How should a Buddhist live? The Buddha gave us the answer long time ago. Being his followers, we should all adopt the kind of life that he had prescribed for both the monastics and laypeople. Doing so will make for a much more meaningful life.

I. Avoid duality

In the Vinaya Pitaka, the Buddha told the monastics that one should avoid duality in life. Duality mentioned in Madhyamaka is the eternalist and nihilist view, whereas in the context of the way of living, duality denotes the impoverished and self-indulgent life.

In the case of ordinary people, an impoverished life means to deliberately live in a poverty-stricken condition. But to some practitioners like Milarepa, poverty is not an obstacle but assistance to their practice. Obviously, not everyone can attain the same state in practice as those masters. For us ordinary people, it would be very difficult to consider matters like renunciation, bodhicitta and liberation if we must struggle constantly to eke out a living. A harsh living condition may be helpful for some to generate renunciation, but renunciation developed under this circumstance is not real, as genuine renunciation must include aspiration to seek liberation. Poverty alone may not be enough reason for people to forsake samsara. Only those who have grasped the essence of the Dharma may possibly generate true renunciation. Therefore, Buddhists in general need not and should not deliberately live too poorly.

Some non-Buddhists in India follow asceticism strictly, forsaking food, clothes, bath, etc. They believe liberation can be attained through physical austerity. Others suggest that practitioners must jump into five fires—fires in the four directions plus the sun—to attain liberation after the body has been burned down. In Hetuvidya,1 the view of a non- Buddhist school was mentioned, which posited that both physical and mental phenomena are the causes of samsara. When one of them is destroyed, freedom from samsara may then be possible.

We must be clear that all these views are wrong.

Buddhism holds that the cause of our cyclic existence is nothing physical but karmic force. As long as karmic forces remain, physical body will continue to manifest no matter how many times it has perished. Once the habitual tendency accumulated in the alaya consciousness has reached a maturing point, physical body may manifest at any given time. It can also be said that the physical world, the universe and the body of sentient beings are the work of alaya consciousness, not unlike what the materialists suggest that mental phenomena are something manufactured by the brain. The fact is that it would be totally useless to torture the body to attain enlightenment so long as karmic forces remain in the alaya consciousness. That is why the Buddha asked the followers not to live in hardship deliberately because it will not bring anyone any closer to liberation, only suffering upon oneself. Naturally, it would be a different matter altogether if being poor was due to a lack of merit. The Buddha did not say that Buddhists cannot be poor, must be wealthy, or that the poor and those having a hard life cannot attain liberation. He only advised that there is no need to go to extremes to be poor.

There are others who are pretty secured financially but mistakenly assume that easy life cannot lead one to liberation, only enduring hardship will. The Buddha disagreed with this. In his opinion, liberation would still not be attained even if one were to refuse to eat, drink, or bath in one’s whole lifetime.

Incidentally, there is also a suggestion that one can attain liberation by bathing in the Ganges. This is again groundless! Dirt on the body cannot keep us in samsara. If mind cannot be cleansed of greed, hate, delusion and clinging to a real self, just keeping the body clean as a crystal would not have anything to do with liberation. What really needs to be cleansed is the alaya consciousness. We will only be able to gain freedom from samsara once the defilements stored in the alaya consciousness have been completely removed.

Many of you have read the biography of Milarepa, which describes how he meditated in the caves without food, clothing and means to clean his body. There were many other practitioners in Tibet who had also attained liberation in equally harsh conditions. Upon hearing their stories, some people just automatically infer that leading an austere life is the prerequisite for attaining liberation. However, real austerity means undertaking to practice with diligence and great patience as well as overcoming all kinds of difficulties without fear. Otherwise, paupers among all people would be the first to reach enlightenment.

The Buddha told us that under the premise of not having to pay too great a price and not being too attached, it is acceptable to maintain a rich and leisurely lifestyle.

The opposite is to greedily pursue a life of extravagance with much effort or improper method. Why should this be avoided? Because other than a few exceptions, most people must expend a great deal of time, energy and planning to obtain material wealth, which in the eyes of the Buddha is not worth the effort. His view is that Dharma practitioners should be content with a life of fewer desires.

To be content with fewer desires is the principle set by the Buddha that we should adhere to in our daily life, but what it means to accomplished practitioners like Milarepa, to monastics in general and to laypeople varies accordingly.

To ordinary people like us, to be content with fewer desires does not mean that one cannot eat good food, wear nice clothes and so on, but the items should not be too expensive. The point is to live a normal life—not lacking any of the necessities for living, but the desire for more possessions must be kept within certain limit.

For example, some people believe that wearing designer clothes, driving an expensive car and living in a luxurious mansion symbolize their high social standing. However, this is in fact what the Buddha meant by self-indulgence because these objects are not necessities. People can never be fully satisfied with their lives if they do not know how to control their desires, as desires can grow and expand endlessly. No matter who you are, there will always be someone who is better than you. If your aim is to get to the top social stratum, your whole life will be spent in the pursuit of such vanity until the end. The consequence of chasing endless desires is never to be happy. Many such cases can be found in our daily life either from our own experience or that of other people. It is therefore important to be content with fewer desires in life.

II. The principles to be followed

Having avoided duality, the actual way of living would vary with times. In the Buddha’s opinion, we Buddhists should measure our life against the living standards of ordinary people in our times, not too low and not too high. This is how the Buddha defined a normal life.

Well, does it mean that we do not need to think about money from now on? No, we can still try to make money, but how to treat money is another matter that needs to be carefully considered. Whether money is earned as in the case of laypeople or received by the monastics as an offering, it is important to know that money is not the property of any one person but belongs to all sentient beings. One is only helping sentient beings to manage and distribute the money and hence it should be spent wherever it is needed to benefit others. If one holds such view, even lay practitioners can go and make more money than it is required for a normal life. Lacking it, however, one would be deemed violating the Buddha,s principle of living, that is, being content with fewer desires, and can never be truly happy. Then, it makes no difference if one is a monastic accepting an offering or a layperson making more money than is needed for a normal life.

III. Money is not omnipotent

If we do as the Buddha advised, neither money nor everyday life can pose any trouble for our practice. Otherwise, when the conflict between pursuing liberation and managing daily life cannot be resolved, many people will end up being confused and upset. Therefore, it is critical to be able to strike a balance between the two.

Once a question was raised in Newsweek: Money or happiness, which one is more important?

How would we answer if we were asked the question?

Shakyamuni Buddha answered this question 2500 years ago. That is, happiness is the most important. Money alone cannot make people satisfied, nor can one obtain happiness and freedom from it. Nonetheless, most people still think that there can be no happiness without money. To them, money is the key to happiness.

Of course, other than barely a few exceptions, people who are destitute generally do not feel much happiness. But does it mean that wealthy people must be very happy? No, it certainly does not. Money really cannot buy everything!

In some poor regions, people lacking basic subsistence are far removed from life of material prosperity elsewhere. And everyone there wants desperately to escape from poverty, thinking that everything will be taken care of once they have money. Although we all know that we cannot take anything with us when we die, we still try very hard to get closer to the kind of life that money can buy, just so that we may have a happier life before we go.

However, when people do become wealthier, their level of happiness has not grown with the improvement of their living conditions. For instance, many well-developed countries in the West, such as those in Scandinavia, have instituted very extensive social welfare systems for their citizens. Almost everything they need in life is provided, but the suicide rates in those countries were surprisingly high at one point. According to the data from the World Health Organization in 1994, the suicide rates of the Scandinavian countries all ranked in the top 10 on their list. Apparently, to the Scandinavians, material wealth was not as important as we thought. Although the standard of living in general is much higher in the West, many people there are not happy. This is but one indication of material wealth not being in direct proportion to happiness.

Forbes once did a survey on 400 richest people and 1000 median to low-income and poor individuals in the United States, asking them to pick a number from 1 to 7, with 1 being very unhappy and 7 being very happy. The result of the final tally showed that the happiness index for the super rich was 5.8. The experts also found in their many years of investigations that the happiness index of the Inuit living in the freezing cold northern Greenland was 5.8 as well. Moreover, the Masai (an ethnic group of semi-nomadic people located in Kenya) living in dirty, dilapidated shed with no running water also had the same happiness index of 5.8.

David G. Myers, social psychologist of Hope College in Holland, Michigan discovered an interesting discrepancy between wealth and happiness based on data from the US census in 2000. Myers found that the buying power of the average American had tripled since 1950. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude from this statistic that Americans’ level of happiness in 2000 should be thrice as high as that in the 1950s? The fact is that people were much better off financially in 2000 than some 50 years ago, but the younger generation was not happier than their fathers; they were instead more prone to anxiety.

American psychologist Dr. Jean M. Twenge did a sweeping analysis on 269 studies conducted from 1953 to 1993 measuring the anxiety levels of children and college students. The results of her analysis published in 2000 demonstrated that the anxiety level of an average American child in the 1980s was higher than that of the child psychiatric patients in the 1950s.

Michael Willmott and William Nelson of the Future Foundation wrote in their acclaimed book Complicated Lives that the accumulation of great material wealth in the past 50 years did not make people much happier. It is a classic example of a paradox of progress. People of this generation are wealthier, healthier, more secured and enjoy more freedom than previous generations, yet their life seems to be more depressing.

A study done by an American social psychologist a few years back concluded that for the past 40 years the number of Americans who described themselves as being “very happy” had been steadily going down. According to another survey, from 1960 to 2000, with price being the same, the per capita income of the United States had tripled while the proportion of people who felt very happy had dropped from 40% to around 30%. While in the more advanced economies such as France, UK and the US, the number of people who suffered mental depression had been growing steadily in the last ten years or so. The study explained that the relationship between income level and happiness is not linear but skewed. That is, before income has reached a certain level, rising income will increase the level of happiness. But when annual income passes beyond the so-called magic level of US$75000,2 earning more seems unable to produce more happiness

Money is not omnipotent. This the Buddha had said long ago. But now it has been proven so more and more clearly. The data above evidently show that our sense of happiness did not come from material prosperity.

Everyone is seeking a happy life, yet all seem to be experiencing unhappiness of one kind or another. More and more people realize that having more money and possessions is no guaranty for more happiness. This truth has been well elucidated in the Buddhist texts, which the economists and psychologists in the West only found out now.

Nagarjuna used the following analogy to describe man’s desire in the treatise entitled Letter to a Friend (Suhrlekha). People who suffered leprosy, a disease caused by bacteria, would feel extremely itchy and painful when the symptoms flared up. In order to alleviate the pain, many lepers would go very close to the fire. The bacteria being stimulated by the heat then became much more active and made the patients suffer even more. This analogy actually hints at man’s desire. We have always thought that money can buy us happiness and so we strive all the time to make more money. But the truth is that being rich often makes us even more miserable.

There is also another saying in the same treatise as well as other texts that desire for and indulgence in material possessions is like salty water. The more one drinks, the thirstier one gets. If one cannot see the point of being content with fewer desires in life, the ever-expanding desire will only result in more unhappiness.

Nowadays, in many people’s minds there is a big question mark over the idea that happiness follows economic expansion, because in real life that is not the case. The statistics are also pointing to a different reality.

So, people cannot help wondering if they will be as unhappy as those in the highly industrialized countries when they themselves have become prosperous.

In the past, some Western philosophers also held the view that happiness comes from material wealth and possessions. This idea has been around since the Renaissance.

Julien Offray de la Mattrie, a French materialist of the Enlightenment who proposed the metaphor of the human being as machine, believed that man’s happiness and pleasure must be felt via the body’s organs. He said that happiness cannot be born of mind or feeling. If one were to look for happiness in one’s own thought or by studying some hitherto unknown truths, it would be like searching for happiness in an unhappy place.

It is also Voltaire’s view that sensual pleasure is the impetus for people to pursue happiness. He actively opposed the asceticism imposed by the church then, insisting instead that neither law nor religion should block people’s desires.

Under the influence of these philosophies, people in the West generally accept the view of accumulating material wealth as a means to obtain happiness. But after a few hundred years of endeavor, real happiness still remains elusive. Insomuch as having good cars, beautiful houses, even yachts and private planes, many rich people continue to feel aimless, dejected and miserable in life. There doesn’t seem to be any solution at hand for them.

Richard Layard, British economist of the London School of Economics, wrote in his landmark book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science that since the 1950s, the average per capita income of developed countries has tripled. People in those richer societies have more to eat and to wear, bigger cars and houses, more time and ability to travel abroad, shorter workweek, higher pay and, most importantly, better health, but they are no happier.

Dr. Darrin M. McMahon, American historian, took six years to study happiness and wrote the acclaimed book Happiness: A History using massive amount of historical data and human experiences in real life as reference. The book pointed out that the average life for American males and females of 46.3 and 48.3 years old respectively in 1900 has increased to 74.1 and 79.5 years old respectively in 2000. But it would be wrong to infer from this information that people in the West have become happier due to improvement in material living conditions and scientific development. Comprehensive surveys conducted in the U.S. since 1950s show that the proportion of people who consider themselves happy has remained stable at about one third, whereas of those who feel “very happy” has decreased from7.5% to less than 6%. At the same time, the proportion of people being diagnosed with unipolar depression seems to have increased by a wide margin instead. The author noted in conclusion3:

But when, and if, human beings decide to take this fateful step in the quest to live as gods, they should know that in doing so, they will be leaving a piece of their humanity behind. For to judge by the yearning and pursuit—the noble restlessness—has driven Western culture for the past several thousand years, there are certain things that human beings will never know—certain riddles they will never answer—if they are to remain mere mortals. The holy grail of perfect happiness is one of those things, and like that precious mythic relic, said to have gathered blood from the side of the son of man, it, too, may exist only in our minds, a deliverance cup and a chalice to hold our pain.

This conclusion and others of the kind are drawn from actual data and real-life experience in the human history.

Buddhism does not exclude the possibility of relative and temporary happiness existing in samsara, but not absolute happiness. Generally speaking, suffering accounts for the better part of samsara. Although this view may perhaps be accepted now, many people still consider the poor must suffer more than the rich. However, the data presented above already point out that it is wrong to equate material prosperity with happiness. More importantly, what I mean to show you is that as long as we live the way that the Buddha prescribed for us, our life will be relatively happier and more meaningful.

Of course, there is no possibility for happiness if one cannot even sustain the basic needs of life. But once an average living standard can be maintained, one must learn to keep life simple, that is, to live contently with fewer desires. If not, happiness will forever be beyond one’s reach.

The Western societies have now realized the way they used to pursue happiness is wrong after hundreds of years of trying. Personally, I think that perhaps after another hundred years or so the whole world will come to this realization and naturally side with the Buddha’s point of view because it is the only way to real happiness. In view of what we know today, the idea that only material possessions can make people happy seems to run into a dead end. On the one hand, man cannot find happiness this way. On the other hand, nature also forbids us to continue living in a way that consumes so much of the earth’s resources. Eventually, we will all be left with no other choice but to adopt the way of living prescribed by the Buddha. We may find relative happiness in samsara only if we know how to live.

IV. Faith -- the source of happiness

According to some surveys, given the same living condition, the level of happiness for those who have faith far exceeds those who have not.

It is because the ones having faith can more easily find their identities in a disorderly society as well as refuge for the mind and purpose for their lives. Most importantly, having faith can help people better control their worldly pursuits, knowing somewhat the futility of relying on those for ultimate happiness. Relatively speaking, their desires are less rampant and hence feeling happier in life overall.

V. The way to happiness

I have said more than once before that the Buddha is incomparable not only with respect to the view on emptiness, not-self and luminous mind but also in terms of seeking temporary happiness in the mundane world. In my opinion, Buddha Sakyamuni is the greatest thinker of all times. From now on, we should all try our best to live the way that the Buddha had prescribed for us, one that is not devoid of material comforts. It is good enough to have a car to drive, watch and clothes to wear; they don’t have to be name brands. To be content with fewer desires does not mean that one cannot own anything. That would be impossible any way. In fact, there is an unbreakable rule in the Vinaya that it should not demand ordinary people to do anything that they are incapable of doing. The Buddha knew very well our limits and thus would not ask for something impossible of us. He did not say that everyone must lead a life of hardship but that we should control our desires and spend time and energy for something more meaningful in life. Otherwise, we can never be really happy or accomplish anything worthwhile. Do consider this point carefully.

In Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend, it said that, according to the Buddha’s advice, being content with fewer desires is the greatest asset that one can have. Those who are able to maintain such disposition are truly rich people even if they do not own a single asset, because only they can attain the ultimate, perfect happiness.

An article entitled Why It’s So Hard to be Happy4 listed five points to be happier: 1. do not focus on goals; 2. make time to volunteer; 3. practice moderation; 4. strive for contentment; 5. practice living in the moment. Money, designer clothes, expensive cars, etc. were not on the list. Apparently, many of our old ideas about how to be happy are wrong. The Buddha knew very well the relationship between material wealth and man’s desires—how people’s minds change with the rise and fall of their fortune. This is why the Buddha had specifically instructed this mode of life for the Buddhists.

Ordinary folks like us do not really understand our own minds—how it would change or what direction it would take—trusting only that happiness will come with material prosperity. Although we might be wealthy in the previous life, whatever experience of that life has long been forgotten. Now in this life, because we have not had too much money and never been the super rich, there is certain difficulty for us to know the reality of living in luxury. When the going gets tough, most people just yearn for material wealth as the panacea for all their problems.

What is the real meaning of life? The answer can only be found in Buddhism. Other worldly disciplines such as philosophy have so far failed to answer this question fully. The general view is that nothing remains after death, so the meaning of life is to enjoy life to the fullest while it lasts even at the cost of squandering the precious lifetime, depleting massive amount of resources and destroying the natural environment. Still, happiness is beyond reach. It shows that to pursue happiness this way only leads to disappointment.

For most people, it is quite necessary to understand these points. Whether to continue chasing material prosperity or choose a more meaningful way of living is crucial to where this life will lead us. As a matter of fact, it is an extremely rare opportunity that we were born human, have encountered the teachings of the Buddha and had some time to practice. No other things in the world are as extraordinary as such opportunity. In our countless past lives, we must once have enjoyed great wealth and high esteem that made others envious and might even have owned the most precious wish-fulfilling jewel (Cintamani). The same will happen in the innumerable future lives as well. But all those did not make us any better off today.

We should know that the purpose of a car is not to burn fuel but for transportation. Burning fuel is just a car’s way of living—it moves things while consuming gasoline. Likewise, the purpose of man is not just eating, drinking and having fun. Eating and drinking are how man can sustain life, never the ultimate goal of mankind.

What then is man’s ultimate goal in life? Those having no faith can never find the answer. However, as Buddhists, our goal is to use the opportunity we have in this life to practice the Dharma diligently so as to be better equipped to benefit all sentient beings.

1 Buddhist Logic.

2 According to a study done by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton from the Center for Health and Well-being at Princeton University.

3 Darrin M. McMahon, Happiness: A History, 479.

4 Michael Wiederman, Scientific American Mind, February 2007. 

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