Sukha / Happiness – some personal reflections

German: Titel des deutschen Textes: “Sukha – einige persönliche Reflexionen”.

If we want to have a closer look at the concept of Sukha (happiness) then it might be useful to look at the original meaning of the word. It consists of two syllables: = good, well being, and khâ = hole of the axle.(1) In a functioning hole of the axle the hub of a chariot moves smoothly and the horses can pull the chariot with high speed and without hindrances. Therefore the word sûkhâ originally means unhindred flow and not only happiness as it is mostly translated nowadays.

The concepts of Sukha and Dukkha, that is happiness and unsatisfactoriness/suffering, derive from the vedic and classical Sanskrit, in other words these concepts are older than the Buddhist texts in the Pali language. Often it is revealing to have a look at the original meanings of a word, because then we can see much more facets of their meaning. Even in Sanskrit Sukha and Dukkha got the meaning of happiness and suffering. Yet in the beginning it was about the smoothly moving hub of a chariot or the not smoothly moving hub. That is free flowing movement in one case and strong inhibition in the other case.

Sukha is therefore the opposite of Dukkha, – inhibition, suffering and unsatisfactoriness. But is it not often our attitude to insatisfactoriness that makes us suffer in various situations?

In the strictly Buddhist sense Sukha has to be defined as freedom from hate, greed and delusion. It is also one of the tree feelings (vedana) and can be experienced by the body or the mind, or both. As the opposite of Sukha, Dukkha is also defined as being inherent in the five heaps, the parts of a person (khandha). Sukha then is seen as part of the Eightfold Path. The texts tell us also about the four perversions: the distortion of truth (sanna-vipallasa) and Sukha-sanna, that means seemingly to experience happiness in those phenomenons who in reality are seen as suffering (dukkha-sukha-sanna). That really means every form of existence (2). Sukha is also an experience manifesting itself on the third level of meditation (3. jhana).

For all of these different kinds of Sukha there are of course terms in Sanskrit, Pali and classical Tibetan, but all of this can become very theoretical. However, this is not the intent of my personal reflections. The contemplation over the meaning about the above mentioned concepts may be a support for the monk or the nun. On the path of a house-holder I feel that the definition of Sukha as freedom from hate, greed and delusion is much more helpful.

But are we not far away from this definition of Sukha, mankind as such but also many of us in their personal lifes, in spite of our Buddhist practice?

Being Buddhists – or people trying to walk the path of the Buddha – we have been lucky to meet the Buddhist teachings again in this life. Probably because of favourable karmic conditions. That is a great happiness giving us the feeling of trust. Some weeks ago while visiting good friends in Germany I took part in a retreat within another spiritual tradition. There I found the following verse:

Accept every experience
Regardless how it it
With equanimity and devotion.
Each of your experiences is equivalent to
Highest wisdom.

I think it is important to allow this trust in our lifes. The Buddha never demanded blind faith but he saw trust (saddha) as a necessary precondition for each practice on the path of the Dharma. Having been hit by the lion’s paw (that means the teaching of the Buddha) gives a direction in our lives. And therefore we might be able to experience dukkha in a differnt way.

In a little bit provocative way I would like to say that Sukha even contains Dukkha; because seen from the standpoint of everyday life (samruitti-sacca) following the path of the Buddha is not free from unsatisfactory situations and suffering. That is so even if we are glad to have met the path of the Buddha trying to practice it honestly. Compared with the happiness of having met the teaching the moments of sadness  and suffering in our lifes are not felt so very heavy. They are seen in a more relative context and can be endured and overcome more easily. That way we clinge less to the negative events in our life.

Of course it is suffering to experience sickness, old age, death, to be seperated from loved ones and to be forced to be with people one does not like. On the other hand many of us live in countries where the healing power of  Dharma-practice can be used without being persecuted, murdered or thrown into prison.  That way we have the chance to change our attitude towards old age, sickness and death by using the tool of our Dharma-practice. That could be called happiness, too. 

Let us be reminded of the teaching from the Pali kanon about a mother who visited the Buddha carrying her dead child on her arm. She could not let go of the child and could not accept its death. The Buddha very gently made her see the reality of death by asking her to bring him some mustard seeds from every household in the vincinity, provided nobody had died there. Of course she could not succeed, but this procedure made her realize she was not alone with her mourning.

The Mahayana and the Tantra move one step further as far as Sukha is concerned. The concept of Mahasukha stands here for the great happiness, the great experience of a breaking through to the full Enlightenment of a Buddha (samyak sambodhi). Buddhism is not only about suffering and impermanence. Those latter concepts has given Buddhism a flavour of nihilism and pessimism in the eyes of many people.

Suffering/unsatisfactoriness is there, whether we like it or not. But without change, without impermanence (anicca) there would be not change in the positive or negative sense. Therefore change and impermanence can be seen as happiness, because without it there would be no Enlightenment either. I must admit it is not always easy to keep that in mind when facing great difficulties in life. For example when the existence of whole families is threatened by devastating fires as it happened in Australia 2009. Or when we really mourn the loss of a beloved person or even animal. Or when deep love towards somebody remains unfulfilled. Yet love on a very human level mostly means clinging, too (vedana, tanha, upadana). Maybe some time of genuin pratice of the Dharma gives us enough strength to make a change and let go. 

To me sukha means the happiness of having a more extensive attitude towards life. Not to be thrown hither and thither by the feelings and incidents in our daily life, at work or at home. To me sukha also means the gratitude of bowing, being able to say YES to different experiences – the glad and the sad ones. Being able to say thank you to these things we meet just in this moment, material as well as non-material. We can learn from all situations we meet.

Somebody once mentioned that gratefulness is the key to the treasure of the universe. There is a lot of wisdom in this. Sukha also means to be able to open up towards love and richness in one’s own life yet accepting its impermanence. Knowing that too much clinging often turns love and richness/prosperity into its opposite.

Finally, please, let me quote some sayings from the Buddhist scriptures, which might be helpful for the understanding of sukha:

There is no greater happiness than inner peace.  (3)

There is happiness, filled by joy and there is happiness filled by equanimity (free from the limitations of the ego), but the happiness of equanimity is the higher sense of wellbeing. (4)

Those who realize that the true essence of Dharma is peace, they find happiness in the teaching of the awakened one. (5)

Now back to the practice:

There is a deeper happiness and purer wellbeing than happiness by just satisfying the senses. And what is that? One abides free from craving, free from unwholesam things, with concentrated reflection in that state of mind that is filled with rapture born from seclusion. That is called the first stage of meditative absorption (jhana). This is a deeper happiness and purer wellbeing than that happiness which comes from the satisfaction of the senses. (6)

Happiness develops in the process of walking on a spiritual path in all its aspects. Let us remain pilgrims on the path!

Dharmavajra     (published first in Dhammadûta, May 2009)

1) Khâ = hole, orifice, hole of the axel, wound, air, air-space, zero, Sû = good, well. From Klaus Mylius: Wörterbuch Sanskrit-Deutsch, VEB, Leipzig 1987, page 132, 541.
2) Pali Kanon, Anguttara Nikaya IV:49.
3) Pali Kanon, Dhammapada, verse 202
4) Pali Kanon, Anguttara Nikaya II:7,9
5) Siksâ-Samuccaya 14  by Shantideva
6) Pali Kanon, Majjhima Nikaya 75, according to German translation by Vimalo Kulbarz in “Eine Handvoll Blätter”, page 112, Roseburger Schriftenreihe 2002.

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