Lighten Up!

Buddhism's not such a raw deal.

James Baraz

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Life, though full of woe, holds also sources of happiness and joy, unknown to most. Let us teach people to seek and to find real joy within themselves and to rejoice with the joy of others! Let us teach them to unfold their joy to ever sublimer heights! Noble and sublime joy is not foreign to the Teaching of the Enlightened One. Wrongly, the Buddha’s Teaching is sometimes considered to be a doctrine diffusing melancholy. Far from it: the Dhamma leads step by step to an ever purer and loftier happiness.

—Nyanaponika Thera (1901–1994)

Lighten Up

“I didn't know Buddhism was about being happy,” one of the wedding guests said to me after the ceremony. I had just officiated at the marriage of two friends, longtime dharma practitioners. As part of the ceremony, I had invited everyone to join in a lovingkindness meditation for the couple. “May you both be happy, may you be filled with joy and love,” we had silently repeated, our wishes deepening with each phrase. With the vibrant power of lovingkindness awakened, the guest’s conclusion that Buddhism is about happiness was understandable.

Despite pervasive images of the smiling Buddha, the practice and teachings of Buddhism have had a reputation of being rather more somber than joyful. With so much emphasis on “suffering and the end of suffering,” there’s not much air time for happiness and joy. Some practitioners may even think that expressing those qualities is un-Buddhist. My friend Rick Foster, coauthor of How We Choose to Be Happy, frequently takes calls from listeners when he talks about his book on radio shows. He says he has come to expect that when a caller begins with “I’m a Buddhist . . .” almost invariably the statement will continue with something like: “and all your emphasis on getting happy seems to overlook the suffering in life.”

I went through a period of time in my own practice when I might have been one of those callers. For several long years, the truth of suffering became my primary guide. “Real” practice meant committing to “getting off the wheel,” freeing myself of lifetimes of suffering as I wandered through endless cycles of death and rebirth. The “end of suffering” got entangled in my mind with the “end of living,” which meant tempering aliveness and enthusiasm and fun. Perhaps it was a necessary stage in the awakening process, but the smiling Buddha who had so lovingly inspired me during my first years of practice had turned into a stern taskmaster. Practice became a serious endeavor.

Playing the guitar and singing had been a joyful pursuit for me since the days of the Beatles. Now I rarely did either, and when I did I noticed an underlying sense of guilt. How could I be a serious practitioner and spend my time just having fun? A lifelong sports fanatic, I felt conflicted when I’d get carried away yelling and screaming at the television as I watched my team play. My poor family and housemates had to deal with my somber persona as I suppressed my natural inclination to celebrate life. I carried this same tendency into my work as a dharma teacher, a slight wariness creeping into my attitude toward those aspects of life that were fun and attractive, that might entice one to remain “on the wheel.” This focus on suffering actually had a numbing effect. Shutting down my vitality left me feeling rather disconnected from myself and others, and less able to respond compassionately to the suffering of those closest to me.

Through the struggle and crisis of those years, I learned something important: lack of aliveness and joy is not a sign of awakening. In fact, it is just the opposite. As one of the seven factors of enlightenment, joy is not only a fruit of awakening but also a prerequisite. Joy creates a spaciousness in the mind that allows us to hold the suffering we experience inside us and around us without becoming overwhelmed, without collapsing into helplessness or despair. It brings inspiration and vitality, dispelling confusion and fear while connecting us with life. Profound understanding of suffering does not preclude awakening to joy. Indeed, it can inspire us all the more to celebrate joyfully the goodness in life. The Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu are good examples of people who have seen tremendous suffering and are still able to inspire others with an infectious joy.

We all know what it’s like to get trapped in dark, constricting states of mind—and how useless it is, in terms of awakening, to dwell there. That is exactly what the Buddha taught: we don’t need to stay stuck in greed, hatred, and delusion. Life can be lighter, more workable, even when it’s challenging. This lightening up, which I see as an aspect of joy, is the fruit of insight into anatta, the selfless nature of reality, and anicca, the truth of impermanence. When we are not attached to who we think we are, life can move through us, playing us like an instrument. Understanding how everything is in continual transformation, we release our futile attempts to control circumstances. When we live in this easy connection with life, we live in joy.

Joy has many different flavors. It might overflow from us in song or dance, or it might gently arise as a smile or a sense of inner fullness. Joy is not something we have to manufacture. It is already in us when we come into the world, as we can see in the natural delight and exuberance of a healthy baby. We need only release the layers of contraction and fear that keep us from it.

Methods for opening the mind to joy and happiness are found throughout the Buddha’s teachings. One sure way is through skillful practice of meditation. Through seeing clearly, we can free the mind of grasping, aversion, and ignorance, allowing our natural joy to manifest. In fact, research has amply demonstrated that meditation increases activity in areas of the brain associated with positive emotions.

But formal meditation is not the only way to tap into joy. The teachings say that when we cultivate wholesome mind-states—generosity, love, compassion, happiness for others—we experience pamojja, translated as “gladness” or “delight.” In one of the discourses (Majjhima Nikaya 99), the Buddha says, “That gladness connected with the wholesome, I call an equipment of the mind . . . an equipment for developing a mind that is without hostility and ill will.” As I climbed out of my “dark night,” I was delighted to discover that those positive feelings—joy, delight, happiness, gladness—rather than being impediments on the path, actually facilitate awakening. They are part of our tool kit for keeping the heart open. Gladness and delight do not merely balance out negative tendencies, they actually heal the aversive mind.

Over the past year, I have been leading dharma groups focused on cultivating joy in our daily lives. Participants learned, some of them for the first time, that relating to the present moment with joy is a choice we can make. Discovering this can change our lives. Whether we are paying careful attention to wholesome states when they arise, reflecting on gratitude, or feeling the delight of living with integrity (which the Buddha called “the bliss of blamelessness”), we can access joy by shifting the focus of our awareness to what uplifts the heart. The Buddha spoke of this as “inclining the mind” toward the wholesome. This doesn’t mean disregarding suffering; it does mean not overlooking happiness and joy. With so much fear and sadness in the world, it is healthy to let our hearts delight in the blessings of life. In waking up, it’s important to remember that in addition to the ten thousand sorrows there are also the ten thousand joys.

Ajahn Sumedho, abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, in England, writes, “Once you have insight, then you find you enjoy and delight in the beauty and goodness of things. Truth, beauty, and goodness delight us; in them we find joy.” When we open a channel to the wellspring of joy, the waters of well-being that flow into our lives are a gift not only to ourselves. As joyful bodhisattvas, we serve by inspiring spaciousness, perspective, courage, and goodness in the hearts of others. May you be happy and awaken joy in yourself and all those you meet.

James Baraz is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center and coordinates the Community Dharma Leader program and the Kalyana Mitta Network. Shoshana Alexander contributed to this article. She is the author of In Praise of Single Parents and Women’s Ventures, Women’s Visions. Together with Baraz, she is writing a book about Buddhism as a path to joy.

Image: "Rehearsal for the Kalachakra Ceremony, Labrang Monastery, Amdo, Tibet," © Robin Brentano

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This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.'s picture

Happines, joy and delight are the core of being centered while remaining grounded. Psychologically it can be very healing. Sometimes the practice of buddhism helps us to feel genuine freedom to love life, this is helpful when the focus is on stability, if you have suffered from a mood disorder for which you are treated for. There is a flip side of this coin which comes when maturity fails age and we are left with anxiety. Does any one else know when we are enlightened or depressed. I suppose the truth is does any else really have to know, and the answer is no, it helps us along our way of dealing with stress. There is joy and release from punishment, abuse and bullying in the practice. I suppose in my case I receive anxiety from questioning my practice too much, and asking questions as to if I can sse myself sitting that day. Zazen is and it isn't work, it is the sole experience of soul gathering and self reflection. Those who have learned from the Dharma and Sangha are living proof that we can survive our own lives, when it appeared the chances were so slim.

MindfulnessTherapistOnline's picture

It is always worth remembering that the purpose of the path of mindfulness practice, meditation and awakening as taught by the Buddha is to realize the liberation of the mind and heart from suffering and the causes of suffering. But, the end game is to be free to completely enjoy every moment of our life and to experience the true joy available to us through our senses and our mind; but to do this the mind must be free. The freer the mind, the greater the joy.

Tree201's picture

I'm glad I read this.
However, I am not so sure this joyfulness is available to people who suffer from depression.

fbartolom's picture

Once you have labelled it as such, there is abolutely no possibility to overcome it.

John Haspel's picture

1. There is SUFFERING
2. SUFFERING originates in CLINGING
3. Cessation of SUFFERING is POSSIBLE
4. The EIGHTFOLD PATH is the the path developing the cessation of SUFFERING.

Tree201, Joyfulness is certainly available to you!

John Haspel

C's picture

I've suffered from depression most of my life. I've found that Buddhism is the answer to depression. It's saved me more than once....and that includes the happiness that comes with it. Doesn't mean there won't be dark days. But coping because more doable, and there has to be a conscious effort to pull out that sword and take a stab at the darkness. Depression is largely ego-based. If you think of it in those terms, meditation and putting yourself "outside the situation" and into the moment can help. And...sometimes you feel a glimmer of happiness and release while doing it!

roboutwest's picture

I found my depression loosened it's grip when I finally surrendered and said "what if it's always going to be like this." Most of my efforts had been toward eliminating the depression. Now, I actually explored what it was like without an agenda. That wasn't the end of it, but that realization had joy in it and over the last few years, there has been joy and further lessening of depression as I've continued mindfulness practice.

rawson.terhaar's picture

I can relate both to the above comment and the one above that. My experience has been that practice has strengthened my mind, and therefore my ability to withstand life's hard parts. Nonetheless, the teachers of joy, in my view, must be either happily married or happily unmarried. Being happy for a spouse whose behavior brings pain to oneself -- although certainly an opportunity for intense investigation -- is likely beyond the capability of most practitioners. Most often the release in this condition comes only after the hardest and most painful effort at letting go -- a letting-go that feels just short of a death.

gdenney's picture

I have learned that neither being happily married nor happily unmarried is a prerequisite to having joy in one's life: one learns to detach with love and continue to discover fullness in oneself.

MindfulnessTherapistOnline's picture

Actually there is great joy to be found through the resolution of the underlying process that creates depression. This joy is likened to the joy of putting down a heavy load after a long trek. In Mindfulness Meditation practice and during Mindfulness Therapy we learn how to develop a completely different relationship to our emotions such that we no longer become slaves to our emotions. This is called citta viveka and is one of the necessary conditions for developing samadhi and for the resolution of dukkha, including depression.

John Haspel's picture

No doubt that many feel that “Buddhism” is a pessimistic or nihilistic practice. Much alteration to the original teachings arose from this misunderstanding and aversion to understanding suffering.

The Buddha was interested in only one thing, with two aspects: Understanding suffering and developing the path leading to the cessation of suffering. He recognized that all human beings wanted happiness but were so distracted by disappointment and uncertainty that their entire lives were wasted in preserving that which brought (temporary) satisfaction and avoiding anything that might diminish individual satisfaction.

It is the preoccupation with dukkha that leads to mindlessness and continues suffering and confusion.

Of course understanding suffering is the key to the Buddha’s Dhamma and developing a life of lasting peace and happiness. In teaching the nature of suffering, its causes, and the path to cessation of dukkha, the original teachings of the Buddha are simply realistic.

Not being willing to acknowledge and understand suffering has caused the Buddha’s original teachings to be characterized by later-developed schools as primitive or rudimentary in order to justify the alterations, embellishments or complete dismissal of the Dhamma. Many exercises and rituals have become a part of Buddhist practice as a way of avoiding the issue of suffering. Of course this only prolongs confusion and suffering while developing the appearance of relief.

The Buddha taught that it was in developing understanding of the Four Noble Truths that anyone could gain liberation and freedom from suffering. Diminishing or disregarding the Four Noble Truths is diminishing or disregarding the only path for developing lasting peace and happiness found in the original teachings of the Buddha.

In the Samyutta Nikaya 56.11[1], Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Truth in Motion, The Buddha describes awakening very simply and directly:
• The noble truth of dukkha has been comprehended.
• The noble truth of the origination of dukkha has been abandoned.
• The noble truth of the cessation of dukkha has been experienced.
• The noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha has been developed.

Through whole-hearted practice of integrating the Eightfold Path the first noble truth of stress is comprehended. The Buddha is not referring to an intellectual understanding of the concept of stress in the phenomenal world. What the Buddha is referring to is a deep and profound dispassionate awareness of  truth of stress.

“Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose WITHIN me with regards to things never heard or seen before: This is the noble truth of stress … This noble truth of stress is to be comprehend … This noble truth of stress is comprehended.”

Rather than being pessimistic or nihilistic the Buddha’s dhamma inclines the mind to joy by first developing the understanding of dukkha and then providing the means to abandon all causes of disappointment, disillusionment and confusion. True joy is achieved and maintained by understanding and abandoning the causes of unhappiness.

The Eightfold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth, the great jewel of the Dhamma, is the path the Buddha presented as the way to develop lasting peace and happiness. Once this is truly understood, enlightenment can begin to develop. Lightening up has taken hold.

John Haspel

fbartolom's picture

In fact it is a common tendency of aversion biased westeners to focus on the first two Noble Truths as they seem to confirm their catholic ingrained belief in guilt, either original, or imbed.
Notwitstanding the Buddha insist worldlings consider pleasant the unpleasant, and unpleasent the pleasent. What is the unpleasant fools consider pleasant? Condition depending on many conditions most of which unstable. Like a young body, power, property, partying. And what is the pleaseant the fools consider unpleasant? Peace, seclusion, moderation,blamelessnes, meditation.

There seems therafter not to exist objects in the intersections and any energy put in one direction is drained from the other. Surely is better to be happy fools and sad fools, but still fool one is.

jackelope65's picture

Thank you. The joy of Buddhism has allowed me to be happy despite multiple medical and surgical setbacks. In recovery I have enjoyed the lovingkindness and compassion of family and friends, the joy of watching my grandchildren play. I notice they have also learned lovingkindness and compassion. I have more time to deepen my practice. Suffering, in my case, has even brought me joy.

jackelope65's picture

It is always good to be reminded to be joyful. Enlightenment is nowhere to be found, seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled, felt, yet always present and not holding misery's hand. Thank you for the article and practice.

Bagdad's picture


Your grief for what you've lost lifts a mirror
Up to where you're bravely working.

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
Here's the joyful face you've been waiting to see.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
You would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small
Contracting and expanding,
The two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
As birdwings.

- Rumi

hmrosen's picture

I am GRATEFUL to TRICYCLE for all this great "stuff".

hmrosen's picture

A sigh of JOY.....a sigh of LOVE

bsalie's picture

Wonderful wonderful article! Thank you!
I have been blessed in life. While the Buddhist community in my area is small the Bhakti community is overflowing with welcoming and joyous people. By attending Yoga classes and Kirtan's with my Krishna devotee friends I have cultivated a wonderful practice and beautiful friendships. For me it's clear.

sschroll's picture

Bowing in Gratitude.

gribneal's picture

Beautiful language, Hipbone. Poetry, too, awakens a path to the heart. I've always loved the word "ululating." I took part in James Baraz's on-line course of Awakening Joy, and it has been a wonderful experience. Such gentleness and joy.

buddhajazz's picture

Lovely, Hipbone, so beautifully stating the wild blend of joy and grief often
too difficult to understand

hipbone's picture

**That grief is among the flavors of joy**

The palette of joy is wide and glorious,
each stepping back from the canvas granting insight,
each brush-stroke deftly placed,
space silence stillness
between each and other across time, place,
intimate, awesome –

and so the dance goes, unending,
ululating, sinuous…
touching, yet tangential,
the spume, merely, of a greater and deeper sea
in which we are drops:
a salt sea, spilt blood, tears.

Count grief, too, among the many flavors that dance
on the ever shifting face of joy…