QUESTION: How can one achieve lasting happiness?
SHORT ANSWER: Happiness is neither the goal nor the means, it is a side show.
LONGER ANSWER: Happiness is a frequent, but not essential, side product of a wholesomely productive life, but one does not achieve such a life by being happy, nor by making happiness itself into a goal. To chase happiness is ignoble. Similarly, an attitude of endless optimism or blithely thinking that all will be well in any ordinary mundane sense is more likely to lead to an unproductive life and a weak character. The Buddha spoke of striving and of crossing a dangerous stream.
The Buddhas help us. Shakyamuni urges us on and Amida beckons, but we are like the man in Shan Tao’s image, chased by ruffians and wild beasts we must cross the river of fire and water and the bridge is narrow.
The animals and ruffians are our inner and outer torments and obstacles. The fire and water are hate and greed. The narrow bridge is the path of faith.
Because we have trust in the Three Jewels, the crossing is possible, but we should not think that it is all going to be easy. Overly blithe people do not see the true nature of the situation, do not strive and do not make enough effort. They become complacent. They stop using their intelligence to the full and gloss over the complexities of real life.
Some of the best selling books in the twentieth century were self-help manuals that preached positive thinking. These ideas got into popular spirituality and there has been much written about envisaging the situation that one wants and, thereby, it is said, making abundance happen. However, recently, a rash of research has shown that people who envisage a positive future tend not to rouse themselves sufficiently to play their part in it happening. If you are confident that all will be well it is less likely to turn out to actually be the case than if you don’t. Without a sense of peril, life becomes lax. This is why Buddha taught impermanence and dukkha. A measure of pessimism is needed to balance rashness.
The aim of Buddhism is a fuller aliveness, but it is a mistake to identify this too closely with happiness. Happiness is about going back to sleep. Very nice for an interlude, but not sufficient as a guide to life as a whole. Many happinesses occur along the way, but they come incidentally. Enjoy them, certainly, but don't worship them - there are more important things. To make them into the goal is a mistake and to make holding to a happy mind into a means is also unproductive.
This is the root idea behind the insane medicalization of modern life where every slight departure from normality comes to be considered a 'disease'. All of life becomes a trail from one pathology to another. This is a kind of madness bred of a desire for an unrealistic degree of emotional control - a kind of social strait jacket. We have a full range of emotions for a reason - a lot of reasons. It is unnatural to try to abolish any of them.
It is good to live a meaningful life and to achieve anything meaningful is a struggle. If you set out to create art, build a Dharma centre, relieve poverty, genuinely become a therapist, or even build houses and grow food, you are going to encounter obstacles and problems. If you have children and try to do your best for them, it will be a struggle. If you give it all up and like Kuya wander the countriside singing the nembutsu and helping people whenever you can, it is not going to be an easy life. For sure there will be times of great satisfaction, but these will not come along as a result of pursuing nice feelings. They are by-products. Furthermore, they pass. It is not a failure that one plunge into the next round of creative struggle rather than bathe in smugness.
So, do not make achieving happiness your goal. As my teacher would say,"A dog asleep in the sun is happy" and it is nice from time to time to be like a dog asleep in the sun - allow yourself that - but don't raise it to great importance nor make it a cause for personal guilt when one cannot be like that all the time. If we were all like that all the time it would be disastrous. It is not a worthy goal.
In Buddhism, happiness is represented by the condition of the gods. They live in heaven and everything goes as they wish, until, suddenly, one day, their good karma runs out and it all falls apart. They then abruptly become sick and ugly, die from heaven and get reborn in some miserable destiny from which they have to find their way In Buddhism, heaven is not the goal. One does not pray to go to the Pure Land to enjoy luxury, one prays to go there to be near to the Buddha and become enlightened to a noble life.
FOOTNOTE: Kūya (空也)(903-972) was an Amida hijiri in Japan. A hijiri is a wandering holy man. He left regular conventional life in protest at the corruption in secular society and the complicity of the established religions in the resulting destructive social struggles, and roamed the countryside singing the praises of Amitabha Buddha and helping local people by turning his hand to whatever needed doing.