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The happiness you can grow

by Phra Paisan Visalo, The Bangkok Post, Aug 26, 2007

Phra Paisan Visalo, the abbot of Mahawan forest monastery in Chaiyaphum, discusses how we can achieve true and lasting happiness

Bangkok, Thailand -- True happiness cannot be bought. It is something we have to cultivate ourselves. There is a Chinese saying that "if you want three hours of ecstasy, try gambling. For three weeks of rapture, go travelling. For three months of bliss, get married. Build a new house and you will enjoy three years of heaven. But if you want true and lasting happiness, grow and live with trees."

Growing trees makes us happy not only when we see them blossom and give fruit and shade. We experience the feeling of joy from the moment we put the seeds into the soil, pour water over them and till and take care of the land. As the seeds grow into saplings and eventually bigger trees, so does our sense of happiness. Those who have spent time living in the midst of nature know that what seems to be a life of monotony is actually a blessed life, filled with innate peace and tranquillity.

To have a chance to grow trees, to take care of the environment and to become a part of nature, that is, to me, real happiness. And we should not just be the beneficiaries; we should also take an active role in nurturing our surroundings. Nowadays, such opportunities have become few and far between: The wild woods have been continuously shrinking. Thus we need to join hands in bringing them back. That is the beginning of growing happiness by our own hands.

At the same time, what is no less important is to take care of a "tree" in our own heart. When that flourishes, so will our peace of mind. The question is: How is the tree faring? Is it growing healthily? Or has it been withering away? How much are we attending to this tree in our own mind? Most people may not realise that there is a tree inside them that needs looking after. We may not be at all aware if it is thriving or if it is wilting away. This is because we often spend little time with ourselves.

Much of the time we keep ourselves busy with things from the outside: friends, work, TV, shopping, and so on. We think these things are indispensable. We look outward to avoid the problems inside. The tree in our mind gets neglected. It becomes vulnerable to pests, weeds and drought. But now is the time to go back and nurture our tree.

That is not difficult at all. When we do something good, when we give something away or make someone happy, we are watering the tree inside us. We have been taught to believe that the more we possess, the happier we will be. Thus a number of people think happiness can be purchased; they run after things to fulfil their craving all the time. Few realise that the happiness gained from giving is more profound, more refined; it waters the tree inside our mind. And when that grows, it will give flowers, fruit and shade - an unsurpassable peace - to us.

The Jit Arsa volunteer programmes have drawn a number of people (who volunteer on various projects). Incidentally, many participants talk about the discovery of happiness in the process. At the end of a two-day tree-planting project, a lady confessed that she initially felt overwhelmed at the sight of the barren hills in front of the temple. She felt like she was just a clump of lowly grass. Having planted numerous trees, her spirit soared. She no longer felt like the grass. She now feels like a tree. The tree in her mind has grown. Just two days of working on something useful with other people has given her energy. From the grass, she suddenly became the tree. So it is with us. It is up to each of us - how we would like to grow, take care of and nourish the tree inside. Our happiness is not different from the tree. When it is small, it needs water from the sky, from the gardener. As it grows, the tree does not only grow upwards, its roots also dig deeper into the earth. And when the roots reach enough of the water source the tree will stay green even in a drought because it has a constant supply of water from underneath.

Thus even the dry, parched earth may have some source of water underneath. Some of us may feel every now and then like the sun-scorched earth - desolate, without any hope. We seek happiness from travelling, searching for delicious food, fun and excitement. But such feelings do not last. It is like the tree that still depends on water from the sky. It will wither in the dry season. But the tree with the roots digging deep into the soil, reaching the fount of water inside, will be able to absorb the happiness from within. It is already inside us. When we have time to be with ourselves, to experience the various phenomena of the mind, we will become aware that both suffering and happiness is up to us, to our ability to get in touch with the inner depth inside ourselves.

From giving, doing some good deeds, helping others, spending time with oneself, we begin to touch inner peace and gradually realise true happiness. This is called spirituality. In fact, even in the secular realm, happiness is already within each and every one of us. We are, however, usually not aware of it until something bad happens to us. Only when we get sick do we realise how happy and healthy we were yesterday. Unfortunately, we tend to crave something else, unable to appreciate our own fortune - our ability to enjoy good health, friends, family, having people we love nearby. We usually find it difficult to appreciate our own blessings. Our heart keeps yearning for something else all the time.

During his talk organised by the Komol Kheemthong Foundation (earlier this year), Pramual Pengchan described his climb up Doi Inthanont. Before he reached the top of the mountain he became exhausted and got a lift from a passing driver. On the way down he was in awe of the scenery on either side of the road. He was amazed at the beauty of nature. He then understood that he did not see and appreciate this beauty on the way up because his mind was focused on reaching the top of the mountain. It reflects the reality of life, that people are not happy because their minds are always in the future - in what they call wishes and dreams for wealth, fame, glory and success in their career. They wait for happiness in the future even though it is right in front of us.

People today are not happy because they cannot appreciate the good things they already have in the present. We keep looking for the happiness that lies ahead. And when it has not yet materialised, we suffer. When we run after happiness thinking that we will achieve it at our destination, we forget that we can make it real every day by spending time with our children and with our family, by doing exercise, by meditating or by doing something we love. Instead of concentrating on the future we can begin to pay attention to today - to appreciate what we have in every moment.

To pay attention to the present moment does not only mean to be content with what we have, but also not to worry about the past or the future. Most of us suffer because we carry things that have already passed or worry about what's to come. If we can live with the present, we will become more peaceful. We will have better concentration. But nowadays, a lot of us tend to be more interested in what we don't yet have, or what we have already lost.

To nurture mindfulness, to be constantly alert and awake, is to open our heart to happiness in the present. It helps our mind to reach the inner happiness, the spiritual side of us. Only then shall the wisdom arise and we will not be afraid of anything.

The tree is not afraid of the sunlight. As it grows and branches out, it can transform the sunshine into shade. Its roots are not afraid of waste, because they can transform this into nourishing food, into fragrant flowers and tasty fruit. When we look after our mind, always contemplating with mindfulness and wisdom, we will not be afraid of suffering, loss, pain and even death. We will be able to transform suffering into happiness, misfortune into a blessing. It is like the tree that can transform the heat of the sun into cooling shade, the waste into sweet fruit and flowers.

But we have to invest in all this by growing and nurturing both the trees in nature and the tree in our mind. Only then will they flourish, growing deep and tall, to give us the shade and the happiness.

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