Mind is the universal ordering principle, the creator of suffering and the creator of happiness. Everything depends on how we perceive. In turn, how we perceive depends, to a large extent, on what we believe – our view of the world and how it operates.
What do you believe? About:
- The way the world works?
- The purpose of life?
- The nature of the self?
- Your responsibility as a human being?
- The impact of your thoughts, words, and actions?
- Why you suffer?
- What happens when you die?
- Are your beliefs in line with reality as it actually is?
- What is true happiness and freedom?
As we enter into the New Year, take some time to consider if you have an overarching set of beliefs and principles to guide you on your path of personal evolution. Consider whether your beliefs – conscious or under the surface – usually lead you to happiness or suffering.
If your beliefs are bringing you unhappiness, you can pause and adopt a new view.
I didn’t consciously ascribe to a belief system the first half of my life. I just wandered around, bouncing off events, people, and circumstances. Wanting happiness, but for the most part operating on automatic and in reactive mode.
Thus, moments of happiness arrived in a random fashion, but emotional turmoil prevailed to a great degree. Not necessarily constant drama, but the persistent edge of subtle discontent. The itch that needs to be scratched, the small adjustment so life will be a bit better.
A vague set of beliefs began to constellate when I launched into the study and practice of Buddhism. Now, years later, my beliefs are crystal clear guiding principles, ones that I trust will bring me the greatest possible freedom.
The Four Seals
My beliefs line up with the “The Four Seals”, which are the hallmark of what it means to be a Buddhist. But, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to ascribe to this way of seeing the world.
The Four Seals tells us:
- All compounded things are impermanent.
- All emotions are pain.
- All things have no inherent existence.
- Nirvana (the state beyond suffering) is beyond concepts.
More than ideas, these are fundamental truths observed by the Buddha – his understanding of reality as it is.
Radical, to say the least. I sometimes wonder, “How on earth did I ever become a Buddhist?” It’s a demanding path that ultimately requires the full dismantling of the ego. As frightening as that may sound, “ego” in this context means “grasping at a non-existent self”. And that’s precisely what causes suffering.
At first glance, these statements may seem mind-boggling. But, if you really take time to reflect upon them, gradually their truth will become more apparent. Of course, understanding them intellectually is a far cry from realizing them in the core of your being. That might take years. But intellectual understanding is the first step, and can, in fact, completely change your perception of the world and bring more comfort and ease into your way of being.
So what do the Four Seals mean? This is my simple understanding.
All compounded things are impermanent
When two or more things come together, whether in material form or as thoughts, emotions, and sensations, they are impermanent.
Sounds obvious, but most of us are slaves to the illusion of permanence. Then we suffer when change occurs. When we allow the truth of impermanence to take hold in our heart and mind, suffering starts to peel away.
“Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme;
Of all mindfulness meditations
That on death is supreme.”
– the Buddha
All emotions are pain
Most of us would gladly be rid of difficult emotions like anger, frustration, jealousy, sadness and shame. But what about the “good” emotions like joy, happiness, love, and peace?
Even positive emotions remain within the realm of dualistic mind and thus are the source of suffering when we cling to them. The problem isn’t the moment of joy that arises in our experience, but the way we grasp onto it and try to force it to remain and continue. Emotions are just passing phenomena with no substantial existence, but we tend to make them very solid and real. Then, they become the cause of harmful words and actions and we get stuck in a repetitive cycle of suffering.
The solution is to simply be mindful and aware of whatever arises in the mind without trying to fabricate or hold on to any particular state. Ultimately, this will bring a tremendous sense of freedom that goes beyond the limitations of happiness and unhappiness.
“Awareness doesn’t prevent you from living, it makes living that much fuller. If you are enjoying a cup of tea and you understand the bitter and the sweet of temporary things, you will really enjoy the cup of tea.” – What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
All things have no inherent existence
This bring us to emptiness. On the level of mind, Mingyur Rinpoche explains:
“The sense of openness people experience when they simply rest their minds is known in Buddhist term as emptiness, which is probably one of the most misunderstood words in Buddhist philosophy. – The Joy of Living, Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
On a physical level, take the example of a cup. There is no such thing as a “cup” that exists permanently or independently. When you really take a look at it, what is the cup? Is it the handle? Is it the inside? Is it the outside? Is it a moving arrangement of atoms? When you investigate, you can never really find a permanent, singular, independent cup.
“Cup” is just a label for various parts that have temporarily come together due to causes and conditions and will, at some point, also fall apart due to causes and conditions. For example, if you drop the “cup”, there’s a good chance it will break.
Emptiness isn’t voidness, but the potential for anything to appear, change, and disappear depending on causes and conditions. Emptiness and appearance are inseparable and everything that occurs is interdependent.
“Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form.
Emptiness is no other than form,
Form is no other than emptiness.”
– The Heart Sutra
Our problem is the tendency to attach permanence to the display of temporary phenomena swirling around us – from material items to thoughts and emotions – and that, more often than not – brings about suffering.
Attachment and aversion soften once we realize that life is more like an ever-changing dream, bringing more spaciousness and ease into our life. At the same time, we understand that, due to interdependence, our thoughts, words, and actions have a definite effect – either helping or harming. Thus we act responsibly.
“Always recognize the dreamlike qualities of life and reduce attachment and aversion. Practice good-heartedness toward all beings. Be loving and compassionate no matter what others do to you. What they will do will not matter so much when you see it as a dream. The trick is to to have positive intention during the dream. This is the essential point. This is true spirituality.” Life in Relation to Death by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche
Nirvana (the state beyond suffering) is beyond concepts
Enlightenment is not a place or a state. It’s freedom from believing everything to be permanent, independent, and singular, and thus freedom from suffering. It is the recognition of our own pure awareness, constantly present within us, inconceivable and inexpressible. We’re so identified with our thoughts and emotions, we fail to recognize this pure awareness, which is like the sky hidden behind the clouds, but always there.
Does Your View Bring Happiness or Suffering?
These are the guiding principles in my life. I’ve been studying and reflecting upon them over the past few weeks in order to better understand and integrate them into my way of seeing and being. I realize they may be difficult to grasp if this is your first encounter with these ideas. But you might let them simmer a bit and see what resonates for you.
Your view may be different than my view. You may believe in God, nature, love or something else. The main question is do you have a view? And, does it bring you and others happiness or suffering?
What do you think about having a view? Do you have one? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Sources: This particular translation of The Four Seals is from What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. This wonderful book explains The Four Seals in a way that is engaging and accessible for modern people.
Thank you so much for reading. If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others. May you be well, happy, and safe – always. Love, Sandra