Cuong Lu studied as a monk under the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village in France for 16 years. After that, he was a prison chaplain in the Netherlands, and now he is a Buddhist teacher.
Below, Cuong shares five key insights from his new book, Happiness Is Overrated: Simple Lessons on Finding Meaning in Each Moment. Listen to the audio version—read by Cuong himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Suffering is a truth, not a problem to be solved.
We all want to be happy, and we think suffering prevents us from being happy, that suffering and happiness cannot be present at the same time. But suffering is not the opposite of happiness or a problem to be solved. Suffering is a truth to be recognized. When we look deeply at the truths in our lives—without glossing over or denying them—we become present for what is, including the meaning of our suffering.
The first step in transforming suffering is to change our way of understanding it. Suffering is not the enemy. To calm and center yourself, you can say, silently, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out,” as you breathe in and out. When you feel calmer and safer, you can add: “Hello, my suffering. I am here for you.” Doing this, you’ll already feel better, even before the suffering subsides.
The Buddha taught Four Noble Truths. The first is that “suffering exists.” He did not describe suffering as a problem; he called it a truth. Suffering is a part of life. It is not an anomaly; it belongs; and we can learn from our suffering.
2. There is something called “raw mind.”
Our senses are the doors of perception. Our minds receive data through these sense doors and process it. We can call this dimension of consciousness ordinary mind. In ordinary mind, we judge things as good or bad, right or wrong, joyful or miserable.
“As the mind of nondiscrimination, raw mind embraces everything.”
There is another part of the mind that is wild and irrational, has no beginning or end, and is always present. I call this raw mind. As the mind of nondiscrimination, raw mind embraces everything. It is like the ocean, and the sense-consciousnesses of ordinary mind are the waves.
In raw mind, there is no good or bad, right or wrong. There is no separation between you and others, only the seamless continuity of interbeing. Everything simply is. Raw mind is a sanctuary deep within us, an oasis of peace. The path of practice helps move our point of reference from ordinary mind to raw mind.
3. We are interconnected.
Sometimes we feel completely alone, that no one understands us. But when we look deeply, we see that that is impossible. It’s a feeling that comes from ordinary mind. When we experience life from the vantage point of raw mind, we know that we are interconnected with everyone and everything.
One day when I was still a monk, I was sitting with Thich Nhat Hanh alongside a bed of red poppy flowers. He looked at me and said, “These flowers are so beautiful because they are impermanent.” I just listened. Then, a year after leaving the monastery, I awoke from a deep sleep and suddenly I understood. I am not my perceptions, emotions, or ideas. I was empty of ordinary mind and filled with the whole cosmos. A deep peace came over me, and I stayed in silence enjoying the penetrating spaciousness of interbeing.
Thanks to the presence of raw mind, we can touch the interbeing nature of things. Raw mind connects. We are deeply connected with all beings past, present, and future. We are all children of the same Mother Earth. Allowing this insight to enter us, we never need to feel lonely again.
4. Happiness is overrated.
We spend a lot of time pursuing happiness and when we obtain what we think will make us happy, at some point it will dissipate or run out. So, we pursue it again.
This kind of happiness is overrated. It is not better than suffering. It’s the other side of the same coin. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha teaches that happiness and suffering are equal. Ordinary mind differentiates between happiness and suffering and has its ups and downs. Raw mind sees happiness and suffering with equanimity and remains neutral about it all. Enlightenment is not a giddy state of ebullience or a zombie-like state of flatness. It is being alive, feeling happiness when it is present, and feeling suffering when that is our plight.
“Raw mind sees happiness and suffering with equanimity and remains neutral about it all.”
True happiness has an interbeing nature. It does not have a cause, and it can’t be possessed. It is not associated with an external or even an internal object. It is not something we can buy, experience, or even meditate our way toward. True happiness can only be touched, and nourished.
5. We all have a timeless home that we can return to at any time.
Inside each of us is a timeless home, where our ancestors and all future generations abide. Time and space are products of ordinary mind. In raw mind, there is neither time nor space. To think you are living in the now is an illusion. You think you will be on this planet for just a moment, and then you’ll be gone forever. You think you are small and insignificant.
In the timeless realm, the past, present, and future are one. You dwell in the past, present, and future at the same time. When you die, you simply return home and become one with your ancestors and children. But your ancestors and children are also present when you live, and you can support them by the way you lead your life—the ways you meet adversity, the ways you enjoy each day, and the ways you consume. Your ancestors can be proud of you, and your children and their children are grateful because you are giving them a beautiful future. Living this way helps you be free from fear, even the fear of death. Buddhists call it timelessness, and it is your true home. There is always connection and a boundless love that nourishes us.
To listen to the audio version read by author Cuong Lu, download the Next Big Idea App today: