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How much happiness is enough happiness?

June 5, 2013

“An hour? A Day? A year? 2 Years?”

This question was asked by Gen-la Kunsang in her teachings during this year’s Spring Festival at Manjushri KMC and it really hit home. My wife and I had a long discussion about it over the next couple of days. The reason it stirred us up is that of course we really want to be happy, and recognising that, we had to ask ourselves, “what are we actually doing to fulfill this wish?”


The Temple at Manjushri over the Spring Festival Weekend

What can we do to create happiness?

Normally it seems that happiness is the result of good circumstances coming together, enough money, close family and friends, a nice home

“You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride.
Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?”
– When I’m 64, The Beatles

If I’m honest, I have to say i’m a sucker for a good image. In fact I’m routinely swayed by the check list of pleasure, reputation, praise and gain, who wouldn’t be? Experiencing great pleasure, renowned far and wide, praised continually and sitting on a goodly pile of wealth… Yes? No?  Well, the having or not having of these four, Buddha called the 8 worldly concerns. He said the pursuit and concern for these are the absolute enemies of true happiness, he compared them to ropes binding us to suffering. Here I think is the starting point of why Gen-la’s words stirred us up, for whilst we appreciate the wisdom and peace of Buddha’s teachings they seem at the same time to be so different to our natural belief concerning the source of our happiness.

The question comes, are these teachings really for ordinary people who live in the world of careers, mortgages, tax and shopping?? 

Beliefs about Happiness

Many people believe happiness comes from family and friends. Others point out that the world itself is a constant unfolding miracle and that we should learn to stop and really see the sunset, feel the breeze on our face, enjoy the bird song. My first headmaster delighted in the smell of fresh cut grass.  John Keats advised that we should “Feed deep, deep upon her (our mistresses’s) peerless eyes”

And yet… and yet….. My wife and I could think of many occasions where everything had been assembled, peerless eyes, bird song, cut grass, warm sunset, but no joy was felt, instead we re-called also tears on a beautiful beach, dissatisfaction with a perfect job, un-happy hours passed even in the bosom of family.

Here’s a thought experiment:

“Think of everyone who has whatever it is that you imagine to be your perfect life; be it jobs, status, friends, winnng the football world cup … anything. Now ask yourself, “Do all these people also experience the satisfaction that I imagine it would bring?”

At best, I bet the answer is 50/50. And indeed, I also bet that some of those people are miserable. Whats more, not good conditoins but sometimes  adversity brings  happiness. Shantideva said that suffering often produces humility and with it an understanding, appreciation of and compassion for others.  The fact that outer circumstances doen’t guarantee happiness raises the question, how should we view the things of this life?

So should we abandon family? Jobs? Nice things? Should we just give up on the normal things of daily life and drift?

Geshe Kelsang’s clear answer to these questions is “No” (but you should abandon attatchment, anger and ignorance).

Is it possible to be unhappy and have a peaceful mind?
Every time I think that question through I have to say “no”. A peaceful mind is necessarily not distrubed, not dissatisfied, not angry.
“If your car breaks down,
That’s not your problem.
If you lose your job,
That’s not your problem
If you lose your friend
That’s not your problem
So what is our problem?
Your problem is an unpeaceful mind”

Gen la Kunsang, Spring Festival 2013-05-31 (for an indepth commentry I reccommend How to Solver Our Human Problems)

If you take the time to practice mindfulness of the breath  you can discover for yourself that simply by calming the mind and making it peaceful you will naturally feel a deep and profound kind of well being or happiness no matter what circumstances you are in.

In other words, a peaceful mind is the starting point from where happiness is to be found. When our mind is peaceful we will naturally find happiness. When our mind is peaceful we see everything much more clearly. With a peaceful mind things are often more beautiful, we have many more friends, our family becomes extended and peerless eyes become a more and more frequent occurance, whilst all the terrible things in the world serve to increase our wisdom and compassion. As we progress along the inner journey which begins with a peaceful mind I intuit that the word happiness will become far too small. Instead words like love, compassion, wisdom, bodhichitta, faith, effort, generosity and many others which are found in spiritual texts like Modern Buddhism are needed to adequately express the experience.

So How Much Happiness is Enough?

“If one person were to awake from a dream
In which he had experienced a hundred years of happiness,
And another were to awake from a dream
In which he had experienced but a brief moment of happiness,
Once awake, the situation would be the same for both
Because neither could ever return to that happiness.”

– Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

At the moment, many of us leave our happiness to chance and gut instinct. Certainly that’s my default modus operandi. Gen-la’s question challenged me to turn to dharma practice as the most important, most reliable method for fulfilling my own and others deepest wish. For example, when I am unhappy I am necessarily dissatisfied, dissatisfaction is a symptom of attachment. Therefore in order to fulfill my wish for happiness I need to train to be free from attachment by contemplating death and impermanence and the deceptive nature of the objects we percieve when under the sway of attachment. In other words I need, at the very least to train in renunciation.
Will this make me abandon my daily life of work, friends, family? Far from it, I think it will make me appreciate these things far more deeply and because I am working from a peaceful mind, i’ll naturally see opportunities, instead of being too “busy doing other things”.


I hope you enjoyed this article, I wrote it on Buddha’s Turning the Wheel of Dharma day, the day on which we rejoice in the very first teachings Buddha gave. Right now we can see throughout the world and in our own homes so many terrible and sad things. I hope that this article will help to inspire the best in myself and others to flourish so that there will be countless Buddha’s in the future, that tolerance, wisdom and compasssion will flourish,  and there will swiftly be an end to all misery and suffering.

From → Fundamental

  1. beautifully written article!

  2. K. Lamden permalink

    I loved this article – so heart-felt, and it helped me a lot today. Thanks so much!

  3. Thank you for sharing such inspiring teachings and insights. _/\_

    • John i’m so happy you enjoy the articles, thanks for letting me know 🙂 I wish you every success.

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