The first biography of Siddhartha, the future Buddha, reveals that for a long time he was entirely unaware of the wretchedness of the human condition. A royal son, he spent his youth in pleasure and luxury, surrounded by music and worldly delights. He was already married by the time the gods decided to enlighten him. One day he saw a decrepit old man; then the suffering of a very sick man; then a corpse. It was only then that the existence of old age, suffering, and death—all the painful aspects of life to which he had been oblivious—was brought home to him. Upon seeing them he decided to withdraw from the world to become a monk and seek the path to Nirvana.
We may suppose, then, that he was happy as long as the grim realities of life were unknown to him; and that at the end of his life, after a long and arduous journey, he attained the genuine happiness that lies beyond the earthly condition.
Can Nirvana be described as a state of happiness? Those who, like the present author, cannot read the early Buddhist scriptures in the original, cannot be certain; the word “happiness” does not occur in the translations. It is also hard to be sure whether the meaning of words like “consciousness” or “self” corresponds to their meaning in modern languages. We are told that Nirvana entails the abandonment of the self. This might be taken to suggest that there can be, as the Polish philosopher Henryk Elzenberg claims, happiness without a subject—just happiness, unrelated to anyone’s being happy. Which seems absurd. But our language is never adequate to describe absolute realities.
Some theologians have argued that we can speak of God only by negation: by saying what He is not. Similarly, perhaps we cannot know what Nirvana is and can only say what it is not. Yet it is hard to be satisfied with mere negation; we would like to say something more. And assuming that we are allowed to say something about what it is to be in the state of Nirvana, the hardest question is this: Is a person in this state aware of the world around him? If not—if he is completely detached from life on earth—what kind of reality is he a part of? And if he is aware of the world of our experience, he must also be aware of evil, and of suffering. But is it possible to be aware of evil and suffering and still be perfectly happy?
The same question arises with regard to the happy residents of the Christian heaven. Do they live in total isolation from our world? If not—if they are aware of the wretchedness of earthly existence, of the dreadful things that happen in the world, its diabolical sides, its evil and pain and suffering—how can they be happy in any recognizable sense of the word?
(I should make it clear that I am not using the word “happy” here in the sense in which it might mean no more than “content” or “satisfied,” as in “Are you happy with this seat in the airplane?” or “I am quite happy with this sandwich.” The word for happiness has a broad range of meaning in English; in other European languages its meaning is more restricted, hence the German saying “I am happy, aber glücklich bin ich nicht.”)