The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler : The Art of Happiness

When I first read this book in 2002, having been lent it by a friend, my comments were as follows:

The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama had been well worth reading. I’m not sure if it’s a general Buddhist thing or particular to the Dalai Lama, but I was very much impressed at the fact that his ideas are based entirely on everyday experience and common sense. The starting point of his philosophy is that everyone (in fact, every sentient being) wants to be happy, and we need no purpose to life beyond that. No afterlife, God or incomprehensible ‘divine purpose’ is necessary to persuade people to be kind to each other, just the realisation that they want to be happy and that they’re no different to anyone else, and that the best way to be happy oneself is to try to make others happy. In a lot of ways his philosophy is very similar to humanism or Epicureanism; I wouldn’t mind reading some more of his books.

So far I haven’t got round to reading any more of them, but I did recently buy a copy of The Art of Happiness, and re-reading it has been a very worthwhile experience. I hadn’t yet started giving books points in 2002, but this time it got a 5 on my scale of 1 to 5, something which very few books get and which basically means that I regard it as a masterpiece, a book I will probably keep on re-reading occasionally for the rest of my life, and one which I think everyone should read. It’s simply written, very easy to read and aimed at a large audience, and is therefore perhaps slightly oversimplified, but that’s a small criticism considering what’s been achieved here. It deserves a more detailed commentary this time…

(details below)

The Dalai Lama jumps right in at the deep end by stating that “the purpose of our existence is to seek happiness” (p.5). I fully agree with this, even if I’d probably re-state it as something like “if our existence has a purpose, and if we’re capable of knowing what it is, then it can only be to seek happiness”, or even “the only thing we can ever really know is what our senses tell us, and the only thing upon which we can all agree that our senses tell us is that we don’t want pain and do want happiness”. On this reading I didn’t really find this statement well explained or justified, although I remember being quite impressed, on my first reading, at how clearly and succinctly the point had been made.

It is argued that our feelings of contentment are strongly influenced by our tendency to compare (p.11). For instance, we compare our current situation with past ones, and here Howard Cutler uses almost exactly the same examples as I’d recently seen cited in a talk by ‘happiness expert’ Dan Gilbert: friends of his who’d either got rich or got HIV, and whose level of happiness a year or two later was anything but what most people would expect it to be. In other words happiness is affected in the short term by dramatic events, but always tends to return to a base level. I would say that happiness is a state of becoming rather than of being: becoming rich makes you happy, becoming sick makes you miserable, but once you’ve got used to your new situation it no longer has much effect on your state of mind. We also compare our own situation to that of others: once certain basic necessities are met, poverty becomes relative. The general conclusion here is the same as Dan Gilbert’s: happiness depends much more on one’s state of mind than on external factors. This is something I discovered a long time ago, and which has been very much confirmed by my recent experience of leaving the big city and coming to live in a small village in the middle of nowhere. Just to give one small example, I’ve found that the main result of the inevitable reduction of cultural input, whether I’m talking about music, films or even information about news and current affairs, has been to make me appreciate whatever I have all the better. For instance I’ve listened more intently to CDs which had been sitting on the shelf for years, and got into music I’d known for a long time but never fully appreciated. The result is that my musical enjoyment is at least as great now, if not greater, than when I was living in Amsterdam with access to the Concertgebouw and several good CD shops. In other words, the question of how well you appreciate what you have (i.e. a state of mind) is more important than an external factor such as how much access to culture you have.

On pages 20-24 ‘happiness’ is compared favourably to ‘pleasure’. I don’t really see how what’s being talked about here differs from what I’d describe simply as long-term and short-term happiness. Here I found that the authors have a drastically oversimplified attitude to sex and drugs: ‘legitimate’ pleasures such as “the luxury of a hot bath on a cold rainy afternoon” and “the beauty of a sunset” are compared to “very real” (but implicitly ‘illegitimate’) ones such as “the frenetic rhapsody of a cocaine rush” and “the bliss of unrestrained sexual excess” (and that without any indication of what “excess” might mean!). Cutler talks about why it is so difficult to “Just say no!”, without any comment on whether ‘just saying no’ is actually a good or bad attitude to certain pleasures. This is an obvious reference to Nancy Reagan’s anti-drugs campaign and the U.S. ‘War on Drugs’ generally, and I’d have expected a better attitude from a couple of obviously intelligent people. On the other hand, I’d already decided that this book is “aimed at a large audience, and is therefore perhaps slightly oversimplified”…

On pages 128-129 we see one of the things I like most about the Dalai Lama: his total detachment from the various belief systems, including Buddhism. When talking about coming to terms with suffering (in this case the aspect of its ‘unfairness’), he says that the Buddhist idea of reincarnation and Karma can be helpful, whereas people in the west who believe in God can usefully think of it in other ways, and those who don’t believe in God can use a more scientific, objective approach. All these doctrines, whether religious or scientific, are regarded simply as alternative ways of looking at reality, with none of them singled out as better than the others.

On pages 130-131 he talks about the importance of something I’ve always thought absolutely essential if you want to have any chance of being happy, i.e. the ability to put things into perspective. His examples on this even include Tibet’s problems with China, which he says are not entirely the fault of the Chinese, as Tibetans also contributed to them. Here he admits, if only by implication, that the situation in Tibet before the arrival of the Chinese was far from perfect, and that the Buddhist theocratic system was responsible for this, saying that he thinks his own generation may have contributed to the problems, and previous generations definitely.

I’m often amazed at the practicality and pragmatism of the Dalai Lama’s teaching. Unsurprisingly, some of his ideas are very similar to certain Christian principles, but he always seems to come up with a simple, practical reason for acting in a certain way, based entirely on his philosophy that “the purpose of our existence is to seek happiness”. For instance, his ideas about how useful one’s enemies are and how we should regard them as something rare and precious (pp.148-150), is sort of similar to Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemy’; however, rather than just commanding, the Dalai Lama actually gives a practical explanation of why it’s a good idea. It’s interesting that Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans also says you should love your enemy, but for a very different reason: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:17-21). Whereas Jesus and the Dalai Lama are cool characters, enlightened and loving beings, Saint Paul is more of an aggressive ayatollah with a certain psychological insight. It’s a pity that Christianity seems to be based more on Saint Paul’s ideas than on those of Jesus… To give another example, the Dalai Lama’s ideas about responding with patience and tolerance rather than anger and hatred to those who harm us, and consciously refraining from retaliation (pp. 216-217), are similar to the Christian doctrine of ‘turning the other cheek’, but here again, the Dalai Lama explains his views in a simple, practical way and shows that such a response is logically the most advantageous in the long term. Rather than saying one should act in a certain way because ‘God commands it’, ‘ it would make Jesus happy’ or ‘it will be rewarded in the next life’, he just explains why it’s a good idea.

In the last chapter, ‘Basic Spiritual Values’, we hear much about the benefits of organised religion, and very little about its dangers (pp. 258-259). On the other hand, considering his position (asking whether the Dalai Lama is religious would be like asking if the Pope is a Catholic!), he takes a very humanist view of spirituality. Having said that “if we believe in any religion, that’s good”, he goes on to say “But even without a religious belief, we can still manage”. Later on he says that only a small proportion of the world’s population (about 20%, he reckons) are truly religious or ever likely to become so, and that any real solution to the world’s problems must also work for the non-religious majority. He reckons the solution lies in education, convincing people of the importance of a correct attitude (basically one of warmth, affection and compassion) towards the rest of the human race, and that religions don’t have any sort of a monopoly on this message. At one point he even states quite specifically that “it’s all right to remain without any religion” – I don’t see many priests, rabbis or imams coming out with a statement like that!

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Details:

author The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler
title The Art of Happiness
first published 1998
language English
read 19/06/2010 – 27/06/2010

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