In a groundbreaking collaboration with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Howard Cutler, M.D., a Phoenix-based psychiatrist, coauthored The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. Beginning with a small first printing in 1998, the book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years, selling over 1.5 million copies in the U.S. alone. It has become known worldwide as a classic on human happiness. A tenth-anniversary edition of The Art of Happiness will be released in the fall of 2009, with a new introduction by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler. Around that time, the third volume in the Art of Happiness series, The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, will also be published. Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker interviewed Howard Cutler in December 2008.
Inquiring Mind: The Dalai Lama is renowned for his transformative presence as a kind of “heavenly messenger,” turning the world toward dialogue and harmony. You have had many hours of conversation with him over the years, interviewing him for your joint books and attending his talks. Could you tell us some stories and share some insights into the power of his presence as a peacemaker?
Howard Cutler: I can tell you some stories, but I’d like to clarify that His Holiness definitely doesn’t identify himself as some great presence in the world. In fact, he doesn’t like it when people ask him questions about “the legacy he hopes to leave,” his “impact on the world,” or his role as a “spokesperson for peace.” He prefers to talk about his motivation—to serve other people, to help other people.
IM: But he must have a sense of his personal magnetism, and there are certainly instances when he helped facilitate dialogue in violent or conflict-ridden areas in the world.
HC: That’s true. For instance, in 2000 he was invited to Northern Ireland, but not in any kind of official capacity. His host, a Christian meditation group, had organized meetings to help promote closer understanding between the parties in conflict in Ireland. His Holiness told me that he had hoped to gather a group to go with him. He wrote letters to a number of people, including former Czech president Václav Havel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and several other Nobel laureates. Unfortunately, it turned out the others already had prior commitments, so he ended up going alone.
Once in Ireland, the Dalai Lama met with the representatives of something like ten different political parties representing three main positions. One wanted to unite with Ireland, one wanted to unite with Great Britain, one was neutral. But underneath that, all the groups just wanted peace.
He met with victims of violence from all sides. Normally these people would not have met face to face, but in this case they agreed to do so. He described to me one very moving meeting. He had been briefed by the organizers that victims from both sides would be there, and that some were ex-cons or criminals who were responsible for the atrocities. The organizers were very tense, even wondering whether there might be physical fights. When His Holiness walked in, the tension was palpable, but as he sat down and started talking everybody relaxed. There were some people who were actually in tears.
The Dalai Lama has talked about various factors that he thinks contribute to facilitating such a dialogue. For example, he points out the importance of seeing every person basically as another human being—remembering that each of us just wants happiness and that none of us wants to suffer. No matter what side one is on, no one wants problems or wants to create problems. Another important factor is personal contact. Through personal contact, our views about others based on our imagination or ideas about them can change.
IM: How do you think he can have such a positive effect on people who ordinarily would be filled with animosity toward one another?
HC: Well, there could be many reasons. For example, he has spoken about how people want to feel that they are heard, that someone is listening to their grievances. In fact, in resolving conflicts he sees a real role for a good listener, an objective third party who listens to grievances. Incidentally, there has been some scientific evidence showing the value of empathetic listening and the key role of a neutral observer in conflict resolution.
One remarkable thing about the Dalai Lama is that he is a wonderful listener. When you are talking to him, you don’t feel, as you do with a lot of politicians, that his mind is on a million other things and that he’s simply waiting for you to take a breath so he can get in his two cents’ worth. Instead, you get a deep sense that he is really listening to what you say, listening 100 percent. You feel that at that moment he is attending only to you, not thinking about who else is in the room or what he has to do later in the afternoon. So that could be one factor.
Besides this, he has spent a lifetime working on himself—training his mind, reducing negative emotions and cultivating positive emotions. For example, he has told me that when he was a kid he had a temper. He said it sort of runs in his family. But as a result of his practice, he doesn’t experience that kind of anger anymore.
Whether it is the result of his basic disposition or deliberate training, the fact is that he exudes an abundance of positive emotions and seems to be a genuinely happy person, despite the tragedies he has had to deal with, like the Tibet situation. His frequent smiles and his laughter reflect his inner state in a sincere way, and people pick up on it. He also has a great sense of humor, which puts people at ease and is certainly part of his appeal. And he is a very kind person.
All of these things have an impact on others. In fact, recently there have been a lot of studies clearly demonstrating that emotions are contagious. When we observe someone smiling, for example, changes automatically take place in our own brain that tend to evoke a similar response. Some theorize that the mechanism involves activation of recently discovered “mirror neurons” in the brain, but whatever the mechanism is, it is clear that we can “catch” happiness from others. A study just last month documented how happiness spreads in social networks like a virus, showing not only how having a happy friend increases the odds of your being happy, but that the contagious effect extends up to three degrees of separation. Having a friend of a friend of a friend who is happy, someone you have never even met, can increase your own odds of being happy by around six percent. Anyway, for whatever reason, when you are around His Holiness, it seems like you can’t help but feel good.
I have seen so many dramatic things traveling with him over the years where people that you would never think—archenemies like Democrats and Republicans—gather around the Dalai Lama almost like little children, and they relax and unwind. Some have publicly commented on this, saying that the Dalai Lama is the only one who could have gotten them in the same room together.
IM: The Dalai Lama also brought his message of compassion and dialogue in response to the 9/11 attack here in the United States. Did he ever describe to you his reaction to that event?
HC: Yes. He told me that on the morning of 9/11, his attendant, Lobsang Gawa, came into his study after his meditation period and informed him that the World Trade Center in New York had been attacked. When I asked His Holiness what his first reaction was he said, “Disbelief. I thought, This can’t be true!” But when he switched on the BBC World Service and watched the planes crash into the buildings and the buildings collapse in flames, he knew it was true. So then I asked him about the reaction he had after he got over his disbelief. He said, “I had a powerful reminder of the destructive potential of human beings. Such hatred! It is almost beyond imagination. I then prayed for all the innocent victims and their families.”
Afterward, he sent a letter of condolence to President Bush. In it he offered some prayers for the victims and that kind of thing. I forget the exact wording of the letter, but he included something like, “Excuse me if I am being presumptuous. I am sure you will do what you need to do, but I would question whether the use of violence is the appropriate response.”
IM: In America, a common response was, Who did this? And, Once we find out who did it, let’s get revenge! The Dalai Lama’s response was more nuanced.
HC: Yes. He made the point that while one might be able to identify the perpetrators, it’s not so simple as to take a black-and-white view, blaming a single person or a small group of people. He takes the wider perspective that every particular event or situation is the result of multiple causes. To really eliminate problems like this in the future, one has to dig down and investigate some of the deeper causes and conditions. He says that on one level, an individual’s motivation—for instance, hatred—plays a role, but he reminds us that the roots, or the perceived roots, of this hatred may reach deep into the past, even to previous centuries.
He feels that these individuals did not act purely for personal reasons; rather, they grew out of communities that may have long-standing resentments based on their perceptions of America or the West. Whether such perceptions were real or imagined, he describes how these resentments gradually festered and turned into forceful emotions, negative emotions, intense hatred. That’s what provided the motivation. But motivation alone—negative emotions by themselves—do not produce such events. A lot of planning must have gone into this attack. Such precise plans require the use of human intelligence. Then the attackers needed the means to accomplish such an act. In this case aircraft were used, a result of modern technology. That is why he feels that such unthinkable disasters happen due to the combination of modern technology and human intelligence, guided by negative emotions.
IM: And, of course, in keeping with Buddhist teachings, the Dalai Lama did not perceive the individuals themselves as evil.
HC: Absolutely not. When I asked him about this in relation to the attack, he was unequivocal about his unshakable belief in the basic goodness of human nature. Whereas right after 9/11, all you heard in the West was that these people were “evil.” The Taliban were evil. Al-Qaeda was evil. Osama bin Laden was evil. There was this good-versus-evil dichotomy. In fact, a study was done showing that after 9/11 the use of the word evil and the concept of good and evil dramatically increased in President Bush’s speeches.
The Dalai Lama doesn’t believe in absolute good and evil. He recognizes, of course, that there is evil behavior in the world. He explains that if a person commits a very destructive act, you can say that act is evil, and you should always oppose that act as an evil act. You must take a very strong stand. Let’s say that a person’s motivation for an act was hatred. Then you can say that the motivation and the action that it leads to are both evil because of their destructive nature. But His Holiness emphasizes that you still cannot view that individual as an evil person—intrinsically and permanently evil—because there is always the potential for that individual to act in a different way, under a new set of conditions, and to no longer engage in evil behavior.
IM: After 9/11, didn’t some people ask His Holiness to speak to Osama bin Laden?
HC: Well, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, some people asked him if nonviolent measures might be effective against bin Laden. He responded that if some kind of forum had previously been available to allow the airing of grievances, either real or imagined grievances on the part of bin Laden against the West, perhaps the level of suspicion and mistrust might have been reduced a bit—perhaps just enough to prevent things from escalating into violence.
IM: But didn’t people also suggest that he go talk to bin Laden directly?
HC: I think some people did suggest it, and when I asked him about it, he laughed and conjured up an image of bin Laden sitting next to his AK-47 like some gunfighter of the Old West. He said jokingly that he guessed that if he were going to see bin Laden, he’d have to carry his own gun! So he felt it was a silly proposal, and not practical, like when people had suggested he go talk to Saddam Hussein.
I asked him what he would say to bin Laden if he actually did have the chance to talk to him. He told me he had once been asked a similar question in regard to the Iranian regime. At that time he talked about how the leaders of Iran have deep loyalty and attachment to their religious faith, so one could point out that what they were doing was actually detrimental to the cause they were trying to serve, creating a bad image of their faith to the outside world. Because of that, acting with violence was actually a disservice to what they were trying to achieve. He said he supposed he would have followed this kind of reasoning with bin Laden.
IM: His Holiness has met with many world leaders. Given the strife between his own Tibetan people and their Chinese neighbors, can you tell us about his meetings many years ago with Mao Tse-tung?
HC: Of course, you first have to understand that he was very young at the time and kind of impressionable. He said that Mao made quite an impression on him while speaking about Marxist ideology. If I was understanding what he was saying correctly, Mao basically turned him into a Marxist. His Holiness said that as he listened to Mao, the principles and philosophy of Marx seemed to be sound and based on principles similar to those of Buddhism—compassion and welfare for others. So, based on that, the Dalai Lama said he had been thinking, Yes, these are people whom we can work with. But he also said that on the very last day before he left, Mao sort of bent over to him and said quietly, “Of course, you know that religion is poison!” At that moment the Dalai Lama realized that Mao’s agenda was not as it appeared. He realized that Buddhism and Marxism wouldn’t be compatible.
IM: What would you say are some of the principles that are key to the Dalai Lama in facilitating dialogue?
HC: He has emphasized to me that in conducting any sort of dialogue, the main goal is mutual benefit, that it is important to take some time even before a dialogue to do some careful investigation, looking for and then deeply reflecting upon these mutual benefits. For example, in the case of the Tibetans and Chinese, he says that in the long run, if the Chinese get some benefit, then the Tibetan objectives could be more easily realized. So he considers the Chinese viewpoint to be even more important than that of the Tibetans. And he considers the viewpoint of sympathetic Chinese to be especially precious because they are the ones who can influence their own people and because they know the Chinese mentality.
Most importantly, he repeatedly talks about actively increasing our awareness of how we are all part of humanity, how we are all human beings, and how we are all interconnected, living together in the same world.
IM: Does he recommend any kinds of meditations that people can use to increase such awareness?
HC: He has said on many occasions that even without formal meditation one can use the ideas he discusses as a kind of analytic meditation by repeatedly reflecting on the reality of certain key ideas. For instance, we could deliberately reflect on the fact that: 1) We are social animals. This could be reinforced by thinking about other social animals and how they depend on one another for survival. Then, 2) In the modern world in particular all our interests and our welfare are intertwined. As the world gets smaller and smaller, we are becoming more and more interdependent, and our own welfare is closely connected with the welfare of those around us. And, 3) We are fundamentally equal as human beings. For instance, each of us wants happiness and wants to avoid suffering.
IM: You’re working on a third book with the Dalai Lama in the Art of Happiness series. This new book, The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, brings more of a focus to the role of His Holiness in relation to world problems. How is this book different from the first two volumes, and what is his fundamental message?
HC: The first two books were on the general theme of inner development through training the mind as the path to happiness. The new book expands on that by recognizing that human beings don’t live in a vacuum; we interact within the world around us, which has an impact on our day-to-day happiness. So we look at happiness within the context of the greater society—from the small community to the nation to the global level—exploring a central question, namely, Given all the problems in the world today that clearly impact our happiness, how can we maintain the state of happiness and still live in the world?
The answer to that question according to the Dalai Lama is two-pronged: 1) We must cultivate inner happiness through inner discipline—through training the mind—and find a way to cope with the troubles in our world; and 2) At the same time, we need to work to change the external conditions in society that undermine human happiness and flourishing, and we need to promote the conditions that contribute
to happiness and flourishing.
Most importantly, the book puts forth the argument that there is an intersecting point between the internal and external, between cultivating inner happiness and working on changing the societal conditions that undermine our happiness—problems that stem from an us-versus-them type of mentality. In fact, there is a single activity or practice that simultaneously contributes to one’s personal happiness and helps one overcome external problems like racism, lack of community or violence. It’s no big surprise; that intersecting point is empathy and compassion. Not only is this the Dalai Lama’s fundamental belief; in the book I give direct scientific evidence showing that it is literally true based on changes that take place in the brain to increase happiness, reduce prejudice and so on.
IM: You’ve talked a lot about the power of the Dalai Lama’s kind presence in the world. Before we end, could you say a few words about how, in these many years of conversations, His Holiness has impacted you personally?
HC: I first met His Holiness in 1982 when I was in my last year of medical school. I was just finishing up, and I got a grant to study traditional Tibetan medicine for three months. At that time, the Dalai Lama’s older brother was director of the Tibetan Medical College in Dharamsala, where I was observing the Tibetan doctors. Not only that, but I was living in a government guest house where his older brother and wife and their kids also resided, as did Dr. Choedak, the Dalai Lama’s personal physician. All those connections facilitated my getting to know His Holiness, and I have had the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time with him over these many years. I would say he has had some impact on me. Once again, it comes down to the importance of compassion.
By training, and probably by basic disposition, I have always been more of a “head” person than a “heart” person. So earlier in my life, when I listened to His Holiness talk about kindness and compassion, I’d understand what he was saying intellectually, but on sort of a gut level, it felt too warm and fuzzy or touchy-feely to me. As the years have gone on, as a result of talking with him, I have gradually become more and more convinced about the importance of compassion and kindness, not as religious or spiritual or Buddhist principles but as critical to our survival as a species. That’s been a real change for me. In fact, it’s to the point now in my life where I feel there is nothing else that’s more important than kindness and compassion. That’s not to say I’m the most compassionate guy in the world. But at the very least I’ve developed some compassion for myself for not having enough compassion. [Laughter]