The Buddhist Path is Filled With Joy

by | Feb 8, 2024 | Buddhism for All

The Buddha is the greatest genius in the history of the world.  One of his most important innovations, which is surprisingly less than prominent on the radars of many Buddhist teachers and scholars, is the central role of joy.  The path to enlightenment can be long and hard, but can be made significantly easier if joy is a key part of it.  Designing a training program this way is so challenging it takes a genius to pull it off, and the Buddha was that genius. 

We get a glimpse of how successful he was in a conversation he had with King Pasenadi of Kosala.  The good king visited the Buddha when they were both old men, not long before they would both pass away (this would, in fact, be the last time they would see each other alive).  The king said to the Buddha that when he saw the ascetics from the other sects, they looked like they were miserable, wretched and “leading the holy life dissatisfied”.  In contrast, the Buddhist monastics appeared to be “smiling and cheerful, sincerely joyful, plainly delighting, their faculties fresh, unexcited, unruffled, living by what others give, dwelling with minds like the wild deer.”[1] 

There are many discourses where the Buddha talks about joy in practice.  One such discourse[2] started as a conversation the Buddha had with a wise lay person called Pessa, known here only as “the elephant driver’s son” (imagine if that is how history remembers you, so sorry Pessa), who visited the Buddha with a friend.  After they left, the Buddha told the monks sitting around him that, “Pessa is wise, and if he had stayed just a little longer to listen to what I have to say next, he would have gained stream-entry.”  It sounds a bit like a comedy.  What the Buddha talked about next was a roadmap of the joyful path. 

It begins with a disciple hearing the Dharma, after which he makes a determined effort to live his life in accordance with the five precepts.[3]  He gains “noble virtue”, contentment and a clear conscience.  With that, he benefits from the first joy, the “bliss of blamelessness”.  Note that ethical behavior is not framed as a sacrifice, but as a source of bliss.  I find it a fascinating idea in and of itself. 

Next, the disciple practices what the Buddha calls “sense restraint”, which he defines as “not grasping on to the signs (nimitta) and secondary characteristics” of perceived sense objects.  Buddhist scholar monk Bhikkhu Anālayo clarifies that “signs” refer to first forming of an assessment of the sense object, while “secondary characteristics” refer to further association and mental proliferation based on that first idea.  In other words, “sense restraint” does not mean refraining from having sense input, instead it means steering clear of both mental proliferation and reacting in ways that are unwholesome.[4]  In other words, sense restrain means not making sense data into something that it is not.  For that reason, with sense restraint, senses actually become even clearer and more expansive, since the mind is not grasping onto things and distorting sense data.  With that, the Buddha says the disciple experiences the next joy: “the bliss that is unsullied”

After that, the disciple practices mindfulness and clear comprehension, he meditates, he abandons the five hindrances, and he enters the jhānas.  At this point, he experiences the joys relating to the jhānas, including the “rapture and bliss born of seclusion”, “rapture and bliss born of samadhi”, and the “pleasant abiding of equanimity” above and beyond pleasure and pain.  Finally, the disciple uses the jhānas to reach enlightenment and he is now “hungerless, extinguished [the fire], and cooled, and abides experiencing bliss, having himself become holy.”

Every few miles on the Buddhist spiritual path, there is a rest stop serving joy for free.

You may notice something fascinating: the further down the path, the more you let go of, and the greater the joy is.  This leads us to a conversation in the ancient texts that sounds almost like comedy.  Sāriputta, the wisest of all the Buddha’s disciples, was residing with a group of Buddhist monks.  He spoke to them, “Friends, happiness is this nirvana.  Happiness is this nirvana.”  The monk Udayi replied, “But friend Sāriputta, what happiness could there be when nothing is felt?”  And Sāriputta replied, “Nothing is felt here, that is where the happiness is.” [5]

As you will see in the next post, this joy greases the engine on your journey to nirvana.


Activities

  • Reflect on this post with Angela: While the “bliss that is unsullied” and “rapture and bliss born of samadhi” can be experienced (only) with practice and mind training,  the “bliss of blamelessness” is something we can all practice and experience immediately. For instance, at the moment we feel an overwhelming need to do something or say something unwholesome and hurtful, – pause, observe your mind at that moment. Living with blamelessness helps us have a good sleep at night, and allows our mind to abide in joy. Which of these different joys described here have you experienced? How can you incline your mind towards joy?

References

[1] Dhammacetiya Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 89).

[2] Kandaraka Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 51).

[3] See right action in general.

[4] Anālayo, Mindfulness of Breathing. Windhorse Publications (2019).

[5] Aṅguttara Nikāya 9.34.

Featured image by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)