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Selfishness: The Key To Long-Term Happiness

Before he discovered the middle-way, Buddha searched for happiness in a variety of ways. In his early life, he was a hedonist. As the son of a wealthy warlord, Buddha was given access to the best of everything as a child.

Women, wealth, and fine food were always at his finger tips. He excelled at sports, and he seemed destined to rule over a great kingdom once his father died. 

But while this lifestyle gave him a great deal of short-term satisfaction, it didn't lend itself to a feeling of peace or fulfillment, so he left the palace in search of something else.

Next, he practiced asceticism in his quest for spirituality.  Eventually he reached a point where he was eating only a single grain of rice a day, and he was so thin that he could poke his stomach and feel his spine.  He continued on this path until one day he passed out from the physical torment that he was experiencing.  Once again, Buddha realized that this path wasn't giving him the long-term happiness that he was looking for, so he went in search of a better way.

With this in mind, he started eating regularly again.  And once he'd regained his strength, Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree with the intention that he wouldn't move from that spot until he either realized enlightenment or died.  He stood up 6 days later as a fully awakened being.

After his awakening, Buddha spent the next 45 years living as a mendicant monk, and teaching the dharma.  But why did he do that?  Why didn't he return to the palace and live as an enlightened ruler, or remain under the Bodhi tree; enjoying his newfound peace in solitude?  Personally, I think it's because his idea of what constituted the self had changed.  As a result, he understood the importance of skillful selfishness in achieving the long-term happiness that he'd hoped for.  

Let me explain.

Early in his life, Buddha had a very limited view of what constituted the self.  Like most people, he thought that the self was limited to his ego and his physical body, and he acted accordingly.  As a hedonist, he worked to fulfill his earthly desires, and as an ascetic he worked to destroy them.  Both philosophies worked to give him short- term pleasure.  But they failed to give him long-term happiness because his focus was too limited.

However, when Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree he realized that the self is not just limited to the ego and the physical body; it includes all living things.  

This can best be understood by thinking of a tree that is planted in rich soil.  The soil feeds the tree nutrients, and helps it to remain strong.  In exchange, the tree drops leaves every winter which die and feed the soil; keeping it healthy. 

If too much attention is given to the tree, and the soil is neglected, then the tree will eventually starve and die.  Conversely, if too much focus is given to the soil, and the tree is not properly cared for, the soil won't have leaves to replenish it.  A skilled gardener cares for both.

In this example, the tree represents the self as most people understand it, and the soil represents all living things.  The larger self which Buddha discovered under the Bodhi tree is represented by both the tree and the soil together as a single unit.  And the long-term happiness of a human being is represented by the long-term health of the tree.

As a hedonist, Buddha cared for the tree (self), but he ignored the soil (other living things).  As an ascetic, he did the opposite.  But in order for long-term happiness (a healthy tree) to exist, both the tree and the soil must be cared for; this is the middle-way.

We accomplish the middle-way by practicing skillful selfishness.  Like the Buddha, we must find a mode of living that cares exclusively for the larger self.  That is, it must fulfill all of our physical/ emotional needs while still being beneficial to all living things.  Why?  Because our long-term happiness is directly tied to the happiness of everyone around us.  

When we help others, we help ourselves.  And when we hurt ourselves, we inevitably end up hurting others.  This is the truth that Buddha discovered under the Bodhi tree.  However, by practicing skillful selfishness, and only acting in ways that are beneficial to both ourselves, and the people around us, we can ensure our long-term happiness.

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Selfishness: The Key to Long-Term Happiness


  1. I always enjoy reading your posts Alex. Thanks

  2. I've ne ver been fond of the term "middle way." I like to see this as a way that we draw from all of who we are and from that, choose what parts of the infinite all we choose to walk. When we can be both ego self and the all-inclusive self we know just what the Universe has chosen itself to be.

  3. This is a place where English fails the original language. I practice a Japanese form of Buddhism where the term "middle way" is referred to as Chudo. The calligraphy for Chudo is a rectangle with a line drawn through it. The Buddhist teacher whom I follow, Nichiren, taught that the correct way of writing Chudo is to pay attention to where you draw that line, though different people will write it in different ways. What this is getting at is that the "middle way" is simply a challenge to take a non-dualistic view of things and draw the line in a place that seems most wise, in fact at times being almost extreme toward one way or the other. For instance, I would submit that the middle way between war and peace involves seeking to draw the line as close to the side of peace as possible.


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