Leading a Meaningful Life

All sentient beings but, in particular, human beings, have the power to distinguish between happiness and suffering, good and bad, what is harmful and what is beneficial. Because of that ability to recognize and differentiate between these different types of feelings, we are all similar in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering.

Although here I cannot go into the complexity of tracing the origin of how these different types of feelings develop, but what is obvious and clear to all of us is that we do have this appreciation of happiness and disliking toward the experiences of pain and sufferings. Therefore, it is extremely important to lead a life that brings harmony and peace and that doesn't bring disturbance and turmoil.

When it comes to the question of achieving peace and happiness, it is wrong to think that all our peace and happiness come just from external material prosperity. Through relying on material facilities, it is possible that we can enhance our physical happiness and pleasures and remove some of our physical difficulties. But what we derive from material facilities is limited to the experience of the body.

Unlike other species of animals, human beings have a tremendous capacity to think, to calculate, to judge and to make long-term plans. Therefore, the pains and pleasures that we experience as human beings are also much stronger and much more powerful. Because of that, it is possible that human beings experience additional sufferings that are very much related to the capacity of human thinking.

For example, in the case of human beings, unlike animals, we are not satisfied with achieving some kind of temporary happiness and being able to remove some kind of temporary sufferings. That’s because, we human beings have the capacity to make long-term planning and calculations, and therefore we also make divisions between ourselves and others. Based on these divisions, we talk about different nations, different races and different religions. We make countless divisions and, based on these, we develop many types of discursive thoughts and misconceptions. Because of those, we sometimes have too many hopes and sometimes too much doubt.

Therefore, purely based on human intelligence and conception, we experience many types of unhappiness. This is very clearly outlined in the famous text called Four Hundred Verse Treatise by Aryadeva, where it says (II.8): “To those in privileged positions comes mental suffering, while to common folks physical suffering arises.” This means, those people who have more power, more wealth, may not have much physical suffering, but they experience much more mental suffering. Now in the case of ordinary people, they have more physical suffering because of not being able to obtain enough clothing, enough food and so forth. Thus it is clear that human beings experience much additional suffering because of the way we think.

As I said earlier, physical suffering can be minimized by gaining access to material progress. However, the suffering encountered due to your mental attitude cannot be minimized by increasing your material comfort. A clear example is that we can see many wealthy people, who have all the material facilities at their disposal, but who nevertheless continue to experience many types of mental suffering. This is something we all can observe. Thus, it is very clear that the uneasiness, problems and sufferings that are purely a result of your mental attitude can be minimized and eliminated by changing your mental outlook and not through external material facilities.

To summarize this point, when we talk about experiencing happiness and suffering, there are two ways of experiencing them. One is very much related to sensory experiences – that means the pleasures and pains that we experience through the five sense faculties – and then there is another level of experience of happiness and suffering, based on our mind or mental attitude. Of these two, the happiness and suffering that you experience through the mind is much stronger and much more powerful than what you experience through the senses.

A clear example is that even if you have all the material facilities at your disposal and even if you may not have any types of physical problems and sufferings, but still when your mind is not at ease, when you are mentally suffering, then these physical comforts are not able to overcome the sufferings that you are encountering at your mental level. On the other hand, even if you are encountering some physical uneasiness and suffering, but if you are mentally accepting that situation, then you will be able to tolerate that physical suffering.

Take for example a person that is totally committed to undertaking some religious practice. Even though, while pursuing that religious practice, one may have to encounter many physical hardships; nevertheless, because of a sense of contentment and satisfaction, and because of having a clear sight of the goal one is pursuing, that person would see those hardships as a kind of ornament rather than as a difficulty. So, one is able to overpower those physical sufferings through mental readiness to accept the situation by seeing greater purposes. There are many examples of how we are able to overpower physical sufferings when we are working for a more important purpose and goal. In such cases, although we encounter a lot of physical problems, we treat those physical problems with great delight, with great joy, and as an ornament.

To sum up this point, out of the two experiences that you encounter through your senses and through your mind, the one that you encounter and experience through your mind is much more important.

When it comes to dealing with mental problems, as I said, with the problems that are purely the result of your mental attitude and mental outlook, these can be minimized and eliminated by changing your attitude. Therefore, there is a way, there is a means and there is a method to remove mental problems. Because of that, it is important to know the methods and means by which we can minimize and remove many of these mental problems. Furthermore, when we talk about these means and methods to remove these mental problems, it is important to know and to recognize our inborn good human qualities.

For example, I perceive it like this: if you look carefully at this human society, you will find that we are social animals. This means that we live in a society and we are totally dependent on each other. Right from the time when we are born until the time when we become an adult and are able to look after ourselves, we need to depend on others’ kindness, even for our physical well-being. This is so because of the very structure of our biology, the very structure of our body. The more we show closeness and the more we develop compassion and care toward each other, the more we will be able to achieve peace and happiness. Because of the benefit of these fundamental human values, we can say that these fundamental human values are important, they are necessary, so therefore they are required qualities.

In the case of some other examples, like the offspring of a butterfly, or the offspring of a tortoise, it seems that there is not much dependence between the mother and the offspring of the tortoise and butterfly. For example, after the eggs have been laid, in the case of the butterflies, the offspring is unable to meet their parents, and in the case of the tortoise, they just lay the eggs and then they disappear. Even if you bring their mother near the offspring, I doubt that these offspring will be able to respond or show any kind of love and affection toward their parents, because they lead an independent life right from birth. This is maybe due to their past life habits or due to their physical structure. In the case of the offspring of the tortoise, because of their past life habits or their physical structure, they are able to look after themselves. When they hear the sound of the waves of the ocean, they gradually move toward the ocean and are able to take care of themselves. The mothers obviously do not come to invite the offspring and teach them to swim and so forth; these things are not there. So therefore they lead an independent life, and there we do not see much affection between the offspring and the parents.

Now in the case of human beings, because of our physical structure, right from our birth we are able to show strong love and affection toward our parents, particularly toward our mother. I'm highlighting these points not from the view of accepting a past and future life or as a religious subject, but if you look carefully at how human beings survive and how human beings develop, you will find that it is for our survival that we are totally dependent on human values, human love and compassion. And in the case of human children, right from birth they are dependent on the milk of the mother, then gradually, until they are able to look after themselves, they are again totally dependent on the kindness of their parents. And even after they have grown up, they are still dependent on the kindness of other fellow human beings.

As long as you have a human companion, as long as you have somebody who is looking after you, you feel much more at peace, much more relaxed, much more at home. So therefore it is important to lead a life where you do not harm anybody and where you try to help everybody as much as possible. If you have this sense of love, this sense of affection toward other sentient beings, in response you will be liked and loved by everybody, and at the time of death also you will have no anxiety, no fear, no mental disturbance.

However, when we grow up, sometimes a kind of human intelligence strongly comes into the picture and sometimes this human intelligence gives us empty hope. We learn new subjects, acquire new knowledge through our human intelligence. With this kind of knowledge, we think sometimes, particularly in the case when you are very successful you might think: “I can bully other people, I can exploit other people, because I have this wonderful intelligence and knowledge, so in my case the fundamental human values are not important.” You get this kind of sense of empty hope and, in this way, you develop a different kind of mental attitude and outlook, and you do not hesitate in exploiting and bullying other people, as if through that way you were able to achieve some benefit.

However in reality, if you lead such a life where you do not care about the happiness of other people, then gradually you will find that everyone becomes your enemy. Whether you look right, left, look back or in front, you will find that there is hardly anybody who likes you. And because of leading such a negative life, at the time of your death everybody might rejoice in the fact that now you are going to die. You yourself might also start repenting by looking back and reflecting on the kind of life you have lead. You might again feel very disappointed that because of your way of life, nobody is taking care of you anymore. Therefore it is clear that if you ignore these fundamental human values, it is hopeless to expect genuine happiness or long-lasting peace. And therefore, when you finally die, you will have nobody to look after you, nobody that loves you, and you will leave this world empty-handed, with a great sense of emptiness, a great sense of disappointment. Thus, such a way of life, not caring about other sentient beings, is really a foolish way of leading a life.

On the other hand, if you are able to nurture and cherish these fundamental human values, assisted by our great human intelligence and wisdom, then you will be able to develop this human compassion to a limitless extent. Leading your life in such a way is the way of the wise; it’s the way to make your life meaningful.