One of my fondest memories of His Holiness the Dalai Lama comes from an event I witnessed while attending a week-long series of teachings he gave in Arizona in 1993. At the time of His Holiness’s departure from the resort hotel taken over for the teachings, it seemed as if the entire staff—hundreds of people—lined up to say good-bye to him. The lobby was filled with maids and chefs and gardeners and security personnel—people of many different races, ethnic backgrounds, ages and religious affiliations. Most of them would probably never call themselves Buddhists or consider the Dalai Lama a personal teacher, but each seemed to find a kind of happiness simply in being with him. He walked down the line, greeting each person, smiling, looking in their eyes, thanking them for their service. The effect of his whole-hearted presence was remarkable. Many people wept, many looked at him completely enraptured. Without exception, he seemed fully present with each person as he met them.
In the new book The Art of Happiness, we too are given access to the Dalai Lama: his depth of knowledge, clarity of teaching, and pure human compassion. The majority of this book comes from public talks given during these teachings in Arizona, and through interviews with Howard Cutler, a doctor of psychiatry and neurology who has studied Tibetan medicine. In fact, the organization, commentary, scope and purpose of the book is Dr. Cutler’s.
My first reflection on reading this book was one of tremendous gratitude not only for the Dalai Lama but for his dedicated interpreters, people like Dr. Thubten Jinpa, whose transparency in translating makes it seem that one is hearing from and speaking directly to His Holiness himself. This impression is somewhat illusory, of course, because one’s own mind is always mediating the transmission, bringing to it all one’s habits and uncertainties, one’s hopes and fears and dreams. Here we get to see Dr. Cutler’s mind as something of an intermediary.
The purpose of The Art of Happiness is not to introduce the reader to the world of Tibetan Buddhism, though some of that happens. Rather it is, as the title suggests, an exploration into what makes us happy—really happy, not just temporarily satisfied with passing phenomena. Cutler’s approach to the Dalai Lama’s teachings is fueled by his conviction from meeting His Holiness a decade earlier that “the Dalai Lama had learned how to live with a sense of fulfillment and a degree of serenity that I had never seen in other people. I was determined to identify the principles that enabled him to achieve this.”
It is this noble determination that holds the book together. But it also sometimes leads Cutler on a quest for simple answers. The Dalai Lama is consistent in reminding him that human beings are incredibly complex, and that the conditions that cause someone to behave in a particular manner are not all identifiable—that there is far more to unraveling and healing the destructive aspects of human nature than simple cognitive or behavioral changes.
Cutler’s Western perspective is, in the end, what distinguishes the book. He takes the points that His Holiness makes and shows how his own experience, the experience of his clients, and modern science and research back them up. Cutler, too, learns from the material, tests the teachings, shares his process, and never fails to call himself on his own shortcomings.
Does this book succeed in laying out the steps to learning the “Art of Happiness”? Yes, in some regards. It is filled with good material and should not be a difficult read for those unfamiliar with Buddhist ground. But what The Art of Happiness definitely achieves is to transmit the joy, ease, complexity, simplicity, love, compassion and intelligence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whose presence is one of the great blessings of our time.