Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Art of Happiness

I mentioned a while ago that I was having difficulty with the advance copy of this book, The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World which purports to be "written by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, MD." I say "purports to be" because it's not, and that's the difficulty I have. It's really a book written by Howard C. Cutler MD, based on his interviews with the Dalai Lama. It's the third in "The Art of Happiness" series. I reviewed the first for the Los Angeles Times about ten years ago, and I had the same discomfort with that book as I have with this.

The preponderant bulk of the book is written by Dr. Cutler. True, he includes ample quotations from the Dalai Lama, but His Holiness's actual words occupy, at a guess, no more than a tenth of the book. Otherwise, it's Dr. Cutler's gloss on the Dalai Lama's words, or Dr. Cutler's leading questions, which can go on for literally pages. At times, it's Dr. Cutler putting words in the Dalai Lama's mouth. All of which is intensely distracting, for this reader, from an otherwise useful and interesting book.

Does it matter? Is this just a quibble on the part of a cantankerous writer who has enough difficulty getting his own words into print?

I think not. Because there's a troubling dishonesty here which can only be explained by either the contingencies of marketing or the ego of the primary writer. The latter can be intrusive, at times self-congratulatory, at times self-effacing to the point of obsequiousness. As for the marketing, "The Art of Happiness" has by now become a best-selling brand whose huge success must surely be attributed to the fact that people believe they are reading a book "by the Dalai Lama", whose world-wide popularity knows no bounds. There's a cachet value to His Holiness's name and the publisher is trading on it shamelessly. My feeling is that this is rampant exploitation, and it bothers me deeply that His Holiness is complicit in it. Is it possible that he genuinely doesn't realize that he's being used in this way? Or does he simply believe that getting the message out is more important than this slight manipulation of the truth?

That said, "The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World" has much to recommend it, and it would have been a simple matter to have labeled it differently, and accurately, as a book by Howard C. Cutler MD based on interviews with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Because the wisdom of the Buddha and of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has much to teach a world that is beset by troubles today: war and violence, disease and hunger are the prevalent conditions in too many parts of the small planet which is increasingly overpopulated by our species. Through our human attachments to our own needs and greed, we are despoiling our environment and depleting our resources at an alarming rate, and creating the conditions for unimaginable suffering and grief. That the Dalai Lama is able to smile and nod and spread compassion, as he does, despite this monumental mess is certainly worth Dr. Cutler's efforts to understand the fundamentals of his beliefs and practices.

And it's not too complicated. The Dalai Lama believes in the fundamental goodness of his fellow human beings. He believes that all conflict and violence can be attributed not to some evil gene in the human species but rather to ignorance and misperception of reality. He believes that if we were to see things clearly, without the narrowing of vision and the distortion brought about by our delusory thinking, we would all get along because it is in our interest to do so. That if we were able to listen to each other with compassion, to truly put ourselves in place of those we oppose or hate, then such abominations as racism, religious intolerance and extremist nationalism would be seen for what they are--distortions of reality rather than truths about our human nature.

The skeptics will regard these arguments as pollyanna-ish nonsense. There is in the contemporary world an ingrained, deeply inherited belief to the contrary: that the human species is by nature violent, aggressive, competitive, protective of its territory, rejective of the "other." And yet, as Dr. Cutler points out--and this is really the thesis of his book--there is an ample and growing body of scientific research that supports the Dalai Lama's position. The multi-million year hard-wiring of the human brain is not exclusively geared, it now turns out, to the aggressive qualities long thought to have been essential to the "survival of the fittest." More recent studies of human behavior, and of the behavior of our cousins, the primates, are revealing that survival skills also required such qualities as compassion, mutual understanding and collaboration, even selflessness.

Which brings me back to the other book I mentioned in these pages a while ago, The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness, a collection of essays edited by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh and Jeremy Adam Smith. It's no coincidence, surely, that these two books should appear at a moment when we badly need to reappraise the way we share this planet, as a species, with our own and others; and when we are stand poised on the brink of the global disaster that could so easily be caused by the delusions of ignorance, mutual suspicion, fear, and greed. I trust that my difficulties with "The Art of Happiness," in particular, will not deter readers from appreciating its very real truths.


khengsiong said...

I read A Still Forest Pool many years ago. It is purportedly a biography of the late Thai monk Ajahn Chah. But now I suspect the author, Jack Kornfield, has included many of his own views in the book.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I also object to the widespread marketing of the Dalai Lama as a brand, but I believe that as you posit, he considers it far more important to get the message out to the masses. He is, of course, a being with no ego so he has no attachment to the credit the rest of us chase after endlessly.

I think Dr. Cutler should have been more honest about the authorship of his book, but the greater issue is spreading the Dharma. Tibetan Buddhism has much to teach about the art of right living and surviving our own misdeeds on this beautiful planet. It's most encouraging that science is beginning to catch up and endorse these teachings.

roger said...

IMHO, as we say on the net, we humans as a species are not "...by nature violent, aggressive, competitive, protective of its territory, rejective of the "other.""

we are however unable to control or cope with the subset of humans who are psychotically driven to power. those humans are not swayed by appeals to a better nature. do we kill them or even exile them? well no, because we're nice. we don't even prosecute them when they break our laws. so they dominate us. the use of torture is now unofficial but widely acknowledged US policy. i can be happy ignoring that. not.

They call him James Ure said...

Your review sound EXACTLY like mine. I found the same difficulties. I struggled with Cutler's leading questions, pushing the Dalai Lama in to saying what he wanted to hear.

I had to stop reading after about 200 pages. And you're right, it wasn't the fault of the DL in the least. The author even described how frustrated the DL looked. If Cutler frustrated the DL then imagine how frustrated and annoyed I got!!