The best time I ever have in my life was when I was a Theravada Buddhist monk.
The day starts off at 4:00 AM. At this ungodly hour, I woke up every day to chant for hours the Pali Cannon, a holy Buddhist text, in an ancient language I do not understand. Afterward, it is time for alms. I walked into the village with two thoughts in mind: the uncertainty of having enough food to eat and the certainty of having to withstand the pain of walking barefooted into the streets full of sharp pebbles, and sometimes even glass shards. Once I am back at the monastery, whatever I get, I must eat. In the alms bowl, it is not uncommon to have your curry mixed with your dessert, and your soup with chocolate. What was once seem “delicious” quickly dissipated. Worse, this “food” is the only meal I eat per day.
I was living in a tiny wooden hut built ten years before I was born. The toilet was, to say the least, dirty. Occasionally, snakes, vipers, scorpions, spiders, and centipedes would show up uninvited in my room. As part of the training, I couldn’t even kill even a bug although there were bugs everywhere. Thus, I would have to live in the constant fear and annoyance of these guests. I could not listen to music. I could not dance. I couldn’t even run. I had no money of my own. The only thing I got going for me was an alms bowl and a pair of monk robes. That’s all. It would not be far fetch to describe such experience as “putting yourself in prison.”
What good then would this kind of experience ever bring to a man? Why not just go to a beach and enjoy the sun? Or stay at a five stars hotel? How is it possible that I would even consider it as the best time I ever have in my life? Let’s me explain how.
What do we normally do when a mosquito bites us? We swat it, right? What do we do when there are bugs and animals visiting your home? Well, you build a better home, one which could wall ourselves against unwanted bugs and animals. What do we do when we dislike a job? We quit and get a better one—one which suits us better. The point here is that we, humans, often solve our problems in life by changing the reality to fits our wants. But what I learn by being a monk where my environment was, more or less, static is that it forces me to learn more than just trying to change what is outside but, more importantly, what is inside.
Waking up at 4:00 AM everyday wasn’t easy; but at the same time, it taught me the virtue of being punctual, dutiful, and disciplined—traits which are imperative for one to be successful in life. Eating one meal a day taught me humility, patient, moderation, and perseverance. The mixed bowl of food was not there to torture me. It was there to teach me that if I could be happy with so little, how can I not be happy in the real world where I could eat anything I want as much as I want. True, chanting was meaningless. However, it taught me an essential lesson that there will be times in life where you have to do meaningless tasks and work with illogical people although you disagree, dislike, and get nothing out of it. The chance of encountering annoying bugs is actually less than the chance of meeting annoying people. So if I couldn’t even learn how to be with bugs then forget about learning to be with people. My job as a Buddhist monk was to find happiness regardless of the condition. So was it the bugs’ fault that made me unhappy? Or was it my inability to accept the bugs that was there in the first place doing its job as it was designed to do while I was not doing mine? Was it the dirty toilet’s fault that I was unhappy with it or was it my resistance to the reality of the toilet that causes me to be unhappy?
Of course, happiness can be achieved by changing the world to be like how we want. But is that always viable when death, sickness, and old age is a certainty? or that we can’t always ask life to only gives us the “good” and never the “bad”? Clearly, such approach to happiness is not enough to make one happy. There will always be times when it is impossible to change the reality according to what we want. Happiness is as much about changing the world to fits our want as it is about changing ourselves to the world. For one to be happy, therefore, one must learn how to change/master oneself. This is where real strength originates. There isn’t much to overcome by changing what is outside of ourselves. This is where humans truly flourish. This is where one can learn how to better oneself as a human being and benefit not only for oneself but for the world. This is where true happiness is found—a happiness which stands like a rock above the river of positivity and negativity called “life.”
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