counting stars for happiness

The first dream we have in the New Year is called “Hatsu Yume” in Japan. There is a traditional custom of determining whether the New Year will be lucky or unlucky based on the features of this dream. The first dream (Hatsu Yume) is the dream which you have the night of January 1st. It cannot be the night of December 31st, because that night is the night before the New Year, and people, since olden times, have spent that night celebrating the New Year without sleep. The features of "Hatsu Yume" which predict good fortune are: 1st, to dream of Mt. Fuji, 2nd, to dream of a hawk, 3rd, to dream of an aubergine. There are many explanations of the significance of dreaming of these things. A reasonable interpretation is that Mt. Fuji is the most beautiful and highest mountain in Japan, a hawk is a bright and brave bird, and an aubergine is called "Nasu" in Japanese, having the same pronunciation as the word for “accomplishment". Paronomasia (word-play) is very important in traditional Japanese culture, even to this day. The popularity of these dreams was already in existence at the beginning of the Edō period (400 years ago). This custom shows people's innocent hopes or wishes to have a good year and become happy. 

Since ancient times, human beings have lived with the desire to be happy, and have always sought happiness. Even now, we continue to seek. “Happy”, or “Happiness", is the most common and popular word in all the world, among all people, from young to old. It is used in expressions such as “happy holiday”, “happy marriage”, “happy retirement” and “happy life”. There is also an article on human rights about “The pursuit of happiness” in the constitution of Japan. The word “happiness”, which people love, has an attractive sound - one of tenderness and peacefulness.

However, do you know the word of happiness contains an unexpected meaning which we don’t normally recognise? Please think of a time when you felt happy. In most cases, when we realise we’re happy, we judge ourselves as being lucky or happy after we have checked and compared our situation to that of other people’s. For example, when we see sick people, we react in our mind, "Ah, I am happy, I have good health.” Haven't you had such a feeling? When you met a handicapped person, "I am lucky, I am not handicapped". Haven't you also felt that? If your child was involved in a school bus accident, and a neighbour’s child was killed but your child was safe, then you would say in your mind, "God saved my child!" You would realise your good luck and happiness. In the same manner, when we feel unhappy, as you know, we also take the same comparing way. For example, your next door neighbour is rich - they have a big house, car, dogs, etc., and all are luxurious and gorgeous. When you compare their situation with your own, you feel very poor and say, “I am so unhappy.”

Being poor does not necessarily mean being unhappy, but a mind which compares ourselves with others is poor, and the cause of unhappiness. We cannot notice this by ourselves. 

Can we not evaluate our happiness independent of others? We always compare our own happiness with others’ unconsciously, and judge whether we are happy or not. This is not the pursuit of happiness, but the competition of happiness. This competition needs both winners who feel happiness, and losers who feel unhappiness or who are in a poor or miserable situation. Behind the good sound of the word “happiness”, we should know that there lies this bitter reality. This is a very unhappy matter. It may be very difficult for us to awaken understanding of this because we live in a materialistic society.  

There is a teaching in the Lotus Sūtra called “shōyoku chisoku”(少欲知足) which means  living with little want, yet knowing contentment. For example, even though you might not have so many material things, if you have the minimum amount of food needed to nourish your body, the minimum clothes to keep warm, and a roof over your head and are able to live safely every day, you can realise the value of happiness. Also if you have a healthy body, you can enjoy a sense of well-being and realise a solid happiness. Individually, we each have original happiness. There is no need to be jealous of others, or to compare yourself to others. This is not competitive happiness, but an enlightened lifestyle leading a full life with minimum desires. Therefore, if there is an unhappy person, you can show your compassion sincerely. If there is a lucky person, you will be able to be happy with and for them naturally. 

There is an interesting story about happiness:

Once upon a time, there was a young man in a certain town. His name was Idai. He worked very hard every day. He was a kind, gentle and good young man, loved by everyone. He had a wish: He wished to become happy. Actually, he did not think of his situation as unhappy by himself, but he longed for the word of “happiness” and he thought of it as ideal. On the other hand, sometimes he wondered what happiness really was. Every morning he went to work at a certain time, and returned home at a certain time every evening, and sometimes he felt the emptiness of life. “What do I live for? Do I work to live or live to work? Is this the life I wish for?” He often asked himself this question while walking home after work. 

Over the course of time, he also had questions about life - “What is a happy life?” He would think of his friend who worked very hard to support his wife and children, and wondered, “Would I be happy with such a purpose?” He had another friend who wanted to buy a big house, and worked very hard during the day as a carpenter and at night as a blacksmith. To save money, he patiently went without his favourite food or the clothes he preferred, and he continued on with such a hard life. If he died accidentally before getting the house, Idai thought, “What would the purpose of his life have been?” Idai felt suspicious about such conventional lifestyles. He believed that, “Happiness is a more noble and exceptional thing.”

One day in the early evening, Idai was thinking under a big tree on a hill at the back of his house. Suddenly an old man appeared before him. The old man wore a white robe, had long white hair and a long white beard, and walked with a long cane. He said to Idai, “I am an ascetic. I live East of Mt. Gṛdhrakūṭa. What is troubling you young man?” At first Idai was upset, but soon he calmed his mind and answered, “To tell the truth, I want to be happy, but I don't know what happiness is. I want to know the meaning of happiness.” The old man was smiling and said, “Ha-ha! You are thinking of happiness. You had better do whatever you like rather than wanting to know what happiness is, don't you think?” “Yes sir, I think so too, but when I try to do whatever I like, I often feel empty, as if I am wasting my life, because I don't know the meaning of happiness.”

“Oh, I see, well, if I told you I know the meaning, what would you do?” Idai was now curious and replied, “Is that true? If so, please tell me. I will do anything for you.” “Oh! You will do anything for me! But you are still young, no need to be reckless in learning about happiness. If you find out what happiness is, you will not necessarily be happy. In some cases, if you come to know the truth, you might become unhappy.” “Please sir, I must learn. If I continue the way I am, my life will feel dead.” “If you say so, I can teach you, but it will take time.” “No problem, I have lots of time.” 

The old man also said, “I don’t mind, but you might regret it in the future.” “I am already used to regrets.” “Okay!” the old man continued, “Darkness is coming; many stars will come out and twinkle in the sky. Count the stars! Once you have counted the stars completely, I will give you the answer.” The old man repeated once more, “Count all the stars!” and he disappeared.  

Since the day he met the old man, Idai started to count the stars every night. One by one, he counted carefully. However, some nights the sky was cloudy or rainy, and when the seasons changed the star's locations shifted. It was not so easy to count them. When his friends or neighbours visited his house, he had to stop counting, as he could not concentrate properly to count the stars.  

Before long, he gave up all association with his friends or neighbours, and he also reversed daytime and nighttime. He slept during the day, and he counted the stars at night. However, even though he had stopped associating with everyone, sometimes people would call on him and annoy him. At last, he moved into the isolated mountains to be alone, built a small lodge and continued counting the stars. In his spare time, he got water, collected firewood and looked for food, and somehow he managed to survive in the isolated mountains. Day after day he continued to count and record the number of stars. Accordingly, the time passed - 10 years, 20 years and more. He was getting old, his eyesight was getting weak and his memory short. He no longer counted as well as he did when he was young. He forgot about the stars he had already counted, and would recount the same stars again and again. In the meantime, he noticed, the young man he once was had now reached 90 years of age. Idai perceived that he would die soon, before he could complete counting the stars.  

At last, the day came. Idai was lying in his bed; his breath was getting weaker. He realised his life would soon come to an end, but he had not yet finished counting the stars. He was mortified, for he was dying and still did not know true happiness. Tears filled his eyes, along with deep regret from his heart, “For what purpose did I count the stars?” Then, the old man he had met so long ago appeared beside him. “How was your star counting? Have you counted them completely?” the old man asked.

Idai replied, “No, not yet Sir, now I feel so sorrowful, I did not count them all yet and soon my life will end. I feel a deep emptiness, so miserable and lonely. I don't have any friends, I don't have my own family. Now I am dying alone.” Idai continued, “I have sought the meaning of happiness in order to be happy. Now without knowing, my life is ending. If I had known this would be the result, I would not have wanted to know the meaning of happiness. I regret this deeply.” The old man replied, “As I told you! It is meaningless to know the meaning of happiness. Since olden times, many people have tried to know the meaning of happiness, but each time at the end of their lives, they were so lonely and miserable. Now I can tell you the meaning of happiness. To tell the truth, happiness is not a result, it is a process. Also, there is no particular style or form of happiness. You cannot touch happiness and take it by the hand. It is a process. Only you can feel and realise happiness by yourself. Happiness is a sensible and perceived thing within your mind. Therefore, at any time, or under any circumstance that you feel happiness, that moment is true happiness. When you sense unhappiness, your mind is exhausted, even though you are actually happy.”

“In order to know what happiness is, you counted the stars. You awoke during the night when people slept, and you slept during the day when people were active. This meant that you refused to associate with people, make friends and of course even have your own family. The truth was that the people, friends, and family which you refused, were elements and ingredients for your happiness, and they were also a process for you to realise happiness. Happiness is not special, there were already many elements of happiness around you.”

Finally, while Idai was listening to the answer, he could not stop the tears flowing from his eyes, “I sought happiness with all my mind in order to be happy, but there was no need to seek happiness, it was around me already. My unhappiness was caused by too much longing for the word of "happiness" to notice the truth. Now I know what happiness is. This is the answer!” After a while, Idai whispered, “My dream came true at last, I attained happiness, even after all this time.” He took his last breath silently and peacefully. The old man held Idai's body, and flew to the East of Mt. Gṛdhrakūṭa in a cloud.

Everyone wishes for happiness. Therefore, we easily become confused by "competitive happiness". Happiness is not a competition but is to be felt and realised by yourself throughout your entire life. Also, happiness itself cannot be a goal in your life, because it is a process of how you can be happy. Happiness cannot exist by itself, but always progresses along with your dreams, hopes, goals, and the ideas and actions of your life. Thus, becoming happy means that the process to live forward for a goal or a dream can be happy, and as a result, we can realise a happy life. 

Please keep the teaching of "shōyoku chisoku" (少欲知足) in your mind, and pursue your happiness in the New Year.