Buddhism: Suffering and Its Ending
Welcome back! I hope that after your encounter with Stoicism, you’ve managed to deal a bit better with certain problems that life throws at you. Today, we will look at another tradition that like Stoicism, has generated a great deal of interest among contemporary scholars studying happiness. That tradition is Buddhism.
What Is Buddhism?
The term “Buddhism” refers to the wide range of traditions from across Southeast, Central, and South Asia that all trace themselves back to the historical figure of Siddharta Gautama, the historical Buddha.
Siddhartha Gautama was a philosopher and religious teacher who lived in India some time around the fifth century BCE. His teaching went on to be hugely influential. The traditions of Buddhism are rich and complex, but they all share a concern with suffering.
In Pali, the language of some of the most ancient Buddhist texts, the word translated as suffering is “dukkha.” This can mean anything from the extremes of physical pain to the nagging dissatisfaction that you have on a rainy afternoon when life just seems a bit drab and empty.
The opposite of dukkha is sukha, or happiness. Buddhism claims that it offers a path away from suffering and dissatisfaction to happiness. But how?
Feeling and Grasping
It may be surprising to realize that in Buddhism, dukkha is not a feeling. Feelings in Buddhism can be painful, pleasant, or neither. But feelings are not the problem. The problem is how we respond to feelings. We grab hold of pleasant feelings and try to make them last. We push away unpleasant feelings and try to make them stop. It is this push-and-pull that gives rise to dukkha, not the feelings themselves.
Buddhism aims to separate out the raw sensation we experience from all our responses to one sensation. For example, imagine that you are in physical pain. Alongside that pain, there may be a great deal of anguish that is not caused by the pain itself, but by fear (“Will the pain get worse?”), anxiety (“Can I bear it?”), and self-pity (“Why me?”). This anguish causes us to try to push the pain away. But if we can stop pushing, we can simply see the pain as it is, as an unpleasant sensation.
The reverse holds for pleasure. Alongside pleasure, there may be a desire to keep it going and an anxiety that it won’t continue.
We grasp onto pleasure to try and prolong it. We push away pain. This pushing and pulling causes us extra pain. To experience happiness and well-being, we just need to stop pushing and pulling.
The traditions of Buddhism recommend many techniques for overcoming this push-and-pull and cultivating happiness. One of the methods most in use today is mindfulness meditation. This approach has proven so successful, it has been largely removed from its original Buddhist roots and is now often used in schools, businesses, healthcare, and therapy.
There are different approaches to mindfulness meditation. Most involve paying attention to raw experiences we have, without trying to push away unpleasant sensations or chase after pleasant ones. Through constant practice, mindfulness meditation has been shown to lead to greater calm, equanimity, and happiness.
Beyond Personal Happiness
Mindfulness techniques taken from Buddhism can be successful in helping people lead happier lives. But these techniques are also sometimes criticized because they take a purely individual approach to happiness. In other words, they say that happiness is our own problem, and so the solution to unhappiness is down to us individually. But this approach doesn’t recognize that happiness is not only a personal and psychological issue but also a collective, sociological one.
Tomorrow, we will look at a philosopher who explored a more collective ideal of happiness. That philosopher is Confucius.
All the best,
Watch the TED talk about Buddhism and happiness by the French-born Tibetan monk, Matthieu Ricard.
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