhism is saying that everything is miserable and horrible. It’s not saying that, but we need to understand the reality of things and not exaggerate. “It’s very nice to be with you, but…”

Things change, and what we consider to be happiness, we can enjoy; nevertheless, ultimately, it’s not going to satisfy. It will change; we will feel frustrated, and so on. So, there are a lot of problems still involved. We get bored with something if we have it all the time. I might like ice cream very much, but if I were to have to eat only that for the next several years, I would get very bored with it. All of us would. This is the incorrect consideration of “suffering as happiness.”

Let’s analyze and spend a little more time thinking about this. What do we really consider to be “happiness?” Are we exaggerating it, or what are we doing? What’s our attitude toward it? Try to understand the connection between our expectations about happiness and the misconception that we might have in terms of things being stable, always staying the same. Because – to relate this to our discussion of voidness, although this isn’t yet in the domain of voidness – what we have to understand is exaggeration, and that this is what we have to clear out, that we exaggerate things, and then we imagine that the reality corresponds to that exaggeration.


Discussion about Happiness

What do we mean by happiness?

This gets into a very complicated question. Is it, “Oh! How wonderful,” and, like in a Hollywood movie, we go dancing down the street and singing some song? Is happiness contentment, “Well, it’s not so good, but, OK, I’ll shut up and be content about it?” What actually is the definition of happiness? That’s an important question.

Happiness is, first of all, a “feeling.” We’re talking about feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness; it’s the way that we experience the ripening of our karma – a very interesting definition or explanation. From acting destructively, we experience – being with you, talking with someone, seeing something, listening to music – with unhappiness; and as a result of constructive behavior, we experience it with happiness. That’s in general, just conventionally, what we’re talking about when we’re talking about feeling happy or unhappy. 

Happiness is also specified as that feeling which, when we experience it and it ceases, we intend to experience it again. Unhappiness as that feeling which, when we experience it, we intend to be parted from it. The Tibetan translators rendered the Sanskrit term chandas, intention, with ‘dod-pa, meaning to “wish.” But even with the term “wish,” we’re not talking about the mental factor of “craving.” The Sanskrit word that’s translated into the Tibetan as “craving” actually means “thirst.” “I’ve got to be free of this pain,” and, “I have to experience this happiness again.” We’re not talking about this exaggeration of happiness into the most wonderful thing in the world and unhappiness into the most horrible. If we follow the original Sanskrit term that is used, we’re just talking about conventionally feeling “happy.” With happiness, it would be nice to experience it again when it ceases and that’s what we’re aiming for as our intention; and with unhappiness, we’d like to be parted from it when we’re experiencing it and we’re aiming for that as our intention.

When we speak about the incorrect consideration of suffering or unhappiness as happiness, it’s based on a different exaggeration than happiness as wonderful and unhappiness as horrible. We project that whatever happiness we have is going to last forever. It’s not, so when it changes or ends, we get frustrating.

Now, of course, unhappiness isn’t going to last forever either. Nevertheless, because we would prefer happiness to unhappiness, we have problems with exaggerating happiness, perhaps because we might not be happy very often. But, regarding happiness, we have this expectation, this hope, that somehow, “If I could be with my loved one all the time, I will be happy,” or “If I had a huge amount of money in the bank, I would be happy.”

Obviously, there are many, many things that we could say about happiness and unhappiness, and how we deal with these feelings, and so on, but that’s for another time.

All sentient beings wish for happiness, or to have happiness. For example, if some animal finds food for its offspring, it feels happy, and “even just giving a morsel of food” makes for some positive force, and results in happiness. Aren’t we getting stuck on our mental defilements, or negative mind, in this discussion of happiness?

This is why I’m making the differentiation here. Conventionally, we have happiness and unhappiness. Everybody wants to be happy; nobody wants to be unhappy. Nonetheless, in our topic here of incorrect consideration, the problem is how we consider that happiness, what’s our attitude toward it, and what is our expectation of it? We should not exaggerate it and consider it incorrectly as either fantastic or that it will last forever and never lead to dissatisfaction or that it won’t change into unhappiness.

Incorrect consideration is exactly what the term literally means. We regard something incorrectly. Take the example of democracy and freedom, which many people consider happiness. But what do they imply? They imply many choices. For instance, that we have the freedom to choose what we like. There was a study done about this, among the various scientific studies that His Holiness is participating in and sponsoring. The study was investigating happiness. What was discovered was that the more choices we have, the more unhappy we are. If there are 150 different types of soap or breakfast cereal in the store, we go there and think, “I don’t know what to choose, I don’t know what is best.” We think, “It should make me happy that there are so many varieties, so I can get what I want,” but what happens? We choose something, and then we think, “Maybe this other one would have been better,” and so we’re never really satisfied with what we have. We’re always doubting it.

It’s like when there are 600 different, possible channels to watch on the television, and we find something, but then we think, “Maybe something else is better.” Basically, the more choices we have, actually, the more unhappy we are. It has to do with expectations. If there are so many choices, we expect something is going to be perfect. However, there is nothing that’s perfect. Having all these choices, which is actually suffering, we consider it as “happiness.” We’ll go to war to bring that to countries that don’t have that. This is absurd. Why? Because we have this incorrect consideration that “this is happiness.”

In my life, everything used to be fine, with my parents there was a lot of love, and with my friends, and everything that I wanted came true; however, on the other hand, I would wake up every morning and wonder, “What am I doing here?” I realized I have many material things, and they weren’t happiness. And now, even if I were to lose what I have, I wouldn’t be sad about that. So now, it’s truth that makes me happy. Happiness is when I have some glimmering of the truth when I can see some truth out in the light.

This gets into another level of discussion. There’s something called “tainted happiness and untainted happiness.” When something is tainted, it’s mixed with confusion, with unawareness of how it actually exists. Tainted happiness will ultimately be unsatisfying and a big problem. However, there can also be a happiness that’s not mixed with this confusion. It doesn’t arise from confusion and it doesn’t make more confusion.

So, if we speak about what is lasting happiness, lasting happiness comes from a separation from confusion, a separation from – it’s usually translated as – “ignorance” or “unawareness.” It’s like a feeling of relief, like when we take off our tight shoes; being parted from that restriction is happiness. Now, we’re not talking about a temporary separation. It’s not like I eat and temporarily I’m parted from hunger, but it’s going to come back. We’re not talking about that. This is the problematic happiness that I was talking about. We’re talking about when our confusion, our unawareness and everything, is gone forever, is never going to come back. That’s a lasting happiness. That’s different; that’s a different level we’re talking about.

The happiness of seeing “the truth” is certainly something that’s discussed in Buddhism. However, one needs to go really deeply because we could think that we’ve understood the truth, whereas we haven’t gone deeply enough, and then sometimes we get very, very disappointed and frustrated. This is a very important point in the Buddhist teachings, never to think that we’ve understood enough until we become a Buddha. Always go deeper and deeper and deeper. Often, we think we’ve dealt with a problem and that we don’t have that problem anymore. Or we think, “If a problem were to come up in the future, I’d be able to deal with it OK.” Nevertheless, when the problem actually arises, we find that it’s not so easy.

Let’s spend a few moments thinking about whether we have a false way of considering happiness. If we are exaggerating happiness and what we consider to be happiness, we need to deconstruct that to see it’s not really like that. We enjoy what we have, but realize that this is not ultimate happiness, it may change, etc., etc., However, let’s try not to be naive into thinking that this is easy in actual life. It’s not easy because we have so much automatically arising grasping for that happiness to last, and for it be ultimate happiness, and for it to “really, really make me happy.” We do – that grasping automatically arises, particularly when aimed at the happiness of being with someone we’re attached to.

We might not be so attached to material objects, but with other people and love, we’re talking about something very delicate. Now it starts to get very personal. “I want to be loved by you.” Is that happiness? What is it? Interesting question. Tell me, “being loved by you,” is that happiness or suffering? Now we’re talking about a special “you,” the one that we want to love us. Is that happiness – or is that suffering? What do you think?

Love contains the potential for the risk of future suffering. It’s like eating fugu, the Japanese pufferfish that is poisonous and lethal if prepared incorrectly.

Alright, so being loved by somebody, or loving somebody, carries with it the risk of pain when they don’t love us anymore. What about the expectations that the other person has, that come along with them loving us? Do they expect that we’re going to be available for them whenever they want, for example? Do they expect us to be perfect, a perfect fit for them?

For example, I was very much in love, and it ended badly, and I suffered a lot. But if I think about the whole story now, I’m not suffering anymore, because I learned a lot from that.

Does that mean that you’ll no longer be hurt in another relationship in the future if it also breaks up? This is the point that I was making before. How deeply have we gone in overcoming the cause of the problem?

In the standard Buddhist teachings, it says that there’s suffering and there’s the suffering of suffering. That’s referring to having physical pain, and then on top of that having mental pain.

There are certain levels of intensity of suffering, that’s true. However, being loved by someone – what are our expectations? Do we expect them to express that love in the way that we would like it to be expressed? What about if they don’t express it that way? Do they have to express it all the time? Do they need to constantly tell us that they love us, in order to reaffirm that? How often do they have to tell us?

Because, in fact, as nice as it is to feel that we’re loved by somebody, what exactly is involved? What are our expectations? Most of us know how terrible it feels when we feel that the other person doesn’t love us anymore and now, we don’t have that love anymore. What is it that is being loved by somebody? Why is it that being loved by someone that we don’t care about doesn’t count? I want to be loved by you, by this one. For example, being loved by that one isn’t happiness, but being loved by this one is happiness. This is strange. Being loved by my dog is not enough.

Sometimes that’s enough.

Sometimes, yes. Well, are we content with that? “Well, my mother loves me. That’s it.” These are things to think about. There’s no clear, immediate answer, but these are topics that we have to work with. What we want to overcome is this incorrect consideration, which is based on exaggeration.

Considering Unclean as Clean

Now, why do we consider it happiness “to be with you?” It can be because of the next type of incorrect consideration. The next incorrect consideration is considering something – and these are the words that are used – “unclean as clean.” The phrase that I like to use for analysis of this syndrome is, “If it’s my lover’s cup, it’s clean; if it’s the cleaning lady’s cup, then it’s dirty.” “I’m very happy to share the cup and the drink with my loved one, but I don’t want to share it with the drunk on the street, or the cleaning lady, because they’re dirty.” This is strange, isn’t it?

“If I kiss my loved one and stick my tongue in their mouth, this is clean, this is happiness,” but if we stick our tongue in the mouth of the drunk on the street, is that happiness, is that clean? “Oh, in my lover’s mouth, it’s clean,” and we feel happy based on that. This is very strange. This is another level of incorrect consideration. It’s very funny if we think about it. It’s perfectly OK to stick our own finger in our mouth and pick our teeth, or even to stick our own finger up our nose, but if somebody else sticks their finger in our mouth, then what? Our finger is clean, their finger is dirty? It is funny, isn’t it? “I can pick my own nose, but I’m not going to pick somebody else’s nose. That’s dirty; mine is OK.”

My nose is not clean, but it’s mine, that’s the difference.

Oh! I see, that’s the difference then. This is strange. From an objective point of view, it’s the same. A nose is a nose, no matter whose nose it is. That gets us to the next level of incorrect consideration, which has to do with the whole topic of “me” and “mine,” and we’ll get to that in our next session. These four types of incorrect consideration are all connected with each other – nonstatic as static, suffering as happiness, unclean as clean, and no independently existing self as an independently existing self.

Considering something dirty as clean can be doctrinally based. We can use an example from India: “If a brahmin serves the food with their hand,” as Indians do, “then, to me, that’s clean; but if an untouchable serves it with their hand, it’s dirty.” It can be based on some propaganda, some doctrine like that, or it could automatically arise. Nobody has to teach us that “My lover’s cup is clean, and the drunk’s cup is dirty.” That becomes an interesting topic. Does a baby make any difference? Not really. It’s very interesting with a small child, you teach a child what’s dirty. Do you teach a child what’s clean? “Don’t put that in your mouth, that’s dirty!” Do you teach them, “Put that in your mouth, it’s clean?”

Again, let’s think about that in terms of relationships. We can take this on many, many different levels. From a Buddhist point of view, this gets into the whole topic of the body. We consider the human body as beautiful and clean, whereas if you peel off the skin, is it still beautiful and clean? If we look inside the stomach, is it beautiful and clean? We might consider the food we eat so clean and wonderful, but if we put it in our mouth and then spit it out, is it still so clean and wonderful? There are many, many topics that are studied.

Now, the consequence of this is not that, “I consider my body bad and horrible,” and then we have a big aversion and hatred of the body, or for anything for that matter. That’s not the point. The point is not to exaggerate. That’s important to remember. Incorrect consideration is an exaggeration of something, making it into a big thing and not really seeing the reality – the conventional reality. Why are we so happy to be with our loved one? Why are we so happy to hold their hand? Why are we so happy to share the bed with them and not somebody else? It’s because we consider them special. “This is beautiful, this is clean, and this is happiness.” I hope that you can see that all of this is leading to the relationship of these factors with the mind, how we consider things. That’s where we’re heading to.

Let’s think about this for a moment, in terms of this incorrect consideration of what is unclean as clean.


Do you have any questions?


You explained, “considering suffering as happiness” and “considering unclean as clean” as two distinct steps. Are they unrelated, or do they concern the same issue?

They’re related to each other. Perhaps we can find examples in which they’re not necessarily both involved in the same situation. Nevertheless, we can certainly think of a situation where all of these factors are involved. I’m lying down with a loved one in bed, and I think that this is going to last forever, whereas obviously, it’s not. I can think that this is happiness, whereas, in fact, my arm falls asleep. The other person is on top of me and I want to roll over, but if I do that, I’m going to wake them up, so this becomes very awkward. Or we are lying on top of each other and “they’re so clean, I’m so happy,” but then we both start to sweat. Is this still happiness; is this still clean? These things relate to each other.

In this example of lying down with somebody, with a loved one, then also the fourth incorrect consideration can come in there: “It’s with you, so this is special.” If we were lying here with the drunk on top of us or the dog on top of us, it’s not the same. We consider, “It’s with you, so it’s special. It’s happiness; it’s clean.”

However, these things don’t always come together, “It’s summer, I consider this happiness.” That’s not related to the situation of, “Is the summer clean or not clean?” Is summer happiness? Well, if it’s happiness, then if it’s 45 degrees Celsius, it should still be happiness; however, obviously, it’s not. So, with summer, it has nothing to do with unclean or clean. But to consider summer happiness, then it should always be happiness, regardless of how hot it is. Often these different types of incorrect consideration come together and those are the more interesting examples, actually, because usually they’re the ones that are the most emotionally charged and emotionally disturbing and involve the most attachment.

Are there other examples, besides the body, for clean and unclean?

“If my own room is disorderly and the bed isn’t made, well, that’s OK; it’s clean. However, if somebody else’s is like that, particularly my children’s, then that’s dirty;” we get very annoyed. “If I’ve worn my pants for a week, well, that’s OK, they’re still clean; I can put them on again. However, if it’s somebody else’s pants who has worn them for a week, that’s dirty. I don’t want to put them on.” There are many examples, but that’s enough.

There are so many things like that, and often the different incorrect considerations of them are related to each other, especially if it is in regard to something done by someone we consider a special person. “If my loved one cooks the meal, it’s clean,” we trust it. However, if somebody else cooked it, well, then we don’t trust it anymore. Maybe they didn’t wash the dishes properly. “If I washed the dishes by just rinsing them off with cold water wiping them with an old dishrag that I haven’t changed in a month; that’s clean. If somebody else does that, it’s dirty.”

How about, “If I eat at my mother’s house, it’s one thing, but if I eat at my mother-in-law’s house, that’s something else?”

Right, exactly. “This restaurant is clean, that restaurant is dirty, permanently, it will never change.”

Maybe it’s true?

Maybe it’s true this one time; but is it static. Is it always? “Everything that I eat at this restaurant is going to bring me happiness?” I think it’s really funny because we can observe this. I go to this restaurant: I don’t like a lot of choices. If there are too many choices, it really does bring unhappiness, so I tend to eat the same thing all the time at a restaurant. I found one thing that I like at this restaurant and I eat that, but one time I have it and they put too much salt in it and I couldn’t even eat it, it was so salty. The cook forgot that they put salt in and put salt in a second time, or the cook was sick and somebody else cooked it. Nevertheless, we have the expectation that it’s going to be happiness always, never changing.

Usually, situations are much more complex, and other things happen every day, which influence the quality of our experience, even if we go to the same restaurant. Isn’t it too simple to just separate between clean and unclean when many more factors are involved?

That’s very true, but our point, here, of why we’re looking at these issues is that if I expect that the food at this restaurant is always going to be the same, is always going to be delicious, will always bring me happiness, and is always going to be clean, then we have a great deal of attachment, “I really want to go there.” We have this great hope. However, if it doesn’t fulfill that hope, that expectation, we get very angry, very disappointed and frustrated. This is what we want to avoid, this suffering that comes from these expectations, considering that it’s always going to be like this, always going to bring happiness, and so on. Things change. What you say is true, they change.

If I have a big problem at home and I consider getting drunk or shooting up some drug as, “This is going to be happiness,” well, come on, that’s not going to be happiness. The problem is not going to go away just because we’re drunk or we’re high on some drug. Being drunk or high on a drug could cause other problems, so is this happiness? Eating chocolate, is that going to make me really feel better when I’m unhappy? How long is the happiness I feel from eating it going to last? What do I expect from eating chocolate?

It can help, maybe. Personally, I like chocolate, and so if I’m really in a horrible mood, OK, I might have a piece of chocolate, but I don’t expect that this is going to perform a miracle. If we realize that eating a piece of chocolate might give momentary happiness, or it might not, so if it does, we enjoy it and if it doesn’t, so what, then we don’t have a problem with eating a piece. We don’t make a big deal out of it.

The point is not to exaggerate. When we exaggerate and project something that is totally unrealistic, the result is we’re going to have problems; we’re going to be unhappy. That’s what Buddhism is all about, how to overcome suffering. However, we’re talking about gross levels here. When we get into the discussion of voidness, then it gets more and more subtle, but first, we have to deal with these gross levels.