Compared to American students, Tibetan Buddhist monks have a different way of looking at happiness, as several students from Worcester State University learned during a three-week study abroad program in South India this summer.
Six participants in the program shared their thoughts on the nature of happiness during interviews shortly before their return to America in June.
“Happiness is actually wanting to get up in the morning,” Nicole Despotopulos said.
Another participant focused on contentment.
“Happiness is feeling content with who you are as an individual,” Dalena Truong said.
A third participant defined happiness in terms of contentment and remaining in the present.
“Happiness is being content with what you have and being in the moment—not wishing for something else,” Kelsey Penny said.
Ryan Mercier considered negative emotions in his estimation of happiness.
“Happiness is a satisfaction with life, where you don’t have any negative feelings toward one thing or another,” he said.
For Timothy Jarvis, the elements of a quiet mind and peace are of the utmost importance.
“Happiness is being content, having a quiet mind, and being at peace with yourself and others around you,” Timothy said.
During the three-week study abroad program, participants interacted with monks and nuns at Namdroling Monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near the small town of Bylakuppe in Karnataka, South India. Among other things, they learned how monks view the subject of happiness.
Lopon Pema Wangdak, a monk given the title of “lopon” to indicate completion of the nine-year program of study at Ngagyur Nyingma Institute (philosophical college) at Namdroling Monastery, explained the Buddhist idea of happiness.
“There is no exact meaning of happiness,” Lopon Pema said. “We can be happy while we suffer. It is all in how we take the situation.”
Lopon Pema gave an example of how to maintain happiness in the wake of death.
“If my parents die, suffering can be changed by my mentality,” he said. “Death is a natural phenomenon.”
Khenpo Sonam Tsewang, a monk given the title of “khenpo” to indicate the completion of the nine-year program of study and an additional three to four years of teaching, explained why human beings fear death.
“We fear death because we are attached to our bodies,” Khenpo Sonam said. “Attachment comes from ignorance. Where there is attachment comes fear.”
Tolerance is another important concept within Buddhist philosophy. Lopon Pema used the example of divorce to illustrate the meaning of tolerance.
“Divorce happens all over the world,” Lopon Pema said. “There is no tolerance or understanding in the couple. Something is wrong with the way we convey our love. The most important thing you should have is tolerance.”
Buddhists believe that all human suffering has two sources: karma and afflictive emotions.
According to Lopon Cheki Dorje, karma is the action of paying attention. Lopon Pema added that karma is the action of cause and effect.
“If you do good, you will reap good,” Lopon Pema said.
Afflictive emotions include self-grasping and ego, Lopon Cheki said. Self-grasping is when we want things for ourselves, and we become attached to those things, Lopon Cheki explained, and ego is when we see ourselves and not the rest of the world.
According to Lopon Cheki, the way to be free of suffering is to get rid of self-grasping and ego.
Buddhist teaching describes five poisons that every human has: attachment, hatred, ignorance, pride, and envy. Clinging to these five basic poisons causes suffering, Lopon Pema said. By removing these poisons from our lives, we can achieve happiness.
Khenpo Sonam added that most people fail to notice that the mind is the root of happiness.
“Each one of us wants to be happy, but our perspective is toward developing the outside rather than the inside,” Khenpo Sonam said. “The search should be inside, not outside.”
Buddhists believe in the concept of cause and effect. One monk used the example of a carpenter wanting to make a table. To make the table, the carpenter needs a hammer and nails. If he has good materials and good measurement, the product will be wonderful, the monk said. Anything happens because of cause and effect, another monk said. If the cause is good, the effect will be wonderful. If the cause is bad, the effect will be evil, he said.
Meditation is a fundamental practice in Buddhist philosophy. Khenpo Sonam explained the purpose of meditation.
“When we focus on one particular object, fear goes away,” Khenpo Sonam said.
Meditation also helps dissipate worry.
“We worry about what is going to happen, or we worry about the past that haunts us,” Khenpo Sonam said. “However, when we meditate, all these worries go away.”
Khenpo Sonam said that fear, worry, and stress happen because we are not in touch with reality. The purpose of meditation is to put us face to face with reality, he said.
Khenpo Sonam also described a solution for loneliness.
“A person who prays for all beings has no space for loneliness,” he said. “That person’s mind is full of interest to benefit others.”
Buddhism is based on the teachings of Buddha, who was born in the area currently known as Nepal in the fourth century BCE. Monk Tshewang Namgyel explained the history of Buddha. Buddha’s father wanted his son to be a great king. He did not allow Buddha to leave the palace. However, one night during a party, Buddha left the palace for the first time. Outside the palace, he saw people who were old, sick, and dying. According to Namgyel, Buddha asked: Why do we all have to become old, sick, and die? To find the answer to this question, Buddha ran into the forest, where he meditated under a big tree for six years. Through meditation, Buddha found the answer to his question.
According to Lopon Pema, Buddha knew the truth of everything.
“We have the capability to be like him,” Lopon Pema said.
Lopon Pema admitted that becoming a monk changed the way that he thinks and acts. He said his friends outside the monastery complain about how difficult life is.
“I feel fortunate I do not have to face these problems,” he said. “I am sharing with my friends how to tackle their problems. You should be tolerant and have patience.”
Note: Participants in the three-week study abroad program in South India included: Professor Cleve Wiese, Fay Bcharah, Carol Chester, Nicole Despotopulos, Debora Dias, Christina Duplease, Christina Faria, Timothy Jarvis, Ryan Mercier, Kelsey Penny, and Delena Truong. While in India, they resided at Namdroling Monastery guest house near Bylakuppe, South India. His Holiness Penor Rinpoche established Namdroling Monastery in 1963, after fleeing Tibet due to political unrest.