Towards The True ‘Happily Ever After’

A very unhappy beginning
and even many unhappy in-betweens
do not matter if there is a truly happy ending.

— Shilashanti

In Neil Gaiman’s ‘Preludes & Nocturnes’ (The Sandman, #1), he wrote, ‘All Bette’s stories have happy endings. That’s because she knows where to stop. She’s realized the real problem with stories — if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.‘ That is precisely the problem with fairy tales, that ‘end’ with the couple living ‘happily ever after’. As a child, I often wondered… [1] How happy is such happiness? [2] How can there be happiness ‘ever after’ if it eventually ends in death, usually with one before the other? [3] What happens to them thereafter?

According to the Buddha’s teachings, [1] worldly happiness is never permanent, always rising and falling, also alternating with worldly unhappiness. Thus, it is neither stable nor substantial, unlike spiritual True Happiness. [2] Exactly since worldly happiness, like worldly life, is not lasting, fairy tales’ standard ending is ‘the stuff of fairy tales’ indeed, not true at all. [3] All ‘happy’ worldly stories, no matter how sweet their ‘endings’, are at best only bittersweet — if despite having had largely happy lives, there is still uncertainty of where the protagonists will be reborn.

It is often said that fairy tales, although obviously outrageous with talking animals and imaginary monsters, are a subtle educational means, to guide kids to be accustomed with challenges of the real world, by comically ‘exaggerating’ its dark sides, while presenting thoughtful morals and promising happy ‘endings’ for the righteous who persevere against all odds. (However, there are some morally ambiguous tales, such as that of Jack stealing from a giant after scaling a beanstalk, even murdering him and getting away — as if the robber-murderer was ‘heroic’?)

Even with the slaying of big bad wolves and such, fairy tales, at least the ‘sanitised’ versions told these days, still tend to evade the problem of one’s own impending death. Perhaps this is to allow children to naturally awaken to existential crises by themselves as they mature. After all, how dark should bedtime stories be for the little and ‘newly alive’, who are probably not yet ready for the harshest reality, who ‘should’ dream of their bright futures first? But now as grown-ups, is it not time to be rightly ‘troubled’ by our coming demise, that might arrive sooner than expected?

[1] This worldly life is an ever-closing window period, for spiritual learning and practice, to advance towards True Happiness. Thus, we should not be satisfied with limited worldly happiness, or be distracted by the false promises of fairy tale ‘endings’. [2] We should rise above vague hopes of living and dying well — by diligently mastering the Buddha’s teachings for transcending the cycle of rebirth. [3] The most skilful are his Pure Land teachings, which lead to the most spiritually and physically blissful school with immeasurable light and life, for training towards guaranteed enlightenment, aka True Happiness.

Bette should seek this direct path, to live out the ideal ‘ending’. Why merely fantasize endless fictitious stories with premature ‘endings’ to suppress fears, to have sheer indulgence in fairy tales that will never come true? Her stories need not end with the bleakness of death, but with a new lease of the fullest possible life in Pure Land. Imagine embarking on the most scenic ‘expressway’ to Buddhahood with the most glorious of company, towards True Happiness, while learning how to guide others to it too. This is how her own story can have a truly happy ‘ending’!

A truly happy ending
leads to a truly happy re-beginning,
that leads others to this ‘ending’ too.

— Shilashanti

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