The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living is based on conversations that Howard C. Cutler, MD, a psychiatrist, had with the Dalai Lama over several years. The author’s introductory note states that the purpose of the book was to collaborate “on a project that would present the Dalai Lama’s views on leading a happier life, augmented by [Cutler’s] own observations and commentary from the perspective of a Western psychiatrist” (ix).
Cutler chose to organize the book’s content thematically. The topics include the following:
- Part I: The Purpose of Life (hint: it has to do with happiness)
- Part II: Human Warmth and Compassion
- Part III: Transforming Suffering
- Part IV: Overcoming Obstacles
- Part V: Closing Reflections on Living a Spiritual Life
Each part except for Part V is comprised of three or four chapters discussing related topics. Cutler will often introduce a topic by giving a brief overview of the Dalai Lama’s thoughts, then will delve into the psychology behind the issue before returning to H.H.’s viewpoint and suggestions for dealing with the issue. Overall I feel like Cutler succeeds in meshing the sometimes very different viewpoints of Tibetan Buddhism and Western psychiatry, and I enjoyed the stories that both of them had to offer, but there were times when Cutler just didn’t seem to get what the Dalai Lama was saying and vice versa. In those instances, I was more interested in hearing the Dalai Lama’s viewpoint and just wanted Cutler to stop harping on whatever it was already, but overall this was pretty rare; I tended to enjoy both viewpoints.
One thing that I found interesting was how the Dalai Lama talks about eliminating negative states of mind. Just as in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Dalai Lama agrees that one of the best ways to eliminate these states of mind is to think of positive ones instead. For example,
“When talking about eliminating negative states of mind, there is one point that should be born in mind. Within Buddhist practice, the cultivation of certain specific positive mental qualities such as patience, tolerance, kindness, and so on can act as specific antidotes to negative states of mind such as anger, hatred, and attachment. Applying antidotes such as love and compassion can significantly reduce the degree or influence of the mental and emotional afflictions” (239).
This passage comes in Part IV, Overcoming Obstacles, in Chapter 12, Bringing About Change. This view fits in so well, to me, with Patanjali’s words in Sutra II.33: “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of.” I was really impressed and excited that Buddhist thought on this topic meshes so nicely with the yoga sutras.
The Dalai Lama’s wisdom is practical and straightforward; you can tell that he himself practices the same techniques he recommends. The book also includes instructions for several meditation practices (like this one), written in the Dalai Lama’s own words from transcripts of his talks. These are scattered throughout the book, as this isn’t intended as a meditation manual, but it’s nice that they’re included in places that make sense thematically.
Overall, I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the Dalai Lama, one of the holiest and most revered people alive today, and to understand his perspective, his kindness, and his compassion.