Shantideva and Measuring Happiness

Shantideva & Hapiness

I came across an article called, “Putting Shantideva to the test.”  The author relates the teaching of suffering (from Master Shantideva):

All the happiness there is in this world
Arises from wishing others to be happy,
And all the suffering there is in this world
Arises from wishing ourself to be happy.

An Experiment of Shantideva

In the article, the author had a classroom of students.  These students are divided into two groups.  Each student rates their level of happiness from a scale of 1 to 10.  The teacher asks group A to write a wishlist for items for themselves. Then the teacher asks group B to write a wishlist of items for others.  At the end of the writing exercise, the teacher polls the level of happiness of their students again.
The author admits this is not “evidence” but perhaps corollary to a proof that think of others makes us happy… yet the author finds it difficult to think all happiness is gained in thinking for others entirely.

The problem with the Shantideva Experiment

Regardless of the outcome of this experiment, it suffers from so many fundamental problems.  This is a typical Western way of approaching spirituality… it’s rather like a scientist, with ruler in hand, attempting to measure mindfulness.

Esoteric vs Exoteric

Buddhism (as most spirituality) is esoteric (discovering truth by going “within”) and science is exoteric (discovering truth by working with external stimulus.)
In Buddhist thought, one does not perceive truth unless they become enlightened.  Things we perceive are colored by our mind.  This is described by many Buddhist monks and masters as a product of our karma and the role of emptiness (or lack of self-existence.)
When we look at something with our eyes and measure with our hands, we are working in a world of formation – a product of our mind.  All things are empty of existing one way or another, but our karma (our past decisions) affects our perception and colors our world.  In other words, the world we live in, is Illusionary to some extent.
Therefore you can not simply measure responses to a writing exercise as proof – as each student, as well as the teacher, are afflicted with wrong thinking.  The teacher will see what their karma allows them to see.  The event occurred but did it occur as they interpret it with their senses?

Wish Fulfilment is Flawed

Shantideva wasn’t instructing people how to live a better life.  Those four verses quoted at the beginning are just a subset of his entire teaching.  The practice of Shantideva’s work is with meditation and perhaps action.  It is the rehabituation of the mind, that is required here.  By changing how we think about something (through mental training – aka meditation) we craft new actions (actions based on intent) and those actions, based on karmic law will return a specific response.
Writing out a wish list doesn’t really fulfill this.

More than a 1 Hour Exercise

The work required here will take more than an hour, or a day… it takes a lot of devotion, until one truly understands in Emptiness and Karma… and then their actions (mentally wanting the happiness of others) translates into actions to help others.
How does one help others in Buddhism?  Giving physical food or money is nice, but in Buddhism it’s only bandaids to a real problem.  The real problem here is the very nature of suffering.  Suffering of humanity is only resolved by being enlightened.  One can not help others truly.  But by wishing to help others we cultivate Bhodichitta. This propels the Buddhist towards further work to enlightenment.
…as an enlightened bieng, one can only then truly help others (according to Buddhist theory.)

The Theory Behind it All

Behind the work, there is a theory rooted in karma.  Karma is a reflection of our intent and action.  If we want to help someone and our help fails – our intent returns to us as others intending to help us out.  If our intent is selfishness and we give against our will, then no merit is gained – as the response of this is others not wanting to give to us.
By giving to others, you gain.  It’s the law of karma.  By refusing to give to others, you experience want.
This plays out due to the nature of emptiness.  Your karma paints your empty world in a myriad of events.  The dollar you found on the street, the man who yelled at you on the freeway, the boss who gave you a thumbs up today – that’s all karma.
By changing one’s actions to those that would return to themselves as a benefit, one would be doing those things that would make others happy.
“But that’s selfish,” demands the naysayer.  Yes at first it could be.  It could be out of self interest you help others… you still have gain.  In time this looses its self-interested nature and you give, without concern of oneself.

How to Do a Proper Shantideva Experiment

One can do this experiment, but it is going to be solitary and not with students. It is not measured by external consults such as (from 1 to 10, what is your scale of happiness?)  It is measured internally.  Only you can tell if it works for you.

  • Study Karma (understand the concept of what karma means)
  • Study Emptiness/Mu (understand the lack of self-existence, and how that works with karma)
  • Meditation – find a Buddhist meditation practice and work with it – preferably one that deals directly with Shantideva’s work – such as the “Exchanging self with others” meditation practice (that can be found freely online.)


Understanding how karma works, and what the lack of self-exitence (emptiness) means is a start.  It will be a baby step to get the rest of it.  At this stage you probably have not “experienced” emptiness, but you understand it conceptually.
With these concepts in hand, begin to give to others – understanding the interplay of what giving means.  If you give to others, do you feel better or worse?  If you spend time in meditation (such as Lojong) and mentally give/wish great things to others, do you feel better or worse?
By giving your time and/or money/possessions to others, what is going on?  Consider it.  What is attachment, and how does this help you feel better?


Start by doing daily work (the work process being done each day.)  This can be a morning and evening Buddhist meditation (exchanging self with others, lojong, mother recognition, etc.)  Each day mentally wish others your merit.  If someone approaches you for money or help – offer it, with the knowledge of Karma and Emptiness.

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