The man known as BuddhaOpens in new window lived long ago, in the 6th century BC, but the wisdom behind his general life philosophy and his attitude toward human emotions in particular has stood the test of time.
According to Buddha, the key to experiencing a fulfilling life is to develop perspectives, attitudes, and practices that ultimately lead to cultivating positive personal qualities and emotions and to the elimination of negative personal qualities and emotions.
A fundamental truth of life, according to Buddhism, is that life is constant change. We are born, we age, and we die. We experience joy, then sorrow, then joy again. Pain follows happiness and happiness follows pain as surely as sunset follows sunrise. However, people have trouble accepting this fundamental truth.
A second fundamental truth is that people crave security, certainty, stability, and permanence, despite the fact of constant change. From the Buddhist perspective, it is this craving, called attachment or grasping, that causes our unhappiness.
We become attached to whatever brings pleasure and stability, hoping that these objects or situations will bring a permanent end to anxiety and other pain. We suffer when we do not get what we want, and we suffer from fear of losing what we have and love. We attempt to control life so that we will experience only pleasure and avoid suffereing, but it is these attempts at control that primarily cause our pain.
Buddhism offers two solutions to the causes of our suffering: awareness and detachment. By achieving awareness and detachment, we bring about acceptance of the reality that life is change. MeditationOpens in new window aids in the fostering of both awareness, which includes a focus on both the inner self and external reality, and detachment.
Detachment means letting go, allowing one’s experiences and the world around one to “just happen,” without attempting to manipulate them. Detachment and awareness become intertwined; with detachment one is open to experiencing each moment, and this is awareness of each moment. One allows one moment to flow into the next.
When one reaches a certain level of awareness and detachment, grasping is no longer a problem.
Awareness and detachment are now the attitudes toward one’s life. One has let go of one’s needs and desires that are based in worry, greed, delusion, and other negative emotions or attitudes. This is Nirvana, and positive emotions naturally flow into the person.
Nirvana means “extinction of thirst” or “absence of desire” (Rahula, 1974, p. 32) and, in more positive terms, means one is joyful and peaceful, filled with compassion, kindness, tolerance, and universal love (Rahula, 1974).
Achieving Nirvana also means achieving enlightenment. The path toward enlightenment involves working toward eight specific attributes of mind and behavior. Three of these involve developing meditation skills (right effort, concentration, and mindfulness), two relate to wisdom (right thinking and understanding), and three are concerned with ethical behavior (right speech, action, and livelihood).
If one truly achieves enlightenment, one’s personality has become permanently transformed; some share of one’s negative personality traits has permanently disappeared. As Daniel Goleman (1975) described, if the eight qualities in the path toward enlightenment are all developed fully, unhealthy mental qualities are eliminated completely and replaced by healthy mental qualities. A person who has achieved this state is called an arhat.
In sum, in Buddhism, happiness and contentment in life come from following the path toward enlightenment, which involves cultivating eight qualities of mind and behavior. A significant part of the path means practicing meditation, whch brings about attitudes of awareness and detachment. The individual learns not to grasp for stability and permanence and instead finds that happiness is present in the moment.
Nirvana is based on the Sanskrit word nirva, translated as “to blow out” or “to be extinguished.” Nirvana is the state of perfect peace and bliss, achieved when the mind is free from cravings and strong negative emotions. Nirvana is the supreme goal of the serious Buddhist.
- Dalai Lama, H. H., & Cutler, H. C. (1998). The art of happiness: A handbook for living. New York: Riverhead Books.
- Goleman, D. (1975). Mental health in classical Buddhist psychology. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 7, 176 – 181.
- Rahula, W. (1974). What the Buddha taught. New York: Grove Press.