The downside of happiness: what I learned about purpose from a Buddhist monk

The downside of happiness: what I learned about purpose from a Buddhist monk

Shunko-in Temple, Kyoto. Shunko-in means  Temple of the Ray of Spring Light , which felt encouraging for a bitterly cold January in Japan.

Shunko-in Temple, Kyoto. Shunko-in means Temple of the Ray of Spring Light, which felt encouraging for a bitterly cold January in Japan.

At the start of this year, I took a trip to Japan. I wanted to learn more about meditation but without the hype and the marketing that surrounds it in the UK and US. I found Shunkō-in Temple, which teaches Zen meditation in English and became intrigued by the monk behind it all.

Takafumi Kawakami turns out to be an extremely modern Buddhist monk. He comes from a long line of Buddhist priests but studied in the US before returning to Japan. He embraces Buddhism as ritual, as his heritage and as an intellectual practice, but without any slant of dogma. His traditional robes belie his modern approach; he travels to the US frequently, has taught at IDEO and works with several startups. He is the Buddhist monk with the singing bowl and the shiny iPhone.

I was curious to know what he would say about purpose.

What does Buddhism say about purpose?

“In a way, there’s no purpose in your life. The Buddhist approach is: you’re born - you’re born, you die - you die. Like physics. Like dominos; you knock one and they keep falling that way. For individual human beings, there is no purpose. Originally.”

And just like that, Taka Kawakami wiped the slate. I stalled at this point. How do you even follow that? Purpose had just become a non-question.

But his response was also liberating: the purpose in our lives is what we create for ourselves. There is no right answer, or potentially, lots of right answers:

“In that sense, you can actually make up any purpose.  Some people say the meaning of life is adding purpose to your life. In that sense actually, there’s no right answer about your purpose in a way.”

Taka’s approach is to search for a purpose that’s not self-centered, that reaches others: “Look outside. Even find one person in a day, (and ask) how can I make this person happy? Even just 5 minutes. If you keep doing that you’ll probably start seeing what society needs.”

I admit that I came expecting profound truths. I was hoping for something epic that would shift the way I saw the world. But what Taka said was so simple that at first I was disappointed. It’s only now while writing about our conversation that the meaning is starting to stick. One of the reasons I’ve struggled with the idea of purpose is that I’ve been waiting for something big, something I couldn't ignore. I wanted something that would hit me dead on and change my course. In the midst of this, it’s easy to miss the difference you could make on your doorstep; the small change that could be the most profound.

Even if you find enlightenment, you will still be you

As I was telling Taka that I was flying back to San Francisco after Japan, he started laughing. He notices that lots of people from tech companies and startups leave their jobs to go exploring, but then, inevitably, go back to the valley. From his perspective, it's an interesting phenomenon. 

He says some people expect everything to become clear after they reach some measure of enlightenment. But the challenge is reconciling our revelations with our imperfect lives, as Jack Kornfield's writes in After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.

So many of us go hunting for experiences that change our perspective. In the process, we hope that somehow these experiences will change us, that they will improve us. But this is fiction. Travel, experiences, meditation and all kinds of soul-searching might change your viewpoint, but at the core, you’ll still be the same person.

Sometimes, even Buddhist monks don’t know

Rev Takafumi Kawakami. A very modern Buddhist monk.

I asked Taka whether he’s had moments of doubt about his direction and he told me directly: “I still don’t know. I have no idea sometimes.”

Sometimes even Buddhist monks don’t know what they’re doing with their life. Taka told me about comparisons he makes with other people. His nuanced approach makes him less media-friendly because he is unwilling to make bold claims that get attention if he knows those claims aren’t totally true.

“I could say ‘everyone should be happy, happiness is good’, but the truth is happiness also has side effects. Sadness has benefits. So we cannot just say ‘this is a positive emotion, this is a negative emotion’.”

Happiness has side effects

Happiness can make you complacent, it can make you careless. Taka argues: “people don’t define happiness, and that’s an issue”. There are eudaimonic and hedonic kinds of happiness and getting caught up in the later traps you in an endless spiral of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Ultimately this leads to suffering. But eudaimonic happiness focuses on meaning and self-realisation, on having a purpose.

Similarly, sadness or other negative emotions can provide the motivation to change. Taka put it more poetically: “Suffering and motivation are two sides of the same coin.”

We talked about very human tendency to compare ourselves with others. Taka noted how people in the west tend to compare themselves to see how they could be different or better, while people in Japan tend to compare themselves to see how they could better conform. In either case, the outcome is unhappiness. “People are insecure about their own happiness. They don’t know what makes them happy, so that’s why they’re looking at other people. Why does that person seem more happy? Because they have more money or a bigger house or more experience? Anticipation brings anxiety and disappointment because you might reach that goal but it might not be as you expected.”

Ikigai: finding the balance

I wasn’t going to bring up the concept of Ikigai because it seemed clichéd given the amount of attention it has gained as “The Japanese recipe for happiness”. But I was glad Taka mentioned it – and challenged it.

To save you Googling it, Ikigai is a Japanese concept that broadly translates as a reason for being or something that makes life worth living. It is commonly shown in a four-wheel diagram balancing what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs and what you can be paid for.

To Taka, the Ikigai concept is well and good except for the fact that no human is this consistent: “You keep changing so what you want keeps changing. Also what society needs keeps changing. What you’re good at it also changing. So there’s no right thing there.”

It’s still a helpful concept and the balance between self and others is an important – and delicate - one. For Taka, his guiding question remains: “Is what I’m doing beneficial for society?” But he admits he still finds himself wondering: exactly what is beneficial to society?

You can read more about Shunkoin Temple and Zen meditation classes at

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