Buddhism teaches the path to escape from suffering. When Prince Siddhartha, the future Buddha, ventures beyond the palace walls, he finds a world filled with death, poverty, and suffering.
He is overcome with a longing to find the solution to end this suffering. Siddhartha experiments with a variety of approaches, including hedonism (the unbridled pursuit of sensual pleasures) on one extreme, and asceticism (the self-denial of sensual pleasures) on the other. He finds both to be wanting. Neither frees him from suffering; neither is the key to happiness.
Siddhartha’s great insight was that suffering and happiness are mainly determined by psychology, by one’s state of mind, rather than by the relative presence or absence of material goods. To escape from suffering, an individual must have the right state of mind towards material good and also towards other people. Since possessions, sensual pleasures, and physical life itself are all transient, suffering can be overcome only by acknowledging the transience of all things and all relations, and living in mindfulness of that transience. Moreover, since all things and all people are naturally inter-dependent, with the untrained “ego” leading to a false sense of separation, we gain happiness by our compassion towards others.
The Buddha’s basic teachings on achieving happiness (more properly, the escape from suffering) are summarized in the Four Noble Truths and the
Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble truths convey the response to impermanence and inter-dependence. Human beings tend to grasp for sensual pleasures, personal possessions, and attachments that are in fact impermanent, and these then become a source of inevitable suffering through
the disappointment of loss and envy of others.
Buddhist teaching therefore follows a naturalistic logic. It starts with the impermanence and interdependence of all things, and then prescribes a psychological attitude and ethical framework consistent with this reality. Since goods and sensory pleasures are impermanent, it is important to maintain a psychological detachment from them, a philosophical attitude sometimes called imperturbability. Since humans are mortal, their social status impermanent, and their fates inter-dependent, humans are all worthy of compassion. In this sense, then, Buddhism is both a psycho
logical and an ethical approach to happiness, calling for the right state of mind as well as the right actions (ethics) vis-à-vis others. It is also an approach that must be achieved through life-long diligence. An individual must conquer one’s passions and desires in order to achieve the necessary imperturbability and compassion towards others. Success is not easy, requiring acts of compassion and mental training through meditation. Like nearly every traditional philosophy, Buddhism holds that happiness must be achieved through striving, using tools of learning from masters, habitual practice, and the exercise of the mind and will. Matthieu Ricard, a renowned Buddhist monk and humanitarian who is deeply engaged in the neuroscience of happiness, emphasizes that “achieving durable happiness as a way of being is a skill. It requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities, such as inner peace, mindfulness, and altruistic love.”
Happiness, noted Ricard, is “a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.”
Inner fulfillment, moreover, contributes to social peace. “One who is at peace with herself will contribute spontaneously to establishing peace within her family, her neighborhood, and, circumstances permitting, society at large.”
The five “mental poisons”: desire, hatred, delusion, pride, and envy undermine one’s happiness while sowing social discord.