Oprah, Buddha, and the Secret to Happiness

16 03 2010

The cover article of O Magazine caught my attention:  “The secret to Happiness: meet the man who’s got it.” Oh, marketing.  Never met anyone who’s not looking for the “secret to happiness,” and to top it off, meet the one guy “who’s got it?”  I was interested.  So, not quite having enough time to get the article read before checking out at King Soopers, Oprah got my $4.50.

     I’m currently teaching through the Gospel of Luke.  The past few weeks we’ve been studying verse by verse through the “Blessed” verses of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6).  In this sermon, Jesus is teaching on the way of happiness (the Greek meaning for “Blessed”).  So, it was in this thematic vein of study that I found Oprah’s interview intriguing.

     I learned that the man who has the “secret to happiness” is Thich Nhat Hanh, an 83 year old Vietnamese Buddhist monk.  I discovered that Nhat Hanh is the founder of “Engaged Buddhism”—a movement that “involves peaceful activism for the purpose of social reform.”[i] Martin Luther King Jr. was so impressed with the work of Nhat Hanh that he recommended him for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.  He led the Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks in 1969, established the “Buddhist Church” in France, and has written over 100 books.  He had a best seller in 1995, Living Buddha, Living Christ.[ii] Oprah who did the interview herself, said this book “never leaves my nightstand.”[iii]

     The article is a running dialogue between Nhat Hanh and Oprah at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan.  Here are a few quotes to give you an idea of the interview:

  • Oprah:What is happiness?  Nhat Hanh: Happiness is the cessation of suffering.  Well-being.  For instance, when I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that are still in good condition…so when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness.  And when I touch it, happiness comes.
  • Oprah: Tell me how we do it.  Nhat Hanh:  Suppose you are drinking a cup of tea.  When you hold your cup, you may like to breath in, to bring your mind back to your body, and you become fully present.  And when you are truly there, something else is also there—life, represented by the cup of tea. In that moment you are real, and the cup of tea is real…That is the moment of happiness, and of peace…
  • Oprah: I never had that much thought about a cup of tea (my favorite line) Nhat Hanh:  We have the practice of tea meditation.  We sit down, enjoy a cup of tea and our brotherhood, sisterhood.  It takes one hour to just enjoy a cup of tea.  Oprah (another great line):  A cup of tea like this? [holds up a cup of tea]…One hour![iv]

The interview continues like this vein for another thousand words or more, but you’ve got the gist of it.  So, what can be said about the philosophy of the man who’s got the “secret to happiness?”  Can we take any of the monk’s thoughts seriously?

     Let me be fair and say that there is something good here.  What Nhat Hanh is saying (briefly here, but with more detail in the interview) is that we need to learn to live more in the moment.  We need to enjoy our “present.”  Even drinking tea can have happiness if we will relax, quit worrying about everything, and simply live more fully in that moment. We can all learn more about living in the present. I’ll admit I might have used a better example than tea drinking, but I also realize that the highlight of a monk life might be the tea break. 

Jesus said something similar:

So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things…34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. (Matthew 6:28-34 NKJV)

On deeper reflection we find that not only do our paths part with Nhat Hanh, we’re not even in the same Tea House of understanding.   

     To better understand Nhat Hanh’s worldview one must understand the underpinnings of his Buddhist philosophy.  Note the first thing out of the monk’s mouth, “Happiness is the cessation of suffering.”  First thing.  Deepest conviction.  Nhat Hanh and all devout Buddhist monks believe that suffering is an illusion because the material world is an illusion.  Our material world is a temporary copy of the real, ideal world, as Plato also taught.

     From a traditional Buddhist viewpoint, all that matters is our soul and spirit.  The material world doesn’t exist.  This is why Buddhist monks become monks—to escape the nonexistent (I know what you’re thinking). Nhat Hanh, with his more “enlightened”[v] Buddhism at least believes in an engagement with the world, but the foundations belie his beliefs.

     The teaching of Jesus is 180 degrees that of Nhat Hanh.  Jesus not only taught us that the cessation of suffering is impossible but that it is in present suffering for righteousness that we find happiness.  Jesus said that real happiness comes through suffering, not in its cessation.  Jesus said that the way to happiness was finding God when we are suffering.   Here’s what Jesus said about the way to happiness,

      Blessed (Happy) are you poor (suffering in the present),

For yours is the kingdom of God.

21  Blessed are you who hunger now (suffering in the present),

For you shall be filled.

     Blessed are you who weep now (suffering in the present),

For you shall laugh.

22  Blessed are you when men hate you (suffering in the present),

And when they exclude you,

     And revile you, and cast out your name as evil (suffering in the present),

     For the Son of Man’s sake.

23  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!

For indeed your reward is great in heaven,

     (Luke 6:20~23 NKJV)

Jesus has given us the “secret” to happiness.  Quite the opposite of Nhat Hanh’s view.  This life involves suffering, and it’s real.  But so is happiness.  If you are going through deep suffering right now, turn to Jesus.  He’s closer than a brother and understands your pain.  He not only understands it, He says that it’s in present suffering that we discover present happiness. 

[i] O Magazine p. 162

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid, p. 192.

[v] Oprah’s opinion, not mine