Compassion leads to happiness 

Dalai Lama's book urges all to escape self-absorption

Detroit Free Press, October 24, 1999

The Dalai Lama's admirers know that he is wise.

His friends know that he is also jolly. And silly. Even, according to retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a bit mischievous.

"I am always intrigued by His Holiness," said South Africa's former Anglican leader. "He's been exiled from his country for I don't know how many donkey's years, and yet he still has such serenity. And giddiness. I was about to say naughtiness."

Tutu, like so many people, marvels that a man exiled from Chinese-controlled Tibet for 40 years can describe himself as happy. The Dalai Lama, at 64, seems so enlightened that people all over the world come to him seeking his help.

"Unfortunately, many have unrealistic expectations, supposing that I have healing powers or that I can give some sort of special blessing," the Dalai Lama writes in his latest book, "Ethics for the New Millennium" (Riverhead Books, $24.95), which is near the top of the New York Times best-seller list along with his 1998 book, "The Art of Happiness."

"But I am only an ordinary human being," he writes. "The best I can do is try to help them by sharing in their suffering."

In "Ethics for the New Millennium," the Dalai Lama does more than share the world's sorrows. He tries to help us overcome them.

He urges readers to find happiness by developing compassion for others. For him, compassion does not mean a bleeding heart. It is not a cause for gloominess. It is the secret to eternal youth -- or at least youthfulness.

The Dalai Lama encourages us to see that compassion offers a kind of liberation, the ability to rise above the prison of the self and see that our problems are small compared with those others face.

In a particularly moving passage, he describes the story of Lopon-la, a Tibetan monk imprisoned after Chinese forces invaded the country in 1950. The monk was sent to a Communist "re-education" camp where he was tortured and forced to denounce his religion. During his imprisonment, Lopon-la had only one fear: that he might lose compassion for his jailers.

Such global compassion might sound foolish to some, or a luxury to others, the Dalai Lama acknowledges. But it is the basis of strong character.

"We find that not only do altruistic actions bring about happiness, but they also lessen our experience of suffering," he writes. " ...Sickness, old age and mishaps of one sort or another are the same for us all. But the sufferings which undermine our internal peace -- anxiety, frustration, disappointment -- are definitely less. When we worry less about ourselves, the experience of our own suffering is less intense."

In other words, it's in our self-interest to be unselfish.

Step by step, the Dalai Lama lays out a case for ethical conduct. We must train our minds toward the supreme virtues recognized by all major religions: compassion, restraint, patience, responsibility.

"We are not talking about attaining Buddhahood here, we are not talking about achieving union with God," he writes. "We are merely recognizing that my interests and future happiness are closely connected to others' and learning to act accordingly."

The Dalai Lama has a unique perspective on the world's sufferings. Born Tenzin Gyatso, he was recognized at age 2 as the 14th incarnation of an ancient Buddhist teacher and is considered to be the manifestation of the Boddhisattva (Buddha) of Compassion.

Yet in this work, we learn a bit more not only about His Holiness the philosopher, but the Dalai Lama as a person.

As a good Buddhist, he is not supposed to become attached to worldly possessions; yet he is hopelessly enamored of his collection of wristwatches. His fascination with watches is an endless source of annoyance to him, a sign of his imperfection.

Throughout the book, the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, appears remarkably humble. He does not preach; he questions.

His voice is often disarmingly childlike. In one passage, he illustrates the futility of using aggression, instead of love, to achieve what we want. As a child, he was jealous of an attendant's parrot. He even grew angry when the bird did not allow him to feed it.

"So I tried poking it with a stick in the hope of provoking a better reaction," the Dalai Lama writes. "Needless to say, the result was totally negative."

This is a monk with a gift for comic understatement.

In his more serious moments, the Dalai Lama -- without delving deeply into Buddhist beliefs or other dogma -- tries to teach us how to keep the religious commandments that so many profess to obey.

In this way, "Ethics for the New Millennium" is a sort of supplement to the world's great religious traditions. The following passage, in fact, recalls the Book of Matthew, when Christ advises his followers against judging others.

"It is far more useful to be aware of a single shortcoming in ourselves than it is to be aware of a thousand in somebody else," the Dalai Lama writes. "For when the fault is our own, we are in a position to correct it."

While Christ instructs his followers to love their neighbors out of obedience to God, the Dalai Lama, in a more secular context, makes a rational argument geared to appeal to people of any faith, or no faith at all: We should care for others because it will make us better human beings.

The ethical regimen he proposes requires a lifetime of spiritual discipline. Again and again, he recommends ways to understand what he calls the afflictive emotions -- anger, jealousy and so on -- and how they ultimately make us miserable.

We cannot simply deny or suppress our negative emotions, he writes. They will bubble up eventually. Instead, we must understand them, and their effect on us.

"We must be on the lookout for the slightest negativity and keep asking ourselves such questions as, 'Am I happier when my thoughts and emotions are negative and destructive or when they are wholesome?' "

Of course, few of us are capable of this kind of reflection at the height of a crisis, when we're tempted to lash out and act rashly. Yet it is at precisely those moments when such spiritual discipline is most valuable, he writes. Strength of character -- developed daily over many years -- prepares us for such times.

Happiness, in other words, involves work.


By Richard Bernstein
New York Times News Service October 27, 1999

So you want to be happy? Just follow this procedure:

"Generally speaking, one begins by identifying those factors which lead to happiness and those factors which lead to suffering. Having done this, one then sets about gradually eliminating those factors which lead to suffering and cultivating those which lead to happiness. That is the way."

The pursuit of happiness may not really be quite that simple, but the formula, offered by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, in "The Art of Happiness," certainly seems to have struck a chord. Written with Howard C.Cutler, a psychiatrist from Phoenix, "The Art of Happiness" (Riverhead) has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 39 weeks. Following up on that success, the Dalai Lama published another book that is very similar in theme and style to the first. It is "Ethics for the New Millennium," also issued by Riverhead, which has been a best seller for eight weeks.

Two simultaneous best sellers, every author's dream, suggest that the Dalai Lama, until recently a rather remote spiritual leader living in exile in India, has become highly accessible: a guru and a popular one. Yet as with other books of the how-to-be-happy genre, the Dalai Lama's probably tell us more about those who are reading them than about the author. And in this light it seems fair to ask what it is about his books that has made them so prized. Beyond that, what special wisdom does the Dalai Lama bring to bear, as opposed to others in the lucrative business of spiritual self-help?

The answer to the first question is that the books contain a powerful element of integrity and sincerity. The Dalai Lama refreshingly claims no unusual spiritual powers. He identifies himself as an ordinary man, prone to the same troubles as the rest of us, but one who has learned something about conquering the impulses that make us unhappy. He probably gains a degree of moral authority because of the dignity he has shown, the unshakable public calm he maintains in the face of China's oppressive policies in Tibet. "Altruism is an essential component of those actions which lead to genuine happiness," the Dalai Lama writes. "We find that the spiritual actions we undertake which are motivated not by narrow self-interest but out of our concern for others actually benefit ourselves."

It is remarkable in an age where the self, the ego, the I is not exactly hiding under a rock that the best-selling message is that the self is not what it's cracked up to be. Here is a partial answer to the second question, about the extent to which the Dalai Lama's counsel is based on some special, arcane knowledge he possesses as a monk schooled in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. In fact, his teachings about the self seem drawn from the fundamental Buddhist precept that the self is an illusion, that the belief in it traps us in the repeating cycles of painful existence from which enlightenment can free us.

"There is thus no single thing that can be found under analysis to identify the self," he writes in "Ethics for the New Millennium." "Indeed, we are forced to conclude that this precious thing which we take such care of, which we go to such lengths to protect and make comfortable, is, in the end, no more substantial than a rainbow in the summer sky." That is very Buddhist in tone and inspiration.

But in general, the Dalai Lama strives not to be a specifically Buddhist teacher. He even gently repudiates religion. "I sometimes say," he writes, "that religion is something we can perhaps do without." One wonders if that is not part of his appeal: a call for a "spiritual revolution" that does not depend on the idea of a Supreme Being. It is perhaps the perfect way to satisfy the spiritual hunger of people living in a scientific and secular age. Our secularism denies us spiritual satisfaction while making conventional religious belief difficult or impossible. The Dalai Lama's secular spiritualism steps into the void.

There are problems with this, not least a blandness that makes it seem pretty tepid stuff for a "revolution." I myself found reading most of the Dalai Lama's two books only barely interesting enough to keep going, and I am an admirer of the man for his political stand. The tone is so strenuously inoffensive that you begin wishing for old-fashioned religion.

More important, perhaps, is that the very first assumption the Dalai Lama makes in both of his best-selling books is a dubious one. "The purpose of our existence is to seek happiness," he declares. Is that really true? The Dalai Lama's definition of happiness is what he calls a "spiritual" one. Happiness comes, he writes, from cultivating the traits of selflessness, generosity and compassion for others.

Still, you wonder: What would some modern-day Job feel if confronted with the assertion that the very purpose of life is to be happy? Doing good and being happy are not the same as ultimate purposes. And then there are those who believe that the purpose of life is to praise God and to obey His commandments. For them, happiness is not the main goal.

Even if you accept that happiness is the ultimate purpose, the Dalai Lama's prescriptions for achieving it are on the abstract side, and they pay only passing attention to much built-in obstacles as the will to power, the death wish, the id, self-hatred and what Carl Sagan called "the reptilian core," the kernel of savagery in the brain left untouched by the process of evolution. The Dalai Lama simply states and restates his belief in the essential goodness of human nature, but that seems a touch Panglossian after this bloody century.

Of course, the Dalai Lama has had more experience than most of us with real suffering, and his ability to maintain a sober composure is no doubt a key to his public image and thus also to the success of his books. The subtext here is, If I can do it, so can you. It is a subtext that has led many to embrace his texts.

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