The first thing Buddhism would say about success is that it is fleeting, like everything in this world. Impermanence was the Buddha's first great insight into the nature of reality. He also understood that as a consequence, loss and its consequent suffering are written into the fabric of human life. Whatever we attain or accomplish in life--whether it be wealth, fame, status or power--is destined to fade and pass away. None of it is worth pinning our deepest hopes on; none of it is the source of lasting happiness.
Those who possess the artifacts of worldly success cling to them and fear losing them; those who lack those artifacts yearn for them and suffer from their lack. Either way, we suffer, says the Buddha. The Buddha's whole teaching was dedicated to easing and transforming suffering. As he said many times in his sermons, "I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering."
The Buddha knew all about the trappings of success. He was born a prince and lived with wealth, power and privilege until the age of 29. It was only then--when he woke up to the fact of human suffering all around him--that he gave up that life and become a spiritual seeker. He abandoned worldly success in search of something more worthy of his dedication. In time he founded a monastic order of world-renouncing monks and nuns who lived a rule-based life of simplicity and poverty, abjuring all forms of worldly success. This monastic way of life has endured to the present day.
For those searching for an alternative to conventional American notions of worldly success based on wealth, status, and power, this monastic way of life--at least as an imagined ideal--has had its attractions. However, it would be inaccurate to say that the teachings of the Buddha are one-dimensionally anti-materialistic. In addition to his monastic order, the Buddha had a large following of laypeople, who lived ordinary lives and aspired to conventional notions of success. Down through the ages most Buddhist have been laypeople. The Buddha offered teachings to this lay community that were quite different than his instructions to monastics. Since Buddhist monks were the ones who preserved the teachings and doctrines that have come down to us today,
until recently these teachings have relegated to an obscure corner of Buddhist scripture. But they have recently come to light in such books as The Buddha's Teachings of Prosperity by Bhikku Rahula In these teachings Buddha encourages laypeople to earn wealth in ethical ways, in order to support their families. He also encourages husbands to respect their wives, parents to care for their children, and everyone to contribute to the well-being of the larger society.
Thus the deeper purpose of Buddhism is not to reject worldly aspiration per se, but to recognize that the mission of addressing human suffering can be accomplished in a variety of ways. The Dalai Lama once remarked that the monastic life is suitable for the rare few¬--actually he said "one in a million." The rest of us, he advised, should concentrate on living as "sincere human beings"--a Buddhist description of success that I find unaccountably touching.
Living life as a sincere human being is a definition of success that sidesteps the details of how you make a living, how much money or property you own, or how much power or influence you have. As a sincere human being, what matters is whether you are you someone who contributes to suffering, or who is dedicated to easing suffering. To be the latter is to follow the Bodhisattva vow. This vow directs spiritual energy away from one's own needs and toward the needs of others. When the Dalai Lama exhorts us to live our life as a sincere human being, he is asking us to follow the Bodhisattva vow. That is his Buddhist definition of success.
I add one caveat. Buddhism has lofty ideals--all religions do--but they have been imperfectly realized. When we look at the ways human suffering has been eased in the last few centuries--the rule of law, social justice and civil rights, helping the sick and the poor, democracy, civil rights, and feminism--Buddhism has not been at the forefront of any of these initiatives. Buddhism's position has been that the since human psyche is the ultimate source of suffering, the inner life should therefore be the main theatre in which that suffering is addressed.
That position has its merits--certainly if everyone on the planet looked within and aspired to be "a sincere human being" there would be considerably less conflict and woe--but Buddhism's interaction with the values and struggles of modern societies is still in its early stages. Buddhism, like all religions, comes to us with all its strengths and weaknesses. No-one--not even Buddha--has all the answers.