What Buddha Got Wrong About Happiness
Author's note: The following is an excerpt from a chapter called "On Laughing," from a book-in-progress entitled Monk for a Month.
In the summer of 2005, I entered a Buddhist Monastery for one month in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It is part of the Thai culture for Thai males to become monks at least once in their lives to accrue good karma for the family.
Traditionally, men enter the monastery for three months, but because Thailand has increased its work force, three-month leaves are rare. I spent my time as a monk during a summer off from teaching at a university in New York.
My father had a laugh that shook the house. I loved hearing it when I was younger, this hyena-like chattering, this eruption that exploded from the gut. This laugh had the ability to lighten up anyone's mood. I felt, for the longest time, the world was created because of my father's laughter, not the Big Bang Theory, not God.
What sprung forth from his mouth were planets and moons and comets and asteroids. The gusts from his laugh were the air we breathed. I've learned since my world was created with my father's laugh, my world that he had such influence over when I was growing up. On hearing my father's laugh, I would sputter in uncontrollable giggles. I would be willing to follow him anywhere in life if only I could hear that laugh.
My father's laugh was what I missed most after my parent's divorce, what my mother missed most, though she would never admit it. Suddenly, our suburban house was silent, and this silence was a reminder that we were broken.
I did not tell my father I was becoming a monk. After the divorce he came in and out of my life, calling every six months or so to check in. Sometimes he asked for money. Sometimes he said he missed me. Our phone conversations are full of silences and awkward pauses. After 15 years, I still struggle with forgiving him, and he struggles with mending our distance.
He calls on the third day, after my morning meal. I know it's him immediately. I've developed a sixth sense for his calls. When I pick up I hear his familiar voice. "Ilaaaaaa," he says. "This is your dad."
"I know," I say.
"I am in Chicago," he says. "Where are you?"
"In Thailand," I say.
"Oh shit," he says, an English cuss he has mastered after working years in the tile factory. "You really in Thailand?"
"Yes," I say. "I'm a monk."
"Oh shit," he says. "A monk?"
"Yes," I say.
"Oh shit." And then that laugh, so loud I pull the receiver far from my ear, a laugh from 8,000 miles away, reverberating the phone I hold in my hand.
He asks me where and for how long, and I tell him Wat Phra Singh and for a month. He says that is a prestigious temple and I tell him I know.
"How long has it been?" he says.
"Two days," I say.
"Oh shit." Then another laugh. "Not so easy, is it?"
"It's OK," I say not convincingly.
"It gets better," he says. "When will you be back in the states?"
I tell him the date.
"Oh shit," he says. "You get in, I leave. What's that English saying? Two ships …"
" … passing in the night."
"That's right," he says. He laughs again, loud. "This is good. You have fulfilled one of your duties. Now, you can live the rest of your life without anything hanging over your head."
I wonder if he thinks there is nothing that hangs over his head. I wonder if it is possible to go through life without regret, guilt, whatever else we hold onto, whatever else we can't let go of. I wonder if a laugh, one as big as his, can dispel any hurt we hold inside.
We hang up shortly afterward. He promises to call again. He says I should pray for him and his health which isn't that good, for money which he lacks. I tell him to be safe, to take it easy. I tell him a man his age — 73 — shouldn't fly back and forth anymore. "You're a good boy," he says, laughing. "You've grown to be special."
Thai monks are not supposed to laugh out loud, not supposed to smile and show teeth. Many have confused Buddhism with the iconic laughing fat Buddhas of the Northern school. But Thai Buddhism, the Southern school, is a religion of moderation.
Look, for example, at the statues of Buddha in southern Asian countries, like Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Notice the slight curl of the lips, the beginnings of a smile but not a smile.
In Thai Buddhism, the expression of extreme joy is considered over indulgence, like eating too much, like having too much sex. Indulgence leads to temptation; temptation leads to desire; desire leads to addiction; addiction leads to suffering. Suffering sucks.
This must have been difficult for my father when he was a monk, whose joy is expressed vocally. This is difficult for me now, who by default, smiles at everything. I smile when I'm happy. Smile when I'm sad. Smile when I'm angry. When I'm nervous. When tired. When anxious. My mother has already told me to hide my teeth, to keep my mouth closed. This proves to be impossible because I possess a big smile, a toothy grin. In high school, I was nominated for Best Smile in the yearbook. "You have really awesome teeth," a woman I dated once said. "I love your smile." Moreover, I inherited my father's laugh, and it is this laugh that won my wife over. It is this laugh that induces joy in my family, both in Thailand and in the states.
Perhaps this is my Western brain at odds with Thai Buddhist principles. What is life if one cannot express joy? Why suppress happiness when it bubbles in the chest?
A laugh lifts the spirit. The lack of a laugh has a dissimilar effect. It brings us down, makes us aware of our unhappiness. Laughter, in many ways, is an expression of self-fulfillment. This monk's laughter is his way of connecting with a world bubbling with joy. In the Northern school of Buddhism, the statues of Buddha are so joyous, their mouths wide open, their eyes filled with merriment. I envy that Buddha. I envy that expression. I want to tell my Buddha to chill, to relax, to loosen up. I want to tell my Buddha a joke, perhaps, a dirty one.