Wordly Happiness / Buddhist Happiness, by Mu Soeng

Happiness is everywhere. Not that anyone is claiming to be really, truly happy but everyone is talking about wanting to be happy. Wanting to be happy is not news. […]

Photograph by Mark Daynes, Unsplash.com
Photograph by Mark Daynes, Unsplash.com

What the Buddha really taught

Happiness is everywhere. Not that anyone is claiming to be really, truly happy but everyone is talking about wanting to be happy. Wanting to be happy is not news. The pursuit of happiness, conditioned by basic drives for survival and comfort, has been perhaps the earliest preoccupation in the organizing of human societies. It may also be the case that seeking protection for survival and comfort has more to do with fear than an active pursuit of happiness. Nonetheless, “happiness” has emerged as a universal lingua franca to talk about one of the most important aspects of human condition.

These days, numerous books at the airport kiosks about dispensing happiness are a testimony to an emerging Happiness Industry. Understanding the rules of this new industry is not always easy. The New York Times recently published an article with the headline, “To Be Happier, Start Thinking More About Your Death” (Arthur Brooks, Jan. 9, 2016). The article starts quite dramatically by describing how Buddhist monks in Thailand contemplate photos of corpses in various stages of decay “as a key to better living.” The tone of the article nonetheless captures a sense of how Buddhist frames of reference are being co-opted in the workings of the Happiness Industry.

From a Buddhist point of view, the dynamics of the Happiness Industry are important to understand because the language of the Buddha, incomplete as it is for contemporary complex psychological understandings, suggests a crucial distinction between the pleasure principle and sources of genuine happiness.

There are two kinds of happiness, O monks: the happiness of the senses and the happiness of renunciation. But the happiness of renunciation is the higher of the two. Tainted happiness and taintless happiness. But taintless happiness is the higher of the two. Carnal and non-carnal happiness—the non-carnal is the higher. Noble and ignoble happiness—the noble is the higher. Bodily and mental happiness—the mental is the higher. (Anguttara Nikaya, II: VII)

In last ten or fifteen years, Buddhism has earned a reputation in the West for being a “religion of happiness.” This narrative has emerged in large measure due to the popularity of the Dalai Lama (and his many books on the topic) on one hand, and the popularity of the mindfulness movement. In a therapeutic culture, it seems a given that once mindfulness was accepted as a legitimate clinical intervention all doors would open for its legitimacy in non-Buddhist cultural discourses as well.

The tiny Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan has joined the fray by declaring that it operates on the principle of Gross National Happiness. By contrast, in American popular culture, which operates on the principle of consumer items being marked up or down, it is no surprise that one of the best-selling books on happiness is Ten Percent Happier by Dan Harris, the popular ABC news anchor.

By and large, the convergences and overlaps between popular Buddhism and the Happiness Industry have created a narrative wherein Buddhism is forced to seek legitimacy as a dispenser of happiness. In other words, it cannot be legitimized in cultural discourses if it is not catering to the “happiness project.” In a related way, since the pursuit of happiness has become a scientific quest, Buddhism has also become a “scientific religion.” The Mind-Life Institute, associated with the Dalai Lama, has become an outpost for “scientific” study of Buddhism, and also a scientific study of happiness as delivered by Buddhism. One of the pivotal figures in Mind-Life Institute initiatives has been the monk Mathieu Ricard, who has been proclaimed as the “happiest man in the world.”

The narrative that seems to have taken hold in recent years reads:

Mindfulness = happiness
= Buddhism = scientific

Yet, the Buddhist happiness described in earliest teachings stands in stark contrast:

There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: [which is] base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: [which is] painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way as realized by the Tathagatha—producing vision, producing knowledge—leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Liberation.
(Dhammacakapavatana Sutta, Turning the Wheel of Dhamma, SN 56:11)

Throughout the Pali Canon, the Buddha makes a distinction between worldly happiness and happiness obtained through letting go/renunciation. The language of the Buddha interweaves the themes of “carnal happiness” and “sensual pleasures” as a way to communicate what might be called the distinction between lasting happiness and pleasures of momentary gratification.

A representative short discourse in the Pali Canon offers a road map to how the Buddha saw the steps leading to lasting happiness, and the consequences or benefits that emerge from them. In this passage a sequence is established in which the presence of stress and anguish (Pali: dukkha) in one’s life leads one to put trust (saddha) in a particular practice (in this case, the practices of mindfulness and concentration as suggested by the Buddha); when the practice is done properly and seamlessly, it organically leads to an experience of joy (pamojja); when authentic practice is continued, joy turns into rapture (piti); the next stage of authentic practice results in tranquility (passaddhi), which leads to the next higher stage of happiness (sukha); these four stages coalesce to produce a concentrated mind (samadhi). A concentrated mind is able to have a direct glimpse into the nature of things just as they are (alternatively, “knowledge and vision of things as they actually are present”; yatha-bhuta-nyana-dassana). When the nature of things has been perceived directly (rather than conceptually), it leads to disenchantment (nibbida), which in turn leads to dispassion (viraga). When disenchantment and dispassion are firmly in place, the practitioner has become liberated (vimutti). (Upanisa Sutta, “Prerequisites,” Samuytta Nikaya, 12:23; paraphrased.)

Although there are many different, and conflicting, interpretations of what “liberation” means in various Buddhist traditions, within the contexts of the above passage, it simply means that one has become liberated from the pull of enchantment of sensual pleasures.

If this statement from the Buddha about happiness is understood from the  inside out, it is a rather simple proposition. It means pulling away from seeking gratification through sensual pleasures. In both the Buddhist and broader Indian religious traditions, the term samsara is understood as the modality of seeking gratification through sensual pleasures.

The same traditions define “five poisons” as the basic ingredients of samsara: [seeking gratification through] food, sex, sleep, fame, and wealth. The counterpoint to samsara is nirvana (Pali: nibbana) which, although it has become a quasi-theological idea in orthodox Buddhism, can be simply understood as cultivating a life of disenchantment and dispassion.

The psychological life of disenchantment and dispassion, as a hallmark of Buddha’s teachings on happiness, is not an existentially negative condition. If anything, when it is built upon a long cultivation of preceding stages of joy, rapture, tranquility, and happiness, it offers a psychological matrix of completion; the feeling of being complete without seeking pleasure or gratification from external sources.

The Buddha called it the life of a noble person (arya-pudgala). This life is an antidote to the life of an ordinary, confused person, the “worlding” (puthujjana) who sees the pursuit of sensual pleasures as a way to seek completion, to seek gratification, to become happy.

Clarifying the Pali language of the Buddha in this way, and making a sharp distinction between worldly happiness as pursuit of sensual pleasures, and lasting happiness as letting-go of the same pursuit, it is possible to see that “happiness” is a cultural narrative rather than a universally understandable proposition. In this narrative, what gets talked about most often is the idea of happiness rather than the felt experience of what it means to be happy. It is assumed in any cultural narrative that everyone understands the shared idea of “happiness.” But that rarely is the case.

I&E Mu Soeng2
Burmese-Pali manuscript copy of the Buddhist text the Mahaniddesa

It is possible to identify a number of the ingredients that have gone into the making of the Happiness Industry, ingredients that have gone on to flavor contemporary Buddhism. A recent essay by Kate Bowler in The New York Times (“Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me,” February 14, 2016) offers an interesting glimpse into what kind of happiness is being sought within the contexts of American culture and what it might stand for.

Bowler is a professor of the history of Christianity at Duke University, and the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. She locates the origin of the prosperity gospel in America in the nineteenth century. “Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith,” she writes. She also notes that it “sprang, in part from the American metaphysical tradition of New Thought, a late-nineteenth-century ripening of ideas about the power of the mind: Positive thoughts yielded positive circumstances, and negative thoughts negative circumstances.”

This is not news in itself. Throughout history, all popular religions, Buddhism included, have sought to convey a prosperity gospel through faith in one deity or another. What’s distinctive about the prosperity gospel in America is that it fits into a distinctly American narrative about happiness starting with what Max Weber has called “the spirit of Protestant Ethic.” This is the Calvinistic idea that God rewards prosperity to those who work hard. Bowler writes, “Variations of this belief became foundational to the development of self-help psychology.”

The pursuit of happiness in America through prosperity gospel flowed into the story of Positive Psychology. The goals of Positive Psychology as a movement were always calibrated to the idea of “success,” linking material prosperity to the pursuit of happiness. Dale Carnegie was one of the founders of this gospel. Carnegie’s gospel of success was paralleled and supplemented by theories of consumerism as pursuit of happiness put forward by Edward Bernays (1891-1995). Ed Bernays is known today as the pioneering founder of modern marketing theories and also as “the father of public relations.” A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays combined the psychoanalytic ideas of his uncle with the crowd psychology theories of Wilfred Trotter and others to create a gospel of consumerism that today is taken so much for granted as to be part of America’s DNA.

Another dynamic influencing the Happiness Industry is the notion that optimism is a moral idea. The notion started with the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), in whose philosophical theories of “Pure Reason” and “Metaphysics of Morals” the idea of optimism found a niche. Regardless of the limitations of Kantian speculations, optimism has now been taken up with great enthusiasm by free-market economists.

Angus Deaton was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2015. He has been called a “skeptical optimist” but his theories have been especially influential among World Bank economists.  In these optimism-driven economic theories, the emphasis is on the mechanics of wealth accumulation rather than wealth redistribution. In an article about his winning the Nobel, it was noted that “Deaton also questioned the widespread presumption that  rising inequality is always a bad thing. In developing countries, he wrote, ‘inequality is often a consequence of progress.’”

The Buddha would not necessarily disagree, but he never equated progress or prosperity with happiness. Yet the various gospels of material success, consumerism, prosperity, Christian prayer, Protestant ethic, optimism, progress, improvement, Positive Psychology, et al. coalesce to create a powerful Happiness Industry which is so American and so strong in its pull that popular Buddhism in America has become a feel-good Buddhism, and a proxy for Happiness Industry.

When Pascal Bruckner wrote in the Winter 2015 issue of Tricycle, the Buddhist Magazine: “It is astonishing that this doctrine, which makes the self a harmful illusion, has gained so much influence in the hedonistic and individualistic West,” he seems to be alluding to a collusion between a Happiness Industry within popular Buddhism in the West and the Happiness Industry of the broader American society. When the dynamics of popular Buddhism are inducted by such a system of defining and pursuing happiness, the classical teachings of the Buddha on happiness inevitably go out of focus. The Buddha never portrayed happiness as a consumer product or any of the other configurations of the Happiness Industry but as a cultivation of disenchantment, dispassion, with “peace that passeth understanding.” ♦


By Mu Soeng

Mu Soeng is Program Director and Resident Scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, MA. A former Zen monk, he is the author of several books including Trust in Mind and The Diamond Sutra.