It is said that after his enlightenment the Buddha was motivated to teach by seeing that all beings were seeking happiness, yet out of ignorance were doing the very things that brought them suffering. This aroused his great compassion to point the way to freedom.

The Buddha spoke of different kinds of happiness associated with various stages on the unfolding path of awakening. As we penetrate deeper into the process of opening, the happiness of each stage brings us progressively closer to the highest kind of happiness, the happiness of nibbana, of freedom.

What are the causes and conditions that give rise to each of these stages of happiness? How does this joy come about? The events and circumstances of our lives do not happen by accident; rather they are the result of certain causes and conditions. When we understand the conditions necessary for something to happen, we can begin to take destiny into our own hands.

The first kind of happiness is the one that’s most familiar to us—the happiness of sense pleasures. This is the kind of happiness we experience from being in pleasant surroundings, having good friends, enjoying beautiful sights and sounds and delicious tastes and smells, and having agreeable sensations in the body. Even though these pleasures are impermanent and fleeting, in the moments we’re experiencing them, they bring us a certain delight.

According to the Buddha, each of the different kinds of happiness is created or conditioned by a different level of purity. The level that gives rise to sensual happiness is purity of conduct, sometimes called purity of action. Purity of conduct is a fundamental way of coming into a true relationship with ourselves, with other people, and with the world. It has two aspects. The first is the cultivation of generosity—the expression of non-greed and non-clinging. It is greed or attachment that keeps us bound to the wheel of samsara, the cycle of life and death. With every act of giving we weaken the power of grasping. The Buddha once said that if we knew as he did the fruit of giving, we would not let a single meal pass without sharing it, so great is the power of generosity.

The Buddha spoke of three levels of generosity. He called the first beggarly giving—we give the worst of what we have, what we don’t want, the leftovers. Even then, we have a lot of doubt: “Should I give it? Shouldn’t I? Next year I’ll probably have a use for it.” The next level is friendly giving—we give what we would use for ourselves, and we give it with more spontaneity and ease, with more joy in the mind. The highest kind of generosity is queenly or kingly giving. The mind takes delight in offering the best of what we have, giving what we value most. This is the perfection of generosity.

Generosity takes many forms—we may give our time, our energy, our material possessions, our love. All are expressions of caring, of compassion, of connection, and of renunciation—the ability to let go. The beauty of generosity is that it not only brings us happiness in the moment—we feel good when we give—but it is also the cause for happiness to arise in the future.

According to the Buddha, each of the different kinds of happiness is created or conditioned by a different level of purity.

The other aspect of purity of conduct is sila, the Pali word for morality. In the Buddha’s teaching there are five precepts that lay people follow: not killing, not stealing, not committing sexual misconduct, not using wrong speech—false or harsh speech—and not taking intoxicants, which cloud or delude the mind. The underlying principle is non-harming—of ourselves, other people, and the environment.

Just as generosity is a practice, so, too, is commitment to the precepts. Consciously practicing them fosters wakefulness and keeps us from simply acting out the habit patterns of our conditioning. The precepts serve as a reference point, giving us some clarity in understanding whether our behavior is wholesome or unwholesome. They are not a set of commandments—“Thou shalt not do this” and “Thou shalt do that”—but rather guidelines for exploring how our actions affect our mind: What happens when we’re in conflict with the world? What happens when we’re in harmony with other people and ourselves? In the traditional teachings of the Buddha, morality is the foundation of concentration, and concentration is the foundation of wisdom. When the mind is in turmoil, it’s very difficult to concentrate. The power of virtue is a steadfastness and ease of mind. And when we’re in harmony with ourselves, we give a wonderful gift to other people—the gift of trust. We’re saying with our lives, with our actions, “You need not fear me.” Just imagine how the world would be transformed if everybody observed one precept: not to kill.

Untitled (Mandala # 413), Bill Armstrong, 2001, chromogenic print, courtesy of Clampart, New York City
Untitled (Mandala # 413), Bill Armstrong, 2001, chromogenic print, courtesy of Clampart, New York City.

The joy we experience when we’re practicing generosity and morality gives rise to the second kind of happiness, the happiness of concentration. The Buddha called this purity of mind. When the mind is steady and one-pointed, there’s a quality of inner peace and stillness that is much deeper and more fulfilling than the happiness of sense pleasures. We enjoy sense pleasures, but at a certain point we tire of them. Just how long can we listen to music or eat good food? By contrast, the happiness that comes with concentration of mind is refreshing. It energizes us.

There are many techniques for developing concentration. We can focus on the breath, on a sound, on a light, on a mantra, on an image, on walking. We can practice metta, lovingkindness, or karuna, compassion. We can each find the way that for us is most conducive to strengthening the state of one-pointedness, of collectedness. We learn how to quiet the inner dialogue. As concentration becomes stronger, we actually start living from a place of greater inner peace. This is a source of great happiness, great joy.

The happiness of concentration makes possible the next kind of happiness, the happiness of beginning insight. When the mind is still, we can employ it in the service of awareness and come to a deeper understanding of who we are and what life is about. Wisdom unfolds in a very ordered way. When we sit and pay attention to our experience, the first level we come to is psychological insight. We see all our different sides—the loving side, the greedy side, the judging side, the angry side, the peaceful side. We see parts of ourselves that have been covered up—the jealousy, the fear, the hatred, the unworthiness. Often when we first open up to the experience of who we are, we don’t like a lot of it. The tendency is to be self-judgmental. Through the power of concentration and mindfulness, we learn how to rest very naturally in the simple awareness of what’s happening. We become less judgmental. We begin to get insight into the complexities of our personality. We see the patterns of our thoughts and emotions, and the ways we relate to people. But this is a tricky point in the practice. Psychological insights can be very seductive—who’s more interesting than oneself ?—so it’s easy to get lost on this level of inquiry. We need to be watchful and keep coming back to the main object of meditation.

Through the practice of very careful momentary attention, we see and connect very directly with the nature of thoughts and emotions, not getting so lost in the story. What is the nature of anger? What is the quality of happiness? What is the quality of compassion? The momentum of mindfulness begins to build.

At this point there’s a real jump in our practice. The Buddha called this level purity of view, or purity of understanding. We let go of our fascination with the content of our minds and drop into the level of process, the flow of phenomena. We see clearly that what is happening in each moment is knowing and object, arising and passing away.

The Buddha once gave a very short discourse called “The All” in which he described the totality of our experience in six phrases: 

The eye, visible objects, and the knowing of them.
The ear, sounds, and the knowing of them.
The tongue, tastes, and the knowing of them.
The nose, smells, and the knowing of them.
The body, sensations, and the knowing of them.
The mind, mind objects, and the knowing of them.

This is our first clear glimpse of the nature of the mind itself. We see that all we are is a succession of mind moments—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, feeling. At this stage, we have a very direct understanding of what the Buddha called the Three Characteristics. We have a visceral experience of the truth of anicca, impermanence: everything is changing constantly. And out of this intimate understanding of the momentariness of phenomena, we begin to comprehend more clearly what the Buddha meant by dukkha, suffering—the unsatisfactory nature of things. When we see that even pleasant things are changing—and changing rapidly—it becomes obvious that they are incapable of satisfying us. Not because they are inherently bad but because they don’t last. This insight leads to an understanding of the characteristic that is most difficult to see—anatta, or selflessness. There is no one behind this process to whom it is happening; what we call “self” is the process of change.

Purity of view is a gateway to greater insight and even deeper levels of happiness. The momentum of mindfulness becomes so strong that the perception of phenomena arising and passing away becomes crystal clear. Concentration and awareness are effortless. The mind becomes luminous. This point in the practice is called Vipassana happiness. It is a very happy time in our meditation. The joy of it far exceeds the happiness of concentration or of sense pleasures, because we experience such precise, clear insight into the nature of things. It’s our first taste of coming home. We feel tremendous rapture and overwhelming gratitude: after all the work we’ve done, we’re finally reaping a great reward.

But there’s a problem here. This stage is often called “pseudo-nibbana.” Everything we’ve practiced so hard for—clarity, luminosity, rapture, lightness, joy—is reflected back to us as what the Buddha called “the corruptions of insight.” The qualities themselves are not the problem; indeed, they are the factors of enlightenment. But because our insight is not yet mature, we become attached to them and to the happiness they bring. It takes renewed effort to come back to simply noting these extraordinary states. At this point we hit a bumpy stage. Instead of the arising and passing of phenomena, we begin to experience the dissolution of everything—our minds, our bodies, the world. Everything is vanishing. There’s no place to stand. We’re trying to hold onto something that is continually dissolving. As this stage unfolds, there is often tremendous fear.

In Vipassana happiness, we can sit for hours. But at the stage of dissolution we sit for ten or fifteen minutes and become disgusted. This phase is colloquially known as the “rolling up the mat” stage because all yogis want to do is roll up the mat and quit. It’s a very difficult time, with a lot of existential suffering. This is not the suffering of pain in the knees or of psychological problems but the suffering inherent in existence. We think our practice is falling apart, but actually this is a stage of deepening wisdom. Out of our opening to dukkha comes what is called “the urge for deliverance,” a strong motivation to be free.

From this urge for freedom emerges another very happy stage of meditation, the happiness of equanimity. This is a far deeper, subtler, and more pervasive happiness than the rapture of the earlier stage of seeing things rapidly arising and passing away. There is softness and lightness in the body. The mind is perfectly poised—there is not even the slightest reaching for or pushing away. The mind is completely impartial. Pleasant or unpleasant, whatever arises is fine. All the factors of enlightenment are in the final maturing stage.

It is out of this place of equanimity that the mind opens spontaneously and intuitively to the unconditioned, the unborn, the unmanifest—nibbana. Nibbana is the highest happiness, beyond even the happiness of great insight or understanding, because it transcends the mind itself. It is transforming. The experience of nibbana has the power to uproot from the stream of consciousness the unwholesome factors of mind that keep us bound to samsara. The first moment of opening to the highest reality uproots the attachment to self, to the sense of “I.” And it is said that from that moment on, a being is destined to work through the remaining defilements, such as greed and anger, on the way to full awakening.

What the Buddha taught on so many levels was how to be happy. If we want the happiness of sense delights, there are causes and conditions, namely, purity of conduct. If we want the happiness of stillness, of peace, we need to develop concentration—one-pointedness of mind. If we want the happiness of insight, we need to develop purity of view, purity of understanding through strengthening mindfulness. If we want to experience the happiness of different stages of insight, all the way through equanimity, we need to continue building the momentum of mindfulness and the other factors of enlightenment. And if we want the highest happiness, the happiness of nibbana, we simply need to walk this path to the end. And when we aim for the highest kind of happiness, we find all the others a growing part of our lives.

The Buddha on Happiness

“The mind, when trained, brings happiness.”

                                   —Dhammapada 35

This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: “Don’t be afraid of acts of merit. This is another way of saying what is blissful, desirable, pleasing, endearing, charming—i.e., acts of merit…”

Train in acts of merit
that bring long-lasting bliss—
develop generosity,
a life in tune,
a mind of good-will.
Developing these
three things
that bring about bliss,
the wise reappear
in a world of bliss

                                   —Itivuttaka 22

A happiness: friends when the need arises.
A happiness: contentment with whatever there is.
Merit at the ending of life is a happiness.
A happiness: the abandoning of all suffering & stress.

A happiness in the world: reverence to your mother.
A happiness: reverence to your father as well.
A happiness in the world: reverence to a
contemplative ….

A happiness into old age is virtue.
A happiness: conviction established.
A happiness: discernment attained.
The non-doing of evil things is a happiness.

—Dhammapada 331-333, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This article is adapted from talks given at IMS and available at

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .