Buddhism, certainly Tibetan Buddhism, places great importance on happiness. However, the emphasis in Mahayana Buddhism is not on one’s own happiness; it is the welfare of all sentient beings which is important. When we strive to bring joy to all beings, we can be sure of attaining even greater happiness for ourselves. This well-being ultimately surpasses any that material enjoyment can bring. Such is the Tibetan Buddhist view on happiness.
Since ancient times, the one thing human beings have always longed for is happiness. Yet, with all the progress in society, what we believe to be happiness has eluded us. The rapid decline in the index on global well-being has compelled all of us to rethink: What is happiness? How do we find it? In recent years, this topic has generated even greater interest.
Perhaps there are some methods in Buddhism. These methods might not work for everyone since we each have individual needs – in Buddhist terms, this is to say no one method can suit everyone since we each have karmic dispositions that are vastly different. However, for those who have the inclination, the methods can guide us in finding happiness in everyday life and at work, and in leading a fuller and more meaningful life.
Buddhism, certainly Tibetan Buddhism, places great importance on happiness. The emphasis in Mahayana Buddhism is not on one’s own happiness but rather that of all sentient beings. When we strive for the welfare of all beings, we can at the same time attain even greater happiness for ourselves. This well-being ultimately surpasses any that material enjoyment can bring. Such is the Tibetan Buddhist view on happiness.
THE NATURE OF HAPPINESS
In whatever work or research we engage in, we must begin by understanding its basic nature. Thus, let us first establish – what is happiness? What is the nature of happiness?
A Chinese book titled What is Happiness addresses this question from the viewpoint of 155 experts from around the world. For instance, happiness is having a stable income; happiness is harmony in the family; happiness is travelling around the world; happiness is just a glass of water, etc. There is no consensus.
Buddhism believes the nature of happiness is neither a steady income nor harmony in the family, neither the joy of seeing the world nor a glass of water. Although all may bring a sense of well-being, they are not the nature of happiness.
The true nature of happiness is a special feeling from within. Sometimes this feeling is related to material matter; other times there is no connection at all. Material matter is only one cause or condition which creates a feeling of well-being. It can bring about a temporary sense of security or satisfaction, from which one can in turn derive temporary happiness. The different forms of happiness, such as a steady income, are sources of happiness but are not happiness itself.
If happiness is a feeling, what is the basis of this feeling? A feeling of happiness comes from satisfaction; a feeling of satisfaction comes mostly from a new and fresh sensation. These types of feeling are all related to our mind and have no direct connection with the material world.
SOURCE OF HAPPINESS
We can break down happiness into endless types. To simplify, however, there are essentially two kinds: one is happiness derived from worldly things; the other is happiness which does not come from worldly things. Within the second kind, one type is a feeling of great happiness over and above general well-being. This feeling is experienced during the course of serving or benefiting other sentient beings – a pursuit also shared by the bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism.
Some people believe Buddhism opposes all forms of material enjoyment, enforces complete control over desire, and promotes ascetic practice. Actually, this is a misunderstanding. The Buddha said followers have the right to enjoy, not reject, what they are entitled to -- wealth which is properly acquired or blessings accumulated during a past life from virtuous activity. The Buddha did not deny, to a certain extent, material goods can bring happiness. However, he made it clear not all happiness comes from material goods. He also said the happiness derived from material things is very short-lived and unreliable.
Many psychologists understand, to varying degree, the workings of the mind; philosophers also examine happiness from a different perspective. Nevertheless, I think, among all the religions and academic disciplines, it is Buddhism that has the most complete view on this subject. The study of the mind in Buddhism is extremely sophisticated. How the mind functions is very clearly elucidated by the Buddha in the sutras.
In Buddhism, we are known as ordinary people if we have never received any training of the mind. From the standpoint of the mind, it does not matter how wealthy, socially prominent, or knowledgeable we are; without mind practice, we are still ordinary people. This term is not meant to be disparaging; it simply denotes a person who lacks spiritual training.
For ordinary people, the mind follows a natural pattern. This pattern always takes the same direction. To start with, material things can bring us a feeling of happiness. This feeling of happiness is based on a sense of satisfaction; in turn this sense of satisfaction comes from having a new or fresh experience. When we examine the feeling of happiness, we see that all things lose their luster once the novelty wears off. Being new and fresh is not a quality that can last forever; it is only a matter of time before it dissipates. When the new sensation disappears, the feeling of satisfaction loses its base and disappears with it. The feeling of happiness then disappears as well.
As human beings, we think material things are what we spend a lifetime pursuing; actually, we are only chasing after a feeling. The Buddha pointed to this important distinction, but we have yet to recognize or discover it.
The Buddha said: we can seek happiness -- that is our right; however, the happiness derived from material things cannot be relied on. Thus, when we pursue worldly pleasures, we should concurrently look for even greater happiness – the kind that comes from the spirit, or from undertaking work which is noble and meaningful.
IN SEARCH OF THE METHODS TO HAPPINESS
Darrin M. McMahon, an American professor, spent six years researching the history and livelihood of mankind, and completed a book titled Happiness: A History. He concludes at the end of the book that happiness may only exist in our imagination: we can pursue happiness, but it only lives in our imagination; we can think of happiness as an ideal to follow, but it may never be attained.
I think this conclusion is overly pessimistic because it is based on incorrect methods. If our methods are correct, we can find happiness in this life. The question is how we look for them. If the methods are incorrect, we may not be able to attain happiness however hard we try.
What then are the right methods?
There are essentially five methods to happiness, the three “No’s” and two “Should’s.”
The Three “No’s”:
First, do not compare. The more we like to compare with others, the less likely we are to find happiness. Take as an example a person who owns a high-performance luxury car; if he likes to compare, he is sure to find someone in his circle of friends who has a better car. As in the saying “there is always a better man, a higher mountain,” even if the person excels in everything now, there is no guarantee he won’t be surpassed in a year or two. If he chooses to compete again at that time, he will find himself in a very tiresome chase. To compare is not necessary in life, but it is often the cause of great suffering.
Second, do not be vain. The more we indulge in vanity, the more likely we are to feel empty and worthless. At the end of the vicious cycle, we can only fill our emptiness with more vanity. This feeling is one of immeasurable suffering. A lot of very wealthy people find that they would rather die than live because they feel empty inside; their wealth cannot be counted on in any way to bring happiness.
Many people think wealth is the answer to happiness. However, after acquiring wealth, they often do not experience the happiness they imagine. In the period from the 1950’s up to the year 2000, income in the West increased threefold, but people’s well-being actually declined. A lot of psychologists, sociologists, and economists have studied this phenomenon over a half century and have concluded: when our annual income is around forty thousand US dollars, money brings a sense of security, which in turn leads to sense of well-being; when annual income exceeds this amount, there is no longer a connection between money and happiness. Thus, having more wealth is no guarantee of happiness.
For example, there is a psychological condition called compulsive buying disorder. When people become depressed, they develop an obsession with buying to make up for the emptiness they feel. In the end, however, they no longer derive the same satisfaction that came with earlier purchases, and their suffering resumes.
Consequently, a lot of values accumulated over time have come under question. People have started to rethink what happiness is and how a new kind of happiness can be attained.
Third, do not be too greedy. Most people have a misunderstanding about Buddhism and assume that Buddhism refutes all forms of desire and physical pleasures. This is not the case. The Buddha also acknowledged that, to a certain extent, desire is a driving force. For instance, the fervent wish to study the Buddhist teachings, to become Buddha, and to benefit sentient beings all constitute desire. Without this desire, one would lose the impetus to study the teachings. Thus, on the whole, the Buddha did not oppose desire. The Buddha said: ordinary people cannot do or survive without desire; they drink when they are thirsty and eat when they are hungry. However, when desire becomes excessive, it leads to consequences we do not wish to see — suffering, disappointment, hopelessness, etc.
We can ask ourselves: How do I find happiness? What is it that I would have to lose to be unhappy? If we contemplate in this way, we will find the answer — desire, if left unchecked, is boundless. Excessive desire ultimately drowns us and leads to a state of great suffering.
The happiness that material enjoyment brings is limited. Yet what we want is unlimited. How is it possible to fill an infinite space with something which has a limit? Certainly not in this lifetime! Our lifespan is no more than several decades, but even if we lived billions of years, we would still fall short of satisfying ever-growing greed. In fact, the longer we live, the greater our desire and the suffering that follows. Thus, the Buddha admonished us to keep our desire in check in order to gain true happiness; if we are always chasing after material things, we will never find real happiness.
To cut off desire completely, we have to rely on Buddhist practice. When we attain Buddhahood, there is no more desire. The Buddha’s compassion and infinite wisdom has already replaced all worldly desires. But before attaining Buddhahood, ordinary people still crave for things. In our practice, we must be sure to avoid the two extreme paths. One extreme is to cut off all material desires. A number of ancient religions in India place great emphasis on ascetic practice -- denial of food for a long period of time, no clothing or speech, even cruel punishment to one’s body. The Buddha did not approve of these practices and in fact considered the methods, to a certain extent, to be harmful to one’s well-being. The other extreme is to give in to all our desires. We spend a lifetime working hard to fill our needs, but are still dissatisfied when it is time to leave the world. In the end, it is only resentment and anger that we bring with us. That would hardly be worth it.
The Two “Should’s”:
Fourth, establish the right view on life. Do not idealize life, or see it as perfect. If we are not alert to impending crises, we will be greatly disappointed when confronted with birth, aging, sickness, and death and various kinds of suffering. We may take extreme steps if we cannot handle the suffering. Hence, the right amount of precaution is necessary to surmount life’s difficulties. When accidents happen, we should always remind ourselves: birth, aging, sickness, and death; sadness, joy, parting, and reunion are all part of life. None of us are spared or can escape, so we must not be overly weak. In life, there are many complications and misfortunes which cannot be avoided; some happen for objective reasons, some are caused by our past karma. Whatever the reason, we cannot run away from them. As long as we have a body, we will experience birth, aging, sickness, and death. If we are not strong enough to deal with this, we will incur a great deal of suffering.
Buddha Sakyamuni handed down many methods to face birth, aging, sickness, and death, and always taught us to confront, not run away from our suffering
Fifth, cultivate the mind. The best way to regulate or cultivate our mind is to practice meditation. In Chinese Buddhism, among the several schools that are most influential, including Pure Land and Ch’an, Ch’an Buddhism places great emphasis on meditative practice; in Tibetan Buddhism, there is also a rich diversity of methods in meditation. These practices are intended for liberation and Buddhahood; even if we do not aspire to this ultimate goal, they can help cultivate the mind.
Meditative absorption or concentration can be practiced with or without religious belief, just as yoga may or may not be associated with any religion. Yoga is simply a practice that leads to good health. Likewise, meditation can, by regulating our mentality, bring happiness and cure depression.
The Buddha gave us many methods for cultivating the mind. Whether we believe in the Buddha or not, the mind practices are important to all of us. They can also be practiced by anyone.
Undoubtedly, the result of the practice will be different for people with religious belief and those without. However, this is not a problem. We can achieve our goals with these mind practices -- whether we want to attain Buddhahood and benefit all sentient beings, realize self-liberation, or simply alleviate stress, improve the quality of our life, and live a happier and more meaningful life.
What is unfortunate, however, is that everyone seems to be placing emphasis on training the body, not the mind. This preoccupation is leading to an imminent crisis around the world -- not a financial crisis, but a crisis of the mind. Depression, accompanied by symptoms of anxiety and loneliness, has already become the third biggest killer of mankind, following cancer and AIDS, respectively.
There are two ways to treat depression: one is by way of meditation, which not only treats both symptom and illness, but also brings unexpected benefits; the other is by way of medication, which in theory relies on the physiological effects of drugs to control anxiety. Although patients may appear to be free of depression, the drugs have side effects which impair their cognitive ability and thus cannot be used over a long period of time.
If a person is in the initial stage of depression, drugs are unnecessary; by regulating the mind, symptoms such as amnesia, anxiety, and other negative emotions can be treated. When these are alleviated, the person will be able to regain his or her focus and experience greater efficiency at work. If a person’s condition is already quite serious, drugs can be used first to contain the symptoms. This is because a new practitioner lacks the ability to stabilize the condition. Once the situation has improved, he or she should follow up with meditation to get to the source of the problem.
Whether we discuss meditation from the standpoint of Buddhism or science, the power of meditative concentration is inconceivable.
American scientists once conducted an experiment in which the participants were Tibetan Buddhist practitioners of meditative concentration. The researchers utilized, on one side, brainwave patterns to measure changes in brainwaves, and on the other, magnetic resonance imaging to locate brain activity. In the end, they concluded meditation can not only change brain activity in the short term, it can, with great likelihood, change brain activity permanently. In other words, with meditation, one can completely eliminate anxiety, sadness, and other negative feelings, create a sense of happiness, even restructure the brain.
Thus, whether we are corporate executives or workers under great pressure, if we can meditate every evening for twenty minutes or half an hour, and let go of the negative emotions accumulated over the course of a day, we will be able to maintain a happier state of mind going into our sleep. In so doing, we effectively regulate both body and mind. According to psychologists, five minutes of deep meditation is equivalent to an hour of sleep. Hence, the practice of meditation every evening helps not only to regulate both body and mind, but also to maintain a high energy level.
It is not necessary to forgo family, life, or work to practice meditation. While enjoying material wealth and family life in this world, we can make time for practice on a regular basis. If we can stay calm and relaxed in the midst of life’s activities, we will be able to experience happiness that comes from the deep recesses of our mind.