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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What is happiness?

I was raised in the Anglican Church in a parish in Canada. As a teen I taught Sunday school. But the Anglican Church was not for me. When I left my teens, I left the church. (Although I did return for a number of years when I discovered that the young man who had been a curate at my original church was now the minister of a local Anglican church. When he left, retired, I left, also retired.)

Last year I attended a Buddhist ceremony in a temple about ten minutes from my London home. I find Buddhist koans and Christian parables have a lot in common. Each Christmas, kind of odd when you think about it, my wife gives me a small Zen Buddhist gift - a book of koans, for instance.

Now that my granddaughter of four months is starting not only to smile but to laugh with little shrieks of pure joy, it makes me think of the story of Han Ong.

Today's post is inspired by a talk given by Zen Master Seung Sahn entitled: What is Happiness, What Is Sadness?, given in London in 1978. This talk has become quite famous. My version will never be so well known or oft quoted.

What is Happiness, What Is Sadness?

Han Ong was a student of Zen Master Ma Jo. Everyone, on learning that Ong's master's was Ma Jo, would tell Han Ong, "You're lucky; You must be happy." He would reply, "What is luck? What is happiness?"

Han Ong had a horse which he rode every day and everyone said, "You're so lucky." He'd reply, "What is luck?"

One day the horse was stolen and everyone said, "You're so unlucky." They asked, "Are you unhappy? Are you sad?" Han Ong replied, "What is luck, or happiness or sadness?"

Everyone agreed, "This man has no feelings.''

A week later Han Ong replaced his lost horse with a much better steed for which he paid a very fair price. Everyone said, "You're lucky; You must be happy." He replied, "What is luck? What is happiness?"

Han Ong's son also liked the horse and he rode it every day. Then one day the horse balked and threw Ong's son hard to the ground, badly breaking his leg. Everyone said, "We're sorry your son broke his leg. How unlucky." Han Ong only shrugged his shoulders.

Soon after this, there were a string of wars between North China and South China. All the young people joined the army but for Han Ong's son who had a lame leg after having broken it so badly. He could not go; He had to stay home and help his parents. His leg was not so bad that he couldn't work in the garden and help his parents. Everybody said, "You're so lucky. You must be happy." Han Ong replied, "What is luck? What is happiness?"

But many who heard his words thought they saw a smile --- a twinkle in the old man's eyes --- as he turned and rode away on his horse, his son holding on tightly behind him.


I've messed with this story but then I'm not a Buddhist. For an accurate telling try the blog, Handful of Sand and scroll down to A Day of Mindfulness.

Little Fiona is only four months old. She still has a clean little mind, unencumbered with language and the labels that come with language. She appears to feels happiness and sadness. But she doesn't appear to have much memory.

She seems to take life as it comes. If it's good, she makes the most of it. She doesn't let the horrors of a recent bath sully the quiet pleasure of being held in grandpa's arms. She lives in the present.

And they asked Fiona, "Are you happy?" The little girl couldn't reply but many thought they saw a smile - a twinkle in the little girl's eyes.

And they were right; She was laughing at the question and thinking: "Happy? What's happiness?"

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