How to Be Happy

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Sydney, Australia (Archive #724)

A public talk on how to transform problems into happiness, given in Sydney, Australia, on November 27, 1990. Edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron.

Note: Some of these teachings appear in Lama Zopa Rinpoche's book How to Be Happy.

We all want happiness

The main topic I want to discuss is how to free ourselves from problems and find happiness. Every one of us wants happiness, and not only in each minute of our daily life; we want an unchanging, ultimate happiness that can be experienced forever.

Why do tiny insects such as ants run around keeping themselves busy? Because they want happiness and do not want suffering. Whether living under the ground, on the ground, in the water, or in the air, every single creature is looking for happiness. Each one is trying to stop its problems and find peace. Human beings are the same: each one is busily trying to stop their problems and find happiness. No matter where we live, no matter what race or culture we belong to or what language we speak, we wish to be happy and not have problems. Every living being, human and non-human, has the basic wish to experience happiness and avoid suffering.

This is why we need meditation. Meditation brings us peace and happiness and, more importantly, allows us to bring peace and happiness to others. We need to understand the full potential of our mind, and we need to understand the importance of loving kindness, for our own happiness and for the happiness of the world. We need to learn how to transform our daily work so that it becomes the cause of happiness rather than problems, now and in the future. We need to learn how to transform every single experience—health and sickness, wealth and poverty, living and dying—into happiness. In this way we can make everything that happens in our lives meaningful and worthwhile, for ourselves and for others.

Why we experience problems

Both happiness and suffering come from our own mind. Any negative thought, such as ignorance, anger, attachment, or self-cherishing, motivates action and, like planting a seed, leaves an imprint on the mental continuum. When certain conditions come together, this imprint then manifests, and suddenly there's a problem in our life.

All the good things in life, such as health, success, and wealth, also come from imprints. Yesterday you may have been very poor; today you suddenly become a millionaire. These sudden positive changes in your life come from the potential left on your mind by positive actions of love, non-attachment, wisdom, and unselfishness.

Because this is the evolution of our experiences, we can use our own mind to obtain happiness and to eliminate problems. This is the basic function of meditation.

Before a problem is experienced, we have the opportunity to purify its cause. By purifying the potential left on the mind by actions done out of disturbing thoughts, we can become free of problems. The problems we are now experiencing are manifestations of the imprints left on our mind, and these manifest because we have not done any purification. In the same way, because of imprints left on the mind, an action we have done may return in a dream.

For example, you may have been running a very successful business for a long time, but unexpectedly it collapses, bringing a sudden change in your life. Previously you were rich and successful, with no worry about meeting your expenses, but suddenly your day-to-day living becomes a problem. Or you could be healthy and suddenly have a stroke or discover that you have cancer. Or your relationship suddenly becomes disharmonious. Or your house, which has always seemed so beautiful and permanent, suddenly goes up in flames. Your life changes completely.

In the same way, if your plane suddenly catches fire, this is due to an imprint left on your mind. Or you may be walking along a road, completely carefree, when suddenly a stranger shoots you. Or while driving comfortably along in your car, another car suddenly smashes into you and your whole life completely changes.

Why do these things happen? The imprint left on the mind by a past action motivated by ignorance, anger, attachment, or self-cherishing suddenly manifests because no purification has been done. All problems result from unwholesome actions produced by disturbing thoughts. Of course, there is an external condition for the accident, such as the other person losing control of their car because they are drunk or inattentive, but the main cause of this sudden change in your life is the imprint left on your mind, which has not been purified. When the time and conditions are right, the imprint becomes strong and then ripens as a suffering experience. It is like planting a seed in the ground: with the right conditions of soil, water, and so forth, the seed grows to produce a sprout.

But we don't have to experience these problems; we don't even have to experience death and rebirth. There is a solution that prevents these problems: generating the remedy of the path, which removes the causes of these problems, the seeds planted in the mind by disturbing thoughts. By removing these imprints, which are the causes of death, rebirth, old age, sickness, and suffering, one need never experience these problems again.

Even if the environment and beings are filled with the fruits of negativity,
And unwished for sufferings pour down like rain,
I seek your blessings to take these miserable conditions as a path
By seeing them as causes to exhaust the results of my negative karma.
                                                                         (verse 96, Lama Chöpa)

One positive way to look at your problems is this: Even if the environment is full of undesirable things, such as war and disease, or everyone dislikes you; even if undesirable problems pour down like rain, think that these sufferings are all the result of your own past actions and a means of exhausting the potential of your negative deeds. In other words, instead of experiencing problems in suffering realms for many lifetimes or experiencing problems for many years in this life, you can exhaust this karma by experiencing your present problem.

Dealing with stress

Many different conditions can cause stress: the fear of your partner dying or of losing them to someone else, failure in business, loss of a job, illness, or not getting some person or object that you want. With desires focused solely on the happiness of this life, you worry that you will not obtain the pleasures you selfishly seek. This dissatisfied, desirous mind is one of the main causes of stress.

The general method to deal with stress is to look at life in a positive rather than negative way. Looking positively at your problems is itself a meditation that transforms the mind into happiness. Reflecting on the benefits of your problems releases your squeezed, uptight mind and brings relaxation in your heart.

Another approach is to meditate on experiencing the problem you are going through on behalf of others. Think, "I am experiencing this problem on behalf of all other beings. Instead of allowing countless other human beings to experience it, I alone will take all these problems upon myself, so that all others can be free of them." This attitude stops the problem because it purifies the cause of the problem, which is within your mind. Purifying the cause solves the problem. Experiencing your problems in this way keeps your mind happy and benefits others. And when your problem benefits others, it benefits you.

There is a special meditation on loving kindness and compassion in which you give everything—your own body, your own happiness—to others, and with great compassion you take upon yourself all their problems, particularly the problem that you are experiencing, even AIDS or cancer. Recently, in Singapore, one Chinese student who was HIV-positive did this special meditation for one or two minutes a day for four days. When he went to the hospital after the four days, the doctor could not find any evidence of the HIV virus; he had completely recovered. The student practiced this meditation for only four days, but he practiced it very sincerely. He felt much compassion for others, especially for those who also had AIDS. With this short meditation he quickly recovered from his disease.

Remember that you become stressed when you try to do too many things at the same time. When you cannot manage to do everything, your mind becomes tight. So, from among the many things you have to do, first do the one that is most important and of the most benefit. After that, if there is still time, do the second most important thing. If you can manage to do still more, then do the things of lesser importance. By prioritizing your tasks in this way, do what you can, and feel satisfied.

It is also important to think of your positive qualities rather than only the negative. If you see yourself as hopeless, you will become depressed. Think of your wisdom, your education, your compassion, your generosity, the help you offer others. Even though you do have faults, you have many good qualities within you and much potential to help others. You may not feel compassion for everyone, but you do have some compassion. Recall the help you give to other people and feel happy about this. Looking at your life positively and trying to be satisfied with whatever benefit you can offer others stops guilt and depression and brings happiness into your life.

Questioning your labels

Another way to stop problems is to change your view of the problem. Rather than looking at the shortcomings of your situation, seeing it as a problem, look at it as a path to happiness. Instead of looking at your situation as the last thing you need, look at it as necessary. Rather than disliking your situation, accept it and like it. If you look at something as a problem and label it a problem, it then appears to you as a problem. You then find you have a problem. If your mind does not label "problem" on that situation, it won't appear to you as a problem.

When someone dislikes you, for example, rather than appreciating the benefits of it, you feel unhappy and label the experience "bad." However, labeling the situation "bad" is not the problem; the problem comes when you start to believe in your own label, because it then appears to you in that way. Believing your label to be true is what makes life difficult. Before you label "That is bad" when someone dislikes you, there is no appearance of bad. Before you label "He doesn't like me" on that person's negative attitude towards you, there is not even the appearance to you of his disliking you. Again, this appearance came from your own mind.

When you label "He likes me" and believe in that label, what you have labeled then appears to you. You label that person "friend," and because you believe in your label, he appears to you as a friend. You label "enemy" on the person who is angry with you, and because you believe in the label, he appears to you as an enemy. So both friend and enemy come from your own mind. "He likes me," "he doesn't like me,"  "he is helping me," "he is harming me"—all these come from your own mind. You interpret one action as help and another as harm; you label these, and they then appear as help or harm. Both come from your own mind.

When someone treats you disrespectfully or does something opposite to your own selfish desires, you label "He has harmed me." By believing in your own label, you see the appearance of harm. This harm comes completely from your own mind. This apparent harm happened because you put that particular label on his action and believed in your label. When you label that person's attitude or action as harm and start to believe in the truth of your own label, you have a problem. And then you label "I have a problem." After you have labeled the situation as a problem and believed in that label, it appears to you as a problem. You can see that this problem comes completely from your own mind. Your mind created the whole thing.

In the same way, if no one had labeled "Sydney" on this city, if the label "Sydney" had not been imputed to this city in this particular area of Australia, there would be no appearance of Sydney. If someone who didn't know that this city is Sydney suddenly landed here in an airplane, he would not label this city "Sydney." On first seeing the large number of houses and tall buildings, the person would label this "a city," but he would simply see the appearance of a city, not the appearance of Sydney.

Now, when someone introduces this stranger to the place by saying, "This is Sydney," the stranger will then label "Sydney" on this city and believe in that label. After believing in the label, he will see the appearance of Sydney. If there is no belief in the labeling of this city as Sydney, there will be no appearance of Sydney. Only after you believe your own label is there an appearance of Sydney. So the Sydney that appears to you comes from your own mind; Sydney comes from your own mind. Why? Because before the mind labeled "Sydney," there was no appearance of Sydney.

Again, if you don't label "problem," there is no appearance of a problem; there is no problem. By knowing the evolution of how everything is the creation of your own mind, you don't see any point in getting upset or angry. This itself is the practice of patience. By meditating on the reality of how everything comes from your own mind, you immediately stop unhappy, unhealthy minds, such as anger and retaliation, and you stop harming others. Instead, you experience peace and happiness within your heart and have the opportunity to help others and make them happy too. If you are angry you have an unhappy life in which even the environment seems negative. This awareness of reality also stops desire and thus helps to control the dissatisfied mind. In this way dissatisfaction is transformed into satisfaction and immediately there is peace in your heart.

Through meditation, by simply being aware of the reality of your own thoughts and actions, and by analyzing their nature, you pacify your problems and obtain peace and happiness. You find freedom within your own mind.

Practice the five powers and have a happy mind

By practicing thought transformation, we can transform problems into happiness. You may be in a situation that you have to endure because for the time being you cannot change it, but you can learn to cope with it. You can transform the situation to gain peace and happiness. When you are undergoing stress, your own mind can cure it. The following verse contains essential advice as to how to deal with stress and other problems in your life, so that everything becomes beneficial.

In short, no matter what appearances arise, be they good or bad,
I seek your blessings to transform them into a path increasing the two bodhicittas
Through the practice of the five forces—the quintessence of the entire Dharma—
And thus to meditate only on mental happiness.
                                                                  (verse 97, Lama Chöpa)

By practicing the five powers, you always have a happy mind. The first is the power of the attitude. When you get up in the morning, remember that the purpose of your life is to pacify the sufferings of all beings, starting with the person nearest to you—your husband, wife, parent, child, friend—and extending to include all other beings. Think: "The purpose of my being human is to pacify their sufferings and to obtain not only temporal but ultimate happiness for all of them." Then make the determination: "Until I achieve the sublime happiness of full enlightenment, until the time of my death, this year, this month, and particularly today, I will not let self-cherishing control me for even one second. I will never separate for even a second from bodhicitta, the altruistic thought to achieve enlightenment in order to free all beings from all their sufferings and lead them to enlightenment." With the power of this attitude, you plan your life from when you get up in the morning until you achieve enlightenment. You make the strong determination to live your whole life, especially today, for others.

After generating this motivation in the morning, you do all your daily activities—walking, eating, working—for others. As much as possible, do everything purely for others, for their happiness. This is the second power, the power of training, which means doing everything with the attitude of bodhicitta, for other sentient beings.

The third of the five powers, the power of the white seed, involves accumulating merit by doing positive actions in relation to sentient beings and holy objects. By practicing loving kindness, compassion, patience, and morality in relation to others, you accumulate merit. You then dedicate this merit and the merit you accumulate in relation to holy objects to generate the altruistic thought of bodhicitta.

With the fourth power, the power of blaming, as soon as you meet a problem, you remember where it has come from. If you analyze the problems in your life, you will always find a connection between them and your self-cherishing. Your day-to-day problems come from your day-to-day self-cherishing and from your past actions done out of self-cherishing. When a problem occurs, immediately remember that it has been caused by your own selfishness, and heap all the blame on your self-cherishing.

As soon as you blame your own self-cherishing, you stop negative, unhealthy thoughts of anger and jealousy towards other people and have only positive feelings towards them. Your heart opens to others, so there is space to develop loving kindness, compassion, and bodhicitta. By immediately blaming your own self-cherishing, you can transform and develop your mind. Understanding the shortcomings of self-cherishing inspires you to transform your mind into the altruistic thought of bodhicitta, cherishing others.

 The fifth power, the power of prayer involves dedicating the merits from your positive actions to develop bodhicitta.

Whether you experience happiness or unhappiness, success or failure, health or illness, by practicing these five powers, which are the essence of the whole Dharma, you use every experience to develop the two bodhicittas. In this way, your mind will always be happy.

Loving kindness and doing everything for others

Whether other beings receive happiness or harm is completely in your hands. Each one of us is responsible for the happiness and suffering of all beings. Each one of us has this universal responsibility.

If you practice loving kindness, no being receives harm from you, which means they receive peace and happiness. If instead you follow disturbing thoughts, such as ignorance, anger, attachment, and self-cherishing, you directly or indirectly harm every being, starting with the one closest to you.

Instead, practice loving kindness, starting with those closest to you, your family, and then gradually extending your practice to include all living beings. Even if the person you live with is very selfish and impatient, if you practice loving kindness, you will not harm them, and there will be peace and happiness in their life. By having a good heart, you develop a strong mind and a stable life and by being an example to the other person, you will gradually help them to practice loving kindness.

With great loving kindness not only do you not harm others, but you help them. Starting from the person closest to you and extending to include all living beings, you benefit others, and all this help they receive comes from you, is completely dependent on you.

When you get up in the morning, think of the meaning of your human life, think of this universal responsibility: "I'm responsible for all sentient beings. I have to pacify all their suffering and bring them happiness." As you dress, think: "I am putting on these clothes because I need a long life and good health in order to fulfill my universal responsibility." When you are eating, again remember the meaning of your human life. Think of your food as medicine that you need in order to be healthy and to live long. When you go to sleep, again remember the meaning of human life. Because you need to be healthy in order to fulfill your universal responsibility, you are going to sleep, and this too is like taking medicine. In this way all your activities are done for others. You eat for others, sleep for others, live for others.

And remember the meaning of human life when you go to work: "I'm going to offer my services to others because I must pacify all their suffering and obtain their happiness." Even though you are paid to do your work, rather than working simply for your own happiness, think of others. Rather than going to work out of desire or selfishness, go with a positive attitude of loving kindness in order to bring happiness to others.

Remember the kindness of the people who employ you. Because they have given you a job, you are able to enjoy your life; and the incredible opportunity you have to develop your mind through practicing Dharma comes from their kindness. You are alive and have all these opportunities through the kindness of others.

Think that going to work helps your employers, since they need a worker in order to fulfill their wishes for comfort and happiness. If you work in a factory, think that the product you are making will bring comfort and happiness to the many thousands of people who will use it. If you are a teacher, think that your teaching will enable your students to find jobs, to obtain happiness, and to help others. If you are building a house, think of all the people, dogs, cats, and birds that will use the house for their comfort and protection. Remember that you are offering your services to them. Thinking in your heart of the happiness you will cause them, do your work for others.

If possible, do your work with the thought of bodhicitta. If you cannot think of benefiting all beings, at least think of those who will derive comfort from your effort, from your precious time and energy. Consider their happiness. No matter what work you do, keep the thought of others in your heart; the work will be the same, but your attitude will be different.

Motivate like this, and while you are working, from time to time remember your motivation. In this way, all your work becomes virtue, the pure cause of happiness; it will bring you temporal happiness and the ultimate sublime happiness of enlightenment. This is how to integrate work and meditation so that work itself becomes meditation. If you keep these motivations in mind, there will be much happiness and satisfaction in your life.

The more you live your life for others, the more content and relaxed you will be. If you think only of yourself day and night, you will be very unhappy and dissatisfied. For example, if you are walking to work with only selfish thoughts of your own happiness or your own problems, you will be uptight and tense. But while walking along if you suddenly remember that your life is for others, there will be joy in your heart. Remember that you are serving others, rather than using them for your own pleasure. You are not the master; others are your master. Your life is dedicated to pacifying their suffering and to obtaining their happiness. When you think of dedicating your life to others, suddenly there will be joy and satisfaction in your heart, and you will see that your life is worthwhile.

Everything can become Dharma

The great bodhisattva Thogme Zangpo, who composed The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, wrote a few verses of advice for a practitioner who had asked how to practice Dharma when facing problems such as illness.

If the illusory body of you or others is sick, this is good. Why? Because just like doing various spiritual practices, this illness will purify the two obscurations.

In other words, you use disease as a practice, as a path to achieve enlightenment. Just like a Vajrasattva retreat, which involves reciting a powerful mantra to purify all negativities and obscurations, any disease, even AIDS or cancer, this can become a means of purification.

If you do not have any disease, this is also good. Why? The purpose of having a healthy body and mind is to make the human life meaningful.

Why is it important that we recover from disease and become healthy? It is very important to understand the answer to this question. We need to be healthy so that we can make our human life meaningful, not only for ourselves but for all other beings, and practicing bodhicitta is the best way to make our life meaningful. Thogme Zangpo says that the way to make the human life meaningful is to perform only virtuous actions of body, speech, and mind, which are the unmistaken causes of happiness.

If you are poor, this is good. Why? Because you don't have to worry about losing or protecting your wealth, or about competing with others. All quarrels and fighting come from clinging to material possessions; if you don't have possessions, there is nothing to cling to, nothing to fight for.

If you are poor, becoming anxious and depressed about it doesn't help. You can't become rich by worrying; you can't suddenly transform your life and become a millionaire. And it is good that you don't have to experience all the additional problems related with wealth.

It is good to be wealthy. Why? Because you can accumulate more merit, which leads to temporal and ultimate happiness. All good fortune is definitely the result of good karma, or merit.

If you are wealthy, you have the opportunity to accumulate more merit, which is the cause of temporal and ultimate happiness, the sublime happiness of full enlightenment.

If you are to die soon, this is good. Why? Because with the help of positive imprints, you can definitely enter the unmistaken path without obstacles such as disease.

In other words, if you do not die soon, some heavy disease might intervene so that you can’t meditate at the time of death. Without such obstacles, you can enter the unmistaken path; with an alert mind you can meditate on the dying process as it is happening. In this way you will not be reborn in the suffering realms but in a pure realm, such as that of Padmasambhava, or the Kalachakra pure realm of Shambhala; and in that life you can become enlightened.

If you are not going to die soon but will live long, this is good. Why? Since you have received the instructions, which are like the water, minerals, and heat, by practicing while you have the opportunity, you can ripen your mind and grow the crop of realizations.

No matter what happens in your life, transform your mind into happiness. This is the essence of Thogme Zangpo's advice. Whether you are sick, healthy, poor, rich, living, or dying, make it meaningful by trying to benefit others. If you are dying, you can think: "There are numberless beings who have already died, who are dying today, and who will die in the future. How wonderful it would be if I could experience all that suffering by myself alone, enabling them to be free of all that suffering. I am going to experience my death on behalf of all other beings." In this way, you can die with a happy mind; you can use your death in the path to enlightenment.