Monk praying - The Monk's Tale

Excerpted from The Monk’s Tale: Stories about Happiness by Nathan Tamblyn, in which the author philosophizes on the transient nature of happiness and the good, using stories about a monk’s life to illustrate his thoughts, and offers readers five guided meditations. 

Happiness cannot be permanent. Happiness is transient by nature; it comes and goes. Like every experience, it consists of its ingredients, and those ingredients never stay the same.

We might go for a walk two days in a row, but the experience will not be identical. The temperature might be lower, the clouds heavier, the breeze more persistent, the sounds more muted, the smells sharper. There need not be big differences, but they will be differences all the same, and together they add up.

And there’s another ingredient which, guaranteed, will have changed: you. You’re an essential ingredient in every experience you have. But every experience you have changes you, sometimes in a big way, but always in at least one small way: it makes you more experienced. So every experience sows the seed of its own end, by changing one of its ingredients, you.

*****

It was the monk’s first day at the temple. His head was clean-shaven. It shone white and stark. His clothes hung with awkward creases. The ring of a bell told the monk it was time to meet the abbot. Gravel crunched underfoot as the monk hurried across the yard to the hall. The abbot sat heavily on the floor in robes that rippled down. The monk bowed deeply, then told his best joke.

The abbot roared with a laughter that bounced off the walls. Fat tears rolled over round cheeks. The monk beamed with delight. But the tears were wiped and the echo grew faint until the abbot sat breathing and serene. The laughter had ended and the monk cast his eyes about the room for an explanation. The candle burned as thick as before on the altar. The prayer flags continued to flap in the breeze. And here they were still just the two of them.

“Nothing has changed,” said the monk.

“I have changed,” said the abbot. “I have now heard the joke.”

*****

We cannot know happiness while banishing sadness. That is impossible. We need to know sadness in order to know happiness by its contrast.

If nothing was lower, then nothing else would be higher, and everything would be flat, and we would not notice, because that would be all there is. If nothing was slower, then nothing else would be faster, and everything would proceed at the same speed, and we still would not notice, because we would not know any other way.

Happiness stands in contrast to sadness, which stands in contrast to happiness, in a perpetual cycle of dependency. Neither can exist without the other to distinguish it, and life without either would be monotone and unremarkable.

*****

The monk had cold toes. No doubt it was the consequence of shuffling around in bare feet on wooden floorboards. There were occasional pools of sunlight which allowed a moment of warmth. But any balm was usually lost by the dark end of the corridor. Overcast days offered no respite. The cold would sting. A hot bath was often the only cure, and even then the first burning moments only proved the chill.

But today he had socks. He wore them all day. They were soft and snug and warming. His toes wiggled with pleasure and he skipped along gently. “What great joy,” thought the monk.

He wore the socks all week. They kept his feet warm and comfortable. “How pleasant,” thought the monk.

He wore the socks all month. And his feet were fine—but of course they were, they wore socks, and he paid them no mind for there was nothing to notice.

Until he lost the socks. That day his feet were cold and brittle, and his steps were sharp, and the hot bath in the evening was a glorious relief.

*****

It’s futile to seek permanent happiness. It cannot be achieved. Happiness is transient, and any appreciation of it also depends on us knowing sadness too. So if we grasp after lasting happiness, that will only lead to disappointment as the current experience of happiness inevitably ebbs away.

*****

It was winter at the temple, and snow had fallen thick and silent. A stealthy wind blew under doors to chill the rooms. Dense clouds cast down a bleak light.

School was cancelled. The abbot threw open the gates to the yard. He stood legs apart, and snow up to his knees, stocky and red faced in defiance of the cold. He bellowed for the children to come cheer the garden.

And they came.

The monk helped one child build a snowman. It was round and lopsided with a mouth of berries. Twig arms lent against each other, a prayer of thanks for a day free of study. Peals of laughter marked the hours. But the clouds thinned to wisps in front of a crisp moon, and windows lit up a dappled town. Mothers and fathers appeared at the gate to pull on arms in the direction of baths. The children struggled, crying in vain for their games. And so a day of happiness ended in tears.

*****

Grasping after lasting happiness also lessens the experience of the happiness that is currently here. Instead of basking in the happiness of the present moment, we also fear that it will pass. So instead of being happy, just happy, we become happy but fearful.

*****

Mealtimes at the temple were predictable. But they were welcome. A black lacquer tray carried three bowls. The first bowl swirled with steaming miso soup. The second bowl offered a dome of sticky rice. The third bowl revealed a colour of pickled vegetables. In season, there was also a piece of fruit. But today was the monk’s birthday and the cook had made him a cake. It was square and glistened with coconut sugar.

Here was a rare pleasure.

“It is so small,” thought the monk. He took a bite and his tongue was awash with sweetness. “It won’t last long,” thought the monk. He took another bite and the sponge was a mouthful of delight. “There’s only one piece left,” thought the monk. He took a last bite and a hint of fruit nectar tingled in his throat. “Now it’s gone,” thought the monk.

And not just the cake.

NathanTamblyn was born in England and studied at Oxford and Cambridge. He was a barrister in London before moving to Hong Kong as a law professor. He now lectures and lives in Exeter with his wife and their three young children.Text (c) 2014 Nathan Tamblyn. All rights reserved.
image: Monk hands via Shutterstock