How Can We Create A Happy Life For Ourselves And A More Just Society?

[This is a lecture I gave for the students who completed a program called Youth School on June 4, 2016 in South Korea.]

You have learned two main things in this program. One is thinking about how you are going to live your life. You probably want to be free and happy. If you make more money, achieve a higher social status or become more popular, do you think these things will give you more freedom and make you happier? That may be true in the short term but not necessarily in the long run.

For instance, when you drink alcohol, you feel good in the short term, but in the long term drinking is bad for you. Likewise, having more money, a higher social status and more popularity can make you happy in the short term. However, in the long term, those very factors can become sources of unhappiness. Therefore, we need to think about what is the true path to happiness. Often what was once a reason for happiness can eventually become a cause of suffering.

Many of you may not agree with me. Many people only want to experience pleasure in their lives and avoid suffering. But if you live long enough, you will come to realize that like the south and north poles of a magnet, suffering and pleasure cannot be separated. If you divide a magnet in the middle and throw away the south pole, does that leave only the north pole? No, the south pole still exists. Like so much in life, unhappiness is attached to happiness. Unhappiness remains even if you try to cut it out and throw it away. Pleasure does not exist alone but together with suffering. That is life.

But most people fail to realize that happiness and unhappiness are a pair that cannot be separated. A few realize on their death bed that life is a cycle of suffering and pleasure. But such a realization is harder to come by when you are young. If you realize this when you are young, you would be able to live a freer and happier life.

We can let go of our obsession with pleasure if we understand that the true nature of pleasure includes suffering. But we are not able to sever our obsession because we fail to see the suffering embedded in pleasure. For instance, within a marriage, there is conflict and suffering. That's why you must be fully prepared for conflict when you get married. If you perceive that the essential nature of marriage includes both pleasure and suffering, you will have a good marriage. But if you get married with only pleasure in mind, your marriage could fail because you are not prepared for suffering. If you divorce, you might feel relieved because your suffering would go away, but then another suffering, loneliness, could emerge. To get rid of that suffering, you could get married again but the same cycle will repeat.

A delicious meal that is poisoned should not be eaten, no matter how tasty it might be. We eat to live not to die. So no matter how good food looks or smells, don't eat it if it contains poison.

But some people ask if it would be ok if they just have a bite because it looks and smells so good. The Buddha would say it is up to you whether you eat it or not but just know that it is poisoned.
If you eat that food, you must be prepared to suffer or die. It's all right if you eat that food as long as you are prepared to accept the consequences. The problem occurs when people eat the food and think they will not get sick. When you borrow money, it's all good when you are spending it. But you don't think about the obligation to pay it back. That is why life is so exhausting. This is suffering. But don't think that life is agony when Buddhism teaches us that life is suffering because life is a cycle of both suffering and pleasure. One doesn't exist without the other.

Then what causes suffering? Our desires cause our suffering. We all have desires. We feel good when our desires are met. We call that pleasure. But if our desires are not met we don't feel so good. We call that suffering. Pleasure and suffering are merely mental phenomena that occur when our desires are or are not met. Therefore, when we become obsessed with a desire, the cycle of pleasure and suffering inevitably emerge. Of course, it's hard to eliminate desire itself because we are creatures that live in a world of desires. But we can choose not to let our desires control us. I'm sure you think that what I'm saying sounds rational but you may find it difficult to accept emotionally. Nevertheless, the reason I'm telling you this is because I want to warn you that when you are suffering, don't dwell on your suffering or think it is somehow unfair.

We do not exist on our own. If we existed on our own, we wouldn't have to care about other people, only ourselves. However, our very existence involves living together. Therefore, humans are social and historical beings. A social being means that humans live connected with each other in terms of space. A historical being means that humans are linked by time. This means that you can be connected to your parents, your children, your ancestors and your descendants. Your current mental state is not a problem that concerns you alone. Your parents' mental state played a major role in creating your mental state. The social environment around you when you go to elementary, middle and high school as well as college is also important. In other words, the kind of environment you grew up in greatly affects your current state of mind.

Because the society we live in affects our lives, we need to understand social issues to the same degree we understand our own personal problems. We need to bring about social change so that we can live more freely and happily.

So how can we create a society where everyone is happy? The answer lies in political issues. People must participate in politics with a clear understanding of social questions. People must cast votes to improve institutions and elected people must work to solve social problems. But many young people don't vote because they are not interested in politics. That's why problems are not addressed and politicians always seek to represent only people with vested interests.

Many of you have a hard time because of a conflict with another person or with your family. Is it right to waste your energy that way? Because that's what we are doing right now. First, we are using our energy to torment ourselves. Second, if you hate something or someone, you are the one who will suffer. Nevertheless, we spend our energy on engaging in conflicts with our parents, children, siblings and co-workers. That's why we do not have the energy or interest to deal with social contradictions which have a more fundamental impact on our suffering.

Buddhist practice will help you live without engaging in conflicts with others. You can then use the energy you save toward the development of society. For the sake of such development, we must all unite to create social values, including fair competition, establishing social safety nets, unification that provides vision, and peace that guarantees our safety.

I hope that you will create personal goals and goals for our social community. I hope that this program will serve as the basis for creating new visions for our society. I hope that our graduates will go on to become fine political leaders, social leaders, public employees and teachers who will take part in movements aimed at realizing social justice and not movements that are focused on protecting personal interests.