The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World

Reviewed by Candida Baker, Sydney Morning Herald, February 10, 2010

Author: His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler
Hachette, 338pp, $35

Sydney, Australia -- IT IS 17 years since Howard Cutler, a psychiatrist and author, began to interview the Dalai Lama for The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. It seems inconceivable now but that first book was rejected for five years, until a chance remark to a stranger on a subway resulted in a first small print run.

Millions of copies and a sequel, The Art of Happiness at Work, later, Cutler and the Dalai Lama decided to tackle the subject of happiness in a wider context: how do we find it amid all the suffering?

One of the major tenets of Buddhist philosophy is non-violence but deeper than that runs the belief that humans are basically gentle. It is a belief that even Cutler, with his unprecedented access to the Dalai Lama, finds hard to embrace.

But despite the Dalai Lama's distress at world events such as the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, he states in this book, as in the first: “I remain firmly convinced of the basic goodness of human beings, and at the fundamental level, our nature is gentle and not violent.”

It is the world's "us and them" mentality that causes grief in every area of life, he says. Interdependence and connection create community, which creates concern for others. By embracing "we" as a concept, rather than "I", we understand that our welfare is linked to the welfare of others.

In many ways, this is a very different book from the first two – more scientific, less meditative, perhaps. For those of us involved in a search for spiritual understanding, its concentration on politics, current affairs and modern sociology takes it out of the realm of spiritual journey and more into a primer for the mainstream. From my point of view, this makes it a slightly less enjoyable book than the previous two but there is no doubt that it is instructive and interesting.

I haven't seen the Dalai Lama in person but from reports his apparently simple wisdom can sometimes seem at a disadvantage when he is on panels with people who have lots of bells and whistles, so to speak. In the book, too, he will often answer one of Cutler's more complex questions or statements with "yes" or "no", or "that's right".

This, of course, is not to say that the Dalai Lama's thinking is simple but perhaps more that he lives in a different mind-set from most of us. When you are somehow at peace with the world, in all its vexed glory, then simplicity, I imagine, rules.
A good example of this is the Buddhist approach to that most terrifying subject of all – death – and our inevitable non-presence in the universe. Rather than denying death, the Dalai Lama suggests that most fear stems from fear of death, and therefore the thing to do is to meditate upon it – upon the transient nature of not just one's own existence but of the entire universe. The meditation, and the acceptance of one's own mortality, rather than being depressing and morbid, creates an expansive attitude that can help reduce fear.

In his lifetime, the Dalai Lama has needed an ever-increasing awareness of mortality. Only two years ago, the communist government of China passed a series of laws: the Management Measures on Reincarnation (MMR), giving the government complete control over reincarnation. The law now states that only the government can authorise a dead lama to reincarnate and all Tibetan lamas will henceforth be reborn within the People's Republic of China.

Faced with this extraordinary level of stubborn, comic stupidity, the Dalai Lama remains optimistic and even resilient, and somehow that in itself is a comfort in the troubled world he and Cutler discuss in such depth.