The Four Excursions

Happiness and Suffering

Life is suffering. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism

Life is marked by impermanence. Youth, health, and vitality eventually give way to old age, sickness, and death. Moments of happiness inevitably pass, too. This means, happiness and suffering are intrinsically linked. 

According to the Second Noble Truth, the sources of suffering are hate, craving, and ignorance. 

The Third Noble Truth states that suffering can be ended by overcoming the causes of suffering.

And, finally, the Fourth Noble Truth designates the road to the end of suffering: the Noble Eightfold Path.

What do the Buddha’s insights mean to Buddhists in their everyday lives? How do they define happiness?

In this story you will find some answers to these questions by listening to interviews with a number of practising Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism.

Buddha Shakyamuni Sheltered by the Serpent-King


Suffering is probably one of the most misunderstood concepts in Buddhism. "Only pessimists would describe life as suffering", or "It’s more important to focus on the pleasant things in life". This, or something like it, is the type of criticism one often hears.

Listen to what the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Duc Tinh, who now lives the Swiss town of Zollikofen, has to say about the concept of suffering in the next slide.

Bhante Anuruddha, a monk who follows the Buddhist tradition of Sri Lanka, defines suffering as attachment.

Female Monkey with Her Young

The Problem of Craving

Holding on to and letting go of things are key notions in Buddhism.

The source of attachment is craving or desire (in Sanskrit the term used is “thirst”). We wish to hold on to things but also to other people, feelings, or even fleeting moments. This causes suffering.

Buddhism teaches us to let go and to accept impermanence and the transience of all things.


So what does happiness mean to Buddhists? Listen to what the Zen monk Thich Duc Tinh has to say on the matter.

Loten Dahortsang, a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan community, describes happiness as a balanced contentedness, which he finds in spiritual practice.

The Death of the Buddha


Loten Dahortsang describes how he is able to enjoy every single moment without trying to hold on to it.

Trying to hold on or becoming attached to something inevitably causes suffering because all things are transient and nothing can be preserved forever.

In the next slide, the psychologist and mindfulness instructor Yuka Nakamura explains what Buddhism means by impermanence or transience.

Buddha Shakyamuni and the Earth-Touching Gesture

Ultimate Happiness – Nirvana

For many Buddhists, attaining nirvana spells ultimate happiness.

Nirvana is a spiritual condition which is achieved through practising meditation. Yet even for those who are well-versed in meditation, describing nirvana in words is a challenge.

Listen to how nirvana may be expressed in the next slide.

Jens Schlieter, a scholar of Buddhism, describes nirvana in scientific terms.

Bhante Tikino, a Buddhist monk who follows the tradition of Sri Lanka, has his own way of describing nirvana.

Head of a Monk

So Happiness Means…

You’ve heard different voices speaking about the concepts of happiness and suffering. What do they have in common?

Among other things, they all mention the practice of meditation as a means to identify the causes of suffering and to overcome it. In other words, meditation is a vehicle on the path to ultimate happiness – nirvana.

What other commonalities did you notice? You can note them down on the next slide.

Two monks saw that the flag on a temple was fluttering in the wind.  

One of them said: The flag is moving.

The other replied: No, it’s the wind that’s moving.

At this the Sixth Patriarch exclaimed: Neither the wind nor the flag is moving. It is your spirit that’s moving.

Happiness and Suffering