The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Happy Thought’, A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885)
Once upon a time, there was a rich man. As he became older, this rich man realized that the suffering of old age was about the same for rich and poor – in other words, in the end his money didn’t mean as much as he thought. So he gave up his wealth and class position, and he went into the forest to study under an old master and live as a poor monk. He practiced meditation and developed his mind. He freed himself from unwholesome thoughts and, slowly but surely, he became contented and happy.
At that time, most monks usually looked pretty serious. But there was one monk who, even though he was quite dignified, always wore at least a little smile – this monk was the person who used to be rich man. No matter what happened, he never lost this glimmer of inner happiness. And on happy occasions, he had the broadest smile, and the loudest, warmest laughter of all. Sometimes others would ask him why he was so happy all the time. He usually laughed and said, “If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me! And if you think I lied to you, then it would be a disrespect to my master.” His master, the chief monk, was so impressed by him that he made the happy monk his assistant.
Much later, after the rainy season, the chief monk and his many followers went to the city. The king permitted them to live in his royal garden for the springtime. This king was a good man, who took his responsibilities as ruler seriously. He tried to protect the people from danger, and to increase their prosperity and welfare. But, of course that doesn’t mean that he had no troubles in his life. He always had to worry about neighbouring kings, some of whom were unfriendly and threatening. He often had to make peace between his own ministers because they wouldn’t stop bickering among themselves, not to mention his personal life – Sometimes his wives fought for his attention, and for the advancement of their sons. Occasionally, a dissatisfied subject even threatened the life of the king himself! And, of course, he had to worry constantly about the finances of the kingdom. In fact, he had so much to worry about that he never had time to be happy.
“The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large” — Confucius (500 BC)
As summer approached, the king learned that the monks were preparing to return to the forest. As the monks were living in his garden for a season, the king had gotten to know them quite well and he was very impressed with the peacefulness and welfare of the old leader. So the king went to him and said, “Your reverence, you are now very old and weak. What good does it do to go back to the forest? You can send your followers back while you remain here.”
The chief monk then called his number one assistant, the happy monk, to him and said, “You are now to be the leader of the other monks, while you all live in the forest. As I am too old and weak, I will remain here as offered by the king.” So his many followers returned to the forest and the old one remained.
The happy monk continued practicing meditation in the forest. He gained so much wisdom and peace that he became even happier than before. After a while, he missed his master and wanted to share his happiness with him. So he returned to the city for a visit.
When he arrived, he sat on a rug at the feet of the old monk. They didn’t speak very much, but every so often the number one assistant would say, “What happiness! Oh what happiness!”
Then the king came to visit. He paid his respects to the chief monk. However, the one from the forest just kept saying, “What happiness! Oh what happiness!” He did not even stop to greet the king and show proper respect. This disturbed the king and he thought, “With all my worries, as busy as I am looking after the kingdom, I take time out for a visit and this monk does not respect me enough to even recognize me. How insulting!” He said to the senior of the two monks, “Venerable sir, this monk must be stupid from overeating. That must be why he is so full of happiness. Does he lie around here so lazy all the time?”
The head monk replied, “Oh king, have patience and I will tell you the source of his happiness. Not many know it but this happy monk was once a king, just as rich and mighty as you. Then he was ordained a monk and gave up his kingly life. Now he thinks his old happiness was nothing compared to his present joy. He used to be surrounded by armed men who guarded and protected him. Now, sitting alone in the forest with nothing to fear, he has no need for armed guards. He has given up the burden of worrying about wealth that has to be protected. Instead, free of the worry of wealth and the fear of power, his wisdom protects himself and others. He advances in meditation to such inner peace, that he cannot keep from saying, “What happiness! Oh what happiness!”
Hearing the story of the happy monk made the king feel at peace. He stayed for a while and received advice from both of them. Then he honoured them, and returned to the palace. Later the happy monk, who once had been a king, paid his respects to his master and returned to the lovely forest. The old chief monk lived out the remainder of his life in the king’s garden, lending him peace and advice, until his peaceful death.
Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.
English translation by W. H Auden (1907 – 1973)
This is an Old Irish poem written by a monk in the ninth century – about his cat. I would really like to show you this because it’s such a gloriously happy poem about the life of the old monk in his study with his cat as his happy companion, Just as the scholar goes in search of knowledge, so his faithful companion goes in search of mice.
“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less” — Socrates (450 BC).
The Happy Monk is one of the many stories in the Jataka Tales. The Jataka are a voluminous body of literature concerning the previous births of Gautama Buddha in both human and animal form. The tales are dated between 300 BC and 400 AD.