My ethics research and writings have taken me to a place where I am searching for a cultural, philosophical approach to life that brings meaning. I have found Buddhism offers that opportunity and a fresh look at what makes for a happy life.
Understanding how different cultures view happiness sheds light on what they value. One of the most controversial issues in well-being research is the definition, investigation, and translation of the term happiness. Yukiko Uchida and Yuji Ogihara highlight considerable cultural differences in how lay people understand happiness, its predictors and its relation with social changes.
In Western cultures, happiness is construed as including highly desirable experiences that trigger a positive emotional state defined in terms of a high arousal state such as excitement and personal achievement. Individual happiness is best predicted by personal goal attainment and high self-esteem.
In Eastern cultures, happiness is construed as including both positive and negative emotional states. In these cultures, happiness is defined as experiencing a low arousal state such as calmness and interpersonal connectedness and harmony. Furthermore, individual happiness is best achieved through relationship harmony and emotional support from others.
Harmony is the core value in Chinese culture. Harmony means proper and balanced coordination between things and encompasses rationale, propriety, and compatibility. Building social harmony over personal achievements reflects the value of “saving face” in Chinese culture, which means the desire to avoid humiliation or embarrassment, maintain dignity, and preserve reputation. Confucius, the influential Chinese philosopher, utilized the term “harmonious” when he discussed the significance of “Maintaining a harmonious family” as a key part of happiness.
Buddhism and the “Middle Way”
The notion that there is one standard of ethics that can be applied to all areas of life gains traction when we examine the Buddhist philosophy of the “Middle Way.” The Middle Way refers to the enlightened view of life and also the actions or attitudes that will create happiness for oneself and others. The search for the Middle Way can be considered a universal pursuit of all Buddhist traditions -- the quest for a way of life that would give the greatest value to human existence and help relieve the world of suffering.
Mahayana Buddhism stresses the ideal of enlightened individuals who are moved by compassion to save all sentient beings from sufferings. The Eightfold Path of Buddhism, also called the Middle Path or Middle Way, is the system of following eight steps to achieve spiritual enlightenment and cease suffering. The Eightfold Path includes:
Right understanding. The Four Noble Truths are noble and true. These truths deal with the truth of suffering, the cause of it, the end of suffering, and the true path that frees us from suffering.
Right thought. Recognizing the equality of life and compassion for all that life, beginning with yourself.
Right speech: By resolving never to speak unkindly, or in anger, a spirit of consideration evolves which moves us closer to everyday compassionate living.
Right action. Take the ethical approach in life, to consider others and the world we live in. Don’t take what is not given to you and respect promises to others.
Right livelihood. Reflects the correct action and the ethical principle of non-exploitation and respect for all life.
Right effort. Cultivating an enthusiasm and a positive attitude in a balanced way to foster wholeness.
Right mindfulness. Developing awareness of things, oneself, feelings, thought, people and reality.
Right concentration. Meditation; Establishing mindfulness and wholeness through modes of consciousness and awareness.
The Eightfold Path is the means by which enlightenment can be realized. The Enlightened Path can be grouped into three categories.
Morality – right speech, right action, right effort.
Meditation – right mindfulness, right meditation.
Wisdom – right thought, right understanding.
An enlightened view of the self leads to compassion. The practice of love and compassion leads to wisdom. Wisdom leads one to surrender ego to be part of the larger self. Compassion is the natural outcome of enlightenment and wisdom.
The Eightfold Path includes what the ancient Greeks thought of as virtues, emphasizing the intellectual virtues as a pathway to compassion for others. Buddhism has a different conception of human nature from Aristotle, but, like him, it believes that it is from our human nature that our virtues and vices arise. The Middle Way is the path between two extremes, close to Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean” whereby every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice. In Mahayana Buddhism, the search for happiness and meaning is through the middle path where moderation of behavior brings harmony to life.