“There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.”

A Buddhist friend in Mexico, Rafael, passed this one on to me. It certainly rang false.

This precise formulation seems to be from a 1992 book by Paul Ferrini called “The Wisdom of the Self,” where he attributes the following to his friend, Robert Ferre: “There is no path to happiness. Happiness itself is the path.” I haven’t yet found anywhere that Ferre wrote this. It’s been in many books since then, often without attribution or attributed to the Buddha, although this one is certainly a genuine Fake Buddha Quote.

As Guido points out in the comments, below, however, another version of this saying — “There is no way to happiness; Happiness is the way” is found in the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Is Thich Nhat Hanh, then, the author of this phrase? No. As he says on page 42 of “Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life,” he’s quoting A. J. Muste.

The same saying is found in Wayne Dyer’s 1978 book, Pulling Your Own Strings (pages 207 and 212). The American Dictionary of Quotations ascribes “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way” to a piece by Muste in the New York Times dated 16 November, 1967, although he definitely used the phrase well before that time.

Clearly it’s an old saying. It’s found in a 1948 volume of the hearings of the US Senate, (Hearings, Volume 2). It’s found there as the title of a Holy Week message from the executive committee of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Unfortunately this particular book is only available in “snippet view” on Google books (why!) and I can’t see much of the context. But the Friends’ intelligencer: Volume 107, from 1950, is helpful here. The “peace” quote is found there on page 328, and although this book too is in snippet view, what’s visible connects

I think it’s safe to assume that the phrase belongs to A. J. Muste, (the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations describes it as his “credo”).

Thich Nhat Hanh has taken Muste’s words and riffed on them. He ends a talk in The Art of Mindful Living (Sounds True, 1992) with:

There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way. There is no way to peace, peace is the way. There is no way to enlightenment, enlightenment is the way.

The self-help guru Wayne Dyer also uses “There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.” It’s found, for example, in his 1978 book, “Pulling Your Own Strings,” although he doesn’t credit Muste or anyone else with the quote — self-help meets helping yourself?

And by special request (from David St Michael), here’s a brief perspective on the Buddhist path and happiness.

Most people know that the Buddha’s teaching addresses the problem of dukkha, or suffering. Actually dukkha’s a broad term, and covers a wide range of unpleasant experiences from outright pain to mild dissatisfaction. So dukkha crops up in, for example, the four noble truths which state that:

  1. There is suffering, which is to be comprehended
  2. There is a cause of suffering, craving, which is to be abandoned
  3. There is an end to suffering, Nirvana, which is to be directly experienced
  4. There is a way leading to the end of suffering, the eight-fold path, which is to be practiced.

Now you might think that since suffering is what we’re trying to get away from, the goal we’re heading toward must be happiness. But in Buddhism that’s not the case. Happiness (sukha) is not the goal. The goal of Buddhism is something more like “peace” (santi), which is something more profound and worthy than happiness. The Buddha recognized that a certain kind of suffering (dukkha-dukkhata) is unavoidable, and that what we really need is to develop the quality of equanimity, which allows us to experience suffering and happiness without lamentation or elation.

Happiness is important on the path, though. Many formulations of the path include sukha (happiness, or bliss). For example in the 12-fold series of transcendental dependent origination, we move through the following experiences:

Suffering (dukkha)
Faith (saddha)
Gladness (pāmojja)
Rapture (pīti)
Tranquillity (passaddhi)
Happiness (sukha)
Concentration (samadhi)
Knowledge and vision (yathābhūta-nāṇadassānaṃ)
Revulsion (nibbidā)
Dispassion (virāgo)
Liberation (vimutti)
Knowledge of destruction [of the asavas] (khaye-nāṇaṃ)

I won’t go through all of these, but you can see that happiness, sukha, sits right at the middle of this list. It’s clearly not the goal, although it is vitally important that we learn how to be happy.

In other formulations, such as the bojjhangas (awakening factors), sukha is not mentioned explicitly, but it’s implied because pīti, one of the jhāna (meditative) factors is listed. Again, these kinds of experiences, positive as they are, aren’t the goal. In the bojjhanga series we have (sequentially) Mindfulness, Investigation, Energy, Joy or rapture (pīti), Tranquility (passaddhi), Concentration (samādhi), and Equanimity. Equanimity can be taken here as the peace of deep insight, where we no longer become elated by happiness nor despondent about pain, but simply recognize both of these experiences as being impermanent phenomena that come and go.

20 thoughts on ““There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.””

  1. Anyone can be a/the buddha. Just because the words weren’t spoken by sidartha doesn’t mean it’s not a buddha qoute, buddha is not a person after all- it’s a title.

    An ordinary man who find wisdom is a sage. A sage who finds understanding is an ordinary man. A buddha is not a buddha.

    1. Your comment makes as much sense as saying that anybody born in the US can become president, so anything anyone in the US says can be ascribed to the president.

      “Buddha” is indeed a title. The only historical individual given that title is Gautama, and if a quote is attributed to “the Buddha” it means it’s being claimed that it’s something that particular historical individual said.

      You chose the name “Buddha” as your username. I changed it on the grounds that it is considered highly disrespectful in Buddhism to make false spiritual claims, which claiming the title “Buddha” arguably does.

  2. If it makes you think, if it touches your soul, and if it allows you to grow, does who said something really matter? Does Buddha care about attribution? I think not.

    1. To rephrase your question, “Does passing on inaccurate information matter? Does misrepresenting what someone said matter? Does not crediting an author with their creation and attributing it to somebody else matter?”

      Did the Buddha care about attribution? It seems so, as evidenced by this, this, this, this, this, and this.

  3. We played the telephone game when I was attending some Christian fellowship and they wanted to show that with the game, by the end of it that is, the message gets distorted. They claim that it’s not the same with the bible, that it is the most accurate text alive. I don’t believe so.

    Could a similar situation happen to Buddhist scripture too? That even what you believe to be “real Buddha quotes” be just as distorted (or “fake”) as the ones you’re quoting to be fake? Haha. Just food for thought 😉

    1. We absolutely cannot be certain that any given words in the Buddhist scriptures are exactly as the Buddha spoke them. And the very repetitive and stilted nature of the early scriptures arose from the tradition of oral transmission, and presumably doesn’t reflect the way the Buddha spoke. But we know that the oral tradition was very accurate at passing on information, because when the scriptures began to be written down (several hundred years after the Buddha) they were written down in many different places in a variety of languages. When we compare those different versions we find they’re very similar. The different groups of discourses were organized very differently in the various recensions of the scriptures, but any differences in the content tend to be very minor.

    1. Thanks for responding.

      I’ve only read part of your blog post, because I’m in the middle of moving my office and dealing with some other stuff at work, but I’m afraid that what I read seemed to miss the point. For example, your commentary on “Does passing on inaccurate information matter?” was entirely about the fact that the earliest Buddhist scriptures were written down centuries after the Buddha’s death. That’s entirely accurate. And the (correct) implication of this is that we can’t be entirely sure of what the Buddha said. That isn’t in question — but it isn’t the point either. The scriptures are the only record we have of what the Buddha might have said. If we come across some statement ascribed to the Buddha, such as “there is no path of happiness, happiness is the path,” that only appeared in the 20th century and that isn’t to be found in any Buddhist scripture, then the inaccurate information is the claim that the Buddha said those words, because there is no basis for making such a claim.

      You also wrote: “As you mention people who think that Buddha wouldn’t care about being misquoted. You ask ‘How they know this, of course, is a mystery. Perhaps they have psychic powers that allow them to communicate with the dead. They certainly don’t seem to get their knowledge from the Buddhist scriptures.’ Is this not exactly what you are doing by using scriptures to prove your own point? Are you not communing with the dead through simple pieces of birch-bark manuscripts?”

      Yes, every time we read the words of a dead author we are communing with the dead, but I suspect you know very well that I’m aware of that and that’s not what I was talking about in my rather sarcastic quip. When we read the Buddhist scriptures we are, in a sense, communicating with the dead (certainly the dead monks who passed on those scriptures. But when we put our own opinions in the mouth of the Buddha, without knowing what opinions the Buddha is likely to have held, we are not communing with anything but ourselves, which is why the opinions being foisted upon the Buddha are diametrically opposed to those he (in all likelihood) actually held.

      Anyway I wish I had time to write more fully, but as I explained I have a lot on right now.

  4. But I am sure if the Buddha saw this feed it would not irk him, as I am sure he has formed no attachments to the words he has spoken, the attachments are yours.

    Kindest Wishes Clem

  5. Thank you for your efforts to sort through the quagmire that language creates. However, since we use language to understand ‘things’, the nuances of words can make a significant difference in those understandings. As we know words are only like fingers pointing at the moon, not the moon itself… the words chosen can either point us in the best direction or send us off where there is no moon- creating a lot of confusion. Happiness is one such word. Since culturally it is tied so often to sense pleasure or ego success, this understanding would be contrary to what the Buddha would encourage as an ultimate goal of the Path. Words and context matter. Some thoughtful explanation is not only useful but necessary.

    1. I welcome your comments. Confusion is an integral part of the human condition. Words have meanings, and yet they mean different things to different people. Our society practices intolerant tolerance, an equality of favoritism, an emotional rationality, which is a contradiction in terms, and a justice of tyranny and ideology. If you think there is truth in words, unfortunately, you are sadly mistaken. I claim no expertise in the study of Buddhism. I understand that they wish to reject the concept of happiness, that it is something to be ignored to achieve some higher level of consciousness and enlightenment. As much as I respect their belief in such a concept, and their right to follow such a ‘path’, my position is one that concludes it is a mistaken posit. From my point of view, it is simply the precursor to the contemporary liberal philosophy that selflessness is superior to individualism. Happiness is a positive reinforcement to the act of doing the right thing and incentivizes the individual to continue to do the right. It is obviously true that some individuals will lose themselves in an abuse of happiness through hedonism or manipulation, but I do not accept the denial and abdication of positive action because of the inadequate actions of a few, or even the many. Most of our laws enacted today reflect this perverted outlook on life. 1% of the people do something stupid? Pass a law so NO ONE will ever do it again. Insanity. Refusing to accept happiness is a personal choice, and I will fight for your right to pursue your belief. My path takes me in a different direction. I am open to debate and I offer you the opportunity to convince me otherwise. But realize that I will attempt to do the same. I don’t believe the Buddha would judge another for a belief different than his own. He would encourage me to follow my own path and discover my own destiny. I did not think that he was one to condemn those whose journey to the top of the mountain takes a pathway different from his own. I believe he would be ‘content’ if not ‘happy’, that they were trying to get there at all. And he would continue in the direction of his choice, while I do the same. In the end, I cannot follow the path of Buddha, because it is his alone. I will follow my own path to the top of that mountain. But I will be looking for ‘happiness’ and will embrace it wherever and whenever I find it.

      1. Hi, John.

        I’ll leave aside the libertarian stuff for now (at least I assume that’s where you’re coming from) and just comment on your take on Buddhism. You wrote:

        I claim no expertise in the study of Buddhism. I understand that they wish to reject the concept of happiness, that it is something to be ignored to achieve some higher level of consciousness and enlightenment. As much as I respect their belief in such a concept, and their right to follow such a ‘path’, my position is one that concludes it is a mistaken posit.

        Your summary doesn’t really bear much relation to what the Buddha taught, or what Buddhists practice. Here’s just one verse that gives a better perspective: “If by renouncing a lesser happiness one may realize a greater happiness, let the wise man renounce the lesser, having regard for the greater.” (Dhammapada, 209)

        The Buddha was concerned with the problem of suffering, and how we can suffer less. The aim was to live a life that minimizes dukkha (suffering/dissatisfaction) and maximizes “sukha” (peace/happiness/well-being). That’s probably what most of us want, so there’s nothing remarkable about that. But in the light of the Dhammapada verse above, the issue becomes one of recognizing that some of the ways we attempt to find sukha don’t work very well, or are counter-productive. He pointed to cognitive distortions (vipallasas) we have that lead us to see things that cause suffering as being sources of happiness, and things that lead to happiness as sources of pain.

        A practical example would be that most people see materialism as a source of happiness, but as I’m sure you’re aware that’s not a very effective way of becoming happier. On the other hand the prospect of going on a meditation retreat, with no TV, lots of silence, and shared rooms, would fill most people with dread, and yet most people who do this find themselves happier than they’ve been in years.

        Several major formulations of the path to awakening include pleasure and happiness as components. They’re important components of the experience of absorption in meditation, and powerful motivating factors, since pleasure and happiness in meditation are far more intense than in other activities (mainly because we’re single-mindedly attending to them while in a state of flow). I meditate because it makes me happier, not as a way of “rejecting happiness.”

        Awakening itself is often described as the highest form of sukha, although sometimes it’s also said that it involves the cessation of sukha. Really this apparent contradiction comes down to the difficulty of adequately describing experience in language that’s non-technical. Awakening is a state of deep peace in which overt feelings of joy have died away (thus it’s beyond joy), but that doesn’t mean it’s a state of blankness. It’s actually deeply satisfying (more satisfying than joy), and so it’s still sukha, but in a different sense.

        I hope this helps.

  6. The contrast between the two sentences resounds with an affectatious ring, like a young girl convincing herself of her own wit. Hmmm. I admit to being inspired by this many years ago in this image: http://www.ireneeng.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/DSCN9965.JPG

    But there you’ll notice Buddha referred to with the definite article. It’s plainly inauthentic as Shakyamuni Buddha taught the arya-marga to countless followers. A Mahayanist would have more time for the one above.

    What of its truth value? The first sentence is simply false. Heck, Buddhaghosa evens admits in the Vishuddhimagga “there is a path, but no one to walk it.” But any who chant the Heart Sutra will hear “no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no nonattainment”, so for them there is no happiness either…but, er…also no lack of it.

    As for the second, it makes no sense: happiness is the path…but to where? Haryanka Magadhan’s were far too pragmatic for this sort of thing. Must be a Zen thing.
    Adapting the grammar, we could arrive at “take the result as the path”, which could work if you understood the ground-path-result triad and a firm footing in Tathagatagarbha. Nitpicking over the meaning of “happiness” is not a path. Is it Abhidharma or Uttaratantra that declares “sukha” a laksana of nirvana? One’s things sure, there is no more desirable state to be in than nirvana. No points for why they call him the “Sugata”.

  7. When you see memes like this, or these words carved in stone and sold for profit, and this quote is claimed to be from THE Buddha, not A Buddha, it is easy to assume that this must be the distillation of Buddhist teachings, in a nutshell. One might assume that if you are suffering & present enough to admit that and contemplate that you must stop immediately and just be happy. Acknowledgment of suffering is then bypassed, repressed, denied, and if you cannot make it disappear then you are a failure & will never be ‘happy’. Considering the modern positive psychology movement and the intolerance of talking about anything “negative” it is difficult to find a space that allows any attention at all toward the fact that there is suffering. Buddha’s answer to suffering is not simply “Just be happy.” Buddha ‘says’ you are right, there is suffering. This is very liberating. The usual answer is “No, there’s not. Just your perception. I don’t see any suffering, stick your head down here in the sand and look.” Being in the suffering is not the end point, nor is being in the happiness. That’s why this quote can only be fake-Buddha and that is why attribution matters and I certainly hope that Buddha would be irked at this because it is a simplistic view that negates his teachings when it is placed on a meme & circulated via internet. Memes are Not Truth people. Check your sources. Get more of the story. This blog is a source & it also cites its sources. No thank you to: “Buddha wouldn’t care what was attributed to him.”

    1. Thanks, Andrea.

      I wonder if you meant to say “positive thinking” when you wrote “positive psychology.” Positive psychology absolutely does recognize the importance of suffering and even sees learning to deal with it as an important part of human growth. On UPenn’s Positive Psychology Center website, for example, it says “Suffering and well being, however, are both part of the human condition, and psychologists should be concerned with both.” And Fowers, Richardson, and Slife say in “Frailty, Suffering, and Vice” that “Seen rightly, suffering is part and parcel of living; essential to humanity, possibly reorienting and possibly even redemptive.”

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