Integrating Our Life: The Wish to Be Happy & Guru-Yoga


We’ve been looking at some methods that help us to integrate our lives. We’ve also looked at the background from which these practices derive. In the larger Buddhist context, we are aiming to ensure that our future lives continue to have a precious human form like we have now, as a working basis for continuing our development. This is because we understand that our individual mental continuum has no beginning and no end. Moment to moment, our experiences are affected very strongly by disturbing emotions and attitudes, and our impulsive behavior based on that just perpetuates the syndrome.

All of this derives from our confusion about cause and effect and about reality, which can be countered by a correct understanding that is mutually exclusive with it. If we can stay focused with that correct understanding all the time, then that misunderstanding will never be able to arise again. And when that misunderstanding is no longer present, then the disturbing emotions and the compulsive behavior that is based on it will also not recur. Therefore, the various problems that are associated with our moment-to-moment experience of life will also not arise. Then, we understand the basic purity of the mind, that all these troublemakers are what we call “fleeting stains.” They obscure the pure nature of the mind, but are fleeting in the sense that they can be removed. That mental continuum is going to go on forever, and since we realize that it’s possible for our experience of life to be free of all the problems, dissatisfaction, and frustration we have now, it gives us the courage and confidence to work toward that goal. That goal is called “liberation.”

In our understanding of reality, we come to see that our own mental continuum is something that doesn’t exist independently, in isolation from everything else, establishing itself by its own power. Rather, it’s made up of moment-to-moment experiences that are affected by many, many other factors. The technical way of saying this is that each moment arises dependently on many other factors. And the external factors that it depends on are not limited to just material objects. Each moment is also influenced by everybody else – the mental continuums of everybody else – and the larger units that are made up of that, such as family units, society, nations, and so on.

Everyone Wants to Be Happy, and Nobody Wants to Be Unhappy

When we examine the basic characteristics of our experience, we find that one of the most fundamental ones is that we want to be happy and we don’t want to be unhappy. Of course, we could try to analyze why this is the case. Why do we all want to be happy and not to be unhappy? That’s not an easy one to answer! Usually it’s just explained as, “Well, that’s the way things are.” But if we’re not satisfied with that answer, then we can speculate further reasons, which may or may not actually be correct explanations. And there is a difference between just accepting this statement, “I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy,” which we can corroborate based on our experience, and accepting something that is beyond our experience. In other words, the fact that I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy, that I want to be liked and not disliked, and that everybody else must be like that too, that’s something we might not be able to understand why, but we can confirm it from our personal experience. It’s not beyond our own experience.

We might also ask, “Well, is that just a matter of having faith that this is the case – that we all want to be happy – or is it maybe not based on reason, but we know it’s true based on experience?” In this case, we’d say, “Yes, it’s based on experience.” If we’re in pain, we want the pain to stop. Everyone wants to get out of that pain. We want to take our hand out of the fire; we want to get out of the freezing cold. That’s just part of our nature. Even if we want to punish ourselves or to prove something or whatever by keeping our hand in the fire; nevertheless, to do that, we have to fight against our natural tendency to take it out. This is based on experience. Whereas if we face the question of something like, “Is there some higher authority in the universe?” which is beyond our experience, then that’s something different in terms of having faith and belief that it is so, because it’s not something we can experience. So, there’s a difference between believing something that is the nature of something, that we can and do experience ourselves, as opposed to what is beyond our experience.

I think it’s actually quite an interesting and important point. We could say, “Well, isn’t this circular reasoning to say that something is true based on our experience of it?” Because if I say, “Well, I can have faith in something else that I experience as well, such as all of my misconceptions about reality. So, can’t I accept that that’s just the way it is, simply because that’s what I experience? Isn’t it the same thing as saying, ‘I experience that I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy; therefore, I can believe that this is a basic principle?’ Based on that, couldn’t we then say, ‘The basic characteristic of reality is that it exists independently, establishing itself just the way that we see it in front of our eyes, because that is how I experience things?’” 

We would have to bring in circular reasoning to resolve this question. We would say, “Well, believing in these misconceptions about reality produces unhappiness and problems, whereas believing that we want to be happy and don’t want to be unhappy, produces happiness.” That’s the circular reasoning here. It is using what we are trying to prove –that everyone wants to be happy and not unhappy – as the proof of what we’re trying to prove. Because we can only prove our thesis by using circular logic, we have to conclude that we cannot logically prove that all beings want to be happy and not be unhappy. 

We then have to turn to Chandrakirti’s criteria for validity. There is the convention that people agree with: “I want to be happy and not unhappy,” and it is not contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes conventional truth nor by a mind that validly cognizes deepest truth. In contrast with this, the way that things appear to exist does not correspond to how they actually exist when examined by a valid mind cognizing deepest truth. I think that’s how we can establish the validity of the statement that all beings want to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy. 

Our Search for Happiness is Natural

So, wanting to be happy and not to be unhappy is a fact. It is something that is the case, always. But there is another approach we could use to prove it. Wanting to be happy and not to be unhappy is not something that has a mutually exclusive opposite – that if we were to think in the reverse way, “I want to be unhappy and not happy,” it would completely remove this general working principle. It does not make me stop still naturally wanting to be happy. Also, the wish to be happy and not to be unhappy is present all the time. By way of contrast, our confusion about appearances is not something that is present in every single moment and when we focus on “there’s no such thing” as a reality that corresponds to appearances, we focus on a correct understanding, and then the confusion is not only absent, but it is also eliminated. So, this is a basis for saying, “I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy is actually part of the general nature of the mind, whereas confusion is not.” So we can’t just base the proof on the fact that, “Well, this is something that I experience.”

Why is it important to be convinced that we want to be happy and we don’t to be unhappy, and that this is the basic nature of the mind. First of all, it reinforces the fact that in our general development, we want to go in the direction of getting rid of our unhappiness or suffering, and achieving stable and lasting happiness. This striving for happiness is even biological. If we look at biology, we could say that plants and animals also strive to grow and flourish. This parallel shows that the quest to become happier and happier is something perfectly natural and appropriate.

We often hear that the next step after, “I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy,” is to be convinced that we have the right to be happy and the right not to be unhappy. But this brings up the question, “What do we mean by the ‘right?’ Is it something that somebody else gives us? Or do we need to give ourselves permission to be happy?” That then leads to further questions, such as, “Do I deserve to be happy or unhappy?” And that leads to the further question of, “Do I have to earn the right to be happy?” These questions arise quite frequently, especially when our way of thinking has been affected by the conceptual framework of Western biblical religions.

From the Buddhist point of view, these ideas that we need to gain permission to be happy or we have to earn it are based on a misconception. The only issue here – from a Buddhist point of view – is whether it is actually possible to be happy and get rid of unhappiness, or not? And if it is possible, then how can we bring that about? The idea of earning happiness, or of somebody giving us permission to be happy, all of these are based on the misconception of a solid recipient of happiness and a solid giver of happiness. It turns happiness into a commodity and that gaining it is almost a business transaction, as if happiness were a thing that could be given to someone, and that you have to earn the right to have it. So in our pursuit of happiness, it’s very important to clear away misconceptions about what is actually involved; otherwise these misconceptions and confusion are going to cause a great deal of problems.

It Is Not Possible to Achieve the Deepest Happiness Independently of Others

In addition, what follows from understanding this basic nature of the mind – that we all want to be happy and not to be unhappy – is that if this is the case, and it’s possible for me to be happy by getting rid of the causes of unhappiness, then that is the case for everyone. That possibility is part of my mental continuum, and it’s part of everybody else’s continuum too. It is part of the basic nature of the mind.

If this is part of the basic nature of everyone’s mental continuum, and if all of our mental continuums interact with each other and affect each other, then it is not really possible for us to achieve the deepest happiness independently of everyone else. In other words, our mental continuum is not something that is like a river with huge walls on either side of it, such that happiness can just be pursued and achieved by itself independently of everything else. The different flows of these mental continuums are not separate rivers with walls around them and yet interacting with each other. Rather, everything is interacting with each other in a very fluid and open way. Therefore, what we eventually realize, based on this, is that the wish to be happy and not to be unhappy, and the pursuit of that, is something that is a universal phenomenon. Alright?

Visualize it: a huge system striving with the wish to go toward happiness; we’re just a little part of that whole system. If we could understand correctly, we would see that actually this striving toward what we can call “liberation” or “enlightenment” is something that has to be undertaken on the scale of the whole universe, not just on an individual scale. So, what we have been stressing elsewhere in terms of compassion, which means turning away from unhappiness and suffering and turning toward happiness, the connotation is just a strong awareness and determination to pursue that course of, “I want to be happy and don’t want to be unhappy.” This is the general nature of the whole universe. What does that mean? It means that we start to develop compassion, supported by the warm-heartedness and affection that come from realizing all the positive types of interaction that have occurred on the basis of the interdependence of all the various mental continuums. 

Of course, there has also been a huge amount of interaction between everybody in terms of producing unhappiness. We’ve not only interacted with others in ways that produce happiness; we’ve also interacted in ways that produces unhappiness. However, the general principle that we want to be happy and we don’t want to be unhappy is more dominant and therefore more important. In pursuing our wish to be happy, we therefore emphasize the positive interactions. This forms one of the bases for our practice to integrate the various aspects of our life. But let’s develop this further.

Working toward the Happiness of Everyone

If we want to be able to work toward the happiness of everybody – the understanding that we just explained – then we need to become what is called “omniscient.” We need to be able to understand the interaction between and interdependence of everything in all its detail and complexity. Although our minds make it appear as though our mental continuums and the mental continuums of others are totally separate, as if they were wrapped in plastic or like rivers with huge walls around them, this is a false appearance. Because we strongly believe that this false appearance corresponds to reality, it builds up the habit of believing in it further and further. And that habit of believing in it causes our minds to generate that false appearance even strongly. In order to be omniscient, to know the interconnectedness of everyone, it’s necessary to get the mind to stop creating these false appearances.

Why do we want to get rid of the false appearances? Because, drawn by compassion, we want to be able to help everybody; we see that that is the only way, logically, that happiness can come about. This great compassion that we have for everyone is what drives us to stay more and more focused on the fact that there are no walls, there is no encapsulating plastic. The more we stay focused on that, the more it breaks the mind’s habit of producing that false appearance. This is the way that we achieve enlightenment. It’s this combination of compassion and correct understanding.

The whole presentation of the Buddhist path is based on this general principle or nature of the mind, that we want to be happy and we don’t want to be unhappy. If we look at the Buddhist practices based on this, generally we say that they “build up and cleanse,” or “collect and cleanse.” We want to build up the causes for happiness and get rid of the causes for unhappiness. Here, there’s the question of which one we do first or whether they’re done simultaneously. It’s a twofold process. The term “building up” is like building up the charge of an electric battery, so that it can then function in the fullest way.

We’ve seen that what we experience in each moment of our continuum arises dependently on many factors: what everybody else has done and all the things that are going on in the world and so on. This applies both in terms of the unhappiness we want to get rid of, as well as the happiness we want to build up. Often in our Buddhist training and likewise in Western therapies, what we focus on are all the causal factors that have brought us unhappiness and problems, and then we apply various methods to get rid of them. What we find to much less an extent is focusing on the positive things we have gained from others, from society, culture, and so on, which have contributed to our happiness and well-being. When we look at the four noble truths, we might get the impression that Buddhism’s approach is solely on getting rid of problems, and so focuses on all the negative things that cause problems. However, when we look a little bit further into the teachings, all of a sudden we discover something in addition to the basic presentation of the four noble truths, and that’s the presentation of the reliance on a spiritual teacher and Buddha-nature.

Buddha-Nature: The Factors that Enable Us to Become a Buddha

Buddha-nature refers to all the factors that enable us to become a Buddha. One of these factors is the basic happy nature of the mind, the blissful nature of the mind. It isn’t asserted by everybody, but many Tibetan Buddhist schools assert this as the general nature of the mind. But then we might think, “Well, the blissful nature of my mind is the general cause of my happiness; so, all I have to do is focus on that.” If you think like that, it’s just all about us and our own mental continuums. It’s completely self-centered. 

Another term for “Buddha-nature” is “family trait” or “caste.” The “family trait” enables us to be part of the family of those who will become a Buddha. Or we have the word for “womb.” It’s the womb within which we grow as a Buddha. Obviously, we are going to grow and develop within the womb of someone of our own species, so these two images fit together. Parts of the family traits are the voidness of the mind, the natural purity of the mind, the actual blissful aspect of the mind, the fact that there’s energy, and the fact that that energy moves out and communicates, the fact that the mind makes appearances, and so we get mind, speech and body. All of these are the womb within which, and the traits with which, we can then develop the fullest potentials of them as a Buddha. And on top of this, we have the role of the guru, the spiritual teacher.

In the Kadam tradition, going into the Gelug tradition, the role of the guru is explained as being like a root. It’s the root of the pathway mind that will bring us to liberation and enlightenment; it’s that from which we gain nourishment. The nourishment that we receive is in the form of “inspiration.” Inspiration gives us strength at the beginning, middle and end; the strength to start on the spiritual path, the strength to continue on it, and the strength to go to the end of it. So, the spiritual teacher gives us the inspiration and then the strength to pursue, in its fullest form, this basic nature of the mind which is to be happy and not to be unhappy.

This practice that I want to introduce, integrating our life, is based on the teachings concerning the spiritual teacher and how we derive inspiration from the spiritual teacher. In order to realize the fullest potential of our mind, with its blissful nature, and so to attain Buddhahood. This is the source for what I will teach. We’ll look at how to relate to a spiritual teacher in the most healthy, beneficial way in order to gain the maximum inspiration, and then apply that principle to other highly influential people in our lives. After all, not everybody has a spiritual teacher.   

Seeing the Spiritual Teacher’s Shortcomings

All of us have shortcomings, and all of us have positive aspects. As we find in many scriptural texts, it’s going to be nearly impossible to find a spiritual teacher who has only good qualities and no drawbacks, no shortcomings. A shortcoming could be that our teacher doesn’t have time for us because he or she has so many other disciples. Alright? We don’t have to think of shortcomings in terms of the person being angry all the time.

Now, we have all these teachings in terms of seeing the spiritual teacher as a Buddha and so on. I don’t want to go into too much detail here since it’s a huge topic. I wrote a whole book about it! But looking at the Fifth Dalai Lama’s commentary on this, his presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path, in terms of focusing on the spiritual teacher being a Buddha, he wrote that there is no benefit in focusing on the shortcomings of anything and complaining about it. All that does is depress you. This is what the scriptural texts say. There’s no point in focusing on the negative qualities of anything or anyone, and complaining about them, because that only causes us to become depressed. Instead, if we focus on the positive qualities, we gain inspiration.

In commenting about this, the Fifth Dalai Lama connects it to the practice of relating to a spiritual teacher. He says, in approaching this meditation that we call “guru-yoga,” in other words, meditating on the spiritual teacher, the first step is to acknowledge the shortcomings of the spiritual teacher. This is radically different from the way that many other texts present guru-yoga. He tells us to acknowledge the shortcomings of the spiritual teacher, whatever they may be. Don’t be in a state of denial! Rather, look at them in light of what Buddha said, which is that there’s no benefit in dwelling on negative qualities. We acknowledge them, not deny them. And we see that if we focus on them, it won’t help us; in fact, it’s just going to bring us down. Then, we put any further consideration of the shortcomings to the side.

Seeing the Spiritual Teacher’s Good Qualities

Once we have done this process of dealing with the shortcoming of the spiritual teacher, then we can focus on the positive qualities, which is where the traditional meditation on the spiritual teacher begins. If we don’t do it this way, then we might begin to question ourselves, “Am I being naive in this whole process of focusing on the guru?” So, at this point, we try to recognize the good qualities of the spiritual teacher, and be convinced that is a fact that he or she has these good qualities, that we are not making this up. The state of mind that we develop from that is a confident belief that it is true.

Once we have this confident belief in the good qualities of the teacher, then the traditional method is to focus on the kindness of the teacher. Basically, we focus on the benefit that we receive from these positive qualities. The emotion that we develop from that is deep appreciation and respect. And then, we imagine lights coming from the spiritual teacher into us, which inspire us on the basis of that confident belief in the good qualities and appreciation of the benefit we’ve received from them. This meditation is the root through which we derive the strength and inspiration to try to develop more of these qualities in ourselves, based on Buddha-nature. We realize that we are in the same caste, the same family, as the spiritual teacher and the Buddha.

So, if our mental continuum has been influenced by so many others, and so many different factors, then the same analysis would apply to them as it does to the spiritual teacher – the same analysis in terms of beneficial and detrimental influences. And the same would go for our family, our culture, our nation, for everything. There have been positive aspects and negative. We can focus on the negative aspects, the various things that have negatively influenced or caused us problems in life, and then we could go into therapy. But from the Buddhist point of view, although we need to get rid of all the problems that have been influenced by these things, there’s no point in complaining about them. Instead, we look at the other side, which is the good qualities of all these people and things, the benefits that we have received from them. We derive inspiration from that and integrate all of that together, to see that the “me” is an imputation phenomenon not just on the basis of all these problems and the causes of these problems, but the “me” is also an imputation phenomenon on all these benefits and positive things that we have derived from others.


This is the framework of this program of integrating our lives that the “me” is an imputation phenomenon on. When we talk about integrating our lives, it’s just like what the Fifth Dalai Lama advises regarding the guru. We acknowledge certain things, “My mother did this to me and my father did that to me and caused this problem and that problem.” We acknowledge all of that, we certainly don’t deny it. But we also see that there is no benefit in complaining about it or focusing on it. Instead, we focus on all the positive things that we have derived from our family, friends, and so on, with the greatest appreciation for that. In this manner, we integrate our lives in the sense of seeing that the “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all of that, both the negative influences and the positive influences. And in our meditation, we focus simply on the positive aspects in order to gain strength and inspiration. This strength and inspiration will not only be beneficial in a “Dharma Lite” way, just in terms of this lifetime, but will also give us the strength to work toward our future lives, liberation and enlightenment.