Happiness in a Begging Bowl

(image via Patrick Hendry)

(image via Patrick Hendry)

Last year I was in a Shiva temple in southern India. Coming down a long set of incense laden stairs I came across the poorest human I had ever seen (and that is saying something in India). He was somewhere between sixty and eighty--hard to tell given his condition—and wearing a filthy red loin cloth which barely covered his emaciated body. He was also a leper and so had parts of his hands, feet and face missing. His only possession was a dirty wooden begging bowl. I struggled to hold my gaze on his matted hair, yellow eyes and dirt covered face. I was filled with pity for this poor human being.

He looked at me for a few seconds with piercing eyes, and quietly asked, "Are you happy?"

Rather than give a perfunctory response, something called in me to be as honest as possible. Maybe it was the incense, maybe the prayers or the place but I looked him directly in the eyes, paused and honestly said, "Yes. Today I am very happy."

He then smiled though a mostly toothless mouth and blissfully beamed, "Me too!"

This stands out as the single most remarkable moment of my time in India and this man a profound teacher. I dropped a handful of rupees into his bowl and we parted knowing I had gotten the better deal in the interaction.

Here’s something to consider. The United States is the richest, most powerful country on earth, but only 17th on a national happiness scale--Nigeria being number one. We have become so focused on attainment rather than joy that our happiness has suffered as a result. A small clue can be found in the writings of Rabbi Zelig Pliskin; “When you personally are happy, it doesn't make any difference what others have. The way to counteract envy is to increase your own level of joy. By mastering joy, you become free from envy.” In Buddhism, "empathetic joy", the capacity to feel happiness at someone else's success is one of the highest forms of spiritual attainment.

This beggar knew joy. It radiated from him and touched me as I walked by. Today sitting back home in my comforts, worried about little problems that in retrospect will of course seem paltry next week, I am again called to wonder how such a man could be happy? His lack of everything valued by the west did not prevent him from feeling a bliss that many would envy.

I think it is a lesson for us all at this time to consider:

1. What is the foundation of my own happiness?
2. How much of my joy is based on “stuff”, i.e. things, position, money, etc.
3. Is it working for me?
4. What patterns of addiction keep me connected to this short-lived emotion?

If every day we ask the question, “Are you happy?” where would the answer take us?