The Noble Eightfold Blog


What Did the Buddha Teach?

The Buddha's Path to Happiness

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2022 Eric K. Van Horn

for free distribution

You may copy, reformat, reprint, republish, and redistribute this work in any medium whatsoever without the author’s permission, provided that: (1) such copies, etc. are made available free of any charge; (2) any translations of this work state that they are derived herefrom; (3) any derivations of this work state that they are derived and differ herefrom; and (4) you include the full text of this license in any copies, translations or derivations of this work. Otherwise, all rights reserved.


There is this old joke about Israeli politics that if there are two Jews they have three opinions. Trying to describe the Buddha’s Dharma is a little like that. There are many ways to describe what the Buddha taught. They are not mutually exclusive, and more than one of them is legitimate. So I am going to start by saying that this is one way to describe what the Buddha taught, but it is just one.

I am going to tackle this question in three parts. The first part is called “The Search for Happiness.” The second part is called “How to Be Happy in the Conventional World.” And the third part is called “How to be Happy in a Transcendent Way.” And if that all sounds like it is going to put you to sleep, hang in there. It gets better.

The Search for Happiness

I am going to start by describing a notion in the Dharma and to use the Pāli term for it. “Pāli” is one of the canonical languages of Buddhism. That term is “saṃvega” (pronounced sang-WAY-gah). And I will start to describe “saṃvega” by telling a story.

Many years ago there was a woman who had what to all appearances was a happy and successful life. She was highly educated and was a successful biochemist. She had a good marriage. She loved her husband very much, and he loved her very much. They had four wonderful children. They had a good family life.

But as she tells the story, she arrived at this point in her life and wondered, “Is this it? Is this all there is?” For all that she had accomplished, it seemed rather hollow. It wasn’t that she did not appreciate what she had. It just seemed like there had to be something else. There had to be more.

This is saṃvega.

When I look back at my life, I think that there was a subtle but powerful form of conditioning. I don’t even know where it came from. But from an early age, I knew what the expectations were. I was supposed to go to school. I was supposed to get good grades. I was supposed to go to church and Sunday school. At some point I would go to college or learn a trade. I would most certainly get a job. Hopefully I would earn a good living. I would find a girlfriend and get married. We would have children. And so it went. And I think this is how most of us are conditioned. And some people go through life contented that this is the way to be happy. Oh, from time to time they may wonder, “Is this all there is?” They may even find some comfort in a conventional religion, or something like that. But they never really follow their instincts that there has to be more, maybe even a lot more.

My mother used to say that she wanted to be rich, famous, and beautiful. Don’t we largely think like that? But we see people all the time who have all those things, and they still are not happy. They suffer from depression. They mangle their bodies with cosmetic surgery. They commit suicide. They turn to drugs and alcohol.

Curiously, like our biochemist, the Buddha had the same questions. The Buddha “had it all.” He came from a rich and powerful family. His father was the “raja”—the leader—of the Indian republic of Sakya. If he simply followed the course of his life, one day he would be the raja. He married a beautiful princess. He came from a good family. His step-mother was an especially kind and good person. The Buddha-to-be “had it all.”

But he describes his response to his condition in this way:

“Amid such splendor and a delicate life, it occurred to me: ‘An uninstructed worldling, though himself subject to death, not exempt from death, feels repelled, humiliated, and disgusted when he sees another who is dead, overlooking his own situation. Now I too am subject to death and am not exempt from death. Such being the case, if I were to feel repelled, humiliated, and disgusted when seeing another who is dead, that would not be proper for me.’ When I reflected thus, my intoxication with youth was completely abandoned. — [AN 3.30]

The Buddha saw the end game, that whatever his current condition, like everyone else he was subject to aging, sickness, and death. For all of his wealth and power, it wasn’t going to end well.

Our conditioning tells us to look to the world for happiness, to look outside of ourselves. But think about that for a moment. Look at the world. I mean, really look at it. As I write this we are dealing with Covid, climate change, and the war in Ukraine. But that is just this year’s story. A little over 100 years ago we were ending the First World War. What a hot mess that was. And its claim to fame is that after all that death, after all that destruction, and after all that suffering and misery, the final result was the Second World War. Talk about a booby prize.

It isn’t that you can’t experience a certain kind of happiness in the world. Of course you can. The Buddha himself had favorite places to meditate. But happiness that is rooted in the outside world is extremely fragile. It is based on a certain set of conditions, and as soon as those conditions change, there goes your happiness.

So one of the Buddha’s messages to us is not going to be a popular one, and that is that the ways in which we have been looking for happiness are inherently flawed. And while it is bad news, you don’t really have to think about it very deeply to see what a flawed strategy it is. Just turn on the news.

So this sense of saṃvega is what sets us off on our spiritual journey, our “noble search.” The good news from a Buddhist perspective is that there is something better. There is a way to be happy that comes not from the world outside, it comes from the world inside. The solution is to turn our attention inwards, to our own minds.

People often say that this way of living your life is selfish. You may be wondering the same thing. Are we all supposed to go off and live on secluded mountain tops subsisting on berries, brown rice, and dirt?

This would be a gross misunderstanding of the Buddhist search for happiness.

In the Buddha’s Dharma, the inward search for happiness and our ability to be useful in the world are joined at the hip. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Many (many, many, many…) years ago I worked as an Emergency Medical Technician, an EMT. Now imagine that there has been a nasty automobile accident. There is a victim lying on the ground. His abdomen has been sliced open and his bowels are hanging out onto the ground. He is conscious and in serious pain. There is a crowd surrounding him, and they are largely frozen and unable to act because of their disgust and revulsion at what they are seeing.

Now along come a couple of EMTs. They are trained and experienced in situations like this. One takes the hand of the poor guy lying on the ground and comforts him. The other one starts to treat his wounds.

The skill and compassion of those EMTs is like the trained disciple of the Buddha. Yes, the world is a mess. But who do you want helping with that mess? Do you want the people who are paralyzed with fear, people who are simply reactive and bitter and angry and greedy? Or do you want the people who are kind, compassionate, and wise, people who have the skills to actually do some good?

Thích Nhất Hạnh used to tell this story. In an incident that has been somewhat lost to history, many refugees fled the tyranny of the political regime in Cambodia in 1976 and 1977. They left in overloaded, flimsy, rotting boats. Many of the boats sank, and many thousands of people died.

However, some boats survived, and afterwards someone studied why certain boats made it and some did not. There was one common denominator. If there was just one person on a boat who did not panic, that boat had a very high chance of success.

So we develop our minds and hearts not to escape from our place in the world, but to be able to take our place in the world with kindness and purpose and skill. Certainly the people around us would love to see us become more kind, more patient, more compassionate, and more skillful.

And as for our biochemist, she and a friend one day went to a talk by the famous 20th century Zen teacher, Sunryu Suzuki. Her name was “Blanche Hartman.” You can look her up. She passed away in 2016. She became one of the great Zen teachers of her time.

How to Be Happy in the Conventional World

Buddhism has, as I am guessing you know, a mystical, transcendent side to it. For the uninitiated, this is not very accessible. I don’t intend to run away from this side of Buddhism, but frankly, for most of Buddhist history—and that includes now—most people do not relate to Buddhism in that way. I will be getting to some of this in the last section, but I think it is important to know that you can benefit immensely from the Buddha’s Dharma without putting on a set of robes and scurrying off to the jungles of Thailand. The Buddha himself, in fact, offered advice to lay people on a wide variety of topics like money, personal relationships—including marriages and romantic relationships—politics, and so on. His teaching was never limited to those who were seeking enlightenment.

The Buddha’s most fundamental message to us on happiness in this lifetime is that this path is through developing good qualities. He gives us various inventories of those qualities, and most of them would be familiar to people from every religion, to secular humanists, and so on. They are certainly not unique to Buddhism.

These qualities start with gratitude and generosity. Gratitude and generosity are like the subsoil and topsoil of the Dharma. Then there is love, compassion, patience, wisdom, equanimity, honesty, and virtue. I am sure you can think of many others, but you get the idea.

Now, I don’t know what you were taught when you were growing up, but I was most certainly not taught that the path to happiness was through being a good person. In fact, the lesson I got most often was that being moral was sort of a cross to bear. It was necessary but painful. My son once took a college course on ethics and morality at a Quaker school, and this was precisely what he was taught. I still have bruises on my head from when my son told me what he was being taught, and I began to slowly bang my head on the table.

For starters, there is that whole karma thing. If you are kind, you will benefit from that kindness now and in the future. You are generating good karma. And as your practice develops, you won’t have to wait for some future lifetime for it to come to fruition.

Let me give you an example. I will start with one of my favorite stories. I want to preface this by saying that I am not telling you this story to convince you what a great person I am. This isn’t about ego enhancement. In fact, it is quite the opposite. In the world of Buddhist ethics, the joy that comes from virtuous conduct is pure. It is as if the joy comes through you, but not from you. You are just the pipeline.

So here is the story. It happened in the August following Donald Trump’s inauguration. I happened to get a small windfall from dividends and interest in my mutual fund. I was feeling pretty flush financially, so I decided to give some of it away.

I went out to the GoFundMe site. They were promoting the fundraising campaigns for DACA kids, Dreamers. Now, if you want to apply for DACA status, you have to pay a fee of $500. There are also legal costs that usually run another $300. Now $800, as I am sure you can imagine, is a lot of money for an undocumented teenager to come up with.

There was one campaign in particular that caught my eye. It was a teenage girl. I could see from the pattern of donations that initially she had a flurry of small donations, but then they stopped. Eight days before I went out to the GoFundMe site, her donations had stopped completely. She was $393 short. So I gave it to her.

Now, contrary to my son’s ethics professor, I had quite a moment of glee. I knew what I was doing was sort of crazy, and that was part of what made it so much fun, and it was a lot of fun.

But then I went back to what I was doing, which was simply watching TV. I had my iPad on my lap, and about five minutes later I saw that I got an email. It was from my teenage beneficiary. The joy from her simply leapt off the screen. The one thing I remember from that email was that she said that I had “made her day.” So I got two moments of joy and delight. The first one was when I gave her the money, and the second one was when I got her email. I mean, how can life get any better than that?

This is the joy and happiness that comes from developing a kind heart. And frankly, if it had not been for the Dharma and my practice, I don’t think I ever would have done such a thing. But I have learned over the years how much sheer joy comes from simple acts of kindness. It doesn’t have to be money. I like to thank the people who clean my motel room. OK, I also leave a tip at the motel, but I think they get more pleasure out of simply being acknowledged as human beings. I like to thank the people who bag my groceries. So many people in life are used to being invisible. I like to make them visible. It gives me a great deal of joy, and I think it makes them feel valued and appreciated.

Gratitude is another source for unending delight. Gratitude is feeling that you have enough, that your needs are fully satisfied. Now to be sure, this is not true for everyone. At times in my life, it was not true for me. So this is not an exercise in self-denial. But sometimes it is also about recognizing that maybe you can do with a little less. In Buddhism we talk about the four requisites. These are things that we need to survive as human beings. They are food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. And it is instructive to see how Buddhist monks and nuns live very simple lives with only the barest necessities, and yet they are some of the happiest people I have ever known.

One way in which I practice gratitude is with food. Before every meal, I take a moment to think about all of the unfortunate people in the world. Many of them are hungry, and many of those are children. I don’t do this to get depressed; I do this to send them my lovingkindness and best wishes, and I do this to remind myself how fortunate I am to not go hungry. And when I do this, I never complain about food. I don’t always like to eat what I have in front of me. Of course not. But somehow complaining about food that does not taste good to me seems incredibly petty.

I sometimes joke that the key to happiness is having low standards, and there is some truth to that. If you are grateful for what you have, you are—by definition—happy. At least that is how I feel.

I come from generations of mind-numbing poverty. I have an ancestor who was a rag peddler. That is pretty much what it sounds like. He used to wander the streets of Reading, Pennsylvania collecting rags. Then he would sell them to the local pulp mills. My mother’s father was orphaned at the age of six. He was raised by family members who made it clear they did not want him. And so it goes. I am sure that you know plenty of stories like this as well.

So I keep pictures of my parents and my grandparents in my living room so I can remember that I exist only because of their perseverance. I live in a way that would have been unimaginable to them. And this is how gratitude makes me feel like the glass is easily half-full, if not overflowing.

So the Buddha’s message to us about how to be happy is a simple one: Be kind to yourself, and be kind to others.

Now, of course it is not that simple. There are people who do not like us. Some of them even want to harm us. This is the reality of human existence. So we have to use some discretion. We have to use our good judgment and our wisdom. They have a saying in Thailand, and that is to “love the tiger from a distance.” This is not some sugar-coated version of reality. Don’t be stupid.

But even for the most unskillful people we know, we can still have compassion for them. The reason for this is that people who do terrible things suffer from their actions more than anyone else. When I get cut off in traffic by someone, five minutes later I have forgotten about the whole thing. But that person who cut me off has to live with that mind all the time.

We all suffer from the same illness. That illness is ignorance. We do not know that our bad conduct is harming us now and in the future. So we do terrible things, and all that comes back to bite us. So even for the worst people we know, we can still have compassion.

Now to repeat what I just said, none of this is simple or easy. We are not usually wired in this way. We are all deeply conditioned, and you should never underestimate the power of that conditioning. Changing that conditioning takes time, patience, and perseverance. Our minds are like those super tankers that take six miles to change course.

So over and over again we have to remind ourselves to be kind to ourselves and to be patient with ourselves. Now we have our marching orders. But it will take time to execute them. Cultivating good qualities is a skill like a craft. A skilled craftsperson takes years to hone their craft. When I was in India, I saw a silk weaver. Now just imagine that. You probably know how fine silk thread is. And these weavers use hand looms. They painstakingly take months to make even a small piece of cloth.

This is the kind of patience that is humbling. At least it was for me. The silk weaver that I saw was well into his 80’s. His apprentice was 60 years old. Imagine that. Imagine being a 60-year-old apprentice.

Dharma practice is full of contradictions. One of them is that, of course, you have to have aspirations. Otherwise you get exactly what you are aiming for, and that is nothing.

But Dharma practice is like gardening. In fact, the Pāli word for meditation is “bhavana.” It literally means “to develop.” But I like the translation “to cultivate.” Dharma practice is very much like gardening. You want to develop good qualities. But you can’t just make that happen. You have to put into place the conditions for that to happen, and then those good qualities will grow. Just as you till the soil, fertilize it, pull up the weeds, and so on, eventually the tomatoes will grow. But you cannot make the tomatoes grow over night. And you cannot make tomatoes grow by pulling up on the plants.

But as you work on cultivating good qualities, it becomes a learning exercise. You will see yourself overreacting to the person who cuts you off in traffic. OK. That is fine. That is how our conditioning works.

But then—over time—you see how your mind reacts in those situations. This is the power of mindfulness and awareness. And little by little that anger and irritation turns to compassion for a mind that suffers, the mind that causes that person to cut you off.

It goes without saying—I think—but I will say it anyway. Along with the cultivation of good qualities is the abandonment of unwholesome qualities. These would include the famous “Three Poisons”: greed, hatred, and delusion.

“Greed” is “craving.” We think we will be happy by having more. I have always thought it extremely bazaar that billionaires still want to have more money. I mean, how can that be? Yet there they are. They have more money than most people can possibly imagine. But it is still not enough. From a Buddhist perspective, this is an excellent way to suffer.

Anger is a particularly interesting defilement. Many people think that anger is justified in an unjust world. And there is some truth in that. From a Buddhist perspective, however, anger has two parts to it. One is the emotional part, the aversion. The other is the wisdom aspect. There is a reason that you feel anger.

The key is to tease out the wisdom from the aversion. We do all sorts of terrible things out of anger. And really, what is the difference between the anger of one person from the anger of another? We justify all sorts of dreadful behavior from anger. The racist or the fascist thinks they are just as right as the civil rights activist. Can you act from wisdom and compassion, or are you going to slide into anger and despair? This is the challenge of the Buddha.

What is at stake is your own happiness and your usefulness in the world. Do you want to be that EMT, or do you want to be the person who recoils in horror at what they see? Do you want to be paralyzed by the terrible things you see? Do you want to act and react based on conditioning that is born from ignorance? Do you simply want to contribute to a suffering world by adding to the us vs. them view of the world?

We all suffer from the same disease. Let us treat the disease and not the symptoms of the disease.

So there it is, the Buddha’s rather simple but not so simple path to happiness. Abandon unwholesome qualities. Cultivate good qualities. The choice is yours. But if you reject this path to happiness, let me ask you this. If you have another strategy for happiness, how is that working out for you?

How to be Happy in a Transcendent Way

According to the Buddha, we are born and reborn endlessly throughout infinite time. Our current birth is a result of the karma that manifested when our last lifetime ended, and our next lifetime will be a result of karma that manifests when we die.

So let’s talk about this.

First of all, when we die, there are only three possibilities for what happens next. And the Buddha addressed them all.

The first possibility is that nothing happens. We die, and that is it. Our existence comes to an end. This is what the Buddha called “annihilationism.”

This is actually the easiest possibility to refute. Curiously, I had a Dharma teacher—and I am sure he is not the only one—who ascribed to annihilationism. But all we have to do is look at Near Death Experiences (NDEs) to know that annihilationism is not true. Now of course there have been people who have tried to refute the truth of NDEs, some through some pretty curious and mind baffling arguments. Many scientists have tried to come up with theories about NDEs. This, by the way, is a classic case where science turns out to be not very scientific. Scientists tend to believe that all of existence is contained in the physical world. This is called “philosophical materialism.” And because this is their view of the world, they try to shoehorn everything into that view.

But these attempts have all ultimately proven to not be true. We know that when we die, our existence does not come to an end. Something happens next. The body is dead, but our consciousness—for lack of a better word—moves on.

The next possibility is that you go somewhere forever, like heaven or hell. The Buddha called this “eternalism.” This is the prevailing view in the West.

However, I think the evidence is very strong that rebirth is true. There are even practices in Buddhism that allow you to remember past lives. Ajahn Brahm at the Bodhinyana Monastery in Australia will teach them to you if you want.

The most objective evidence of rebirth comes from the studies at the University of Virginia. For 50 years the Division of Perceptual Studies has been studying and collecting data on rebirth experiences. I invite you to look at their work.

There is also Past Life Regression Therapy. This is where a therapist hypnotizes the patient to go back into past lives. The idea that phobias are most commonly from past lives is becoming almost mainstream in modern psychology.

And so it goes.

I am often surprised at how much resistance there is to the idea of rebirth. Now to be sure, I did not deal seriously with the issue of rebirth until I had been practicing the Dharma for about 25 years, so it was a long time. And when I did deal with it, I did so in a typical engineering/scientific fashion. I cleared my mind of any predispositions. Then I posited three basic questions:

1. Did the Buddha teach rebirth?

2. Is there evidence that rebirth is true?

3. Do you need to believe in rebirth to attain enlightenment?

Then I simply did the research. Not surprisingly, the answer to all three questions is “Yes.”

But people’s aversions to the idea of rebirth really surprise me. There must be something threatening in the idea that makes what are often intelligent, rational people react so aggressively. For what it is worth, I am quite the opposite. I find all of this fascinating.

Having said that, if you have problems with this issue, I strongly encourage you not to worry about it. I would hate to see you abandon your Dharma practice because of your aversion to the idea of rebirth. As I said, I practiced for a quarter of a century before I really engaged with this topic. It should not keep you from benefiting from the Dharma. But for what it is worth, there are people from other religions—including Christianity and Judaism and Islam—who believe in rebirth. Certainly Hindus believe in it.

Whatever your inclination, when it comes to the topic of enlightenment, rebirth is a central issue in the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha even described the stages of enlightenment in terms of rebirth, and his description of the night of his enlightenment is in terms of rebirth.

I had a Tibetan teacher explain rebirth in this way. The cosmos is like a building with three floors above ground and three floors below ground. The upper floors are 1) the human realm, 2) the deva realm, and 3) the Brahma realm. The deva realm and the Brahma realm are heavenly realms. (Technically there are lots of heavenly realms, but this is a useful simplification.) These three realms are considered good rebirths.

The lower three realms are 1) the hungry ghost realm, 2) the animal realm, and the 3) hell realm. (Once again there are supposed to be many hell realms, but this is another useful simplification.) Hungry ghosts in Buddhism are beings who are never satisfied. They are portrayed as having huge stomachs and thin necks so they can never get enough food to fill their bellies. Our billionaires who always want more are hungry ghosts, and it is very likely this is the realm into which they will be reborn.

I would like to make one more fine point about rebirth. It is a common misconception about karma that people with mostly good karma will always have a good rebirth, and people with mostly bad karma will always have a bad rebirth. But this is not true. Karma is not deterministic in this way. We all have some good karma and some bad karma, and it is the karma that manifests when we are reborn that determines our rebirth. However, someone with mostly good karma—if they have a bad rebirth—will typically not be there for very long. And anyone with mostly good karma greatly improves their chances of a good rebirth. They are playing the lottery with a lot of numbers.

So this is our lot in life. And we move up and down in this cosmic building throughout infinite time. And even if we have a good rebirth in our next life, inevitably there will be a fall from grace. Beings in the heavens tend to become proud and vain, and then, oops, there you go, riding down the karmic elevator again.

And the punch line is this. This endless wandering through cosmic existence continues until you become enlightened. When you become enlightened, you free yourself from the rounds of rebirth. You attain nirvana. You are free from suffering.

I have not talked about suffering to this point. You may know that this is, in fact, the way in which the Buddha most famously described his Dharma. His First Noble Truth is the truth of dukkha. “Dukkha” can be described as “stress” or “suffering” and everything in between.

And just to make another important point, the Buddha never said that life is suffering. I cringe every time I hear that. I know one teacher who says that dukkha means that “life is a bummer.” Yikes.

The Buddha simply said that “there is suffering.” When the Buddha described dukkha, he usually just gave examples of dukkha:

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; — [SN 56.11]

Nowhere does the Buddha say that “life is suffering.”

So far I have described Buddhist practice in terms of happiness. The Pāli word for happiness is “sukkha.” “Sukkha” and “dukkha” are mirror images of each other. And yeah, it’s cool that in Pāli they rhyme. It seems fitting.

So Buddhist practice can be described as either the end of suffering or the attainment of true happiness. They are both true.

The Buddha’s teachings tell us how to do this. And according to the Buddha, we create most of our own suffering.

I had a really hard time with that notion when I first started practicing. I mean, I looked at my life and I looked at the world and I said, “Really?! I am responsible for this mess? I am doing this to myself?” And it took me a long time to realize that mostly the answer to this question is “Yes.”

Now of course if you break your leg, your mind is not causing the pain. But when we break a bone, two things happen. One is the physical pain itself, and the other is our mind’s reaction to the pain. Have you ever known someone who whenever they had the slightest injury you thought the end of the world was coming? Or conversely, someone who seemed patiently tolerant of even great physical pain? And certainly we all have different pain tolerances, but a lot of this is what our minds are doing with that pain. It is a mental process. There is the suffering that is unavoidable, and then there is the pain that our minds amplify.

The Buddha invites us to investigate how we create suffering by watching how our minds work. This is done mainly through the practice of meditation, although it can be done off the cushion as well. In meditation, we cultivate two factors, serenity and insight. We quiet the mind as much as possible so we can investigate what our minds are doing. The quieter the mind gets, the more subtle the phenomena can be observed. It is like getting a pool of water still so we can see clearly what is on the bottom.

One of the things I find most interesting about the Dharma is how the Buddha describes how we should relate to dukkha. He doesn’t simply say that dukkha exists. He says that we have a duty in regards to dukkha, and that is to understand it. He wants us to look at it and see how it works.

The reason I find this so interesting is that in my first five or ten years as an engineer, when someone gave me a problem, I immediately started looking for a solution. This turned out to be a completely wrong approach.

Later in my career, I learned that the correct way to solve a problem was to study the problem itself, to learn as much as I could about it. And in the course of studying the problem, usually the solution would simply present itself. I didn’t have to find a solution. The solution simply arose out of a clear understanding of the problem. And this is exactly what the Buddha told us to do.

Fortunately the Buddha gave us quite a bit of guidance about how to do this and some guidance on what we are likely to find. His most complex teaching on this subject is called “dependent origination.” It describes the assembly line in our minds that creates suffering. And in understanding how that assembly line works, we can make our way back to the beginning and shut it down. The beginning of this assembly line is our old friend ignorance. When we eliminate ignorance, we are free.

One of the beauties of Dharma practice is that it is not all or nothing. Sadly, that is pretty much what I was first taught. I was told that we sit and sit and sit, and we suffer through knee pain and hip pain and back pain and shoulder pain. We just slug our way through, and if we are lucky, after five or ten or who knows how many years, we suddenly awaken. Fireworks go off and we become enlightened.

Fortunately, that is most definitely not how it works. Along the way you get tastes. The mind will go quiet, usually when you are not trying to do anything. And suddenly there is this overwhelming sense of bliss. Then what usually happens is the mind pulls back. It doesn’t want to go there. But now you at least have a taste of what freedom feels like, and you have something on which to build.

Sometimes the sense of a self completely disappears. That bliss in meditation is pure. There is no sense that “I feel bliss.” There is simply the bliss. This is somewhat like the feeling that I described about generosity flowing through you. The sense of “me” isn’t there. It is incredibly liberating. We spend so much of our lives guarding and protecting this sense of “me.” And all it does is make us miserable.

These experiences may take years and years to fully develop. But they are signposts that you are on the right track. They give you confidence in the Buddha’s teaching. Curiously, they also give you confidence in yourself. The Buddha called this “confidence in virtue.” You feel good about yourself. Before you can let go of a sense of self, you have to have a healthy sense of self. And this is precisely how Dharma practice unfolds.

This gradual unfolding of Dharma practice is extremely gratifying and extremely rewarding. And over time, often without even realizing it, your life becomes better. You become happier. The stresses of life don’t bother you any more, or they bother you very little. Instead of careening recklessly over the speed bumps in life, you slow down and simply roll over them.


So this is one way to understand the Buddha’s Dharma. First we see that our conventional way to attain happiness is inherently flawed. At its best it creates happiness that is extremely fragile. At its worst it actually causes pain and suffering.

Second, the way to be happy in the world is to cultivate good qualities, to become virtuous. Be a good person.

And finally, we can escape completely from suffering and the rounds of rebirth by attaining enlightenment. And when that happens—according to the great Buddhist nun Ayya Khema—we enter a state that is beyond time and space, a place where our moral purity benefits all beings throughout the cosmos. That is the promise of the Dharma.

Smiling Buddha