“I’m so happy for you” and The Arts of Happiness by the Dalai Lama

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“I’m so happy for you!”
“Thanks for sharing the good news. It made my day!”
There’s a joyful quality in these words that dissuades my cynic thought “Maybe these people are just pretending so that they appear nice”. No, I can’t believe that. After all, it takes people some effort to type these extra words, so they should mean it. The question is what is so happy about making people happy?

In recent years, books about happiness have more or less inundated the bookstores. Too many self-helps, enough to make anyone cynical. My Kindle today even offers the book “Happy this year”. A part of me resists the idea: “Well, I have enough of these advice. After all, I’m not doing so bad right?”

However, a recent email from my high school teacher made me think: “I have one last assignment for you before you leave  – I would like you to give serious thought to the aspect of principles and values. What are some principles you will hold dear and will not compromise? Issues of integrity, etc. All these must be in place before you live out your dream. So what if a man wins the whole world yet loses his soul?”.
I’m really lucky to have great mentors like this 🙂 A bit more soul-searching doesn’t harm right?

Anyway, some bit of background. I grew up reading Buddhist stories (and comics. They are really good!), going to temples and seeing my mom practicing her meditation every morning, but I never think that I’m a Buddhist even until now. I somehow believe in karma in its simple sense of “Good begets good”, but I have yet to believe that it extends to previous and after lives. I almost forgot about all this until 2 years ago when I read Siddhartha, a novel with strong Buddhist influences, for my English class.
So, I have some knowledge about Buddhism while strongly believe in sciences and proofs. Having read a few science-based books on the topic of happiness before, I wanted to see what religion has to offer. Why not start with something I’m more familiar with? That’s why I’m attracted to The Dalai Lama’s book, The Art of Happiness. I spent two recluse days of reading with some reflection.

________

Some general impression first.
The book is suffused by a message of hope. The Dalai Lama (DL for short)’s belief in human’s gentleness and compassion as fundamental qualities resonates with me a lot.
Another prominent point of this book is the method of reasoning. Throughout the books, his thoughts on living the happy life are all derived systematically from these few premises

  1. I’m a human being.
  2. I want to be happy and I don’t want to suffer.
  3. Other human beings, like myself, want to be happy and don’t want to suffer.

It sounds like Kantian universality principle: act in the way that you want everyone to act. It may be true after all that Buddhism is more of a philosophical framework rather than a religion, which fascinates me even more. Buddhism is at its core not a faith-based system, and the Buddha even told his disciples not to believe in what he taught but rather tested the validity of his method through their own experiences.

Moreover, I’m struck by the DL’s humility: he admits that he doesn’t know a lot of things and his advice may not be suitable for all. I think the Dalai Lama is the best epitome of the first thing he teaches: that every human being is the same. He’s just like anyone of us, with real human emotions and follies. With training and effort I can be like him. (For more information, it’s also the basic belief of Buddhism that every person has the Buddha Nature and thus has the potential to become Buddha, or more commonly referred as achieving Enlightenment/Liberation)

Enough of the Eastern philosophy, now it comes to the Western part of the book, as told by Howard Cutler. While some may find his role of storyteller cum theory-explainer rather annoying, I found his personal anecdotes add in a lot to the message of hope in this book. Here it is, a person who has bad times just like anyone of us but is trying to make use of the ideas he learnt in exchange with the Dalai Lama. More importantly, I identify myself very much with Cutler and his pragmatic mindset of looking for the quick fix solutions. The strange thing is that throughout the course of the book I gradually find some transformation in my approach just like Cutler does. From an attitude of “let’s get the most practical advice so that the book will be most valuable” to a genuine appreciation of the complexities of all the issues and the DL’s analysis of those. For me, the East-meet-West element is what makes the book most compelling to read. I always appreciate the scientific approach, so the evidence presented in the book convinces me even more of the DL’s teachings. Brain plasticity (the ability to alter the wiring of your neurons using your thought ), for example, backs up the DL’s conviction in systematically training the mind to be able to respond more positively to the vicissitudes of life.

On the whole, the book resonates with me so well that I’m sure I will read it again some day and discuss with  my mom, the devout Buddhist who has influenced me a lot, once she’s back from India.

Some points that I remember and want to talk more in future posts.

  • What makes me less skeptical of the usefulness of this book is the DL’s simple reasoning that I should think about the nature of suffering right now when I’m not suffering too much, because in doing so I will accustom myself once the tougher obstacles come. It’s like gradually expose to warmer water instead of jumping straight in the hot water bath. Seeing from that viewpoint makes me even more appreciative of growing up in a not so wealthy family. It lowers my standard and makes me satisfy easier. It just happens that I’m listening to a philosophy course on Death (http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/phil-176/lecture-23) and writing my own obituary for a scholarship essay, so the message’s impact is greatly intensified: thinking about death now makes me reevaluate my current life and adjust accordingly. Steve Jobs mentioned this in his famous speech too (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc)
  • The DL’s acceptance of other religions: he mentioned that his refugee status was actually very good for him because he had the exposure with other religions. It’s true: I can’t imagine the world is full of 7 billions Buddhists or Christians or any other religion for that matter. The analogy is that everyone in the restaurant can order and enjoy their own different dish. It’s really sad that religion is the source of conflict in many places. The role of religion is to give people guidance through life so that they can be happy, and the only way for everyone to be happy together is of course to live in harmony. Whatever works for you, great!
  • Enemies are rare. This is soo true for me. I could only think of one person and after some reasoning I really can’t think of him as enemy. The DL argues that we should consider our enemies as our teachers because they offer us the very discomfort to grow our seeds of patience and tolerance. Think of a child who has always been pampered and given everything when he just starts crying: I don’t want to be like that! Discomfort is indispensable for growth (that’s why we do weight training). Underlying this reasoning is the unwavering desire to work towards happiness through cultivating good values in every circumstance – very practical approach.
  • The role of pain is to signify to the body that something is wrong. I’ve heard from the Founder’s Day speech in my high school last year that many lepers are disfigured due to their inability to experience pain (thus continue hurting themselves) more than the disease’s own destruction. Think of waking up one day with your fingers gnawed by rats.. Similar to pain, suffering signifies to us that something is not right, and we should be motivated to do something to eliminate it just like we pull our hands out of the fire because it’s hot.
  • Last and most importantly, the DL continually stresses the importance of education and knowledge to make one realize the suffering is natural, but there’s a way out if we continue working towards eliminating it. There seems to be a perception that uneducated people are likely to be more genuine and happy because with education comes wealth and power which tend to corrupt characters or drift relationships apart. I’ve heard many senior people complain about the fragility of today’s marriages, despite the couple being well-educated and successful.  In short, I won’t consider that kind of education as successful, because it doesn’t make one happier in both short and long terms. This is my response to a friend who questions if knowledge makes people more cynical about life. (“Learning for what?” Well, to live better.)

What has changed after reading this book? I will simply continue to spend some time to reflect and see if what I’m doing will make me happier. Ah, and of course I realized that the Dalai Lama is far from the bald, ascetic-looking monk in his weird robe. You can read and see the answer for yourself.

P/s: I changed the first line of my About page after reading this book.

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