The Buddha’s Prescription for Happiness

Robert Hodge
July 2019

In the series on Core Buddhist Teachings and their Application to Daily Life, we explored core teachings on the disease (dis ease) of suffering:

  1. How our experiences are impermanent, are unable to give lasting satisfaction and are of selfless nature (the three characteristics
  2. How we really experience life (the Five Aggregates of Clinging)
  3. How three unskillful states of mind (greed, aversion, delusion) cause suffering (the Three Poisons)
  4. How suffering is like a medical disease with symptoms, a cause, a cure and a prescription of its cessation. (the Four Principles of Suffering).

Having gained this understanding of suffering, we can apply the Buddha’s prescription for the cessation of suffering (the Eightfold Path).  One of the best texts on the Eightfold Path is Eight Steps to Happiness by Bhante Gunaratana.[i]  A series of talks on this text is available on our White Hall Meditation website.[ii]

The Eightfold path offers a comprehensive approach; all of the factors needed to address the cessation of suffering are included.  The Buddha’s main teaching on the Eightfold Path is An Analysis of the Path: the Magga-Vibhaṅga Sutta.[iii]  In this series we will explore the Eightfold Path in its three main components:  Wisdom, Virtue and Practice.  Each component has two or three steps which total eight steps in all; hence the Eightfold Path.

The Wisdom Component
In order to experience the cessation of suffering, we must understand what suffering is, how it is caused and what directions we should take.  These teachings are included in the two wisdom steps of the Eightfold Path:  Skillful Understanding and Skillful Intention

Skillful Understanding
The two factors in Skillful Understanding are the Four Principles of Suffering and Cause and Effect.

The Four Principles of Suffering
As this was covered in the Core Teachings series, below is a summary of the Four Principles of Suffering. 

Further explanation is provided in the Core Teachings Series.[iv]

Understanding Cause and Effect
All actions in life have a cause and effect.  What we say or do is caused by something and what we say or do causes something.  When we look at our actions (behaviors), we can mindfully ask, “What does each cause?”  Even though we will probably never know all of the effects of our actions, the basis of Buddhist morality is that acting in unskillful ways leads to unhappy results and acting in skillful ways leads to long lasting happy results.

Karma is a term that refers to how both skillful and unskillful behavior affects an individual over time.   Karma is not punishment or retribution but simply an expression of the consequences of our actions, both skillful and unskillful.  It is not a simple, one-to-one correspondence of reward or punishment. It is just important to know that unskillful behavior puts you at risk for unhappiness.  So it is in our best interest to live a skillful life.

Skillful Intention
Once we understand the rationale for living a skillful life, we can address what intentions to adopt. An intention is the determination to act in a certain way.  The Buddha in his prescription stated three skillful intentions to adopt:

  1. Let go
  2. Practice loving-kindness
  3. Practice compassion for yourself and others.

Letting Go
Letting go is about abandoning our wanting life to be other than it is.  Instead we deal with life as it is.  We may have our preferences as to how we want life to be but fussing about how life is or acting unskillfully to get what we want is the wrong approach.  We must be mindful and pay attention to what is (attachment) and address that with letting go.  Another form of letting go is generosity.  For example with material objects, rather than take and keep, we share and give.

Practice Loving Kindness
Life is about connection.  We can relate to others unskillfully with ill-will and anger or we can relate skillfully with loving-kindness.  Loving-kindness is the antidote to aversion.  How to practice loving-kindness is covered in the Loving-Kindness series.[v]

Practice Compassion for yourself and others.
Compassion is the intention to relieve the suffering of others. It arises with the recognition of the universality of suffering and the realization that all living beings desire happiness.  Bhante G. defined compassion as “the melting of the heart at the thought of another’s suffering.”  It can also be the melting of the heart at the thought of your suffering.

Everyone suffers.  We act skillfully when we recognize the suffering in ourselves and other and practice compassion.  How to practice compassion is covered in the Compassion Series[vi].

The three intentions of letting go, practicing loving-kindness, and practicing compassion are all examples of skillful behavior and lead to happiness.  By adopting these intentions, we not only secure happiness for ourselves but for others as well. 

Having explored the two Wisdom Components of the Eightfold Path, we can now explore the Virtue Components.

The Virtue Component

The three Virtue steps contribute to happiness by prescribing three moral disciplines:  skillful speech, skillful action and skillful livelihood.  These three disciplines are concerned with what we say and what we do.  While the content of these steps may seem to consist of “do’s and don’ts”, the three virtues are mindful practices from which we can gain insights.  They are intentions which, if followed, lead to happy results.  The Buddha stated these intentions by mentioning what unskillful behaviors to abstain from. 

Thich Nhat Hahn has restated and elaborated these as the Five Mindfulness Trainings.[vii]

One: Reverence for Life
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

Two: True Happiness
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and stop contributing to climate change.

Three: True Love
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.

Four: Loving Speech and Deep Listening
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence (Effort) to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

Five: Nourishment and Healing
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are most beneficial when read and reflected on frequently.

Having explored the two Wisdom steps and the three Virtue steps of the Eightfold Path, we can now explore the three steps of the Practice Component.

The Practice Component
The first two Components of the Eightfold Path have given us an understanding of suffering and its causes, three intentions to adopt and skillful behaviors to follow.  The third Component is about our lifelong practice.  The three steps are skillful effort, skillful concentration and skillful mindfulness.  Below are brief descriptions of each step.

Skillful Effort
Skillful effort is about being aware of our thoughts and dealing with them.  Thoughts arise in the mind; they are either wholesome or unwholesome.  If we allow unwholesome thoughts to continually occupy our mind, we will develop unwholesome habits which will lead to suffering.  Skillful effort is how we can embrace the wholesome thoughts and address the unwholesome ones.

In cultivating a garden, we spend our effort doing four things.  We prevent weeds from arising.  We pull out those weeds which have arisen.  We plant seeds of the plants we want to grow.   Once these plants arise, we protect and nourish them.

Our efforts are the same for our garden of thoughts in the mind.  We direct our effort in four ways:

  1. We prevent the arising of unwholesome thoughts.
  2. We overcome unwholesome thoughts which have arisen.
  3. We strive for wholesome thoughts to arise.
  4. We maintain those wholesome thoughts which have arisen.

Skillful Concentration
Concentration is defined as the direction or focus of attention on a single object, a singleness of mind[viii]

Mark Epstein states: “As concentration increases, the mind and body relax. Thoughts diminish, emotional pressures weaken, and a kind of calm takes over.  The mind gradually comes under some degree of control and settles down…Right concentration … offers stillness, not just as respite, but as a way of entertaining uncertainty.”[ix]

Skillful or wholesome concentration is concentration that is free of what the Buddha called the hindrances.  Hindrances cloud our concentration.  The five most common hindrances are desire, aversion, restlessness/worry, mental/physical laziness, and doubt.

The Buddha stated the four developments of concentration[x]

  • leads to a pleasant abiding in the here & now
  • leads to the attainment of knowledge & vision
  • leads to mindfulness & alertness
  • leads to the ending of the defilements (hindrances, poisons)

In meditation, we start with concentration practice by focusing on the breath as our object of attention.  If we have trouble focusing, we look see if any of the hindrances above are present.  By continuing to practice concentration, these hindrances usually fall away.  After calming the mind, we can shift to insight (Vipassana) meditation by using concentration to focus on whatever phenomena (thoughts, memories, sensations) are arising in the mind in order to investigate.  Mindfulness makes us aware of what is and concentration keeps our attention on it.  In everyday life, we can use concentration on the breath to calm the mind.  Just applying concentration to two or three breaths can be beneficial.

Skillful Mindfulness
Mindfulness as defined by Bhante Gunaratana (Bhante G.) is “paying attention moment to moment to what is.”  The paying attention moment to moment is helped by our concentration practice so that we can focus on the what is.  With mindfulness, we can discern whether we are in the present sensing experiences or whether we are locked up in our minds lost in the past (memories) or future (anticipation) and not paying attention to what is happening in the present.  By practicing mindfulness, we can be aware of our conditioning of experience and be able to investigate.  In this way, we can track back to the origin of our suffering.

How can we shift into mindfulness as a frequent daily practice?

  • We make it a habit, just like we learn to brush our teeth twice a day.
  • We create reminders to reinforce this habit.  For example, each time we enter a room, we ask ourselves, “What is going on right now?”
  • We remain curious and inquire.
  • We observe our thoughts and bodily sensations.
  • Jon Kabat Zinn and others call this “awarenessing”.

The Buddha’s Prescription for Happiness

The Eightfold Path can be conceived as a checklist.  When suffering occurs, generally, going down the checklist below will reveal one or more steps that can be useful in addressing it. 

  1. Skillful Understanding (Wisdom)
    • Do you know and understand the Four Principles of Suffering?
    • Do you understand cause and effect (karma)?
  2. Skillful Intention (Wisdom)
    • Are you practicing three skillful intentions?
      • Letting go (generosity
      • Loving kindness (metta)
      • Compassion
  3. Skillful Speech (Virtue)
    • Are you speaking truthfully?
    • Are you abstaining from malicious talk?
    • Are you abstaining from harsh language?
    • Are you abstaining from gossip?
  4. Skillful Action (Virtue)
    • Are you abstaining from killing?
    • Are you abstaining from stealing?
    • Are you abstaining from speaking falsely?
    • Are you abstaining from sexual misconduct?
    • Are you abstaining from misusing alcohol or other intoxicants?
  5. Skillful Livelihood (Virtue)
    • Is your livelihood inherently harmful to yourself and others?
  6. Skillful Effort (Practice)
    • Are you preventing negative states of mind?
    • Are you overcoming negative states of mind?
    • Are you cultivating positive states of mind?
    • Are you maintaining positive states of mind?
  7. Skillful Mindfulness (Practice)
    • Are you practicing mindfulness?
  8. Skillful Concentration (Practice)
    • Are you practicing skillful concentration?
    • Are you experiencing one of the five hindrances (desire, aversion, restlessness/worry, mental/physical laziness, doubt)?


[i] Gunaratana, Bhante, Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness: Walking the Buddha’s Path









[x] Concentration Samādhi Sutta  (AN 4:41)