The Buddhist Way to Happiness
Posted on April 16th, 2018

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

In his book Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind”, Professor Harari states that Buddhists have studied systematically the causes of happiness and the essence of happiness, which is the reason for the growing interest in the scientific community, both in the philosophy and meditation practices in Buddhism.

Yuval Noah Harari is a Professor in History, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His  first book – Sapiens has become an international sensation, being translated into more than 50 languages and more than five million copies sold since its publication. It is considered as one of the best written so far on the history of humankind. His new book, Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow, published in late 2017, has become another international bestseller. Developing on many of the themes explored in Sapiens, his new book is about what comes next for humanity, and the threat our own intelligence and creative capacity poses to our future and its implications for human happiness.

A significant omission or gap in the work of most historians is their failure to relate human history to human happiness and suffering. In other words, they have said nothing about how events in human history influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals. This is the biggest gap in our understanding of human history. Harari directly addresses the issue of progress by daring to grapple with the fundamental question of what constitutes happiness. Did people become happier as history unfolded is among the several important macro-historical questions that he focuses upon, in his research.

He says that Buddhism adopts the biological approach to happiness or that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. He says that according to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings and suffering with unpleasant feelings. But our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness, rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness, and dissatisfaction. He says that according to Buddhism, people are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings and stop craving them. This, he says, is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices.

In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear, and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been.” The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. This idea is so alien to modern liberal culture that when Western New Age movements encountered Buddhist insights, they translated them into liberal terms, thereby turning them on their head. New age cults frequently argue: ‘Happiness does not depend on external conditions. It depends only on what we feel inside. People should stop pursuing external achievements such as wealth and status and connect instead with their feelings. ’Or more succinctly, ‘Happiness begins within.’ This is exactly what biologists argue, which is the opposite of what the Buddha said.”

Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of our feelings. Indeed, the more significance we give to our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of feelings.” In Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are. Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes. When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry. This is my anger.’ They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others. They never realise that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of feelings just traps them in misery. According the Harari, when we survey the whole scene of human history as he had done in ‘Sapiens’, what we see is the headlong charges towards illusory satisfactions, with massive collateral damage, possibly fatal, to our own species and all life on earth? The Buddhist philosophy of happiness centers around the idea that you are not the events that happen to you, but you are also not the feelings you have. You are not your feelings. They are just feelings. Thus, if you understand this, you can release the need to keep chasing the need to feel happy or to not feel angry or to not feel sad. In other words, you must understand yourself.

Vipassana Meditation

Harari who is a regular meditation practitioner says that central to his understanding the works of both history and futurism is his regular daily practice of Vipassana meditation, which includes a 60-day silent retreat each year. When asked what changes meditation has brought to his work as a historian, he said firstly, it is the ability to focus. When one trains one’s mind to focus on something like the breath, it also gives one the discipline to focus on much bigger things and to really tell the difference between what’s important and everything else. Also, he says the entire exercise of Vipassana meditation is to learn the difference between fiction and reality. He says that Vipassana meditation enabled him to see reality as it is. It helps one to realize what is real and what is fictional, or the stories that we invent and construct in our own minds. He says that his main ambition as a historian is to be able to tell the difference between what is really happening in the world and what are the fictions that humans have been creating for thousands of years to explain or to control what is happening in the world. He says that what has allowed humans to dominate the earth, is the ability to tell stories and create fictions that permit widespread cooperation in a way other species can not. Sapiens rule the world, because we are the only animals that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. We can create mass cooperation networks, in which thousands and millions of complete strangers work together towards common goals.

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

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