TLDR: A “Happy New Year” comes not from external conditions, but from appreciating the little blessings in life. The key is to adopt “gratitude as our attitude”.
During this festive season, we often wish our relatives and friends “Happy Chinese New Year”, or “恭喜发财“. In recent years, I started questioning – where does happiness (喜) in a new year come from?
For the young me, this was easily answered. Happiness came from playing with firecrackers, enjoying sumptuous dinners and sinful goodies, meeting my cousins to sing KTV/play cards, and watching TV shows till late.
As I grew up, my views changed. More than seeking pleasures derived from “consumption”, I saw the potential of seeking happiness through “appreciation”. In other words, gratitude.
Gratitude to Parents (父母恩)
In Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, there are 4 objects worthy of great gratitude (四重恩). The first object is none other than our parents.
Leading up to each Chinese New Year, my dad would busy himself around the house. Cleaning the fan, wiping the windows, changing cushion covers, hanging up decorations – the work seemed never-ending.
I didn’t always appreciate these. The loud vacuum noises and the buckets laying around were a nuisance to me who was trying to study at home.
Mum was also busy during the Chinese New Year when my sister and I were young. She would pack our bags for our 3-day stay in Malaysia (our Grandmother’s house), tend to our daily needs away from home, and deal with any contingencies. I recall once when I fell ill with a stomachache – Mum’s Chinese New Year was spent with me visiting the doctor instead of relatives.
As I grew up, I had to take over some spring-cleaning tasks from my dad. With baby nieces and nephews around, I had to babysit them as well. These made me realise how much I have overlooked the contributions of my parents in giving me a “normal” Chinese New Year to enjoy.
I realised that the “normalcy” I enjoyed during Chinese New Year when I was young was built on their sacrifice.
Gratitude to Country (国土恩)
It was a challenge going into Malaysia each year with traffic jams at the immigration customs lasting up to 3 hours. There were even times when my family was delayed and had to have reunion “suppers” instead!
As a youth, I was often frustrated at the other cars. “Why do all of you have to leave at the same time?”, I would wonder. Also, couldn’t the customs officers work faster?
One year, I realised, “I was not stuck in traffic. I WAS the traffic”. I realised that the customs officers were part of the solution, while I was part of the problem.
Frustration gave way to appreciation to the customs officers. Thanks to them, our immigration system is working smoothly and our national borders are kept safe.
Thus, the second object of gratitude is to our country (e.g. public service; national infrastructure; healthcare/immigration/security system). These blessings are not always visible, but they provide the foundation for us to lead our normal lives.
Gratitude to All Beings (众生恩)
Many beings bring convenience to our lives. We may not know most of their names and faces, but we have benefited from their contributions. They form the third object for gratitude.
Chinese New Year offers many opportunities for us to observe how people have helped us.
In recent years, I started noticing the waiters who serve our food at reunion dinners, the chefs who prepare the food, the entertainers who perform in celebratory “countdown” shows for us, the cleaners who clean up the mess made after New Year events, and many more.
I realised that things are easy and pleasant only because people help one another. We influence one another, living in a community and society, and our lives are deeply interwoven.
Recollecting the debt of gratitude we have for fellow sentient beings, I feel connected to others around me. This brings much comfort and warmth.
Gratitude to the Triple Gem （三宝恩）
The final object for recollection is to the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha) – our safe and secure refuge.
Reflecting on my life, I discovered that I was constantly seeking things to invest my faith/time/effort in return for some happiness. This can take the form of relationships, wealth, fame, job, or even rituals.
We are all seeking a “refuge” to seek comfort from. For example, a popular “tradition” in Singapore is to pray at a temple upon the turn of the Lunar New Year. Some even make efforts to be the first person to offer prayers (插头香) in the belief that it is an auspicious act.
Lunar New Year can help us to consider what we choose to invest our faith in. For me, the New Year encourages me to reaffirm my faith in the Triple Gem.
This reminds me that true happiness is a function of my efforts, and not from external conditions. For that, I am grateful.
What makes a “Happy New Year”?
A “Happy New Year” need not just be a cursory greeting we repeat during the 15 days of New Year festivals during house visits. It can also be a sincere aim to strive towards for the entire year.
Things will never be totally smooth in life. If we depend on favourable external conditions to bring us happiness, we will never be able to find much stability.
However, with gratitude as our attitude, we can learn to observe the little blessings around us. Through patient and consistent effort, we can gradually learn to see challenges as opportunities for growth and to find the silver lining in dire situations.
This would be the true cause for happiness in our lives, and allow us to enjoy a “Happy New Year”.
- Keep a gratitude journal. This can be a physical notebook, a virtual word document, or even a private instagram page. Be disciplined in writing down something everyday.
- When idle, play a game with yourself – note down 10 things around you to be grateful for. Challenge yourself to identify blessings you have taken for granted.
- Train your mind to see problems as challenges, and as opportunities for growth. Be grateful for the tough times in life, and be worthy of your sufferings.