by Amanda Long Period 7
Ralph Waldo Emerson distinctively philosophizes that “the purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” Well, in response to Emerson, Aristotle and the Buddha would likely retort with a big, fat “WRONG!!” In his critically-acclaimed essay Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle contends that man’s ultimate end is happiness, achieved through the habitual practice of virtue in accordance with reason in order to carry out our innate human function. Ultimately, this portrait of the “good life” that Aristotle paints is correlative with a life of contemplation; in other words, “the more contemplation, the more happiness there is in a life.” Most organized religious doctrines preach this notion of an “ultimate end,” and many, like Aristotle, resolve that happiness is our ultimate goal or aspiration. However, one particular religion, Buddhism, conjures some striking parallels with Aristotle’s tenets leading us to pose the following question: To what extent is a Buddhist “happy” in the Aristotelian sense?
Somewhere in a remote province of the Bhutanese or Tibetan Himalayas, a Buddhist monk rests in prayer, his eyes closed and body quieted but mind sharp and dynamic. Such is the image associated with Buddhism, expounded in several celebrated Western films including Little Buddha and Seven Years in Tibet. Following the doctrines of their late 6th century founder, Siddhartha Gautama (later known as the Buddha), Buddhists have managed to preserve a treasure trove of “ancient contemplative knowledge” for centuries, as Tibet and Bhutan—emphasis on the latter—remained relatively isolated until the mid-20th century. Notorious for being a peaceful and demure religion, the core of Buddhist teaching affirms that the path to happiness calls for an understanding of the root causes of suffering or dukkha, attained through careful meditation or contemplation. Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha preached, “The mind is the source of happiness and unhappiness.” Offering a sort of guide to this understanding and therefore to nibbana or nirvana, Buddhist meditation follows the Noble Eightfold Path with each of the eight categories sub-divided into three elements: moral conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom. These categories are as follows: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. And according to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Buddhism, these meditative tenets will lead the meditator to “the greatest degree of inner tranquility.”
With regard to this Buddhist principle, Aristotle would wholeheartedly agree, as he too stresses the importance of the contemplative life! According to Aristotle, the contemplative life (in contrast with the life of the statesman and the life of enjoyment), allows an individual to live in accordance with reason, “the best and pleasantest for man—and therefore the happiest.”1 He even goes so far as to assert that the more one is able to enjoy a life of contemplation, the closer he will get to happiness. And because a Buddhist monk must regularly meditate, I think it is safe to say that they are certainly contemplating enough to achieve supreme happiness in the Aristotelian sense.
However, Buddha and Aristotle disagree on one central aspect of this contemplative life, an aspect that might prevent a Buddhist from truly being considered a “good Aristotelian” in the eyes of the Grecian philosopher. Aristotle claims that the foundation of the contemplative life should, again, be attained through the exercise of virtue and therefore reason, the discrepancy being that Buddhists see eternal happiness as the product of exercising both wisdom and compassion. This principle is founded on the belief that our own happiness is determined by our will for others’ happiness as well. Dalai Lama famously uttered these words, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” According to the Dalai Lama, selflessness is vital to alleviating our dukkha, for we cannot be wise until we free ourselves of the idea of “what’s in it for me?” In The Essence of the Heart Sutra, His Holiness notes, “Compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering…That is to say, one must understand the nature of suffering from which we wish to free others…” if we wish to attain eternal bliss. In contrast, Aristotle writes that “The life that consists in the exercise of the reason is the best and pleasantest for man—and therefore the happiest.”1 Where Buddhism values tropes such as love and compassion, placing a sort of communal and charitable twist on the quest for happiness, Aristotle maintains a more singular perspective on how an individual might acquire true happiness himself. Buddhists, therefore, seem to affirm that the more compassion we have, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes, while Aristotle seems to affirm that the more we are able to exercise our reason, the happier we will be.
Similarly, Buddhists and Aristotle both preach that moderation is the key to the formation of happiness. Aristotle writes that “virtue…is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency.”1 In other words, virtue lies between two extremes, suggesting that the virtuous person is the moderate person. Like Aristotle, Buddhists also recognize the value of moderation. Siddhartha was raised in a world of luxury, shielded from the pains and suffering beyond the castle walls. When he finally ventured out into the world, he discovered three aspects of life: the old, the sick, and the dead, each of which inciting within him a wealth of questions surrounding the nature of pleasure. Eventually, he resolved to renounce all his earthly possessions and endure a life of complete poverty; somewhere between these two extremes, he discovered the “Middle Way” of moderation, a principle intended to foster a balanced approach to life correlative to Aristotle’s “Golden Mean.” While some societies, including our own, suggest that excess is a gateway to happiness such as excess wealth or excess material goods, these two doctrines alternatively support temperance and balance.
While both Aristotle and Buddhists agree that happiness should be our ultimate human goal, the definition of this goal is slightly different for both sects. On one end, Aristotle claims that happiness is a habitual practice, a facet of life that extends beyond the feeling of pleasure. Yes, it can be nurtured through contemplation and reason, but he cannot provide you with a recipe for achieving happiness. Buddhists, however, are much more concrete in their lectures on happiness. A famous Buddhist proverb goes like this:
A man said to the Buddha, “I want Happiness.”
Buddha said, first remove “I”, that’s ego,
then remove “want”, that’s desire.
See now you are left with only Happiness.
Therefore, as previously stated, a Buddhist must habitually meditate and exercise compassion in order to achieve good karma and ultimately be reincarnated into something beautiful and fulfilling. But this notion of the afterlife, too, is contrary to Aristotle’s teachings. If Aristotle helped an old Buddhist woman cross a street, and that Buddhist woman said to him, “You will have good karma,” Aristotle might nod in thanks even though—to him—happiness is recognized at the end of one’s life time and not after death. Buddhists, on the other hand, practice this contemplative life in preparation for an end that extends beyond the human life. However, both doctrines agree that happiness cannot be the product of a solitary act but rather a complete and full lifetime.
So, how happy would a Buddhist be according to Aristotle? Well, supremely happy!—that is, if he was able to convert compassion to reason and continue this life of unadulterated contemplation until the end of his days.
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