A Trip to Heaven and Hell
There is an old Chinese parable with roots in Buddhism that tells about the difference between heaven and hell. The story varies with many different embellishments and translations, but essentially its timeless lesson remains the same.
Once upon a time, a man decided to go sightseeing to the Land of Utmost Bliss and the Land of Incessant Suffering on a day trip.
It was just about lunchtime in the Land of Suffering when he arrived. Before him he saw a bounteous selection of delicious foods, beautifully arranged on each of the dinner tables.
"What the...?" the man looked around in confusion. "Can this really be the Land of Suffering?"
At that very moment, all the inhabitants of the Land of Suffering arrived for their meal, looking pale, starved, and fatigued. They sat down with sour expressions and scornful looks in chairs at each table.
The attendants in the Land of Suffering carried to each of the guests a set of very unusual chopsticks. Curiously, each chopstick was gigantic. They were approximately three feet in length.
All the unfortunate guests of the luncheon grabbed their large chopsticks greedily and reached for the best foods that they saw. Then they tried to devour each bite... but because of the extremely lengthy chopsticks, all the delicacies kept falling to the floor or were just out of reach from their mouths.
Witnessing such a desperate and pitiful scene, the man decided it was time to continue on with his next destination.
Later in the day, he arrived in the Land of Utmost Bliss, just in time for supper.
"Welcome! I'm so glad you could stop by!" said one of the guests. "Share in some of our wonderful meal!"
The healthy, well-fed residents of the Land of Utmost Bliss seated him at a rich banquet, exactly as the one in the Land of Incessant Suffering.
"Well, your chopsticks here must be smaller I'm sure!" exclaimed the man.
"NO, that would be silly! They're about three-feet-long here too!"
The man couldn't figure it out -- how can that be possible?
The attendants in the Land of Utmost Bliss then carried in the large chopsticks to each of the guests.
"You see, although the food and chopsticks in the Land of Utmost Bliss are similar to the Land of Incessant Suffering," said the smiling guest next to the man. "Here we feed each other! See!"
The smiling guest then fed the person across from him.
"Here you go!" said the guest across from the man. "Try this one. It's my favorite."
"Yum!" said the man. "Would you care for some of these tasty dishes?"
"Of course! Thank you very much."
The man began to use his chopsticks to feed the guest across from him. All around the table, the guests continued to feed each other in this way.
"Here you go! Are you ready over there?"
"Yes, I am! Mmmm, great. Thank you!"
The difference between the Land of Utmost Bliss and the Land of Suffering is merely a difference in mindset. When we give in to our own selfishness, we create all sorts of negative situations in our lives. With that kind of attitude, no one can be happy.
In Buddhism, selfishness is seen as self-interest. A person who seeks his own interest at the expense of others is greedy and bound for misfortune. We need to constantly examine ourselves and reflect on our nature to make sure we aren't being selfish.
Often times we can think that we are already the perfect images of kindness and that we deserve more than we are being given at the time. However, this is similar to the mindset of those in the Land of Incessant Suffering. To receive more, we must give more. Without awareness of this nature, we are unable to observe ourselves clearly and our misfortune continues as a result.
Other times, without even knowing it, we put on airs or give generously only so that others will praise us for it in the end. This too is also geared toward self-benefit. We must instead direct the idea of benefit away from us and focus on the benefit for those around us. The unselfish mindset of giving to others becomes the greater source for happiness. (See Relative Happiness and Absolute Happiness.)
Offer happiness to the various people who form a part of your life. All that kindness that you direct at them will come back to you and make you happy. This phenomenon is all explained within the founding principle of Buddhism, the Law of Cause and Effect. Good causes yield good results. Bad causes yield bad results. Your own causes yield your own results.
It's simple, and it's also the universal truth. You do something good for someone else, and you get a good benefit for yourself. However, seeds that are not planted can never grow. So get out there and put it into practice! There are even the Seven Good Deeds that Don't Cost Anything to get you started. Smiling is of course one of them. :-)
The simple difference between suffering and joy in this life is only a mindset, just like in this story. By helping others out as much as we can and giving them happiness, we celebrate a brighter and brighter outlook which then leads to a happier and happier life.