Where Tibetan Buddhism meets self-help
Aspen Times Weekly
“The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living” is neither the Dalai Lama’s most recent book nor the most recent book about him. But it is a book I’ve meant to read ever since it spent two years on The New York Times bestseller list.
So, feeling a bit of the “Dalai Lama fever” triggered by His Holiness’ anticipated Aspen appearance on July 24, I finally picked up the quasi-spiritual, quasi-self-help book. After all, if one of the world’s most famous spiritual leaders ” and one best known for smiling all the time ” writes a book about how to be happy, why not read it?
Of course, the book is not so much by the Dalai Lama as it is a series of conversations between him and psychiatrist Howard Cutler, as reported ” and elaborated on ” by Cutler. The goal of the book appears to be the merging of Western medicine with Eastern teachings to provide readers with a handbook on happiness.
The result is a book in which the Dalai Lama’s teachings are interspersed with sections that begin with some version of the following: “The Dalai Lama’s teachings on X are backed by several recent studies.” Imagine a church where the minister first gives the sermon, and then hands out research proving the Ten Commandments will keep you out of jail.
The book also touches, at times, on Cutler’s own spiritual journey. The problem with this strategy, however, is that spiritual journeys are nearly impossible to write about. This is perhaps why Biblical writers, some of the first writers to encounter this challenge, usually just conjured up a voice from above, a stroke of lightning to knock someone off a horse, and an instantaneous conversion.
Crude, perhaps, but it has saved centuries of readers from sentences like the following from Cutler: “As this realization dawned on me, I was overcome with a profound sense of interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings. I felt a softening. Something. I don’t know. It made me want to cry.”
Still, whatever the book’s flaws, the Dalai Lama’s position that happiness can be achieved by training the mind is intriguing.
And even if the Dalai Lama’s teachings are sometimes lost among Cutler’s studies and stories, they are full of simple wisdom. Consider the following, about anxiety: “If the situation or problem is such that it can be remedied, then there is no need to worry about it … Alternatively, if there is no way out, no solution, no possibility of resolution, then there is no point in being worried about it, because you can’t do anything about it anyway.”
If nothing else, I came a little closer to understanding why the Dalai Lama is so popular: He somehow manages to make enlightenment ” or at least basic happiness ” seem attainable for anyone willing to put forth a sincere effort.
Nonetheless, I’ll skip the sequel, “The Art of Happiness at Work,” on principle. I can appreciate the Dalai Lama tiptoeing into the realm of self-help, but I’m not sure I can stomach a full-fledged dive.
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