5am. As I crawl out of bed and peer out the window of the Monastery Guest House I see smiling monks of all ages off to the morning meditation session. Their gong had woken me up and, although I was desperate to get back to sleep, they were wide awake, smiling and ready for the day. How could they be so happy at 5am? How could they be so happy living in such bleak conditions, alienated from their country and with nothing more than the robes on their back?
In this post I want to show you a few things that a desolate Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in the Himalayas taught me about happiness. Hopefully their example might inspire you too.
Who are these monks and why do they have it tough?
The Monastery I am talking about is in a small Himalayan town called Tso Pema in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Tso Pema is a pilgrimage site for many Buddhists and I was there on one of my annual trips to India. It was the first time I had stayed in the Monastery Guest House and the first time I had been awoken by the gong; the western man’s mortal enemy.
After staying there for a few days I came to learn a bit about the monks. Many of them were new arrivals from Tibet meaning they had fled their home land in order to escape Chinese persecution. Most of them came to India to practice Buddhism; something that is now prohibited in Tibet. They had no money, passport or family. All they had was the monastery and their fellow monks.
But they were all extremely happy.
There was no trace of fear or desperation in the monks. They weren’t begging me for money or for a VISA to America. They weren’t bitter towards the Chinese or angry at their shitty living conditions. In fact, being around them was extremely uplifting. You left the monastery feeling light, hopeful and very inspired.
In my eyes these monks are not ordinary beings. There is something special about them. They live their life. They are happy. And they inspired me to become more happy myself.
What a desolate Tibetan Buddhist monastery taught me about happiness
When my time at the monastery had come to an end I realized I had learned a lot about being happy. I felt as if I was now better equipped to come back to my western home and cope with all the crap that modern life throws at you. I would like to share a few of these thing with you now.
Happiness is not “things”
The first thing that you learn living in a remote Buddhist monastery is that happiness does not depend on having nice “things”. The monks don’t have anything. In fact, their monastic vows prevent them from owning anything but the most basic of life’s utilities – a begging bowl, a set of robes and a pair of shoes. They don’t have “things” like we do.
Many people in western society spend a lifetime accumulating nice things. We buy 101 inch plasma televisions, designer shoes and imported leather couches. We think this junk will make us happy. But it doesn’t. As I wrote about in this post all it does is leave you feeling empty later on in life when you realize that you haven’t achieved anything meaningful.
Now I am not saying that in order to be happy you need to give everything away. You don’t. But what you do need to do is just be mindful of the fact that new things won’t make you happy. It might give you pleasure for a while but it is not going to last forever.
Happiness is not attachment
Think about all the things you are attached to. You are attached to your way of life, your friends, your family, you car, mobile phone, political party, nationality, hometown, sporting team, sexuality, religion, etc. The list is endless. We are so attached to these things we just couldn’t bare to lose them.
But the monks have almost no attachment. Actually, they actively try to work against getting attached to things because they think it leads to suffering. If you get attached to something you close yourself off to happiness because you need that thing to be happy. Listen to what one of Tibet’s greatest meditation masters had to say about losing his home country to China in the cultural revolution:
“Clinging to a beautiful country is like clinging to a dream. It is utterly useless.” – Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
The monks showed me that it is not the bad things in life that cause misery but my attachment to the good things. Suffering is all about one’s perception. If you are attached to something and you lose it you will suffer. If you are open and free and you lose something it will not bother you so much. Try to be less attached.
The best happiness comes from helping others
Every morning the monks get up and go into a big prayer room and retake their Bodhisattva vow. This is a vow that states that they will use every thought, word and action to benefit other beings. There are many different version of this vow but here is the one my monastery recited:
“May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road;
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.
May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,
And a lamp for those who long for light;
For those who need a resting place, a bed,
For all who need a servant, may I be a slave
Thus, for every single thing that lives,
In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
May I be their sustenance and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering”
– Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life
The monks did not merely pay lip service to this vow. They lived it. They always did what they could to help others and never turned their back on something or someone that was suffering. This compassion and love pervaded everything they did and gave them a deep sense of happiness. They often explained to me that seeking happiness for oneself brings suffering but seeking happiness for others brings happiness.
Happiness depends on yourself
The biggest lesson that the monastery taught me was that my happiness depended on me. No one else. At first I struggled with this concept but now I think it is perfectly correct.
Think about how often we place our happiness in other people. The best example might be our partners. We depend on them so often for our happiness. If they are grumpy, we are grumpy. If they yell at us, we feel bad. If they leave us, our life goes to hell. We are completely dependent on them. We do the same with our boss, our work colleagues, our friends, etc. We are forever placing our happiness in other people.
But the monks don’t buy this. They don’t agree that you should depend on others for your own happiness. They believe that happiness comes from within, not without. It comes from working with you own mind and knowing that you have a choice as to whether you live and angry or a happy life. And the choice is yours to make. Not someone elses.
Spending time in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery was one of the best things I ever did. The monk’s example inspired me so much and allowed me to take control of my own happiness. I no longer cling to “things” for my happiness. I no longer rely so much on other people but instead look inside for answers. And I now really believe that helping others is the best way to be happy. That’s why I started this blog!
How happy are you?