Explore the four kinds of happiness in Buddhism with Ven. Sangye Khadro (Kathleen McDonald). This episode offers an opportunity to reflect on where we derive our happiness from and how we can live happier lives by understanding how each kind of happiness relates to desire, attachment, compassion, and our own meditation practice.
Ven. Sangye Khadro: There’s nothing wrong with experiencing pleasure. Nothing wrong with happiness, nothing wrong with pleasant experiences. But the problem is if we have strong attachment and clinging to pleasure, what happens when we do that is we never get satisfied. We never find satisfaction.
Scott Snibbe: I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptics Path to Enlightenment.
Buddhism talks a lot about suffering, but today we want to talk about happiness. I took a course recently with Venerable Sangye Khadro (Kathleen McDonald), the author of the book How To Meditate, who we interviewed on this podcast last year in episode 35. During this recent course, she gave a great explanation of the four levels of happiness that Buddhism describes.
The first level of happiness is the sense pleasures we’re all used to, and maybe the only form of happiness some of us believe is possible: pleasant taste and smells, beautiful sights and sounds, touching and being touched in ways that we love.
But Buddhism describes three more levels of happiness beyond sense pleasure. These levels not only increase in the sheer strength of the pleasure we experience, but also increase in their force to steer our mind toward its greatest good.
Join us for this discussion with Venerable Sangye Khadro that she gave at the O Sel Ling Center in Spain, to find out what those three other higher types of happiness are and learn some hints on how to achieve them through meditation and through new ways of looking at our life.
Venerable Sangye Khadro’s talk begins, refreshingly, by telling us that there’s nothing wrong with pleasure.
Ven. Sangye Khadro: There’s nothing wrong with experiencing pleasure. Nothing wrong with happiness, nothing wrong with pleasant experiences. But the problem is if we have attachment, we have strong attachment and clinging to pleasure, if we grasp at pleasure and nice experiences, and think that this is so wonderful, this is perfect, this is all I need, this is all I want — and then we grasp more and more. And in fact, what happens when we do that is we never get satisfied. We never find satisfaction.
Actually, the Buddha said that if we follow desire, we follow grasping attachment desire, then it’s like drinking salt water when you’re thirsty. You’re thirsty and you drink salt water, does that quench your thirst? Does that make your thirst go away? No, I wouldn’t try it.
I don’t recommend trying it, but it’ll just make you more thirsty. Your thirst doesn’t get quenched. It just increases. And then you want to drink more and more. You might even drink yourself to death, but never get your thirst quenched.
So the Buddha said desire is like that. If we just have ordinary desire, ordinary attachment for pleasant experiences, and we follow that and we just try to get satisfaction in that way. We won’t get satisfaction. We just get more and more unsatisfied, more and more thirsty.
So the problem isn’t pleasure, happiness itself. It’s the attachment, the grasping that we have. So if we can experience pleasure and happiness and not have attachment to it, that’s fine. But that’s not so easy to do because of our habitual tendency to grasp, to have attachment. That’s very difficult.
Scott Snibbe: Venerable Sangye Khadro’s saying that there’s nothing wrong with sense pleasure, which may sound like a surprise. Before I became a Buddhist. I thought that becoming a deep Buddhist practitioner meant giving up sense pleasures like nice meals and great music and making love.
When I learned more about the Buddhist view, I found out that these experiences aren’t the problem. It’s only our mind of attachment, craving, or addiction. These are all synonyms for the same thing: a mind that can’t simply enjoy the momentary impermanent joy of a transitory sense pleasure, but instead exaggerates this fleeting happiness and starts to believe that I can’t be happy without it, that I have to get more, and that if I don’t get it, I’m going to be miserable, take it out on others, or even do harmful things to get it again.
Let’s listen to Venerable Sangye Khadro explain in more detail about this first of the four types of happiness: sensory pleasure.
1. Sensory Pleasure
Ven. Sangye Khadro: Buddhism talks about different forms of happiness, different forms of pleasure. So I read this in one book, by a German nun and teacher named Aja Kemah. And she explained well, according to Buddha four different kinds of happiness, four different kinds of pleasure.
Ven. Sangye Khadro: The first one is sensory pleasure. So that’s what we experience with our five senses; seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and then physical, tactile sensations. So when we see something beautiful, we hear a beautiful sound, we smell a nice odor, we taste something delicious, we feel nice sensations in our body: lying in the sun, swimming in the ocean, having sex.
So those kinds of experiences, those kinds of pleasant experiences, it is pleasure, it is nice, but they don’t last very long. They last just a short period of time, maybe a few seconds, a few minutes, maybe a few hours. But eventually they die, they stop, they disappear. They’re not there anymore.
Another problem with those is we usually need some external object or situation to be able to have those pleasures. And if we can’t get that external object or situation, then we can be very unhappy, even angry. You know, if we can’t get– if we can’t see the beautiful things and hear the beautiful sounds that we want, then we can be quite upset, quite unhappy because we can’t get that pleasure that we want.
Another thing is if we have attachment for certain types of pleasant objects, pleasant experiences, then that naturally leads to the opposite state of mind: aversion, unhappiness, even anger, when we encounter the opposite kind of experience. When we see things that are ugly, or we hear sounds that we don’t like, or we smell odors that we don’t like, or we taste tastes that aren’t pleasant, or we have unpleasant feelings in our body. So whenever we have unpleasant experiences with our five senses, because we have attachment to pleasant things, then we have aversion, unhappiness, when it comes to the unpleasant things. So our mind is constantly up and down from feeling good to feeling lousy, feeling terrible.
So these are faults of the sensory experiences, pleasant, sensory experiences, but that’s only one type of happiness and that’s actually the lowest level of happiness.
Scott Snibbe: Venerable Sangye Khadro explains these faults of sense pleasure well: they’re impermanent, they’re unreliable because they require external objects, and they can lead to negative states of mind. Because at some point we run out of the thing, or the partner leaves us. And then we’re unhappy, having lost the object of pleasure that was inevitably going to disappear.
But remember also that Venerable Sangye Khadro just said too, that there’s nothing wrong with pleasure. So how do these faults of pleasure jibe with “there’s nothing wrong with pleasure?”
Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism, one that believes greater happiness comes from expanding our view of happiness to include all other living beings. I was so delighted when I heard that not only is pleasure okay to experience from a Buddhist perspective, but also that there’s a way to transform selfish pleasure through a simple practice called “universalizing” that we talked about in episode 31. The technique isn’t hard to explain. All you do is, as you’re enjoying anything, an ice cream cone, a show on Netflix, or the touch of your lover, you wish that everyone on earth should enjoy such pleasure too. Everyone deserves delicious meals and beautiful sounds and the loving touch of others. This way of using pleasure to expand the mind with the intent to love others more leads into the second level of happiness, one that seemed to be even more powerful than sense pleasure: positive states of mind.
2. Positive States of Mind
Ven. Sangye Khadro: The second one is the happiness that comes from positive states of mind, such as love, compassion, kindness, generosity. Just thinking in a positive way, feeling in a positive way. And this is something we all experience. When, for example, when we’re with people we love and care about, like children, if you’re a parent and you have children, when you’re with your children, you have these beautiful feelings in your heart for your children. Now, even if you’re not a parent, you feel that way towards other family members, like your brothers and sisters, your pets, many people have pets, pet dogs, pet cats, birds, and they love their pets so much. So when they’re with their pet, have these beautiful feelings of love and care and compassion and kindness.
So that is another kind of happiness that is more pure, more spiritual than the first kind. The first kind tends to be a bit selfish, a bit self-centered like, Oh, I want to enjoy this delicious food. Mmmmm, It makes me feel so good. So we can be self-centered, ego- centered with that kind of happiness. Whereas the second kind of happiness is more altruistic, more concerned for others. So we’re not so focused on me, and my pleasure, but more focused on others and their happiness and wanting to do what will bring them happiness. It’s more meaningful and satisfying and pure than the first kind of happiness, sense pleasure. So that’s something you can check for yourself and see if that’s true.
Scott Snibbe: Later, when you’ve finished listening to this episode, think about whether or not what Venerable Sangye Khadro says is true. Is it true that positive states of mind are more pleasurable than sense pleasure?
You can sit on your cushion or your couch or go take a walk, and think back through your life to the highlights of sense pleasure and of positive states of mind. Were the times when you felt or acted out of selfless love, compassion and generosity more pleasurable than dance parties, amazing meals or powerful moments of sexual pleasure?
What’s great about the Buddhist view is that it’s an invitation to think about a question like this with an open mind. With focused concentration, think for yourself whether this is true.
Now, what’s the third level of happiness that said to be even more pleasurable than positive states of mind?
Ven. Sangye Khadro: And then there’s a third kind of happiness. And this is usually called “bliss” in Buddhism. This comes from meditation. If you train your mind in meditation and you learn to have very good concentration. So the more you can concentrate for longer periods of time, eventually you feel more and more blissful. You’ve probably heard about what’s called calm abiding, or shamatha. This is of very strong and deep concentration on an object that you choose, a virtuous object.
And you can stay concentrated for a long period of time. You don’t feel tired or bored, hungry, thirsty. You’re just blissful in your body and mind, incredible bliss. I haven’t experienced it, but people who have say it’s the best experience you’ve ever had.
Better than sex, better than drugs, better than anything that we normally have. It’s just so blissful and so satisfying. And you’re happy to just keep sitting there meditating for long periods of time.
So that’s a higher form of happiness, a better form of happiness than what we normally experience. But we have to work. It’s not easy. We have to really put time into practicing meditation and train our concentration more and more. But it’s possible, people do it.
Scott Snibbe: This may start to sound far out, that sitting on a cushion in focused concentration can be more pleasurable than sense pleasure or positive states of mind. But I’ve certainly seen this to be true in my teachers, many of whom are celibate and have given up most of the routine pleasures that we enjoy.
And yet my Buddhist teachers seem much happier than average you or me. If you get to know people like this, they’ll sometimes explain the deeper bliss that comes from meditation, a joy that comes from diving underneath external stimuli and even relationships to find a well of joy and awareness that’s just under the surface of our psyche.
Even with my own limited ability to concentrate, I’ve skimmed in and out of this state sometimes. And I think that you can find lots of other people that have too. When you find it, I think it really is more pleasurable than the everyday experiences that we crave and chase after.
This is another invitation. The path to the bliss of meditation as well-known and well-documented, and if you find a qualified teacher, and follow their instructions for a little while, it seems like just about anyone who’s able to sit down and focus can eventually have a taste of this bliss of meditative concentration that touches some deeper, truer nature of our awareness.
And yet, according to Buddhism, there’s still one more level of happiness even more pleasurable than the bliss of meditative concentration. And that’s a happiness that comes from understanding the interdependent nature of reality, the reality that we talked about in episode 39. Here’s how Venerable Sangye Khadro describes it.
Ven. Sangye Khadro: Then there’s a fourth kind of happiness, which is the best of all. And that’s the happiness that comes from wisdom. The wisdom that understands reality, the true nature of things. What we call emptiness in our tradition. Again, it takes time, you have to learn and meditate and practice. And eventually you gain this wisdom that sees the true nature of yourself, the true nature of others, the true nature of everything in the world around you. And that wisdom is said to bring the highest form of happiness.
I think the reason for that is that wisdom is the antidote to all of our afflictive emotions. That’s the kind of weapon or remedy that will eliminate, clear away all our disturbing emotions like anger and attachment and jealousy and pride and depression and fear, anxiety. So all these kinds of disturbing thoughts and emotions that normally run around in our mind and make us disturbed and unhappy, wisdom clears those away. It’s the antidote, the medicine to those. So once those are gone from our mind, then the mind is able to experience incredible happiness and peace and bliss.
So I really like that explanation because it points out that not all happiness is the same, not all pleasure is the same. There’s different kinds, different qualities. And probably for most people in the world, it’s the first kind of happiness that they know, that they experience and they are looking for. They’re trying to get more and more of that: sense pleasure.
But if we have attachment to sense pleasures and we’re constantly running after those and trying to get those and becoming distracted by those, even when we’re trying to meditate, it becomes distracting. You think about these pleasant experiences you had in the past, you fantasize about pleasant experiences you want to have in the future. So your mind is just wandering all over the place because of attachment, because of desire. And then you can’t meditate properly. And if you can’t meditate properly, you won’t be able to get the higher forms of happiness that comes from loving kindness, and compassion, and concentration, and wisdom.
So if you think about that, then it makes sense that attachment, being attached to sense pleasure, not only is it not satisfying, but it’s a hindrance to achieving better forms of happiness, higher forms of happiness.
Does that make sense? If these ideas are new to you, then, you might not be so sure of what I’m saying. I’m trying to explain why it is that Buddhism says we should try to overcome our attachment to just ordinary sensory pleasure. It does feel good. No doubt about it. It’s very nice. It’s very pleasant. But if we get attached to that and we get stuck on that level of happiness, we won’t be able to achieve the higher forms of happiness, which is the real purpose of Buddhist practice.
Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining me and Venerable Sangye Khadro for this episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. In the next episode, we’ll do a guided meditation that takes us through exploring these four levels of happiness and meditation together.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio