The Second Annual Conference on Gross National Happiness The Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness
Local Pathways to Global Wellbeing
St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada
June 20 to June 24, 2005
  Bhante Saranapala
Concept of Happiness: A Buddhist Perspective

Long before Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and others, Buddha taught psycho analysis and ventured to offer ideas and psychological solutions pretty much like the modern day behavioral scientists and taught the world the conditioned nature of all issues and all views and all matter.
I am prompted to write this article, "Concept of Happiness: A Buddhist Perspective" on account of this week's global conference on, "The Gross National Happiness (GNH)" in Nova Scotia — indeed, an exceedingly refreshing idea! I understand that the purpose of this conference is to seek out ways conducive to human happiness that ensure both the material and spiritual welfare of the global citizenry. Advocates of GNH believe that instead of Gross National Product (GNP), which measures the strength of material production of a country ergo, material wellbeing, individuals in a society must find a way to assess a given society's standard of living; GNH formula being the answer.

Anyone who would wish to set the world to rights and face the modern day challenges of breeding poverty, physiological and psychological sickness and an impending environmental Armageddon, and celebrated Wall Street scandals of roguish, greedy Enron and Morgan Stanley's of recent times, all un-happiness producing issues, would do well to hearken to the word of the Buddha. He could show you how, the whys and the wherefores of man made global issues and catastrophes; how these arise; i. e., their causes, ludicrously simple at times — fester and deteriorate — begging for quick solutions — and drag down in their tide unsuspecting innocents. He could perhaps give you a lesson or two of the collective responsibility of those in power — this includes governments and business — to set the world to rights again.

It is mind boggling that two and half millennia ago, long before Adam Smith or Benham, a wise sage from India called Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism who claimed total awakening or enlightenment or Buddhahood thought out sound economic principles for all human societies for all seasons to follow which would promote individual and public good and happiness. He offered the world his own guarantees based on sound reasoning and logic that if human beings, the community of nations, were to follow his guidelines, the world would be a better place to live in and to be born into where all human beings would possess the capacity to reap the fruits of true happiness not only for their individual selves but for the benefit of the entire human race!

Long before Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and others, Buddha taught psycho analysis and ventured to offer ideas and psychological solutions pretty much like the modern day behavioral scientists and taught the world the conditioned nature of all issues and all views and all matter. His teaching exudes notions of inherent dignity and worth of every man and woman, respect for life — all forms of life — and freedom of thought and expression long, long before these became fashionable or politically correct mantras.

Buddhism claims that all human beings are creatures of desire seeking happiness (sukha kamani bhutani). Then, what is happiness? How to gain it? Where does it exist? This article intends to examine the concept of true happiness as found in the Buddhist canonical texts and intends to put forward the Buddhist perspective on happiness which I think is similar to what the enthusiasts of the GNH mean to achieve: that while economic welfare is important for human happiness that alone will not guarantee true happiness if it is devoid of an overpowering commitment to spiritual and moral progress.

The Buddhist term for happiness in the ancient Indian language of Pali, in which the Buddha is said to have spoken is "Sukha" as opposed to "Dukkha" — suffering, dissatisfaction or misery. In other words, in the absence of suffering through pain and worry, there must of necessity be happiness. All beings, both macrocosmic and microcosmic, seek happiness through any means available to them and struggle to create happiness for them selves.

We find several modes of happiness in Buddhist canonical literature. In one mode of happiness, the Buddha is said to have acknowledged two types of principal happiness: happiness of the householders through the material and economic welfare called "Gihi Sukha" and the happiness of the renunciates, that of spiritual wellness called "Pabbajita Sukha". Then, Gihi Sukha or happiness for lay people, derives from the legitimate pursuit and acquisition of material possessions i. e., property, house, money, car, TV, etc. and enjoying same as normal human beings in society eating, drinking, singing, dancing or going to the movies, etc. that is, socializing in socially acceptable ways.

Buddhism does not deny this type of material happiness. Buddhism however, while stressing on the ephemeral nature of this type of happiness as all material happiness is but transient, shows in specific terms how economic and material progress can be achieved despite its basic tenet, "All material happiness is but transient".

Pabbajita Sukha or the happiness of a renunciate or a recluse on the other hand derives from the total giving up of material possessions i. e. detachment from material possessions. An individual, seeing the transience of material possessions and life itself, retires into a life of seclusion and strenuously exercises to attain the highest state of happiness leading to immortality which Buddha described as "unborn and unconditioned". Of course, Gihi sukha is dependent on the possession the material things, hence, conditioned.

In another mode of happiness, Buddha speaks about four types of happiness in Anguttara Nikaya. An individual who lives in the society without retiring into a life of seclusion may enjoy four kinds of happiness:
  1. Happiness of ownership (atthi sukha)
  2. Happiness of having wealth (bhoga sukha)
  3. Happiness of freedom from debt (anana sukha)
  4. Happiness of blamelessness (anavajja sukha)
According to this mode, then, happiness is to enjoy material welfare, monetary or economic security through fair and righteous means. Happiness also can be enjoyed by utilizing the wealth liberally for ones self, for ones family, friends, relatives and by wholesome deeds. Happiness likewise can be experienced from becoming debt-free. Then there's happiness that is enjoyed through blamelessness resulting from the avoidance of unwholesome deeds. It must be noted here that physical happiness banks on the possession of material things, wealth and the utilization of the same for ones daily consumption, being debt- free and gaining a state of blamelessness. As evident, happiness of ownership, wealth and being debt-free all refer to economic security and stability whereas happiness of blamelessness refers to a higher level of happiness which is spiritual or psychological.

Elsewhere in Buddhist canonical literature, we find four ways of securing ones treasures for future necessities or for a rainy day. Buddha speaks of a banking/saving /investment system, which leads to material welfare and both physical and psychological happiness, namely,
  1. Having permanent or immovable property (thavara nidhana) i.e., land and dwelling
  2. Having portable possessions (jangama nidhana) like cars, electrical instruments and other living things
  3. Having utilitarian possessions (angasama nidhana) like gold/silver, money, valuable jewellery and other things — putting away of such resources to accumulate value for children's education.
  4. Storing of merits (results of good deeds) that follow us like our shadow from this life to the next as inheritance to support us (anugamika nidhana) through our journey to reach the final happiness, Nibbana.
Accordingly, these are the four ways of depositing/ securing to bring financial and material stability and security to the global citizens of any class level.

The Vyaggapajja Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya points out some steps as to how to earn happiness by an individual.

There's no reason to doubt that the great Sage, the Buddha delved into the forces of supply and demand and market play even as we know today — human condition remaining the same both then and now, and dared to proffer solutions through his teaching and analyzed the notion of self interest that constitutes the core of material progress of the humankind. His ideas on investment and why and how investments ought to be made should be of particular interest to all those who still erroneously label Buddhism as a philosophy of pessimism.

Once, a banker, a family man, asked the Buddha to give him some tips that will lead to happiness in this world and in the next.

The Buddha offered him the following four duties that would guarantee One's Own Happiness!
  1. A householder must be skillful, efficient, earnest and energetic in any work (utthana sampada)
  2. A householder must strive to protect his income from thieves and natural disasters (arakkha sampada)
  3. A householder must have good and reliable friends who are faithful, righteous, generous and intelligent who can direct him along the right path away from evil (kalyana mittata) and
  4. A householder must spend one's own income reasonably and must live within one's means in proportion to his income (sama jivikata).
Thus, economic security leads to social solidarity. Happiness then can also be experienced by maintaining social togetherness or communion by engaging in altruistic and spiritual pursuits. It's a social contract of sorts with guarantees that bring about collective happiness.

To this end, Buddhism teaches ten steps (Again, as in the Anguttara Nikaya):
  1. Taking care of or Ministering to the needs of parents
  2. Attending to the welfare of children
  3. Cherishing and looking after spouse
  4. Maintaining mutual understanding, respect and strength in married life
  5. Helping and attending to the needs of relatives
  6. Showing respect the elders or senior citizens
  7. Recollecting the divinities (devas) and inviting them to share in the happiness of merits
  8. Remembering the departed ones by performing wholesome and meritorious deeds and transferring of merit
  9. Living in accordance with the society's civil and moral laws
  10. Leading a righteous and compassionate way of life
All these steps are related to the triad practice required of a Buddhist, generosity (dana), morality (sila) and meditation (bhavana) through which an individuals can earn material happiness and spiritual happiness as well.

If the above mentioned references from the Buddhist canonical literature makes it clear that Buddhism attempts to offers a serious and a cogent rationale as to the nature of happiness and a modus operandae in achieving the same, one may still ask the question, where does this happiness exist? Another Buddhist canonical text, the Udana, throws some light!
Happiness is in that mind
Released from worldly bondage!
The happiness of sensual pleasures
And the happiness of (a wishful) heavenly bliss
By far equal not even one sixteenth-part
Of that happiness one finds at craving's end!
Mind then is the fountain of happiness. This is not just an ordinary mind, but a directed, instructed and informed mind free from all bonds and fetters! Once freed from fetters, mind becomes imbued with divine virtues like universal good-will and compassion. So, when His Holiness, Dalai Lama always says "Compassion is my religion!" it's spontaneity! It's sheer happiness! It's indeed, "dwelling in the divine abodes" as Buddha put it!

Self-control in deeds, self-control in words and self-control in thoughts are the key to happiness and these virtues provide people with the safety net of both a shelter and refuge. No citizen in this globe is immune from old age, sickness and death. Awareness of old age, sickness and death, and performance of good deeds lead to happiness. For, one who performs meritorious deeds and is restrained in body, speech and thought, attains the state of immortal happiness.

Dhammapada, the celebrated canonical work with the entire Buddhist doctrine in capsule form further amplifies the nature of human mind and where human suffering and happiness derive from:
Mind is the fore-runner of everything!
Mind is the chief supreme!
Mind made are all things!
If an individual were to speak or to act with an evilly disposed and impure mind,
Misery will surely follow him/her like the wheel that follows the ox's footsteps!
If a individual were to speak or act with a pure and wholesome mind,
Surely happiness will follow like ones own shadow!
In another section of the Dhammapada, non-antagonism, non-hostility, good health, non-possession of material things, non-grasping of the thought of victory and defeat, non-passion, tranquility, contentment and trust are identified as the key virtues that open up opportunities for people to experience physical and psychological happiness.

These then, are some mental factors that a citizen of the world has to cultivate along with economic success. Dhammapada further clarifies that "health is the greatest of gifts, contentment, the greatest of wealth; fidelity, the best of relationship and immortality, the ultimate evolution of human consciousness and Nirvana, the highest of happiness.

The Dhammapada also sheds some light as to how to earn happiness.

An individual must cultivate vigilance, i. e., mindfulness or awareness, which leads to the abode of eternal life, security and happiness. "Those who are vigilant never die! Be non-vigilant and you are as good as dead - in Mara's realm — already!" Likewise, if an individual is to be reflective and persistent, mindful, if that individual's deeds are to be pure, if s/he is to act with much consideration, if s/he becomes self-restrained and live according to law, his/her glory and happiness will increase in this world and as well as in the next.

Bhante Saranapala
Ph.d Candidate, Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto Buddhist Chaplain, Campus Chaplains' Association, University of Toronto; resident Buddhist monk and Teacher of Meditation, West End Buddhist Centre, Mississauga, Ontario

The Westend Buddhist Monastery
1569 Cormakc Cr.,
Mississauga, Ontario
Canada L5E 2P8


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