Last week at temple we learned that the Chinese character for happiness evolved from the shape of handcuffs. When the Mongols were caught invading China, many of them were shot dead on the spot, but some were handcuffed. Compared to their dead comrades, the handcuffed men were “happy.” The point of the lesson was that the things of this world that make us happy are all relative in nature. We are happy compared to our previous condition. Or, we’re happy because we think we have more than someone else. Sometimes we are thrilled about achieving something only to become depressed when we see that someone else has done much better.
But, while we were learning this lesson, I began thinking. We can look at handcuffs and happiness in a different way. We normally think of handcuffs as a bad thing because they restrict our freedom. We can’t move as easily and our range of motion is curtailed. But, the truth is, you also can’t get into as much trouble. There are certain things you simply cannot do. And, if you’re handcuffed to someone, you must work together, whether you like it or not. Only a childish person craves absolute freedom. As we grow up, we realize that making commitments is a type of handcuff. When we commit to a career or a job, we can’t do other things. When we commit to a person, we lose the opportunity to meet other people.
However, as we mature, we realize we are at our best when we know the parameters of the game we’re playing. Every game has a set of rules. You cannot just do “anything.” If you could, the game would make no sense, and would not be much fun. Without red lights and green lights, traffic would be deadly. Without deadlines and appointment times, we could never rely on each other. Very little would ever get done.
This idea came to me because I met someone last week who appears to be so afraid of commitment of any kind, that they are unable to schedule an appointment even a few hours in advance. Everything has to be a last-minute proposition. They don’t even give out their contact information. You have to wait for them to contact you. I was shocked to discover this and immediately felt sorry for them. What a cowardly and difficult way to go through life. What a burden it must be to be so unreliable. In the short run, perhaps they feel they are “happy” because they are “free.” However, in the long run, you cannot build a foundation for a successful life this way. And I would argue that they are neither happy nor free because they are trapped by their habits.
So, although handcuffs represent relative happiness – comparative happiness that doesn’t last – we cannot live successfully without them. Relative happiness – money, beauty, relationships, status – fluctuates, fades, and disappoints. However, the very nature of temporary pleasure arouses the frustration that ultimately leads us to seek Absolute Happiness. Absolute Happiness is when we know why we are here on this earth, and what will happen to us after we die. That kind of peace of mind allows us to wear our handcuffs with joy, dignity, and courage. That peace, in turn, shines a light that attracts and inspires those around us. True freedom is found in commitment – to the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, to all conscious beings, and to the care of the planet.
Peace and love,