Some people who are intrigued by Buddhism ask me tons of questions on the practices, the rituals, prayers, deities, background and so on. They always want to know what the goal of Buddhism is, what’s its essence – what do Buddhists strive to achieve?
I always give the same answer: Happiness*.
can be happy – you don’t have
to be a Buddhist to be happy!” And of course, anyone can be happy. But just as I think I’m “fit”, there’s a world of difference between my “fit” and the fitness of an Olympic athlete. Similarly, anyone can be happy, but chances are it’s nowhere near the extent of the ultimate, lasting happiness that comes with the result of spiritual practice. We all know people who are ecstatic one day, then depressed the next. That kind of happiness is quite useless.
“Well, you’ll probably need to practice secret tantric stuff and get all these secret teachings and become a monk or something to be really happy, surely?” No doubt these things help. It’d be silly to suggest that to live as a monk in, say, Ganden monastery isn’t more conducive to spiritual practice than living in some packed modern-day city. And secret tantras and teachings and so on possibly speed up the process of spiritual liberation (I say possibly, because I can’t be sure based on my lack of experience).
However, everyone I know (those I don’t need an internet connection to reach) most likely won’t find their way into a monastery anytime soon, and so it’s useless even to talk about ordained vows and secret teachings – not least of all because I have zero experience of these things.
Many people who are unaware of spiritual practices usually think that in order to achieve any real level of spiritual liberation, you must first learn how to defy gravity and levitate. To anyone who asks me “What’s the purpose of being a Buddhist?” I usually reply something along the lines of: “To find happiness. If you think about it, your mind’s all over the place, your emotions unstable and, if you’re honest, you probably think more about yourself than others and yet still you still feel quite unhappy. Well, Buddhism sort of reverses all of that and you can learn to become calm and peaceful and find that happiness sticks around longer when you shift the focus from yourself onto others more frequently.” “But surely other people’s happiness isn’t MORE important than mine?” “No…but their happiness is just as important as yours.”
In my year and a bit of studying Buddhism, I tend to find that in any religion, a lot of those who are so fixated on reaching Heaven or Nirvana and making sure they know more scripture and rituals and have greater overall knowledge of their religion are actually less helpful to others and unhappier within themselves than those with a lesser knowledge. Among my Christian friends particularly, this is definitely down to a “look at me being all holy and wonderful” attitude: some people are more interested in looking
spiritual than actually being
spiritual. Sometimes it’s convincing, though I’m not quite sure of the purpose – if anything, it’s self-defeating.
In my opinion, happiness, contentment and joy are the “point” of any traditional religion. If we really think about where true happiness comes from, I think we can then see why happiness is the true aspiration. People say Heaven or Nirvana is what we should be aiming for, but as the late Ven. Ajahn Chah said: “If you desire Nirvana, you will never reach it.”
*Sometimes I'm a wee bit cheeky when people ask me what I think the purpose of religion is by replying: "Tax avoidance."