Buddhism and happiness: what you need to know

Buddhism and happiness: what you need to know
Photo: 4144132, Pixabay

For Buddha, starting on the journey to true peace and happiness begins with comprehending what it is precisely that causes people to suffer. People who criticise Buddha for being a pessimist overlook the point.

Buddha is, amongst other things, a skilled doctor – he will give us a diagnosis of our unhappiness, but he will also prescribe the treatment. With regards to this idiom, the medicine here is the teachings of Buddha on compassion and wisdom that come together to make the Dharma, and the nurses on hand to guide us through the treatment are the Sangha community of Buddhists all over the world. The disease itself, however, may only be healed when the patient sticks to the prescription, which in this case would be the Eightfold Path, a system that has understanding and mastery of the human mind at its heart.

Happiness and Buddhism

Buddhism is not merely a series of rites and rituals, but a constant and proactive approach of mindful action and thought that can be tested by our own experiences. The most famous of all the techniques employed in Buddhism is, of course, meditation. However, where to many this word conjures the idea of cutting oneself off from the surrounding environment, it is actually a system for living more concretely and responsively in the world and in the present moment. It is the present, and not the future or past, where we can truly achieve peace with the world and with ourselves. After all, we are all the results of the sum of our thoughts, and taking control of these thoughts is a central tenet of Buddhist enlightenment.

The life of the Buddha

The earliest records of Buddha’s teachings, the Dhammapada, discuss the themes of happiness and suffering at length. Historical contemporaries of the Buddha describe him as always smiling, as do even the most recent portrayals. It was not the grin of a wealthy or famous man, but the beatific expression of one who had achieved equilibrium and a deep inner equanimity.

Between 600 and 500 BC, Siddhartha Gautama of Shakya, as the man who would become Buddha was formerly known, was born in what is now Nepal, close to the border with India. There are various stories and theories speculating about his birth, but the details of the life he lived are fairly well corroborated. Born to a family from money, the Buddha was brought up in luxury by parents trying to protect the child from the harsh realities of the world at large. However, despite their efforts, Buddha managed to slip out from his family’s castle one day, and found three facets of existence that troubled him: sickness, aging and death.

Coming face to face with the manifestations of these concerns, he began to deeply question the nature of life and how fleetingly its pleasure pass. Following this, he came across a practitioner of asceticism who had chosen to live a life free of earthly trappings. Despite his threadbare circumstances contentment radiated from his being. Following these encounters, Buddha moved to unload himself of his formerly luxurious living situation, and began working on extreme methods of self-denial which would eventually lead to devising the “Middle Path” of considered moderation.

The Buddha tasted the heights of pleasure and most rigorous deprivation in his life, but found that living amidst neither extremity brought his spirit closer to transcendence of earthly existence. He then meditated in profound concentration (Dhyana) under a bodhi tree to discover Enlightenment. From this he derived Four Noble Truths that he started to impart to others to help aid them in discovering spiritual transcendence and the inner peace within themselves, through a system of thought and action that today is known as Buddhism

The Four Noble Truths

Buddha’s teachings that he passed onto his followers based heavily around the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is Dukkha (misery, suffering or unhappiness).
  2. Dukkha flows from appetite.
  3. Dukkha can be overcome.
  4. The means to eliminate dukkha lies with the Eightfold Path.

According to Buddha dukkha was rooted in ignorance and falsehood. Dukkha is often called suffering, but its original meaning translates more closely to “mental dysfunction”. In this sense, the concept understands suffering more as a psychological misalignment, from which our thoughts, feelings and actions become mischannelled and lead us to unhappiness.

The Eightfold Path

The tenets of the Eightfold Path are frequently divided into one of three separate categories:

  • Wisdom – Right intention, right view.
  • Conduct – Right action, right speech, right livelihood.
  • Mental Cultivation – Right concentration, right mindfulness, right effort.

It amounts to a practical and clear method to avoid ignorance and keep dukkha from influencing our thinking and behaviour, turning instead to a lifestyle born of mindfulness and self-awareness. Happiness can be further pursued by using these tools to foster mental equanimity within oneself. In Buddhism, this peace of mind is gained by extricating a person from the deleterious cycle of appetites that engender dukkha. By developing a mentality that isn’t tied to needs, passions and wants, a freedom and transcendence is achieved that is the state of Buddhist enlightenment: the Ultimate Reality known as Nirvana. The means of achieving this can be pared down to four main concerns.

Right effort

The Buddha famously once compared the mind to a horse running wild. With the Eightfold Path, moving through the world with “right effort” is carried out by shunning and then emptying our psyches of unwholesome or negative thoughts. Achieving this allows one to maintain a state of mental tranquillity through the efforts of positive thought. This must be maintained constantly, and can be sharpened through meditation.

Mindfulness

This has proven to be one of the most broadly influential concepts of Buddhism, and has trickled down into many aspects of popular culture to leave an impact on generations of philosophy, self-help and psychological theory. The Buddha believed it was vital to instill right mindfulness in every facet of life so as to better see the truth of the world. Mindfulness can be accomplished to contemplation of emotions, the body, mental state and phenomena. Ultimately, mindfulness encourages living in the moment and seeing the world with fresh eyes from moment to moment, the better to avoid regret for the past or fear for the future, which can all cause dukkha.

Right meditation and concentration

This refers to the act of maintaining mental discipline to transform the way your mind responds to your surroundings. It forms the foundation of meditation and underpins much of the active principles of the whole of Buddhism. Buddha states that there are four planes of deep concentration:

  • The initial plane of concentration, Dhyana, sees impure thoughts and mental dysfunction purged from the mind, giving way to a sense of bliss.
  • In the next stage, the mind’s activities come to rest, leaving only bliss.
  • The third stage sees bliss itself begin to disappear.
  • In the ultimate stage, all feeling goes away, replaced by complete peace and an ultimate mind state defined by happiness and contentment.

Compassion

The compassion and thought that Buddha paid to all life are woven throughout his legend. For Buddha, personal happiness was tied up in other people’s happiness, as well as the wellbeing of all living creatures.

New ways to live

The path of development required to gain lasting happiness, balance and contentment requires followers to look without flinching at a reality where everything is considered to be dukkha. However, far from being negative, this resignation is the first step on the path to enlightenment and an elevated consciousness, and could be said to be one of the attitudes that makes the Buddhist conception of happiness much more deep and robust than other philosophies.

Buddhism stresses engaging the world in a real way at all times, and with the proper and constant attention and thought processes it shows us a way through towards knowledge and equanimity.