This article first appeared in the Mountain Hermitage newsletter. I reprint it here, slightly edited, with the hope that you will find it interesting and possibly useful.
During the Buddha’s time, a group of monks happened upon one of their fellow monastics in the forest, the Venerable Bhaddiya (Ud 2.10). “Ah, what bliss, ah, what bliss,” they heard him muttering to himself. The monks were worried that Bhaddiya felt disheartened with the spiritual life and was spending all of his time daydreaming about the opulent life led before he was ordained. They told the Buddha their concerns. When the Buddha met with Bhaddiya, Bhaddiya responded with words to this effect: “My brother monks completely misunderstood my exclamations. I wasn’t dreaming of the petty happiness of the royal life, but rather, I was savoring the supreme happiness that arises from the spiritual path!”
I appreciate how this story reveals not only our tendency to make assumptions about other people’s experiences but, more importantly, shows us that not all forms of happiness are equal in depth. Happiness has always been a popular aspiration both inside and outside of Buddhist circles, and I often wonder about the kind of happiness we may be craving today. Is it the same happiness that the Buddha was encouraging in early Buddhism?
One big discovery that arose in my own spiritual practice was that I had been searching for the happiness my society, family and culture had conditioned me to seek—the happiness of mere well-being. In other words, it was the classic attempt to maximize pleasant experiences and minimize unpleasant experiences. As much as I knew intellectually the folly of this, it took practice to recognize my conditioning and see that, in fact, such attempts were leading me to a meaningless and hollow life filled with a sense of separateness.
As I continued to practice, I began to discover that the Dharma path opens a door to a deeper sense of happiness and contentment, a happiness that I probably wouldn’t have recognized as such at the beginning of my spiritual journey. This kind of happiness requires me to open my heart not only to my own suffering but to the suffering of others, as well. I think this is why the Buddha broadened his description of happiness to include a heart also filled with the noble quality of compassion and willing to touch the suffering of the world.
Yes, my mind still prefers pleasant experiences over unpleasant experiences, but like Bhaddiya’s, my path and practice have widened my heart to include a kind of bliss not confined to the narrow world of my preferences. I am now open to and part of this vast universe of the Dharma, which includes everyone and everything, and this allows me to savor the supreme happiness that arises from the spiritual path.