I’ve heard it before from some people who’ve just attended their first Buddhist meeting…sometimes even from people who have been around for awhile.

“People were talking about getting stuff,” they complain, “it sounds so materialistic. I thought it would be more spiritual…”

Does being a Buddhist call for deprivation? Should one eschew worldly comfort in the pursuit of more lofty aspirations? Is it non-Buddhist to ask for a raise? Is it okay to chant (pray) for the well-paying job, the hot boy or girlfriend, the expensive car, the dream house?

Short answer: to the first three questions, no. To the last question, yes indeed. Go for it!

There’s a concept in Buddhism that “earthly desires are enlightenment”, which may seem confusing in the light of it being a spiritual practice. It’s said that before he became a Buddha, Shakyamuni employed all sorts of ascetic practices to attain enlightenment, including prolonged meditation and fasting almost to the point of death, before he realized that denying one’s earthly needs was not the way to overcome suffering. The point of Buddhism is not only to overcome suffering, but to achieve happiness in this world. Our desires are the impulsion that keeps us moving toward this goal.

It is a worthy goal, though there are those who think that the pursuit of happiness is somehow frivolous. But even if you believe that this brief existence is all there is, and that when you die you will be judged and sent to heaven or hell for the rest of eternity, does a life of misery make any sense at all? Buddhists believe that we return lifetime after lifetime, so why not make each existence the best (happiest) it can be?

What is happiness, anyway? Is it simply a matter of getting “stuff”, like the good job, the car, the dream lover, the gorgeous house, the winning lottery ticket? And does “earthly desires are enlightenment” mean that it’s okay to take whatever you want in life (even if it belongs to another) because “hey, it’s my enlightenment!”?

Um, no. True happiness can’t be had by making someone else unhappy, and desires fulfilled don’t always guarantee happiness. There are two kinds of happiness, relative and absolute. Relative happiness is the fleeting kind that you get from getting something or someone you wanted. Absolute happiness? That’s when you realize that you can be happy even when you don’t get what or whom you wanted.

Paradox? Maybe…but life itself is our “vehicle” on the Road to Happiness; the stuff and things are merely accessories. We live in the world; our desires for the things of this world are in effect the gas that runs the vehicle. We’re constantly looking for more gas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the spiritual aspect of our existence needs fuel as well. That’s why the practice of Buddhism requires that in our pursuit of happiness, we bring others with us along that road.

A road, by the way, that’s filed with karmic pitfalls. Karma is often referred to as “bad” or “good”, but it’s both. And neither. Simply put, karma is the accumulated effects of all the causes we have made in our lives. Everything we think, say, and do is a cause, and it has a simultaneous effect. (This is the law of the universe, which, like gravity, functions whether or not you believe in it.) To carry the analogy of the road trip further, sometimes those effects seem to come out of nowhere, just like that driver that suddenly changes lanes into the one you were already in. Your karma may be such that you have an open lane to switch into, or the driver of the other car sees you in time and moves back over, or there may be a collision. Similarly, you may have the capacity to make lots of money, but lack the fortune to hold onto it. You may be brilliant, yet desperately unhappy. You may be attractive enough to draw all eyes when you enter a room, but have no friends. This is all a function of karma. The good news is, you can change it! By continually moving forward, perpetually renewing ourselves, being conscious of our thoughts, words, and actions and controlling them accordingly, we can rid ourselves of nasty karmic buildup.

There are only three prayers that will never be granted: a prayer to harm someone else, for the physically impossible (say, to sprout wings in one’s sleep and fly to work in the morning), and for something that if you got it, would destroy your life. Otherwise, anything goes. If it’s cash and prizes you want, enter the contest as many times as you like. Just remember (cue Mick Jagger), ”you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.”

Everyone’s a winner…