By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
Buddhist happiness isn’t like getting-laid happy, or first-drivers-license happy, or even my-wife-just-had-twins happy.
I hate to keep harping about my short, uneventful two years in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, but the parallels between Buddhist and Marine Corps philosophies are striking. I’ve joked before about the two most formative times in my life, which happened in all-male environments where everybody wore the same outfits.
Buddhist happy is kind of like being, or having been, a Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine. No one gets to wear the EGA but us. We are ethically pure, tough as nails, and trained to fight and kill. That may have been almost 50 years ago, but no one can take that away from me. Buddhists call those who don’t conduct themselves well in life ignorant, as is ignorant of the dhamma.
In the Marines, we called them Shitbirds.
Being a Marine is not like buying a new car. Having been a Marine is abiding. So is Buddhist happiness. The Buddha sayeth, “My heart’s deliverance is unassailable.” It was one of the first things the Buddha said after he achieved enlightenment.
There is so much unhappiness in the world—unhappiness and ignorance. Even some of my Buddhist friends are unhappy. They’re the ones who know that unhappiness can be fixed, but they’re not quite sure how that works. I point out that their Buddhist practice has already made them much happier than what they were before. Meditate with vigor to remove the delusions that make you unhappy, particularly the ones in which someone is to blame for your unhappiness. It’s a delusion, frequently full of hate.
You are responsible for your own happiness, and when your mind is strong enough, you can choose to be happy—abiding Buddhist happy—which may require some explanation.
It’s kind of like having served your country, or getting a college education, or being an athlete or an artist. Once metta has entered your life, and Buddhist strength of mind, it can’t be taken away from you.
A couple of years ago I slipped on some wet leaves, tripped over a curb, and fell face first into an open case of Trader Joe’s wine. I’ve done some significant pain in my day, and if I can handle a torn ACL, I can deal with anything injury-related. I broke my jaw, bit through my lip, and my mouth—teeth askew like you wouldn’t believe (I have pictures). My left canine was nearly sticking out of my nose.
But I felt calm, even as I soaked a couple of towels with blood. On our way to the emergency room, my wife had to stop a couple of times so I could spit out the blood in my mouth, which was clotting. I felt even calmer when they gave me a shot of morphine.
Aw, hell, it could have been worse. I reminded myself of Jack Crabb’s observation in Thomas Berger’s book Little Big Man, that it can be a source of amusement to watch yourself knit back up after a wound.
Breaking my jaw had an up side: it meant that my health insurance could pick up the cost of the extensive repair work that would be necessary to reconstruct my face, even though my dentist did all the work. He wired up my jaw, and I lived on milkshakes from Steak and Shake for the next six weeks.
I was in his chair weekly (it seemed) throughout the reconstruction, for months. I didn’t take the gas, which cost extra, but I did smoke marijuana before I went. I didn’t lose a single tooth, even the one that was sticking out of my nose, though he capped several and the nose-tooth doesn’t have feeling in it anymore. The end of the process? My dentist and his assistant did a high-five over my stretched-out body in the chair. They nailed it. Six months later and it was almost like it never happened.
It didn’t get me down, even through the pain. And I could chant in my head and the pain would lessen, Buddham saranam gatchameeee, Dhammam saranam gatchameeeee, Sangham saranam gatchameeeee…
My wife, who I think is astonished that I haven’t shot someone yet since I got my conceal carry permit, said that I “was very Buddhist” throughout the whole thing.
Hey, it was my first broken bone. For weeks I could say to other people, “You shoulda seen the other guy.”
Some things can’t be healed. But you can get past them by neutralizing the emotions you feel whenever the memories or thoughts arise. That’s what “letting go” means, and that takes work—serious meditation with the goal of emasculating your trauma so you can let go of the power it holds over you, and prevents you from living an actualized life. It means that when you wrestle with the “it’s his fault” delusion, even if it is his fault, and you triumph over it, you are considerably happier as a result.
You must come to the conclusion that your identity doesn’t rest in the bad things you’ve endured. They’re in the past. If you live in the past, you have depression, and if you live in the future, you have anxiety. Mindful living is free of useless distractions. Mindful living comes from a strong mind.
You meditate, and meditate, and meditate, until most of your delusions are gone, including the big, fat, juicy ones like having a soul. As you meditate on the emptiness of everything, you tend to increase your loving kindness, compassion, unbounded friendliness, and need to connect. Why? If there is no afterlife, what’s preventing me from just being a seeker of pleasure? There is nothing in the afterlife worth striving for, so why don’t I take up murder as a hobby?
Because the fountain of happiness comes from metta: loving-kindness, compassion, unbounded friendliness, and the need to connect to others. That is the stuff of happiness. You serve others who are in need. It elates you, and that kind of elation stays with you in the form of pleasant memories and a sense of overall satisfaction with your life, an abiding sense of contentment. It’s like being a Marine. Happiness lies in compassionate service to others, and this includes artists, singers, musicians, writers, actors, film makers and elite athletes. They’re the people who make our lives interesting and fun.
Can you control your thoughts and emotions, or do they control you? It’s a good thing to sit still somewhere in a quiet room and think about that.
Editor: Dana Gornall
He wrote Buddhism for Dudes as a not-so-subtle, basic examination of the essence of Buddhist philosophy. It’s short and funny and to the point. “Way too much Buddhist information is too complicated to wade through, and some of it is fairyland voodoo, full of metaphysical improbabilities. Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a way to live a happy life. This is not hard stuff to understand.”
Stribling writes a blog called Buddhism for Tough Guys. “There are lots of tough guy Buddhists out there willing to take a bullet for anybody. One of their mottoes is ‘Just because I am a person who loves peace doesn’t mean that I have forgotten how to be violent’.” He once broke up an assault with a little kitchen broom. “It’s my best story,” he says.