The Art of Happiness A Handbook For Living
By His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler
Riverhead Books, 1998, 322 pages, hardcover
Reviewed by SYD BAUMEL (The Aquarian Newspaper, Spring 1999)
“Are you happy?”
Not many people would dare ask His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, such a pointed, personal question. But Howard Cutler is an American psychiatrist, and by then he had known this most open and transparent of holy men for years.
“Yes. . . .Yes . . . definitely,” was the Dalai Lama’s reflective reply. Cutler, the scrutinising clinician, didn’t doubt it one bit.
So begins our vicarious audience with a God-man who “ought” to be overwhelmed by despair, seething with misanthropy, and bent on revenge. After all, the 63-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monk named Tenzin Gyatso has spent all of his adult life living in exile from his ravaged homeland and nonviolently butting his head against a brick wall of international resistance to putting things right. Yet, in the process, he has a won the Nobel Peace Prize and charmed millions with his utterly unpretentious Buddha good-nature.
In this unique self-help book, the Dalai Lama allows a Western psychiatrist to pick his brains on the obstacles that stand in the way of the goal we all seek, including the Dalai Lama. “I believe,” His Holiness professes to a large audience in Arizona, “that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness….the very motion of our life is towards happiness.” And thus is set the agenda for Cutler’s book.
Schooled in Freudian pessimism and given to playing Devil’s advocate, Cutler doesn’t hide his doubts. “But is happiness a reasonable goal for most of us….Is it really possible?” he privately asks HH.
“Yes,” is the reply. “I believe that happiness can be achieved through training the mind.”
Training the mind? Whoa! Aren’t we talking to the sweet guru of loving-kindness here? Why is he suddenly sounding like some beady-eyed behaviourist?
The Dalai Lama, Cutler’s book reveals, is a much more logical, analytical, “left brain” kind of guy than most people would think. In the course of this 315-page attempt to separate the wheat of true happiness from the chaff of compulsive pleasure seeking, self-centred gratification, dysfunctional relationships, et al., we learn that the world’s most prominent Buddhist approaches the challenge from a rational perspective that echoes the orientation of modern cognitive therapists and their philosophical predecessors, the ancient Greek Stoics. It’s Buddha meets Epictetus meets Aaron Beck (the founder of cognitive therapy).
But the Dalai Lama would not be the Dalai Lama if he were merely a cool-headed technician of mental hygiene.
To begin with, he explains that it is the Tibetan concept of mind – Sem – to which he refers. Sem “has a much broader meaning, closer to `psyche’ or `spirit’; it includes intellect and feeling, heart and mind.”
So it’s not just “positive thinking” that’s the key, it’s positive being.
“By bringing about a certain inner discipline,” the Dalai Lama continues, “we can undergo a transformation of our attitude, our entire outlook and approach to living.”
And central to that attitude is a deepening realisation that our happiness as individuals depends on the happiness of other “sentient beings,” including our perceived enemies. This is the heart of Buddhism. Is everybody happy? Well, if not, then you can’t – mustn’t – really be completely happy yourself.
In one chapter, zeroing in on a major obstacle to happiness, Cutler asks: “I’m curious, from your standpoint, what’s the best way to overcome fear and anxiety?”
Earlier, the Dalai Lama had proposed that openness is one of the keys to happiness. And now, as elsewhere in the book, he demonstrates it. In the course of his characteristic, professorial dissertation on the varieties of worry and anxiety, he offers: “One type of anxiety, which I think may be common, could involve fear of appearing foolish in front of others or fear that others might think badly of you…”
“Have you ever experienced that kind of anxiety or nervousness?” Cutler interjects, seizing the opportunity.
“The Dalai Lama,” writes Cutler, “broke into a robust laugh, and without hesitation he responded, `Oh yes!'” His Holiness then recalls his nervousness as a youth upon first meeting China’s intimidating leaders, Chairman Mao Zedung and Chou En-lai, and winds up admitting to “a little bit of anxiety” to this day whenever he gives a lecture.
So how does the Dalai Lama deal with his anxiety, Cutler asks.
The Dalai Lama plunges into thought and then surfaces with a self-help solution that is as moral as it is therapeutic:
“[I]f I’m anxious before giving a talk, I’ll remind myself that the main reason, the aim of giving the lecture, is to be of at least some benefit to the people, not for showing off my knowledge.” (Hmm… So even the Dalai Lama has to wrestle with vanity, and he isn’t shy about admitting it.) “So those points which I know, I’ll explain. Those points which I do not understand properly – then it doesn’t matter; I just say, `For me this is difficult.’…[W]ith that motivation, I don’t have to worry about appearing foolish or care about what others think of me. So I’ve found that sincere motivation acts as an antidote to reduce fear and anxiety.”
Here and elsewhere, the Dalai Lama’s prescription for happiness seems to come down to one essential ingredient: the will to do good.