The Relativity of Happiness

Dharma Talk at Makawao Hongwanji on September 12, 2021

To realize shinjin oneself and to guide others to shinjin

Is among difficult things yet even more difficult.

To awaken beings everywhere to great compassion

Is truly to respond in gratitude to the Buddha’s benevolence.

—Shinran Shōnin, Chapter on True Shinjin in the Pure Land Way, KGSS

Good morning! 

I would like to talk about the “relativity of happiness.”

What is “happiness”? 

Why do we spend our lives “pursuing happiness”?

Why am I not happy?


Arthur Schopenhauer, the great German philosopher, created this framework for understanding happiness.

Happiness is the ratio (fraction) of “what I have” in the numerator, and “what I want” in the denominator, which results in a ratio of relative happiness.

If “what I have” is GREATER THAN “what I want” I am “happy.”

If “what I have” is LESS THAN “what I want” I am “not happy.”

Absolutely brilliant!

Is your “happiness” a negative number or a positive number?

This explains the paradox of the American Dream: the more you have, the more you want = the more you acquire, the more you are not happy!



The Buddhist perspective on this insight expands “what I have” into “desires fulfilled” and “what I want” into “desires unfulfilled.”

From an advertising perspective, the formula always considers NEEDS, WANTS, DESIRES — these are all consumer mindsets that we appeal to.

NEEDS — basic needs for air, water, food, clothes, shelter, etc.

WANTS — bigger house, faster car, more money

DESIRES — more, more, more!

Advertising aims to fan the “flames of insatiable desire” — which is exactly what Shakamuni Buddha identified as the cause of all suffering, discontent, and unhappiness in human life. 

We are driven by self-centered desires that can NEVER be satiated!

Thus, we live in a world where happiness is measured by “what we have” — and somebody always has more!

And thus, we are doomed to be unhappy!

“Desires fulfilled.” vs. “Desires unfulfilled.”

The goal of Buddhism is “to EXTINGUISH the flames of insatiable desire (tanha)” to end suffering.


What happens when the ratio of what you have vs. what you want is ZERO?

What happens when the ratio of what you have vs. what you want is ONE?

These are the two approaches to happiness in Buddhism!


How do we make the ratio of “what I have” vs. “what I want” to ZERO?

Remember your math! 

Make the numerator “zero” and the value is Zero!


Give up everything and become a monk.

If I remember my math correctly, the denominator can never be zero!

Think about that…it is mathematically impossible to eliminate “what I want” — it is impossible to eliminate desire!

Remember “nirvana” literally means “to extinguish” … in this case, to extinguish the flames of insatiable thirst (desire) — thus, Nirvana is the state of needing, wanting, desiring nothing.

This is the Path of Sages, the Theravada approach of renunciation, monastic life, and total commitment to realizing nirvana in this life, in this body.


What happens when the numerator and denominator are exactly equal? In other words, what happens when what I have and what I want are in balance.

If you are content with what you have, and if there is nothing you desire, then you are “happy” … aren’t you?


So, why am I not happy?

Because MY EGO insists I need, want, and desire more!

In other words, MY EGO keeps making the denominator bigger — I want more! — while the numerator (what I have now) stays the same!

Mathematically, it is intuitively obvious that this will never lead to happiness!


And that begs the question, what is happiness?

Is happiness relative?

Is happiness the ratio of “what I have” vs. “what I want”?

Is happiness only relative to what I have vs. what other people have?

Is happiness defined by what I want and what other people want?

Why are we obsessed with “pursuing happiness” even if we intuit the pursuit of MY personal happiness is making me more not happy.

Or is there an “absolute” happiness?

Happiness in the realm of human existence, this world of confusion and delusion in which we live, is by definition “relative.”

Is it possible to achieve “absolute” happiness? (CHANGE SLIDE)

Shin Buddhism teaches “when you truly care about the happiness of others more than your own happiness”, the “state of regarding each being as one’s only child” (byodoshin), this is Buddha-Nature, and we will realize it when we are born in the Pure Land.

The original sanskrit term for the Pure Land is “sukkhavati” or “realm of ultimate bliss” = absolute happiness.

Because we are human, limited by our all-too-human mind and body, Amida’s Great Compassion calls out to every sentient being, offering refuge, a path to becoming Buddha through the assurance of going forth to Birth in the Pure Land, Sukkhavati, the Realm of Absolute Happiness. (CHANGE SLIDE)

When you truly hear the Calling Voice of Amida, NamoAmidaButsu!, you truly realize “Life is not about ME!”

It’s not about MY EGO.

It’s not about MY HAPPINESS.

It’s not about ME!


Then, as in today’s Children’s Dharma Story Time, you become empowered to SHARE EVERYTHING YOU HAVE.

When people share everything they have with you, you become humbled, grateful, and say, “Mahalo! thank you, thank you, thank you!”

When everyone is humble and grateful and always saying, “mahalo!”, then the community is happy.

This is the state of Shinjin, the realization of the Faith of Shinjin in your heart and mind, the state of treating every living being as your only child. 


“It’s not about ME.”


The path of Shin Buddhist begins and ends with saying NamoAmidaButsu. When we truly hear the Calling Voice of NamoAmidaButsu, a transformation begins, guiding us to the experience of gratefully receiving the Faith of Shinjin.

Just say it.


Just say mahalo.

Dharma Talk:

Mahalo for listening this morning and may your day be filled with Aloha!


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