The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by Dalai Lama XIV
I should start this off with saying I’m not religious at all. I don’t believe in the supernatural (though I do find the whole idea fun), and while I would like to read more religious text at some point to understand these stories that have helped shape society, I’ve never been particularly interested in the teachings. I have always been of the mind that we developed our morality in spite of religion and we’d all probably be better off without it.
So, with that out of the way, when a friend dropped this book off while I was in the hospital I was obviously a little skeptical, but I’ve always been interested in learning more about Buddhism and have often thought about picking up one of the Dalai Lama’s books, so I decided to give it a a go.
The Art of Happiness is actually co-written by Howard C. Cutler, an American psychiatrist, with transcripts of discussions he’s had over the years with the Dalai Lama. The focus of the book was to take Buddhist principles, examine them in the context of western psychology, and look for supporting scientific evidence.
I love that this book looks at the psychology and science behind Buddhist ways and doesn’t focus on past lives and other such ideas. They come up occasionally, and it is interesting to read about, but you don’t need to share the Buddhist beliefs to get anything from this book. From my limited knowledge of Buddhism (ie. this book), you don’t really need to share the Buddhist beliefs to get something from Buddhism either. They spend years training their minds and shaping their world outlook in a way that anyone can, nothing magic about it. They focus on the internal, learning to react positively to situations, rather than depending on external forces.
One thing that caught my attention right away was this:
The key questions is: Does Buddhism have anything to contribute to the scientific investigation of happiness?
In considering this question, it is important to understand the Buddhism is not a faith-based system in the traditional sense. In fact, when the Buddha first began to teach, he advised his disciples not to blindly accept his teachings out of faith, but rather to investigate the validity of his theories and test his methods for themselves. The reliance on empirical investigation, the uncompromising commitment to truth, and a total dedication to discovering the nature of reality are things that both Buddhism and science have in common. In fact, the Dalai Lama has demonstrated his total commitment to these principles , stating, “If science was to conclusively prove that some part of the Buddhist scriptures or basic beliefs turned out to be untrue, then the Buddhist scripture or belief would have to change.”
I was somewhat shocked to read this from a spokesperson of religion. This is really the opposite of what is seen from other religions, who are usually dragged fifty years behind modern science and morality. Just a couple of years ago, for example, we had Pope Benedict telling dying Africans that condom use would make the HIV epidemic worse, so it’s incredibly refreshing to hear someone in the Dalai Lama’s position who seems to be more interested in finding truth than increasing the power of his religion.
Maybe I was just in the right state of mind for this book (I was in the hospital after all), but I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it quite useful. I’ve actually found myself thinking back to this when I find myself angry, self-conscious, or self-pitying, and I do find it helps. They’ve written a couple of follow-up books since this was released, and I’ll be picking those up soon.