I’m a Buddhist but I’m not a practicing one. I don’t know much about the religion at all. I’m a Buddhist because my parents are Buddhists. We’re Laotian and it’s the main religion of Laos. My parents occasionally go to the temple to pray and that’s mixed with the cultural aspect too. Going to temple is a good opportunity to mingle with other Lao people and eat food after the prayer sessions. I think my parents are not that religious but there’s some Buddhist influence in how they interact with the world.
You may wonder about my ignorance over my religion, my answer is that while I did attend temple many times when I was growing up, I never learnt much about the religion at all. Whenever we went to temple, the adults would go pray while the head monk would chant something in Laotian and all the kids just played outside until it was lunch time or they would be in the Lao language school. Also, there is no baptism involved in Buddhism so it was not like I was on a path to follow Buddha.
I wanted to read The Art of Happiness to learn more about Buddhism. The Art of Happiness was written by Howard C. Cutler who is a clinical psychiatrist. He had a series of interviews with the Dalai Lama on the subject of happiness. Cutler wanted a Buddhist perspective on how to achieve happiness to compare with western notions on happiness.
The book features quotes from the Dalai Lama and some meditations, along with statistics and observations by Cutler.
It became apparent while reading this book the depth of the discussion on happiness. I found the prospect of reviewing the book to be an overwhelming task. My reluctance is also due to the fact that I identify as a Buddhist but do not have any real understanding of the religion but wanting to do justice to Buddhist teachings.
The book is divided into four parts with three or four chapters exploring an aspect of the human psyche such as self esteem and suffering. The main ideas that I got from this book is that everyone has a right to happiness, suffering is part of being human and that one should be kind to oneself and others. I think those themes are apparent in most religions but I think Buddhism is more philosophical and less doctrinal about it.
The Dalai Lama answered questions thoughtfully and I thought that many of his answers were practical solutions bordering on psychology. The focus for Buddhism is enlightenment which does involve training of the mind through meditations and stopping negative thoughts and actions after all.
What was most thought provoking for me was the chapter relating to anxiety. They described many forms of anxiety but this instance was the most poignant for me. Cutler and the Dalai Lama discussed whether the Dalai Lama got nervous before making public appearances. His holiness said he did and that he overcomes it by reminding himself that his efforts to help people are sincere and he tries his best. He also mentioned how people come to him expecting miracles and cures. The Dalai Lama cannot give people miracles but he tries his best to comfort people as best he can which gives some people peace.
Cutler later related the story to a young student who was suffering from social anxiety. The student he had the advice in mind when he wanted to ask out a girl. He was nervous but remembered that he his intentions were good which helped to ease his nervousness. The student didn’t get the date but he was content that he had tried and that was enough for him.
I tend to be an over thinker and worrier especially when I have to do something out of my comfort zone. So, that advice your good intentions and trying your best gives me some comfort. While the book wasn’t a life changing read, I was glad that I read it. I think it is one of those books where you gain a new understanding each time you read it. I wonder what I will learn next time.