Top positive review
Compassionate, humanist translation of Buddhism into lucid modern day language with the help of social and natural sciences
8 August 2015
Single most memorable passage(a little bit long, people, so skip to the review if you wish)
“The self obviously cannot be outside the body and the consciousness. If it were an autonomous entity independent of one and the other, it could not be of their essence. Is it simply the sum of their parts, their structure and their continuity? Is the concept of the self simply associated with the body and the consciousness in their entirety?
… The only way out of this dilemma is to consider the self as a mental or verbal designation linked to a dynamic process, to a series of changing relations that incorporate the perception of the outer world, sensation, mental images, emotions, and concepts. The self is merely an idea.
… Buddhism therefore concludes that the self is just a name we give to a continuum, just as we name a river the Ganges or the Mississippi. Such a continuum certainly exists, but only as a convention based upon the interdependence of the consciousness, the body, and the environment. It is entirely without autonomous existence. ”
“How can I expect this understanding of the illusory nature of the ego to change my relationships with my family and the world around me? Wouldn’t such a U-turn be unsettling? Experience shows that it will do you nothing but good. … With no expectation of gain and no fear of loss, we are free to give and to receive. We no longer have the need to think, speak, or act in an affected and selfish way.
In clinging to the cramped universe of the ego, we have a tendency to be concerned exclusively with ourselves. The least setback upsets and discourages us. We are obsessed with our success, our failure, our hopes, and our anxieties, and thereby give happiness every opportunity to elude us. The narrow world of the self is like a glass of water into which a handful of salt is thrown – the water becomes undrinkable. If, on the other hand, we breach the barriers of the self and the mind becomes a vast lake, that same handful of salt will have no affect on its taste.
When the self ceases to be the most important thing in the world, we find it easier to focus our concern on others. The sight of their suffering bolsters our courage and resolve to work on their behalf, instead of crippling us with our own emotional distress. “ P91 – 90 - 94
[Happiness] is an interesting book – while it is definitely a book on Buddhism with a big dose of humanist viewpoint, one could easily say that it is more of a primarily humanist book with a big dose of Buddhist viewpoint. The structure of the book is as follows:
1. Happiness is arguably the one goal that everyone pursues. Absence of suffering is essential for happiness.
2. What conditions are needed for happiness/removing suffering?
3. Internal conditions are much more important for happiness than external ones.
4. What is the mechanism of those ‘internal conditions’ a.k.a the ‘self’?
5. How to deal with emotions that destroy happiness – Fear, Desire, Hatred, Envy etc
6. Sociology/Psychology/Neuroscience/Ethics of happiness
The author has a background in biochemistry, as he worked at the Institut Pasteur, Paris, under a Nobel Laureate, presumably at post-graduate(post-doctorate?) level. This attribute shows in his logical, reasoned and common sense approach that encompasses the entire book, peppered with quotes not from dusty ancient scriptures but rather from contemporary psychologists, philosophers, sociologists, neurologists, thinkers and novelists. The lucidity of his style is nicely demonstrated in the above quote, which in fact explains in clear non-philosophical language one of the principles from a mind-bogglingly difficult Buddhist philosophy book called [The Middle Way] by Nagarjuna - namely, "the self neither exists nor does not exist", rather like a point in the current of a river.(Such a fabulous metaphor!)
Of course it is not perfect – a part that particularly feels like a cop-out is the ethics section, where the author debates the merits of Kantian ethics vs utilitarianism vs their criticisms in the familiar ‘sacrifice of an innocent person for the good of a thousand other people’ scenario. Some of you may also cringe at what often feels like over-reaching scientific(?) conclusions based on experimental samples of n<5, but fret not – apparently those were only pilots, and further studies with a few hundred subjects are on the way. :-)
Another place that the author shines is the ‘trouble-shooting approach’ he takes for the uneasy sensation that Westerners(myself included, which shows the extent of my own Westernisation...) often get when they encounter Buddhism, illustrated perfectly in the following passage. (Again a little long, so please skip if you want) Although the concepts such as renunciation, non-self and acceptance are so often misunderstood(e.g. by me) and thus desperately in need of dispelling, these are also exactly the kind of questions that the Far Eastern Asians(such as myself) would shy away from asking their master due to their genetically-engraved deference, and the master would not explain because that’s not how they have been brought up.
“But how, you might ask, can I avoid being shattered when my child is sick and I know he’s going to die? How can I not be torn up at the sight of thousands of civilian war victims being deported or mutilated? Am I supposed to stop feeling? What could ever make me accept something like that? Who wouldn’t be affected by it, including the most serene of wise men? The difference between the sage and the ordinary person is that the former can feel unconditional love for those who suffer and do everything in his power to attenuate their pain without allowing his lucid vision of existence to be shaken. The essential thing is to be available to other without giving in to despair when the natural episodes of life and death follow their course.” (P66)
“Unlike Buddhism, very few psychological treatments address the problem of how to reduce the feeling of self-centeredness – a reduction that, for the wise man, extends all the way to eradicating the ego. This is certainly a new, even subversive idea in the West, which holds the self to be the fundamental building block of the personality. Surely, if I eliminate my ego I will cease to exist as a person. How can you have an individual without an I, an ego? Isn’t such a concept psychically dangerous? Isn’t there a risk of sinking into some kind of schizophrenia? Isn’t a weak or non-existent ego the clinical sign of a potentially forceful pathology? Don’t you need a fully developed personality before you can renounce the ego? These are the kinds of defensive reactions most Westerners have to such unfamiliar notions. The idea that one needs a robust ego comes from the fact that some people who suffer from mental problems are said to have a fragmented, fragile, or deficient sense of self.
… This confuses ego and self-confidence. The ego can attain only a contrived confidence built on insubstantial attributes – power, success, beauty and physical strength, intellectual brilliance, the opinions of others – and on whatever we believe to constitute our ‘identity’, our image, as we see it and as others see it. When things change and the gap with reality becomes too wide, the ego becomes irritated, freezes up, and falters. Self-confidence collapses and all that is left is frustration and suffering.
For Buddhism, paradoxically, genuine self-confidence is the natural quality of egolessness. To dispel the illusion of the ego is to free oneself from a fundamental vulnerability. The fact is, the sense of security derived from that illusion is eminently fragile. Genuine confidence comes from an awareness of a basic quality of our mind and of our potential for transformation and flourishing, what Buddhism calls Buddha Nature, which is present in all of us. Such recognition imparts peaceful strength that cannot be threatened by external circumstances or inner fears, a freedom that transcends self-absorption and anxiety.” P84-85
This book does not explain the doctrinal structure of Buddhism in any detail.(for that, read [The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching] by Thich Nhat Hanh.) It is not a meditation manual.(for that, read [Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond] by Ajahn Brahm. It does, however, have a few pages on various meditation methods and inspiring examples such as the survivors of Auschwitz camps or Tibetan doctors who survived Chinese political prisoners camp.) However, for me [Happiness] is a book that translates those themes into the modern language, supported by modern social and natural scientific research, which thus inspires us to strive towards happiness for everyone from an almost non-denominational stance. Although as a Buddhist I get a little irritated when I see those "blasted Americans" :-D brandish about the new-fangled 'mindfulness technology' as something barely related to Buddhism, I think it is ultimately the way forward, especially if we want 'happiness for all'. After all, isn't it what humanism is about? And also, Buddhism IS a collection of wisdom and methods to become happy.(as long as you don't think too hard about its claims on reincarnation...) All in all, I am sure Siddhartha would not mind at all.