Seeing the title of this piece, a pessimist may immediately argue that reality of happiness is something very ephemeral and perhaps even unattainable – so why care. In fact, similar notions led to consider happiness as an undesirable word – and economists and policy makers avoided mentioning this word in their theories and governing frameworks. The avoidance was deliberate – because the argument has been that happiness is not an easily definable materialistic quantity, therefore cannot be measured – and that anything cannot be measured has no importance, or cannot be implemented in the industrialized checklist procedures of management and administration. Additionally, they thought that the focus on happiness would hinder economy – designed to work on the selfish framework of managing things. Or that happiness of masses does not matter – it is only the elites who are entitled to it.
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The foundation of this way of managing things dates back to the 17th century R Descartes (1596 – 1650) ‘Res Extensa’ or matter philosophy. The materialistic emphasis of this philosophy afforded science and technological upheaval – giving boost to rapid industrialization with its outreach to managing everything from economics to social development. The other essential concommitant of Descartes philosophy the ‘Res Cogitans’ or mind of people – was either ignored or left out of the equation. This mechanistic approach of governing principle defines the modern Western civilization – and largely dominates the world by its export to countries beyond borders.
The principle gave birth to the processes of viewing of things from narrow perspectives in time and space – with the consequential method of managing things in un-heedfulness and un-sustainability. Perhaps it has led the societies to evolve to such a height of vicious cobweb of treachery and complexities that – no one knows anymore how to get out of it – how to restore back the simplicities in life – to mental peace and happiness that thrive on mutual trust, respect, tolerance and harmony. Peace and happiness are complementary terms. Peace is the cessation of disturbance, hostility and animosity – of fight and war – of conflicting internal struggles that torment one’s mind. Being in peace with oneself and with all – is the precondition for being happy.
In Rabindranath Tagore’s (1861 – 1941) words: . . . it is simple to be happy, but is difficult to be simple . . . Tagore saw an intertwined bond between simplicity and happiness. To Maxim Gorky (1868 – 1936), the Russian writer and political thinker: Happiness always looks small while you hold it in your hands, but let it go, and you learn at once how big and precious it is. Gorky saw the flowering of happiness – in the mutuality of bliss when all are embraced in the fold.
Things started to change after the tiny kingdom of Bhutan floated in 1972 the necessity of including Happiness as an essential element of measuring social progress. This created some momentum and now researchers, economists and policy makers including the United Nations are talking about the importance of happiness – and are urging all nations to consider happiness as one of the pillars to measure progress and prosperity.
There seems to be a lack of clarity at this stage however – and many ideas are floating around causing confusions and distortions. As we shall see – happiness or pursuits to happiness are very important for building trust required for healthy social interactions – for socioeconomic progress of a society – for the peaceful and friendly co-existence of nations. In addition, things out to be looked at from long-term perspectives and sustainability – and happiness fits right into this view. Let us attempt to examine all these – to understand what happiness means – why societies should care for it, and how it is measurable.
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First, let me start with the reality of happiness. Like everything else it is subjected to the laws of Impermanence and Dependent-origination – and together with ignorance and incessant craving for more of everything (craving for happiness itself can cause unhappiness), people experience life as a constant stream of unhappiness (Gautama Buddha - The Tathagata; 563 – 483 BCE). It is like what German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) described as the result of insatiable will to life. So much so – that one feels difficulty in holding on to the elusive happiness – like a drop of water on the slippery lotus pad. But this fact is one more reason why one should make room for happiness in life.
Further, an unhappy person is very vulnerable to get easily distracted and misguided – to frustration, depression and more. While on the other side of the coin, happiness releases positive energy that is so very important in a person’s life, and for harmony and social progress. Let us explore all these – focusing mainly on Buddhist thoughts. One of the reasons for this inclination is that the birth of Buddhism happened with the Buddha’s quest to understand the causes of, and to find remedies for unhappiness in life.
Second, it must be realized that the perception of, or wish for happiness could mean different to different people. People who struggle in day-to-day life to have ends meet; mostly see happiness as getting out of that struggle. Those who do not have cash-flow problem mostly see happiness as securing the future and enjoy life. And those who have plenty, perhaps see happiness as living in luxury and extravaganza. However the highlighted perception of these three cited groups – are only a generalization, because individual experience and aspiration may vary – in scale and quality – perhaps people of different cultural backgrounds and age groups are good examples. But one thing is common – once people reach certain state of happiness – their aspiration tends to look for something different – something better (so one thinks).
Third, happiness not only depends on an individual, but also by the actions and reactions of the surrounding – of his or her encounter with other people. For example, a rude encounter, being cheated, being harassed and victimized by someone in power, being in the social strata that are subjected to systematic deprivation and prejudicial treatment, etc. How to face the malice of infestation loaded with anger, hatred, ill-will, and in-fighting inflicted by others? We all know what the modern social governing systems are designed to work – confront, fight for right, fight with might . . . fight . . . fight! With so much emphasis on confrontation and fighting – the most precious thing – happiness is lost in the process.
Even the laws with the win-lose procedural fighting in the Court give birth to misunderstandings and animosities. It is only the religions that say to face the encounter otherwise – not by fighting, but by the spirit and practice of Sublimities. In many instances – if not all – this solution proves overwhelmingly effective, friendly and peaceful – only one has to be courageous and patient to see the effects of Sublimities.
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We have discussed them in the All-embracing Power of Sublimities posted earlier on this page. This piece highlighted the powers of the Four:
Maitrey (love or loving kindness for the welfare, safety and happiness of all),
Karuna (compassion by feeling the same pain as others),
Mudita (feeling joy at the success and prosperity of oneself and others), and
Upekkha (equanimity, calmness or even-mindedness with neither passion nor aversion).
The advantage with the Sublimities is that they invite positive reactions from the encounter, and from all. The practice is neither weak nor passive – rather a very powerful one. They propel everything to the positivity of symmetry, stability and harmony – to lengthening the duration of peace and happiness. When the duration of happiness is long lasting – but rarely attainable, one enjoys the bliss of Nirvana – the state in which the laws of Impermanence and Dependant-Origination have grinded to a halt yielding the eternal tranquility of unity.
The rationale for this approach of Buddhism says that – in situations of misunderstandings and conflicts arising from diverse social interactions – it is important to realize the importance of mind in the subject-object (observer-observed) relationship. The only peaceful and practical option for the subject – is to take ownership of his or her mind – to control and steer it to the right direction to ensure that the encounter is friendly. The subject does not own the mind of the object – therefore such an action is expected to act as an exemplary lesson for the object – with the hope to stimulate his or her own thought processes to reflection and emulation. In cases of both large and small conflicts, the process leads to the development of mutual trust, understanding and friendship.
Before going further, I like to address an important question. Is the aspiration for happiness universal? Among much confusion – perhaps inflamed by prevailing governing policies, this question bothers people often. I would like to assert that happiness – as a universal aspiration – begins in one’s childhood. To explain that, let me start by highlighting a Buddhist Sutra – the Filial Piety Sutra. This Sutra lists some 10 loving cares a mother bestows upon her child – supplemented and supported by father. These unselfish parental loving cares that never cease in the minds of parents – make a lasting impression on the child and remain with him or her – if not in conscious state, certainly in the subconscious mind. In one of many popular famous songs written and sung by an incredible genius, Tina Turner (1939 – 2023) – a line reads like: . . . find the mother within . . .
Modern psychological investigations show that a child always responds by smiling with a happy face seeing things that are positive, secured, loving and peaceful – demonstrating that the aspiration takes root in early childhood. One yearns for that childhood pure bliss during all his or her adult life – hardly achieving it fully. This process gives the continual impression of unhappiness in human mind. One is never able to pay back that love to the fullest; therefore he or she is poised to transfer it to progeny – so the wheel rolls on. This is the reason – whether we admit or not – why all of us are deeply touched by the gestures and acts of pure love from wherever they come – and to that end happiness is something we cherish and hold dearest of all. In the words of Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885), the supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved.
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For the rest of this piece, let me go through some of the Buddha’s teaching on happiness. Buddhism starts with the Four Noble Truths:
In a nutshell Buddhism says that the wheel of unhappiness starts with ignorance. A summary of this process is like this: ignorance (like not being awake or aware to see things as they are) → illusory or misguided perception/consciousness → desire, giving birth to mental and physical processes → clinging and craving → the birth of vicious unhappiness. Ignorance leads one to be less-diligent - resulting in his or her behavior to be un-heedful and un-conscientious. The dependent-arising of unhappiness – thus immediately indicates that happiness lies in one’s ability to remain awake to understand the processes – to win over them.
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In Pabitra or Pure TRIPITAKA (in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta), 12 processes of unhappiness (or dukkha) are elaborated – all arise in the mind-and-matter dynamics – from one’s ignorance of not having the right view of what are implied in the fundamental laws of Nature – the Law of Transience or Anicca, and the Law of Dependent-origination or Paticca-Samupadha. Matter: birth/rebirth; aging; demise; bodily pain; and clinging to unwholesome processes arising from the 5 body senses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.
Mind: the four - sorrow-despair-grief-lamentation; association with the undesirable (e.g. The Three Poisons: ignorance, greed/avarice, hatred); dissociation from the beloved; hankering after what are unreachable; and clinging to unwholesome processes arising from the 6th sense.
It is said that after enlightenment, many people asked the radiant Buddha whether he was a human, a great sage, or a God. The Buddha simply and calmly answered, I am awake. There lies the essence of Buddhism.
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The Noble Eightfold Path, described by Buddhist monks as the Jewel in the Lotus, falls into three groups:
Let me briefly touch on some more points on the Buddha’s Path before moving further, with a remark on the two elements of symbolism in Buddhism: in the penta-color Buddhist Flag, purity is symbolized in white color, and peace and happiness in blue color.
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As an elaboration of the Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddhist scripture Dharmapada, highlights different elements of happiness in the Sukhavaggo chapter. The Mahamangala Sutra lists some 24 ways (in the Scripture, the Sutra is laid out in 38 auspicious ways; but can be abridged or grouped into 24, and sometimes into 10) to become happy in the togetherness of peaceful and harmonious cohabitation. I have taken 6 from them to elaborate briefly. Each of these elements – can lead to different scales and qualities of happiness – but one enjoys the bliss when all are mastered. Happiness is real only when these elements are practiced by individuals by involving others in the process, in other words – be happy and let others become happy.
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☼ Being Healthy and Content. In this first element, the Buddha recognized the importance and necessity of caring for mind and matter – because in togetherness they determine the quality of happiness. The 204th verse of Dhammapada says: Health is the most precious gain and contentment the greatest wealth . . . Being healthy means taking care of the matter in us – the body; and being content is the process of checking on our mind – to ensure that we do not fall into the trap of craving. That one must be measured and reasonable in expectations of things – in ambitions and outcomes. Health and contentment is tied to economy – there is no scope of undervaluing its significance – but it is the sustainable socioeconomy built on long-term perspectives – that cares for Symmetry, Stability, Harmony and the environment – is important. It is the most measurable element of happiness – and most theoreticians consider this as the only requirement.
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☼ Being Free from Ignorance. Wisdom as one of the major pillars of Buddhism says to see things beyond vision – beyond ordinary comprehension. Wisdom lifts the veil of darkness and ignorance (the primary driver of unhappiness) from one’s mind – letting one to avoid acting foolish – to remain vigilant against advantage-taking actions and reactions that can cause harm – to remain calm and composed in adversity. Ignorance is the darkness where lack of clarity, confusion, misunderstanding and mistrust prevail – while wisdom is the light that lets one to see things as they are – the inter-connectedness of all living beings and the environment. It lets one to see the necessity of respecting the rights of others to exist – and to see the rationale for practicing the Sublimities toward all sentient beings. Wisdom does not mean knowledge or just being knowledgeable. In Buddhism wisdom refers to comprehension and absorption of knowledge to transform oneself – enabling him or her to make appropriate assessment and judgment toward performing wholesome activities. In German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s (1724 – 1804) words: . . . wisdom is organized life. The transformation must show in the person’s behavior, thought processes, speeches and social interactions. While the wisdom eye opens up by meditation practices, it is also closely tied to morality – because wisdom without morality can have more destructive and destabilizing effects on a society. The Buddha said: acquiring and sustaining wisdom are best achieved by associating with the wise (who are steadfast, learned, dutiful and devout); and by cherishing the truth. Here the Buddha laid the importance of friendship – but meaningful friendship that is nourished through the eyes of wisdom and truth. In the end, it is all about self-control to direct one in the Right direction of wisdom and virtues. The Dhammapada devotes 30 verses on foolishness and wisdom. In the 80th verse it says: Irrigators regulate the rivers; fletchers straighten the arrow shaft; carpenters shape the wood; the wise control themselves. And the 11th verse says how the ignorant dwell in unessential: Those who mistake the unessential to be essential and the essential to be unessential, dwelling in wrong thoughts, never arrive at the essential.
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☼ Being Free from Affliction. This touches the crux of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path or the Six Pursuits to Perfection – that says how to face afflictions and win over them to achieve happiness. Afflictions come from all different directions – from one’s own actions, to the actions and reactions of the surrounding – and they can be both physical and mental. Being free means using one’s wisdom – to stay safe, and to avoid initiating harmful actions or provocations that invite unwanted and reciprocal reactions from others. Many of different afflictions have root in the construct of our own mind; therefore one requires checking on the mind, and should be guided by the spirit and practice of the Sublimities to reinforce winning over afflictions. The 8th verse of the Dhammapada says: Just as a storm cannot prevail against a rocky mountain, so Mara (Evil) can never overpower the man who lives meditating on the impurities, who is controlled in his senses, moderate in eating, and filled with faith and earnest effort.
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☼ Harboring Hatred to None. The birth of hatred happens in human mind from dislikes, jealousy and fear – and all are rooted in utter selfishness and mistrust. A hateful person is very rigid, and has a very narrow threshold of tolerating and accommodating others. The 202th verse of the Dhammapada says: There is no crime like hatred . . . When hate triumphs in a human mind, it prevents him or her from seeing things as they are – from rationalizing things. Result is that the individual becomes very restless, disrespectful, unsocial, abusive, violence-prone, and unhappy. Most often, it becomes very difficult to explain and convince a hateful person that he or she needs to see things differently through the lenses of wide perspectives. How to handle a hateful person? The Buddha said: as an eternal law, hatred is never appeased by counter-hatred, but by love and compassion. Therefore, one should treat such individuals with love and loving care – to slowly enlighten him or her – to raise the awareness that it is the love that can soothe and bring happiness – that what he or she is trying to achieve by hatred will only usher in misery. The Buddha further cautioned: one must not see others indiscriminately with suspicion as if they are hateful – because those who harbor such suspicions experience unhappiness like a shadow. Here the Buddha indicates both the vulnerability and the power of mind – a loving mind has the power to see and accept things – that may often appear undesirable and unwelcome in ordinary view.
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☼ Being Free from Avarice. Avarice is the extreme form of greed. When avarice wins over, it blindsides everything, except the individual’s personal gain. It is the perfect breeding ground for malpractice, corruption, and abuse of trust and power. The person gets embroiled in an insatiable race – losing all the senses of proportional balance – and begins to see accumulation of personal gains as happiness. The result is that he or she does not feel any hesitance to trample others’ interests in recklessness and ruthlessness. The more an individual dives into avarice, the more insecure and discontent he or she feels. And despite accumulating lots of personal gains, the golden goose one chases appears distant – yet the invitation to reach the mirage and illusion of – what the individual considers as happiness prevails. Down the road, the incessant chasing becomes tiring – ushering in utter disappointment and misery. Most often it becomes very difficult to recover from that – to climb out of the black hole. The 199th verse of the Dhammapada says: Happy indeed we live, free from avarice amidst the avaricious. Amidst the avaricious men we dwell free from avarice.
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☼ Being Free from Attachment. In real life, one is attached to or is influenced by many things: parents, spouse, children and family; likes and dislikes; ambitions and reputations; livelihood and profession; cultural background; societal norms and attitudes; governing systems; etc. Some of these are common human traits; others are conditioned by the society where one lives. Life is meaningless without these attachments – and we are sort of slaves to them. At the same time, we are also affected by their rise and fall – and when attachment goes to the level of clinging and craving, problems start to appear. Therefore Buddhism says: attachment without getting attached. A simple example of this saying is like this: imagine a slender engineering structure standing upright – securely founded on the ground, it represents a balance between the anticipated disturbing force, and the restoring force. When the balance is offset by an increase of the disturbing force and/or by weak restoring force, its integrity and stability become threatened. So is the case of attachment – it must remain in balance, but such that the restoring elements of non-attachment are in control. It further entails that one must take things easy by checking on one’s nature of attachments – to not get overwhelmed by their rise and fall – to be strong by not letting the attachment win. We often hear from friends and well-wishers: do not get too involved – certainly not to unwholesome things. There are 25 verses devoted to craving/attachment. In the 335th 336th verses, the Dhammapada says: Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, his sorrows grow like grass after the rains. But whoever overcomes this wretched craving, so difficult to overcome, from him sorrows fall away like water from a lotus leaf.
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Based on the 6 discussed elements, the measurable indicators of happiness can perhaps be abridged and indicated as: (1) health and contentment; (2) ignorance: quality of education geared toward opening the eye of wisdom – to see the inter-connectedness of things and the environment that nourishes them; (3) affliction: governing framework that promotes the culture of trust, tolerance and harmonious cohabitation; (4) hatred: governing framework that promotes the culture of love and togetherness to overcome hatred and divisiveness; (5) avarice: governing framework that promotes long-term sustainability – to balance and to check on the insatiable drive for selfish gains; and (6) attachment: governing framework that promotes the culture of balance; and viewing and treating things from wide perspectives to shatter the bondage of unnecessary attachment and their rise and fall. The governing frameworks refer to both personal and societal governance. The extracted six from the elaborate Dharmapada and Mahamangala Sutra Happiness elements – lead the practitioner towards the direction of simplicity, balance, symmetry and stability.
Among these, Ignorance, Hatred and Avarice – termed as the Three Poison – are depicted in the hub of the Tibetan Mandala Samsara Wheel. The three are symbolized as: Ignorance as a Pig; Hatred as a Snake; and Avarice (often also interpreted as Craving) as a Rooster.
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Before finishing let me touch on another important appendix to happiness – laughter. How does laughter fit in the paradigm of happiness? Among many types of laughter – one is an expression of the positive emotional state of mind representing joy and happiness (it originates in pleasant smiles, and burst into laughters when surprised by something unexpected, but joyous; like the funny and laughter provoking acts of Victor Borge, 1909 - 2000). It is a way of letting the joyful emotion go public – sometimes indicating, take it easy and let go – way of sharing it with the surrounding people – contagiously binding all together – let’s say like the genuine, sweet and heavenly smile and laughter of Olivia Newton-John (1948 - 2022), Dolly Parton (1946 - ), or of Kate Hudson (1979 - ). It is a very healthy and powerful outpour – and must be enjoyed by opening up to the fullest while the emotion lasts. In Charlie Chaplin’s (1889 – 1977) word: a day without laughter is a day wasted. Coming back to Victor Hugo, in his words, laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.
In Buddhist iconography some 10 mudra (hand gestures) are identified that depict different aspects of Buddhist practices seeking and displaying happiness. Practiced even in modern times, each of them represents a state of mind – and the mind itself is conditioned by the gestures. One, the Namaskara mudra – is formed by bringing the two palms of hands together at the levels of heart or forehead - to express humility, to greet, to pay respect and to wish happiness to the encountered person/people. The gesture is practiced by all religions originated in India – including Christianity – and by most non-Muslim Asian countries. Buddhist monks and nuns usually use abhaya mudra – by raising the right hand open palm to the chest level or higher, as a gesture to bless, to remain calm, and to assure security and approval. Buddhists usually express the Namaskara in a systematic way by first touching the forehead (as a gesture of cherishing wisdom), then stopping at the nose (as a gesture of cherishing life and energy) and ends at the level of heart (as a gesture of cherishing universal love and compassion).
I have included an image of laughing human figures, A-Maze-Ing Laughter installed in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2009. They were sculpted by famous Chinese artist Yue Minjun (1962 - ), and he wished: may this sculpture inspire laughter, playfulness and joy in all who experience it. A Chinese Buddhist monk named Pu-Tai (~ 1000 CE) with his pot belly and a face full of laughter – became so popular and legendary that, his image is often confused (mostly by people unfamiliar with Buddhism) with the historical Buddha, and has led to the development of superstitions that whoever rubs his belly is blessed with good luck.
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- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 5 July 2019