Drawing inspiration from the Year of the Monkey

January 29, 2016

As Chinese families gather to spend our New Year together, we could do well to reflect on what 2016 – the Year of the Monkey – will mean for us all.

Traditionally, those born in a Monkey year do not always find it a lucky time. But I am sure they will find a way to make the best and most of the next 12 months. After all, these Monkeys are believed to be sociable and easy to communicate with. They are clever, creative, and enjoy challenges. (Though they can be naughty too.)

Monkeys are often entertainers in everyday life – think of Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Taylor, and Miley Cyrus. They are bright, assured, and occasionally impetuous; the life and soul of the traditional Reunion Dinner on New Year’s Eve.

For Monkeys, access to the part of all of us that wants to communicate means chatter and teasing, playing the fool. For the rest of us, that might be fun for a while, but I am not convinced it is universally the best path to happiness.

Instead perhaps we could strive to develop mudita – the Buddhist term for appreciative joy. This emotion is the pure happiness we feel in the success and good fortune of others.

Not only is it pure, it is unbounded; a well that never dries up. Buddhist teachers tell us that this type of joy is infinite, constantly available to all at all times, regardless of circumstances.

It is said that the more one drinks at this well, the more secure we feel in this overflowing sense of well-being, and the more pleasurable it is to celebrate the happiness of our peers.

Parents know mudita when they see their child master a difficult skill such as playing an instrument, or when they watch a toddler light up with happiness at the sensation of being alive. Lovers understand mudita when they watch each other achieve dreams – whether personal or at work.

It isn’t always easy to reach this state; it is known by Buddhists to be difficult, particularly on those occasions when we celebrate joy for others at the same time as facing our personal limits, unfulfillment or misfortune. It’s a demonstration of how selfless the state of true happiness can be.

So are our naughty Monkeys selfless as they chatter and entertain on Chinese New Year? I don’t think so, but perhaps we shouldn’t expect them to be. Certainly we can allow them to infect us with their good humour and lighten our moods. But from there, we must find our own path to mudita, even if the journey takes longer than a year. The destination – a state of joy – is more than worth the effort.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation