In January this year, celebrity monk Venerable Matthieu Ricard was touted by many media outlets, including mainstream publications like The Independent, as being the “happiest person in the world” (although he has stated that this is an exaggeration by the media). A 12-year study had apparently discovered, through measuring his brain waves during meditation, Ven. Ricard’s “abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity.” (The Independent) Even before being crowned the world’s happiest man, Ven. Ricard had given talks around the world on cultivating this much sought-after state of mind, and wrote a bestseller aptly named Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill (2007). The idea of happiness as an “art form” that could be pursued, honed, and perfected like any other discipline, including martial arts or meditation itself, grew in traction.
The Dalai Lama and many other Buddhist masters (of all three vehicles) have consistently said in many speeches and books over the decades that the common trait of all beings is to seek to avoid pain and to desire happiness. Indeed, the Dalai Lama and psychologist Howard C. Cutler preceded Mathieu Ricard with a seminal book called The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living (1998), which has reappeared in several editions through popular demand. Many masters that emphasize this desire of all beings for happiness refer back to the ancient Metta Sutta, which urges one to wish for all beings to be happy or at ease (depending on the translation):
“Avoiding any mean deeds blameworthy by the wise.
Thinking always thus: ‘May all beings be happy and safe,
May they all have tranquil minds. . . .
Those visible, and those invisible, those living far away or nearby;
Beings who are already born and those yet unborn.
May they all be happy!’ ” (Buddhanet)
It would be easy for an outsider to conclude from this material that cultivating and promoting happiness is one of the highest priorities of Buddhism. Popular media outlets like The Huffington Post, for example, have latched on to Buddhism’s potential to serve the cause of happiness: “Here are four essential lessons from Tibetan Buddhism that can help in your own pursuit of happiness,” opens one piece. And while the intentions are perfectly reasonable and good, even the advice has been reworded in a conspicuously “Huffington Post-style” way, as in “Get intimate with your own mind” and “Connect with others who support your journey.” It is not that these are incorrect nuggets of advice—it is that they are framed within the secular context of the quest for happiness.
Of course, Buddhists do want everyone to be happy and it is true that many tools in Buddhism can enhance happiness while helping us to deal better with negativity and unhappiness. Nevertheless, the stress on happiness by so many Buddhist teachers has a pedagogical foundation. The emphasis consistently made by these masters is that the wish of all beings to be happy is a shared and universal characteristic of life, one that should spur us to greater love and compassion. Indeed, the best thing one can do to fulfill this universal wish is to strive to become a fully enlightened Buddha oneself through the tireless cultivation of compassion and wisdom. This spiritual context can be and has been downplayed, overlooked, or ignored by our soundbite-loving culture and shallow media (often due to the need not to appear too biased toward a particular religious tradition by mentioning terms like “liberation” or nirvana). The result can be a simplified repackaging of Buddhism as a tradition that is more in line with the all-American “pursuit of happiness.”
This subtle simplification of Buddhist philosophy is neither malicious nor even really very distorted. There are, however, several dangers involved. One is that Buddhism risks being reduced to just one among many schools of thought on happiness, a self-help book on a large shelf of many titles, thus trivializing the profundity of its message. Second, happiness has no explicit ethical dimension, while the Buddhist vision does. Although one could argue that enlightened self-interest means that one should treat others well in order to attain happiness oneself (the Dalai Lama has said on occasion that the truly selfish person is self-sacrificing and kind), this is not a traditional Buddhist idea. Finally, happiness, while perhaps a side effect of practicing the path, if over-emphasized could lead to us being distracted from our true goal of shattering the illusions of samsara.
There is also the question of doctrinal differences between the diverse schools of Buddhism. Cultivating happiness is certainly common ground that all mainstream Buddhist schools share, and at the conventional level of everyday life they would certainly agree with secular happiness-seekers and self-help coaches that the way to happiness is through specific trainable skills. But the Buddhist schools would likely also suggest that their followers go further by delving deeper into their specific and often diverging philosophies of existential liberation, in order to attain enlightenment.
Buddhism does not teach happiness to be the often culturally conditioned manifestations we instinctively or reflexively internalize as “happiness.” Happiness is not a loving partner or a warm family, and it is certainly not professional success. It is not even (ultimately) about making a positive difference in samsara, or feeling good about helping others (a common piece of advice in the happiness literature). One is truly happy only when one has let go of everything that we think makes us happy. One teacher who has articulated this many times is Barry Kerzin, the Dalai Lama’s physician. Happiness, he told Buddhistdoor in an interview earlier this year, lies deep in our consciousness, when we have moved beyond concepts and reached a non-conceptual, non-dual state of mind.
The realization of non-duality, or the way things really are, is indeed a goal shared by all Buddhist schools, and is what can truly be called happiness. This state can only be reached through a radical, challenging journey. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche put it best in an excerpt from his book Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-called Preliminary Practices (2012): “It is such a mistake to assume that practicing dharma will help us calm down and lead an untroubled life; nothing could be further from the truth. Dharma is not a therapy. Quite the opposite, in fact; dharma is tailored specifically to turn your life upside down—it’s what you sign up for. So when your life goes pear-shaped, why do you complain? If you practice and your life fails to capsize, it is a sign that what you are doing is not working. This is what distinguishes the dharma from New Age methods involving auras, relationships, communication, well-being, the Inner Child, being one with the universe, and tree hugging. From the point of view of dharma, such interests are the toys of samsaric beings—toys that quickly bore us senseless.”
In other words, Buddhism teaches a completely counterintuitive idea of happiness based on no-self (the idea that neither our personal identity nor appearances exist inherently), non-reification, and non-grasping. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we are living in a cosmic illusion (Skt. maya) conditioned by death and rebirth. The Buddhist teachings lift the veil of falsehood and illusion that binds us to the dream of samsara, helping us awaken to the truths of the universe and the cosmos of the Buddhas.
The monk scientists call the ‘world’s happiest man’ reveals his secret (The Independent)
Universal Loving Kindness (Karaniya Metta Sutta) (Buddhanet)
What Tibetan Buddhism Can Teach Us About Happiness (The Huffington Post)
“Mind the Gap Between Appearance and Reality”—Barry Kerzin Offers a More Nuanced View of Happiness (Buddhistdoor Global)
10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy (wildmind)