Putting Shantideva to the Test

Thursday March 27, 2008


Last week was the final session of my philosophy of happiness class at the Botanical Gardens here in Birmingham, and we were considering the relationship between happiness and concern for others.

It seems a long time ago now that I first read the Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva, one of the masterpieces of Buddhist literature, but the even now, having had the book to hand for the last ten years or so, the following assertion from chapter eight of the Tibetan text (the translation I’m referring to on this occasion is that by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso) has the power to provoke:

All the happiness there is in this world
Arises from wishing others to be happy,
And all the suffering there is in this world
Arises from wishing ourself to be happy.

As rhetoric, it is powerful, but the question is this: is it true? After all, this is a very strong claim (all the happiness… all the suffering…), and claims this strong are worth evaluating.

So I took the opportunity to put this idea to the test in my class last Friday with a simple experiment. The experiment was a little ad hoc, and I would not want to claim that it proves anything, but the results were highly suggestive nonetheless.

The experiment went like this. I divided the class into two halves, and before they started the experiment, asked all participants to rate, fairly roughly, their immediate experience of happiness on a scale of one to ten. Then I set one half (team A) the task of writing for ten minutes about those things that they wished exclusively for themselves, whilst the other half of the group (team B) wrote for ten minutes about what they wished exclusively for others. At the end of the experiment, I asked the participants to rate their happiness levels again.

Whilst a few participants reported unchanged levels of happiness, or bemusement at the idea of rating happiness (which is, when you think of it, a curious thing to be asked), the results were instructive, seeming to strongly suggest that wishing for one’s own welfare exclusively leads to a marked diminishing of happiness, whilst wishing for the welfare of others leads to a marked increase: the average change was approximately one point up for those in team B who were asked to be other-regarding, and one point down for those in team A who were asked to be self-regarding.

If there is anything in these results, then it begins to look as if there is indeed something in what Shantideva says (although I’m still not sure that he is right when he says ‘all happiness… arises from wishing others to be happy’ – the ‘all’ here seems too categorical, and smacks of rhetoric). We often fall into thinking that happiness and ethics are mutually exclusive: you can either be happy or you can be good. On the one hand, we think that happiness is something that we have to secure for ourselves, even at the expense of others. And on the other hand, we snuggle up at night with Kant and read that, should you derive pleasure from an act of duty, then the act is, to that extent, rather less than worthy. But it seems that this is out of kilter. Happiness and ethics are not separate. Shantideva, I think, is worth listening to; for if he is right, then this suggests that many of the ways that we go about securing happiness for ourselves, and many of our ideas about ethics as well, need to be reconsidered.

Image: HimalayanArt.org

Tags: , ,
#1 · Ccx (Jan Pobrislo)

27 March 2008

Well, that was bit poetic formulation.
What I think he actually meant is that all suffering comes from the view, when we differentiate between our and others’ happiness.
On the other hand what we call happiness can be described as state where we identify ourselves with what happens right now.

You could say that ego / illusion of separateness from what happens is what determines our ability to experience happiness, but I guess this strictly exact formulation gives you much less subconscious understanding than the Shantideva’s.

#2 · maria

27 March 2008

Will I do enjoy your postings but I wonder if you ever drive yourself mad with all the questions?

#3 · Ben Le

28 March 2008

Very interesting experiment.
It gets to the core of it really. Especially getting the students to DO it, let them see and feel and hear and get in the experience. It is a difficult thing to achieve, basing “all” one’s happiness on giving said happiness to others, we, in the West, are all about “getting what is mine!” and working solely for our own benefit.
Thanks for sharing.
Namo Amida Bu
Ben Le

#4 · Mathias

28 March 2008

I would say: All the suffering arises from wishing things to be different from what they are.
Very interesting experiemnt though.

#5 · Elee

28 March 2008

It’s interesting to think about what is happening on a psychological level in this experiment – why, in those 10 minutes, those people’s emotions changed. As Will says, it’s hard to extrapolate much from such a rough and ready experiment. However, I’m going to make a bit of a guess as to what I think may have been going on.

First of all, when we think about what we want, it makes us think about what our lives currently lack, and we start to feel despondent. This is probably exacerbated by our tendency to think of things that we want but can’t have (i.e. instead of thinking about how we want a cup of tea and a cake, and then feeling happy that we can go and get one when the class is over, we think about how we want to spend two months travelling around the world, but can’t afford it and anyway, think of the air miles…. etc.).

I think maybe when we think about things for others, we probably worry less about the minor details of how it might happen, and spend more time imagining the bigger picture, which makes us feel more hopeful and positive.

There’s also the fact that when others around us are happy, it makes us happy too. Think about the joy of choosing a present for someone – thinking about what they like and what they are like, and then seeing their face when it is well received. The whole experience is so much more gratifying than just buying something for yourself.

There is something about the type of creatures we are, that we are very dependent on each other for our state of mind. We feed off others, and also our attitude to others is mirrored in our attitude to ourselves. Being aware of this helps us to realise that being good to others is actually good for ourselves as well. On the other hand being good only to ourselves doesn’t necessarily help anyone else, and this removes the happy buzz of positive feedback, leaving us feeling a bit empty and sad.

So maybe, as well as focussing on things we can achieve, we should also share them with others. After all, tea and cake with a friend is so much better than tea and cake on your own!

#6 · Andy

28 March 2008

I think there’s a specific Sanskrit word for ‘genuine happiness’: sukha. So maybe we shouldn’t read Shantideva as saying that all happiness (in the broad sense) comes from helping others – there are, after all, more transient pleasures, usually called the Mundane Concerns in Buddhism – it’s just that there is a special, perhaps more permanent sense of well-being that comes with altruism. Of course, this raises all sorts of questions about what ‘true happiness’ is, and whether this phrase is not an all too subjective get out clause for eudaimonic ethicists like Shantideva.

But on the subject of helping others and being happy, you might be interested in this article: ca.news.yahoo.com/s/…

Oh, and I enjoyed The Philosopher! Nice work!

#7 · donna

29 March 2008

Sukha is the attachment to pleasure, not genuine happiness.

#8 · Andy

29 March 2008

Are you sure? B. Alan Wallace translates ‘sukha’ as genuine happiness in his book which takes this phrase as its title.

#9 · dale

30 March 2008

The idea of duty being more admirable as it’s less pleasant can I think be really pestilential in its effects. Because it makes the measurement of goodness have to do with my experience of it, not with others’ experience of it; hence it turns the attention towards self-aggrandizement (even if what I’m aggrandizing is merit, it’s still self-aggrandizement.) Besides, who can keep up a steady round of unpleasant duties, in the long run? Maybe buddhas — but in the meantime we had better provide ourselves with a calendar of duties that we mostly find pleasant. A life so virtuous that we can’t stand to live it is not a life we’ll keep up for long :-)

#10 · lotus_in_the_hills

31 March 2008

Interesting article! I often think the same thing when, in Buddhist texts, you get lists like “In the world, these four beings/these five things/these three types/ etc.” How can things be so clear cut? Would the composer of the texts need to be omniscient to know that, in the whole world only X number of things fit category Y? (well, in the case of the Buddha, this is not a problem for Buddhists, since omniscience comes with Buddhahood). I think, for the modern Buddhist, these lists shouldn’t be a problem. An accurate, modern taxonomic description of the world really wasn’t the point. We’re working with a different set of categories here, and all those categories have to do with Buddhist practice. In Buddhist practice, we can say that all happiness really does come from wishing the wellbeing of others, in that true happiness can only come when we have eliminated our own inborn selfishness. In the context of Buddhist practice, that’s a no-brainer. Outside of that context, things get messy. We can overstep that boundary and try to push things further, apply these terms to different contexts, but we have to be careful and aware of what we’re doing.

There was a recent talk at Columbia University closely related to this topic, it’s worth a look for anyone interested:



#11 · Niels Klein

27 May 2009

While thinking of things that they wished exclusively for themselves, members of Team A where creating a mindset concerned with things they did not have, and considered they should have in order to obtain happiness. That kind of thinking is pregnant with dissatisfaction in the first place, because it is based on thinking about what lacks now, keeping you from being happy. It is concerned with your basic dissatisfaction and unhappiness, therefor reenforcing this kind of thinking. Things are not there now (for a reason), and many things one just cannot get. This is the reallity of life, this is (part of) suffering.
Team B members, thinking about what they wished exclusively for others, where thinking about making others happy. There is a very different kind of pain (empathic ‘pain’) in thinking about what is missing in another persons life, keeping them from being happy. This kind of pain is a sweet pain, recognising the needs of another person. When you contemplate on how to give these missing elements to others, you are thinking about something that even if it is not possible, it still is a possitive thing to do, to consider other peoples happiness. It is unstained, purely positive action.

Comments are turned off for this article.