In The Good Heart The Dalai Lama commented on the Beatitudes of Jesus (‘Happy are ..’) from a Buddhist perspective. I remember his look of concentration as he read them, perhaps for the first time, and explored their meaning. His first, to me surprising, comment was that they expressed the law of cause and effect.
This is helpful. Some Christians think of happiness (a feature of heaven) only as something that is given by God as a reward for being virtuous. They will often also identify virtue primarily with self-denial rather than, as Plato saw it, as the fulfilment of human potential. If happiness is not a lifestyle product we acquire by seeking to possess it, nor is it something that we earn merely by moral behaviour or religious observance. The subtle thing about happiness is that it is a natural result of something, part of a cause-effect process but, when it pours over us, it feels like sheer, unconditional gift.
The Beatitudes link happiness with blessedness and capture this subtle quality in paradoxical truths that are both surprising and obvious. Like the first one, that “Happy are the poor (or the poor in spirit) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does poor or poverty of spirit mean? And what on earth is the kingdom of heaven? These and the other questions provoked by a spiritual teaching of the depth of the Beatitudes implicate all the values and meaning of our lives. They deserve to be chewed, pondered and discussed regularly. Try swallowing one of the Beatitudes after each meditation in the run-up to Holy Week.
With the first, you have only to see that you have just been practicing it. The mantra is intended to make you as poor as possible. It is much harder to say when you think you are saying it to enrich yourself. But when you see it is about divesting yourself of your possessions it becomes easier – the effort you need to say it becomes better attuned to its essential simplicity. Possessiveness begins with the thought ‘this is mine’. This is such a snake-like thought. It slithers into everything, hides itself well and can strike out with its poison in a flash. We can feel sure that we are not particularly possessive until something threatens us and then we defend our right to ownership and control to the last drop.
Poverty (of spirit) entails laying aside our thoughts, all thoughts because ‘this is mine’ invades and occupies them all. All thought is fumigated in meditation. The result of this is the capacity to enjoy which possessiveness destroys. When we start enjoying what is, without clinging to it and without covert plans to own it, we have already slipped here and now into the kingdom of heaven.