What Does Happiness Mean? A report from the Interfaith Summit on Happiness
“Profound happiness, unlike fleeting pleasures, is spiritual in nature. It depends on the happiness of others and it is based on love and affection.” – His Holiness The XIVth Dalai Lama
Happy and happiness are words we hear frequently at this time of year, but do we ever stop to reflect on the true meaning or stop and reflect how our lives are deeply influenced by our individual sense of the meaning of happiness?
Somehow Jeff Maisey (the editor of Veer Magazine) got word that I was invited to the Interfaith Summit on Happiness at Emory University in Atlanta in October. This was to be no ordinary summit. The discussion was led by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (as Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory) and moderated by Krista Tippett, who is known to millions for her programs on NPR (Being and Speaking of Faith).
The other esteemed panelists in this lively discussion were: The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church; Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and Seyyed Hossein Naar, a world renowned scholar on Islam and University Professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University.
Often in his teachings, the Dalai Lama reiterates one of the central tenets of the 2,500-year-old Buddhist faith, which is basically that we all desire happiness and an end to suffering. Furthermore, when we methodically train the mind we can overcome obstacles and all of the negative emotions such as desire, greed, jealousy etc., which are the major causes of our suffering.
Even after more than 50 years of living in exile and despite the untold and unimaginable oppression of the Tibetan people and nation, (more than 1 million killed, tens of thousands of monasteries destroyed), the Dalai Lama, (the spiritual and temporal leader of 6 million Tibetans), in the words of Professor Hossein Naar, is the embodiment of happiness. His Holiness still espouses the middle way approach to finding a real solution with the Chinese government and he still insists on referring to the Chinese people as “brothers and sisters.” One could easily say the Dalai Lama has found true happiness through forgiveness, compassion and enlightenment. As the professor acknowledged, accompanied by loud applause from the 4,200 people in attendance, “Your presence is happiness, Your Holiness.”
The purpose of the Interfaith Summit on Happiness was to (further) understand and promote happiness in today’s society. Capably led by moderator Krista Tippett, the panelists discussed the meaning of happiness as it is applied to the Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist ways of thinking. I hesitate to say “religion” as the discussion turned much more to the spiritual nature of happiness in the here and now…not necessarily in the afterlife as some religions promote and promise.
Again, a powerful quote from The Dalai Lama: “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is toward happiness.”
Each speaker spent some time discussing the elusive nature of happiness in our consumer driven society where wanting and gaining more has become the false definition of happiness and the false goal. We are constantly bombarded with marketing and lies that try to tell us how to live our lives and how to find happiness, be successful, etc. Chief Rabbi said (his remarks were full of humor and clarity): “If I have a lot of money and give you some, then I have less. If I have a lot of material possessions and then give you some, I have less. But if have a lot of love, friendship, respect and trust and I give you some, then in fact, I have more.” He then accurately pointed out: “happiness is not the first word one thinks of when one reads or studies the Jewish religion! But if we can only learn to let go of hatred then we can begin to seek true happiness and celebrate. Let’s eat.” The Rabbi said that in the Jewish faith the belief tends to be I am what I am, take me as I am and he told the wonderful story of Jacob and the angel, when Jacob told the angel he would not let him go until he was blessed.
Professor Nasr and Bishop Jefferts Schori both expounded on the loss of perspective and the greed which has taken over our society in terms of consumerism and fake happiness. As the Beatles said so eloquently in the sixties, “Money can’t buy me love.” But our society still seeks to find satisfaction from the material things, which in the long run have no meaning at all.
Professor Nasr also bemoaned the fact that we ignore (or furthermore deny) the environmental crisis that in many ways, we humans have created. He referred us to one of the main tenets of Islam that happiness is beauty…furthermore, like Buddhism that happiness has to come from inside oneself. He spoke about how we think it is our right to be happy, but we forget there are also some major responsibilities which accompany that right – as the Bishop remarked when she cited that even Constitution of the United States has the words “the pursuit of happiness” enshrined into it. Bishop Jefferts Schori also raised the point that in the Anglican or Episcopalian traditions, happiness comes from the simple awareness that God is present in all things. True happiness, however, does not necessarily come in this lifetime but in the after life – provided of course that one has behaved oneself in this lifetime. And only God can give real meaning. The trouble with that one is how do you define God? Is he/she the same in Islam, Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism?
As one studies the course of history, it often seems that some of the “major” so called organized religions promote violence and hatred and prejudice. Buddhism promotes happiness and the obliteration of suffering as one of its major tenets and strengths. There is after all, neither judgment nor any guilt in Buddhism. Yes indeed there are the wonderful precepts and guideposts just as there are in all religious thought, but in Buddhism and, indeed, in other Eastern philosophies such as Zen, it is all about the here and now. It is, if you like, the happiness of knowing who you are, what you are and what you are doing on this planet in this lifetime.
Have you ever wondered why it is often the simplest and poorest who can teach us the most? Those engaged in the real pursuit of happiness be they Hindu, Jewish or any other label we attach to them, engage us with those irresistible smiles and gifts of love. Think about Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi or any other monk or nun that you might have encountered ….the one overwhelming attribute is happiness that they willingly, unselfishly and so generously share… and sharing it was it is all about. For as Jesus himself said, it is in giving that we receive.
All 3,500 people in attendance at the Interfaith Summit on happiness came away with some real insights, some big smiles and some real respect for other traditions. In fact, this was only one of several similar summits and conferences held at Emory during the Dalai Lama’s 2010 visit. Another highlight was the Summit on Creativity, which involved a two hour discussion between Richard Gere, Alice Walker and The Dalai Lama….but that’s another story at this point.
All in all, it was an amazing experience and it is true to say that His Holiness is making a huge difference in the way we as conscious human beings look at life, at happiness and at science and creativity. In his recent teachings and constant travels around the globe he is engaging with the best minds there are in a dialogue that is not only meaningful but also much needed. This year alone he held similar conferences and summits at Stanford University and the University of Madison. He takes an active role in the ongoing series of mind and life studies around the world. He also leads and guides the ground breaking Emory-Tibet Partnership and the newly established Emory Tibet Science Initiative in which western students are trained in ancient Tibetan traditions and Tibetan students learn the intricacies of Western Science.
Lots to think about.
So we can all make a difference, by seeking true happiness and making the world just a little smaller, smile by smile. We are all here for a reason and are only here for a relatively short time. Why not make the most of it, respect others, respect others beliefs and be happy?
May your New Year be full of smiles, happiness and enlightenment.
NOTE: Michael Curry is the former founding Director of Hampton Arts (The American Theatre & The Charles H. Taylor Arts Center) and a practicing Buddhist. Curry has attended teachings and received empowerments from The Dalai Lama on numerous occasions, in the United States, Mexico and at Drepung Loseling Monastery and in Sarnath , India. Hampton Arts sponsors a weeklong residency of Tibetan monks each August at the American Theatre.