The Evolution of Happiness

is said that after his enlightenment the Buddha was motivated to teach
by seeing that all beings were seeking happiness, yet out of ignorance
were doing the very things that brought them suffering. This aroused
his great compassion to point the way to freedom. The Buddha spoke of
different kinds of happiness associated with various stages on the
unfolding path of awakening. As we penetrate deeper into the process of
opening, the happiness of each stage brings us progressively closer to
the highest kind of happiness, the happiness of nibbana, of freedom.

What are the causes and conditions that give rise to each of these
stages of happiness? How does this joy come about? The events and
circumstances of our lives do not happen by accident; rather they are
the result of certain causes and conditions. When we understand the
conditions necessary for something to happen, we can begin to take
destiny into our own hands.

The first kind of happiness is the one that’s most familiar to us –
the happiness of sense pleasures. This is the kind of happiness we
experience from being in pleasant surroundings, having good friends,
enjoying beautiful sights and sounds and delicious tastes and smells,
and having agreeable sensations in the body. Even though these
pleasures are impermanent and fleeting, in the moments we’re
experiencing them, they bring us a certain delight.

According to the Buddha, each of the different kinds of happiness is
created or conditioned by a different level of purity. The level that
gives rise to sensual happiness is purity of conduct, sometimes called
purity of action. Purity of conduct is a fundamental way of coming into
a true relationship with ourselves, with other people, and with the
world. It has two aspects. The first is the cultivation of generosity –
the expression of non-greed and non-clinging. It is greed or attachment
that keeps us bound to the wheel of samsara, the cycle of life and
death. With every act of giving we weaken the power of grasping. The
Buddha once said that if we knew as he did the fruit of giving, we
would not let a single meal pass without sharing it, so great is the
power of generosity.

The Buddha spoke of three levels of generosity. He called the first
beggarly giving – we give the worst of what we have, what we don’t
want, the leftovers. Even then, we have a lot of doubt: “Should I give
it? Shouldn’t I? Next year I’ll probably have a use for it.” The next
level is friendly giving – we give what we would use for ourselves, and
we give it with more spontaneity and ease, with more joy in the mind.
The highest kind of generosity is queenly or kingly giving. The mind
takes delight in offering the best of what we have, giving what we
value most. This is the perfection of generosity.

Generosity takes many forms – we may give our time, our energy, our
material possessions, our love. All are expressions of caring, of
compassion, of connection, and of renunciation – the ability to let go.
The beauty of generosity is that it not only brings us happiness in the
moment – we feel good when we give – but it is also the cause for
happiness to arise in the future.

The other aspect of purity of conduct is sila, the Pali
word for morality. In the Buddha’s teaching there are five precepts
that lay people follow: not killing, not stealing, not committing
sexual misconduct, not using wrong speech – false or harsh speech – and
not taking intoxicants, which cloud or delude the mind. The underlying
principle is non-harming – of ourselves, other people, and the

Just as generosity is a practice, so, too, is commitment to the
precepts. Consciously practicing them fosters wakefulness and keeps us
from simply acting out the habit patterns of our conditioning. The
precepts serve as a reference point, giving us some clarity in
understanding whether our behavior is wholesome or unwholesome. They
are not a set of commandments – “Thou shalt not do this” and “Thou
shalt do that” – but rather guidelines for exploring how our actions
affect our mind: What happens when we’re in conflict with the world?
What happens when we’re in harmony with other people and ourselves? In
the traditional teachings of the Buddha, morality is the foundation of
concentration, and concentration is the foundation of wisdom. When the
mind is in turmoil, it’s very difficult to concentrate. The power of
virtue is a steadfastness and ease of mind. And when we’re in harmony
with ourselves, we give a wonderful gift to other people – the gift of
trust. We’re saying with our lives, with our actions, “You need not
fear me.” Just imagine how the world would be transformed if everybody
observed one precept: not to kill.

The joy we experience when we’re practicing generosity and morality
gives rise to the second kind of happiness, the happiness of
concentration. The Buddha called this purity of mind. When the mind is
steady and one-pointed, there’s a quality of inner peace and stillness
that is much deeper and more fulfilling than the happiness of sense
pleasures. We enjoy sense pleasures, but at a certain point we tire of
them. Just how long can we listen to music or eat good food? By
contrast, the happiness that comes with concentration of mind is
refreshing. It energizes us.

There are many techniques for developing concentration. We can focus
on the breath, on a sound, on a light, on a mantra, on an image, on
walking. We can practice metta, lovingkindness, or karuna, compassion.
We can each find the way that for us is most conducive to strengthening
the state of one-pointedness, of collectedness. We learn how to quiet
the inner dialogue. As concentration becomes stronger, we actually
start living from a place of greater inner peace. This is a source of
great happiness, great joy.

The happiness of concentration makes possible the next kind of
happiness, the happiness of beginning insight. When the mind is still,
we can employ it in the service of awareness and come to a deeper
understanding of who we are and what life is about. Wisdom unfolds in a
very ordered way. When we sit and pay attention to our experience, the
first level we come to is psychological insight. We see all our
different sides – the loving side, the greedy side, the judging side,
the angry side, the peaceful side. We see parts of ourselves that have
been covered up – the jealousy, the fear, the hatred, the unworthiness.
Often when we first open up to the experience of who we are, we don’t
like a lot of it. The tendency is to be self-judgmental. Through the
power of concentration and mindfulness, we learn how to rest very
naturally in the simple awareness of what’s happening. We become less
judgmental. We begin to get insight into the complexities of our
personality. We see the patterns of our thoughts and emotions, and the
ways we relate to people. But this is a tricky point in the practice.
Psychological insights can be very seductive – who’s more interesting
than oneself ? – so it’s easy to get lost on this level of inquiry. We
need to be watchful and keep coming back to the main object of

Through the practice of very careful momentary attention, we see
and connect very directly with the nature of thoughts and emotions, not
getting so lost in the story. What is the nature of anger? What is the
quality of happiness? What is the quality of compassion? The momentum
of mindfulness begins to build.

At this point there’s a real jump in our practice. The Buddha called
this level purity of view, or purity of understanding. We let go of our
fascination with the content of our minds and drop into the level of
process, the flow of phenomena. We see clearly that what is happening
in each moment is knowing and object, arising and passing away.

The Buddha once gave a very short discourse called “The All” in
which he described the totality of our experience in six phrases:

The eye, visible objects, and the knowing of them.

The ear, sounds, and the knowing of them.

The tongue, tastes, and the knowing of them.

The nose, smells, and the knowing of them.

The body, sensations, and the knowing of them.

The mind, mind objects, and the knowing of them.

This is our first clear glimpse of the nature of the mind
itself. We see that all we are is a succession of mind moments –
seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, feeling. At
this stage, we have a very direct understanding of what the Buddha
called the Three Characteristics. We have a visceral experience of the
truth of anicca, impermanence: everything is changing constantly. And
out of this intimate understanding of the momentariness of phenomena,
we begin to comprehend more clearly what the Buddha meant by dukkha,
suffering – the unsatisfactory nature of things. When we see that even
pleasant things are changing – and changing rapidly – it becomes
obvious that they are incapable of satisfying us. Not because they are
inherently bad but because they don’t last. This insight leads to an
understanding of the characteristic that is most difficult to see –
anatta, or selflessness. There is no one behind this process to whom it
is happening; what we call “self” is the process of change.

Purity of view is a gateway to greater insight and even deeper
levels of happiness. The momentum of mindfulness becomes so strong that
the perception of phenomena arising and passing away becomes crystal
clear. Concentration and awareness are effortless. The mind becomes
luminous. This point in the practice is called Vipassana happiness. It
is a very happy time in our meditation. The joy of it far exceeds the
happiness of concentration or of sense pleasures, because we experience
such precise, clear insight into the nature of things. It’s our first
taste of coming home. We feel tremendous rapture and overwhelming
gratitude: after all the work we’ve done, we’re finally reaping a great

But there’s a problem here. This stage is often called
“pseudo-nibbana.” Everything we’ve practiced so hard for – clarity,
luminosity, rapture, lightness, joy – is reflected back to us as what
the Buddha called “the corruptions of insight.” The qualities
themselves are not the problem; indeed, they are the factors of
enlightenment. But because our insight is not yet mature, we become
attached to them and to the happiness they bring. It takes renewed
effort to come back to simply noting these extraordinary states. At
this point we hit a bumpy stage. Instead of the arising and passing of
phenomena, we begin to experience the dissolution of everything – our
minds, our bodies, the world. Everything is vanishing. There’s no place
to stand. We’re trying to hold onto something that is continually
dissolving. As this stage unfolds, there is often tremendous fear.

In Vipassana happiness, we can sit for hours. But at the stage
of dissolution we sit for ten or fifteen minutes and become disgusted.
This phase is colloquially known as the “rolling up the mat” stage
because all yogis want to do is roll up the mat and quit. It’s a very
difficult time, with a lot of existential suffering. This is not the
suffering of pain in the knees or of psychological problems but the
suffering inherent in existence. We think our practice is falling
apart, but actually this is a stage of deepening wisdom. Out of our
opening to dukkha comes what is called “the urge for deliverance,” a
strong motivation to be free.

From this urge for freedom emerges another very happy stage of
meditation, the happiness of equanimity. This is a far deeper, subtler,
and more pervasive happiness than the rapture of the earlier stage of
seeing things rapidly arising and passing away. There is softness and
lightness in the body. The mind is perfectly poised – there is not even
the slightest reaching for or pushing away. The mind is completely
impartial. Pleasant or unpleasant, whatever arises is fine. All the
factors of enlightenment are in the final maturing stage.

It is out of this place of equanimity that the mind opens
spontaneously and intuitively to the unconditioned, the unborn, the
unmanifest – nibbana. Nibbana is the highest happiness, beyond even the
happiness of great insight or understanding, because it transcends the
mind itself. It is transforming. The experience of nibbana has the
power to uproot from the stream of consciousness the unwholesome
factors of mind that keep us bound to samsara. The first moment of
opening to the highest reality uproots the attachment to self, to the
sense of “I.” And it is said that from that moment on, a being is
destined to work through the remaining defilements, such as greed and
anger, on the way to full awakening.

What the Buddha taught on so many levels was how to be happy. If
we want the happiness of sense delights, there are causes and
conditions, namely, purity of conduct. If we want the happiness of
stillness, of peace, we need to develop concentration – one-pointedness
of mind. If we want the happiness of insight, we need to develop purity
of view, purity of understanding through strengthening mindfulness. If
we want to experience the happiness of different stages of insight, all
the way through equanimity, we need to continue building the momentum
of mindfulness and the other factors of enlightenment. And if we want
the highest happiness, the happiness of nibbana, we simply need to walk
this path to the end. And when we aim for the highest kind of
happiness, we find all the others a growing part of our lives.


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