The Buddha's Path to Happiness: An Introduction

Smiling Buddha
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The Buddha taught that happiness is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. But what is happiness? Dictionaries say happiness is a range of emotions, from contentment to joy. We might think of happiness as an ephemeral thing that floats in and out of our lives, or as our life's essential goal, or as just the opposite of "sadness."

One word for "happiness" from the early Pali texts is piti, which is a deep tranquility or rapture. In order to understand the Buddha's teachings on happiness, it's important to understand piti.

True Happiness Is a State of Mind

As the Buddha explained these things, physical and emotional feelings (vedana) correspond or attach to an object. For example, the sensation of hearing is created when a sense organ (ear) comes in contact with a sense object (sound). Similarly, ordinary happiness is a feeling that has an object—for example, a happy event, winning a prize or wearing pretty new shoes.

The problem with ordinary happiness is that it never lasts because the objects of happiness don't last. A happy event is soon followed by a sad one, and shoes wear out. Unfortunately, most of us go through life looking for things to "make us happy." But our happy "fix" is never permanent, so we keep looking.

The happiness that is a factor of enlightenment is not dependent on objects but is a state of mind cultivated through mental discipline. Because it is not dependent on an impermanent object, it does not come and go. A person who has cultivated piti still feels the effects of transitory emotions—happiness or sadness—but appreciates their impermanence and essential unreality. He or she is not perpetually grasping for wanted things while avoiding unwanted things.

Happiness First

Most of us are drawn to the dharma because we want to do away with whatever we think is making us unhappy. We might think that if we realize enlightenment, then we will be happy all the time.

But the Buddha said that's not exactly how it works. We don't realize enlightenment to find happiness. Instead, he taught his disciples to cultivate the mental state of happiness in order to realize enlightenment.

The Theravadin teacher Piyadassi Thera (1914-1998) said that piti is "a mental property (cetasika) and is a quality which suffuses both the body and mind." He continued,

"The man lacking in this quality cannot proceed along the path to enlightenment. There will arise in him a sullen indifference to the dhamma, an aversion to the practice of meditation, and morbid manifestations. It is, therefore, very necessary that a man striving to attain enlightenment and final deliverance from the fetters of samsara, that repeated wandering, should endeavor to cultivate the all-important factor of happiness."

How to Cultivate Happiness

In the book The Art of Happiness, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, "So, actually the practice of Dharma is a constant battle within, replacing previous negative conditioning or habituation with new positive conditioning."

This is the most basic means of cultivating piti. Sorry; no quick fixes or three simple steps to lasting bliss.

Mental discipline and cultivating wholesome mental states are central to Buddhist practice. This usually is centered in a daily meditation or chanting practice and eventually expands to take in the whole Eightfold Path.

It's common for people to think that meditation is the only essential part of Buddhism and the rest is just frill. But in truth, Buddhism is a complex of practices that work together and support each other. A daily meditation practice by itself can be very beneficial, but it's a bit like a windmill with several missing blades—it doesn't work nearly as well as one with all of its parts.

Don't Be an Object

We've said that deep happiness has no object. So, don't make yourself an object. As long as you are seeking happiness for yourself, you will fail to find anything but temporary happiness.

The Rev. Dr. Nobuo Haneda, a Jodo Shinshu priest and teacher, said that "If you can forget your individual happiness, that's the happiness defined in Buddhism. If the issue of your happiness ceases to be an issue, that's the happiness defined in Buddhism."

This brings us back to the wholehearted practice of Buddhism. Zen master Eihei Dogen said, "To study the Buddha Way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things."

The Buddha taught that the stress and disappointment in life (dukkha) come from craving and grasping. But at the root of craving and grasping is ignorance. And this ignorance is of the true nature of things, including ourselves. As we practice and grow in wisdom, we become less and less self-focused and more concerned about the well-being of others (see "Buddhism and Compassion").

There are no shortcuts for this; we can't force ourselves be less selfish. Selflessness grows out of practice.

The result of being less self-centered is that we are also less anxious to find a happiness "fix" because that craving for a fix loses its grip. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, "If you want others to be happy practice compassion; and if you want yourself to be happy practice compassion." That sounds simple, but it takes practice.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "The Buddha's Path to Happiness: An Introduction." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 25). The Buddha's Path to Happiness: An Introduction. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Buddha's Path to Happiness: An Introduction." Learn Religions. (accessed May 29, 2023).