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The Alchemy Of Happiness

by Kulaprabha

Kulaprabha – The Alchemy of Happiness


The original audio recording of this talk is available here:
http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=LOC39
I thought that writing this talk would be quite straightforward. I’ve talked
about the brahma viharas so often, and when I was meditating one morning a
title I really liked leapt into my mind: the alchemy of happiness. I thought
‘Happiness – sukha – the precursor to Insight - positive emotion - brahma
viharas … that’s it! And ‘alchemy’ conjures up a bit of mystery: change,
transformation, purification, the search for truth. Great! I’ve got it!’

But actually writing the talk has been very different. I struggled for two
months to find a structure. I could just have redone one of my old talks, but
bearing in mind that on this convention we’re trying to investigate the whole
system of meditation and how well it may or may not work, I knew I had to
put the brahma viharas into that context, and that’s where it all refused to
come together. Either everything seemed completely obvious - what could I
possibly say to you that you wouldn’t know already? - or nothing seemed at
all obvious and it all floated in and out of focus, a bit like my eyesight these
days.
Last weekend I was on the phone to a friend of mine and I told her that I was
struggling to make this talk come together, so she gave me a bit of advice. She
said: `Well Mum, stop trying to make it into a talk. Just tell them what you’ve
been thinking about. Maybe it will be a series of wee talks. But stop trying to
do it. If you haven’t done it in two months you’re not going to do it now, are
you?’ Those sounded like words of wisdom, and I decided to do it that way
and leave it to you to make sense of it. So this is not the talk about the alchemy
of happiness, and I don’t think it has any system at all. It isn’t joined up; it’s
like bits of a jigsaw puzzle which you may or may not be able to piece
together to glimpse some kind of picture.

The question is, how do the brahma vihara practices support the other three
aspects of this system of meditation? In my introductory talk I mentioned that
the model I like for the system of meditation pictures it as four mutually
conditioning elements, each propped against the others like sheaves of corn,
so that no one practice is pre-eminent and they only work if all of them are
there. I want to consider positive emotion in that way too. I also like to think
of the brahma vihara practices as helping us to create a mandala of happiness,
for ourselves but not only for ourselves. And then, when I was thinking about
what to say, the mandala of happiness changed to a crucible of happiness –
which in a sense is about going beyond happiness - and that’s the image that
began to interest me most. Perhaps the mandala of happiness connects more
with the supporting factor of mindfulness, in which case the crucible of
Page 1 of 11 happiness would probably link more with the element of spiritual death and
spiritual rebirth.
Last night when I was lying in bed not sleeping very well I thought that
maybe the trouble I’ve been having with this talk is that the title is bigger than
I thought. To begin with I was just thinking ‘Happiness = brahma viharas’ but
since then I’ve come to think that it’s more that the brahma viharas are
doorways into happiness. Happiness comes from practising them, but it’s
much more than that; it has to do with stillness and stability and reliability,
qualities that are themselves the source of the brahma viharas. So there seems
to be a mutual conditioning going on here.
Let’s have a look at what the Buddha had to say about the brahma viharas.
This is from the end of the Kalama Sutta. ‘One who is a noble disciple, devoid
of greed, devoid of ill will, undeluded, alert and resolute, keeps pervading the
first direction, the east, as well as the second, the third, and the fourth, with
an awareness imbued with goodwill. Thus he keeps pervading above, below,
and all around, everywhere and in every respect, the all-encompassing
cosmos, with an awareness imbued with goodwill, abundant, expansive,
immeasurable, free from hostility and free from ill will.’ And then he goes on
to say exactly the same about pervading all directions with an awareness
imbued with compassion, with gladness, and with equanimity – all of them
everywhere and in every respect, the all-encompassing cosmos, with an
awareness that’s abundant, expansive and immeasurable. So that is the
outcome of practising the brahma viharas. It’s quite something, isn’t it? It tells
us how the world, the cosmos, would benefit if I, if you, if we, were really able
to embody the brahma viharas and communicate and act from them. The
whole world would benefit, not just the part we like and the people we prefer.
It’s one of the basic qualities of the brahma viharas that they are inclusive,
based on the wisdom of sameness, seeing the potential in every human being.
Yes, you can also see differences and different courses to be taken, but it’s
inclusive; no-one is missed out.
Another thing that strikes me about the set of four practices is that they are
complete. Whatever feeling, whatever vedana arises, however pleasant or
unpleasant, if we are practising the brahma viharas, the appropriate one
moves in and blocks off the potential we have for craving and aversion. So
whatever vedana arises, if we practise these four meditations and put some
effort into them, we’re going to be able to respond positively.
So first, metta, often described as loving kindness, appreciation and open-
heartedness. Secondary benefits from practising the metta bhavana include
confidence, loyalty and faith. And yes, it’s significant that you start the
meditation with metta for yourself. It isn’t a leap into the all-encompassing
cosmos. But every time we do a brahma vihara practice, we make a deliberate
intentional effort to go beyond personal preference, and the aim is to practise
this, on and off the meditation cushion, until it becomes natural, so natural
that it becomes a samskara. Samskaras are deeply ingrained habits and we all
Page 2 of 11 have lots of them - some of them all right, and some definitely not. But we
don’t just have them, we can develop them. Like other meditation practices,
the brahma viharas can be built up until they become positive samskaras, the
natural response to whatever arises. Sangharakshita refers to them as the four
great rational emotions, because they are the appropriate, even rational
responses to whatever arises. They are developmental, ‘bhavana’ practices –
that is, they are about becoming something. But although they are about
changing, you can’t do them without being able to be in the moment. Moment
by moment you’ve got to be able to be with yourself, otherwise those positive
mental states are just not going to become.
One of the definitions of the Pali word sukha is ‘longing for happiness’. The
Pali dictionary also mentions bringing happiness, giving pleasure,
participating in happiness; agreeable, pleasant, successful, blessed. (I really
like ‘blessed’.) It also says that sukha is a sense of ease, and pleasant to
associate with. And it lists a word I hadn’t come across before, sukhita, which
means happy or blessed or glad. In the Visuddhimagga Buddhaghosa says,
‘Bliss is that which thoroughly uproots the ills of body and mind.’ If rapture is
like the experience of a weary traveller who sees water or a shady wood, then
bliss is actually enjoying the water or entering the forest shade. So sukha has
all these associations. Also, one who dwells in happiness has put away the
five hindrances. A mind which lusts for many things through sense desire is
not concentrated on one thing and will not be able to enter meditation. A
mind harassed by ill will does not proceed at once, but hesitates and
procrastinates. If it’s overcome by sloth and torpor the mind is unwieldy and
if it’s struck by perplexity and doubt it doesn’t go forward on the path. But
one who has developed sukha, happiness, experiences none of those
hindrances. So the four brahma viharas - loving kindness, sympathetic joy,
compassion, and equanimity – are like four unobstructed doorways into a
deeper level of stillness, happiness and bliss. The mind becomes a mandala
with four doorways and in the middle a deeper level of happiness still. They
are also described as four great catalysts of being.
There is a natural relationship between integration and positive emotion,
mindfulness and metta. In her talk Viveka said she’d been thinking of them as
two sides of the same coin, and I agree, and would add my image of the
sheaves of corn supporting each other. When I’ve felt that mutual support,
the experience has become the occasion for the arising of faith, especially faith
in the effectiveness of what I’m doing. Of course, it doesn’t last. Well, I don’t
know how long that kind of experience lasts for you, but it doesn’t last long
for me. But the fact that you’ve done something once, and that you ...

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