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Buddhist Study

Relative Happiness and Absolute Happiness

For a strong mountain climber, the steeper and more rugged the mountain, the greater the enjoyment. Photo by ZIGA PLAHUTAR / GETTY IMAGES.

All of us are searching for happiness, but the idea of what makes us happy differs from one person to the next. However, Buddhism expounds a universal happiness that is an expression of our greatest potential, which we also call Buddhahood or enlightenment.

Based on the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda taught that there are two essential types of happiness: relative and absolute.

Relative happiness speaks of a condition in which one’s material desires or immediate personal wishes are satisfied. While there is no limit to what we can hope or wish for, there is a limit to what we can have materially and how long we can hold on to it.

For example, we may get something we want at this moment, but the fulfillment we enjoy from getting it will not last. Through effort and planning, we may develop and adjust our circumstances to our liking, thinking this is happiness. But should those circumstances change or disappear, so will our happiness. Such happiness is called relative because it exists only in relation to external factors.

In contrast, absolute happiness means that living itself is happiness; being alive is a joy, no matter where we are or what our circumstances. It is a life condition in which happiness wells forth from within. It is called absolute because it is not influenced by external conditions. Attaining Buddhahood means developing absolute happiness.

Beyond the troubles of just getting by in life, we often face unexpected problems. True happiness is not dependent on whether we have problems, but how we perceive and deal with them. To cite an analogy, a person of little strength and experience who encounters a steep mountain path will view it as a daunting obstacle. But an experienced hiker can confidently ascend a steep trail even while carrying a heavy backpack, enjoying the view along the way.

Similarly, one who has established a life condition of absolute happiness can resolutely face any difficulty. Problems can even become an impetus to bring forth a powerful life force, enabling one to calmly and confidently overcome any challenge.

For a strong mountain climber, the steeper and more rugged the mountain, the greater the enjoyment. Likewise, a person who has developed the wisdom and life force to overcome hardships will find society, which is rife with problems, to be a place for the creation of value and fulfillment.

SGI President Ikeda states: “Ultimately, happiness rests on how we establish a solid sense of self or being . . . Happiness does not lie in outward appearances nor in vanity. It is a matter of what you feel inside; it is a deep resonance in our lives” (My Dear Friends in America, third edition, pp. 478–79).

In addition, the things that constitute relative happiness, such as possessions, relationships or circumstances, all disappear upon death. Absolute happiness, however, which is the life condition of a Buddha, exists on the level of life that is eternal and transcends life and death. It is a benefit that we carry with us in lifetime after lifetime.

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