Life, though full of woe, holds also sources of happiness and joy, unknown to most. Let us teach people to seek and to find real joy within themselves and to rejoice with the joy of others! Let us teach them to unfold their joy to ever sublimer heights! Noble and sublime joy is not foreign to the Teaching of the Enlightened One. Wrongly, the Buddha’s Teaching is sometimes considered to be a doctrine diffusing melancholy. Far from it: the Dhamma leads step by step to an ever purer and loftier happiness.

—Nyanaponika Thera (1901–1994)

"Rehearsal for the Kalachakra Ceremony, Labrang Monastery, Amdo, Tibet," © Robin Brentano
“Rehearsal for the Kalachakra Ceremony, Labrang Monastery, Amdo, Tibet,” © Robin Brentano

 

“I didn’t know Buddhism was about being happy,” one of the wedding guests said to me after the ceremony. I had just officiated at the marriage of two friends, longtime dharma practitioners. As part of the ceremony, I had invited everyone to join in a lovingkindness meditation for the couple. “May you both be happy, may you be filled with joy and love,” we had silently repeated, our wishes deepening with each phrase. With the vibrant power of lovingkindness awakened, the guest’s conclusion that Buddhism is about happiness was understandable.

Despite pervasive images of the smiling Buddha, the practice and teachings of Buddhism have had a reputation of being rather more somber than joyful. With so much emphasis on “suffering and the end of suffering,” there’s not much air time for happiness and joy. Some practitioners may even think that expressing those qualities is un-Buddhist. My friend Rick Foster, coauthor of How We Choose to Be Happy, frequently takes calls from listeners when he talks about his book on radio shows. He says he has come to expect that when a caller begins with “I’m a Buddhist . . .” almost invariably the statement will continue with something like: “and all your emphasis on getting happy seems to overlook the suffering in life.”

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