Buddha’s Teachings for the Worldly: A Path to Happiness

With unsurpassed insight into the workings of the world, flowing from his enlightenment, Buddha is uniquely able to guide us on how we can find success and happiness in our lives. The guidance is not restricted to those who have made commitments to transcendental paths as represented in the Sravaka, Theravada and Mahayana paths (where ‘transcendental’ refers to that beyond the scope of ordinary worldly success and happiness sought in this life). There is a body of advice derived from Buddha’s teachings that is freely available for those whose aims and ambitions in life remain entirely worldly.

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For those who have looked to dharma for guidance, since the time of the Buddha until now, motivations have varied widely from the worldly to the purely transcendental. These differences were delineated by the Indian master Atisha, in 11th Century Tibet, into a classification of three kinds of motivation: worldly, individual liberation from samsara, and attainment of enlightenment for the benefit of beings. Chogyal Phakpa used Atisha’s classification of people’s motivations to present advice to a Mongol prince in the 14th century. We today have at least one thing in common with that historic prince: we seek lasting happiness! So, let us see what this ancient text may have to offer, not just for our own benefit if we are already Buddhists, but for others in our lives who may not be.

In January, Lama Jampa taught the first part of Phakpa ‘s text, this section of which is a presentation of Buddha’s Worldly Path. This is a path for the ordinary person who is not seeking liberation from cyclical existence, samsara, as taught in the transcendental paths. This is not to say that such a worldly motivated individual will not subsequently develop a deeper and more subtle motivation upon glimpsing the nature of samsaric existence. In fact, Phakpa’s text anticipates just such a progression, as the second and third sections of his text, to be taught by Lama Jampa later in 2019, deal with the Hinayana and Mahayana paths respectively.

The worldly path as set out by Phakpa can be understood under seven headings:

  1. Recognise the danger of thinking wealth is the cause of happiness

  2. The need to repay kindness

  3. Protect others

  4. How to exercise control in all directions

  5. Rule according to dharma

  6. Use wealth wisely

  7. Accomplish activities well

The cause of happiness is virtue and not wealth. So, one should cultivate the values that accord with that understanding to achieve happiness. This is not to say, however, that wealth does not play a part as one needs some degree of wealth to protect and benefit others. Used properly, wealth can be of great benefit.

One is advised to develop a healthy attitude towards wealth, recognising that it is a temporary phenomenon. Then, if one loses one’s wealth one will not become dejected but go to work to create whatever is positive.  

Loving Kindness is a cornerstone of the whole Buddhist Path. Here one is encouraged to recall with gratitude the kindness of one’s parents who gave us our body and cared for us until able to stand on our own two feet. Feeling part of a continuity of family that stretches back over time counters the arrogance one could develop from thinking of oneself proudly as an independent entity. The sense of gratitude that flows from this kind of attitude naturally leads to a wish to repay kindness by looking after those for whom we have responsibility.

Regarding protection of others, Phakpa lists particular people who we should certainly look out for and protect: the elderly, the poor, the sick, one’s partner, one’s children and, he says, those relatives who do not deceive one. Also, anyone who you have harmed and who showed patience is worthy of your protection, as are people who we may otherwise have condemned for making silly mistakes. He says that those who don’t care for others won’t achieve their own benefit.

It is not just the vulnerable who Phakpa advises us to include in our circle of protection. He points to benefits for the worldly person in providing protection for spiritual beings who benefit others. This provides a connection between us and their powerful virtuous deeds. Recognisable signs of wisdom, kindness and compassion are qualities that make a person worthy of support and protection in that way.

To exercise control effectively in all directions is surely something we would all wish to be able to accomplish. This can be achieved, Phakpa says, with the right kind of effort. Firstly, we try to align ourselves with virtues that are in harmony with life. Then, we need to develop a determined energy that is  ready to face difficulties and obstacles that will inevitably arise. He points out that no benefits happen accidentally and all those who achieved anything great only did so by applying themselves.

Rule According to Dharma because dharma brings happiness to the world. The relevance of this advice to how we fulfil our own responsibilities - whether as leader, manager, parent or modern-day consumer - can easily be seen. We are advised to avoid quick worldly fixes or shortcuts that rely on manipulating others. Develop an inner ambition of kind heartedness to others, wanting happiness for those working for us, acknowledging their work and contributions.

We are encouraged to recognise that no-one in this world is either wholly good or wholly bad; all are mixed. So, when virtue outweighs the bad, recognise that as a good start!

To use wealth wisely, recognise four kinds of wealth:

  • Wealth like an enemy

  • Wealth like a relative

  • Meaningless wealth

  • Ordinary wealth

The first kind listed here is like an enemy because after all the difficulties of acquiring, accumulating and trying to keep it, it destroys you. Meaningless wealth is wealth that is obtained easily but that is not spent or put to any beneficial purpose. On the other hand, wealth that is likened to a relative is obtained by honest means, accumulated without effort and used for beneficial purposes with a virtuous mind. Finally, ordinary wealth is what is needed to provide the temporary benefits needed by oneself and those under one’s protection.

Wealth like a relative is clearly beneficial and ordinary wealth is common sense, whereas the other two kinds of wealth are to be avoided.

To accomplish activities well, the wise man or woman examines an action before committing it, whereas the foolish one acts and then sees what they have done afterwards. Even if actions don’t turn out as the wise man or woman wished them to, they will have no regrets, whereas the foolish one will have every reason for regrets. Phakpa says one should always apply this kind of wisdom to one’s actions.

When it comes to food and intoxicants, we are advised to take care and with regard to sexual pleasure, to avoid distracting attachment to it. Rather we should rely on contentment.

Finally, the points are summarised as follows:

  • Don’t be arrogant when wealthy nor downcast when poor

  • Repay kindness

  • Venerate those worthy of veneration

  • Protect the weak

  • Exercise control in all directions

  • Rule according to dharma

  • Utilise your wealth with care and accomplish activities in an excellent way

Phakpa said to the prince that by following this advice, he would become glorious and prosperous in during his life and acquire happiness in his next life, having gained merit in his own lifetime.

Many of us will immediately see the sense of this pragmatic advice and wish to apply it in our own lives, seeing that this is the only reliable way to happiness even in this modern world.

Lama Jampa will move on to the second part of Phakpa’s text in early June. Find details here. This next part will show how the dharma student who is motivated towards liberation from samsaric existence builds upon the foundations laid in this first section which has outlined the moral outlook that remains indispensable throughout the Buddhist path. .

This blog is the work of students of the Dechen Dharma Community. Posts are typically a result of contemplation by its authors on teachings given by their Lamas. Whilst  every effort is made to accurately reflect teachings given, any misrepresentation is entirely the responsibility of the authors. Please address any communication to blog@dechen.org.