You’re Happy

self other right wrong wasting your life arguing
you’re happy really you are happy

—Ikkyū (trans. by Stephen Berg)

Ikkyū (1394-1481) was an eccentric Japanese Buddhist monk. He’s one of my favorite poets. His poems are direct, poignant, and laden with wisdom. He was very much an individualist and legends about him abound.

Today, I’m going to do a brief meditation on the above poem. I think it appropriate for Advent season, which began this past Sunday. After all, it’s difficult to have peace on earth if there’s conflict — especially conflict within us.

Let’s begin by looking at the second line of Berg’s rendering, which has a bit of ambiguity to it. The line could read:

You’re happy. Really. You are happy.

or

You’re happy, really. You are happy.

or

You’re happy. Really, you are happy.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter how we read the line — because Ikkyū’s point is that we are already happy. Happiness is our natural state.

If that’s the case, then why are so many of us not happy? The answer is found in the first line.

Self-Other. Us-Them. The old tribal mentality of “we are right and everyone else is wrong”. Why is everyone else wrong? Because they are not one of us. They are “them”. And “them” is bad. “Them” challenge us. The others are a threat because they think they are right and we are wrong. Of course, we know they are wrong. Because we must be right. If we aren’t, what is our reason to be?

Ikkyū moves from the self-other dichotomy to the right-wrong dichotomy, which is the natural outcome of self-other thinking, which I noted above.

When we feel we must always cast things into the right or wrong mold, it is then that we have problems. And the biggest problem is conflict. Conflict without and conflict within.

In the third part of the line, Ikkyū bluntly tells us that we are wasting our lives in arguing.

Why is this happening to us? Because we’ve set up these dichotomies, these artificial constructs that lead to arguing and fighting and no happiness. How many friendships end over a fight about something that is actually not important? How many marriages break up because the spouses are constantly arguing over who is right and who is wrong? Too many.

We can look at Ikkyū’s poem this way:

Unhappiness = self other right wrong arguing

Happiness = You

In other words, we, in and of ourselves, are happy. Happiness is our natural state. Happiness, though, disappears when we set up us-them dynamics, because they lead to arguing and arguing leads to unhappiness.

This is why we are advised to cultivate an attitude of inclusiveness. “And the second commandment is like unto it: treat your neighbor as yourself.”

When we treat others as we ourselves want to be treated, the self-other distinction breaks down. Right and wrong breakdown. We cease wasting our lives in arguing — and we come back to our natural state: happiness.

One day, when I was still working, I tried an experiment. I went to the office and smiled at everyone, wished them good morning, and was exceptionally pleasant. I listen to their complaints, told them things could be much worse, and pointed out the sun was still shining. I treated everyone that morning and successive mornings as I wanted them to treat me.

Sure, I got a few looks. But I also noticed I was much happier throughout the day and that I continued to treat others in a very positive manner. Positiveness flowed from the initial act of being positive. And for a little while at least I even saw some of my sour-faced coworkers smile.

If we set aside that which causes conflict, the ego (self) and the other (them), then we eliminate the cause of arguing and are free to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated. And when we do that, then we might see a little bit of peace on earth.

We can only control ourselves. But if we actually do that, control ourselves, we’ll find life to be pretty doggone wonderful.

Comments are always welcome, and, until next time, be a rivulet of peace.

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4 thoughts on “You’re Happy”

  1. Wise, but easier said than done. But, in saying that, I am arguing with both the poem and myself! Indeed, I argue more with myself than anyone else. A sort of negative Gestalt. But there are positive versions too.

    1. That’s the thing about advice, isn’t it? Always easier said than done. Isn’t arguing with yourself part of the process of introspection? That’s how it often is for me.

      As for negative arguing with ourselves, since that isn’t overly productive, it’s probably best if we just changed the subject. 🙂

  2. Nice, CW. From what I know of you that seems like a very different direction, writing about poetry and philosophy. (Have you been reading some strange stuff?)

    I didn’t know you liked those old Japanese poets.
    I like too, even more the Chinese.

    “Always already happy” is a great thing to aim for! Being my best happy rivulet today!

    1. Hey, Andrew! I am reading some strange stuff. 😉

      I very much enjoy poetry and philosophy. The Stoic philosophers in particular and I was very much into Japanese tanka. Not so much anymore. Basho, Saigyo, and Ishikawa Tokuboku are favorites. I haven’t read much Chinese poetry, but of what I have I liked it.

      Let that rivulet become a stream! 🙂

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