It now has been a dozen years since I read The Art of Happiness, co-authored by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama from Tibet and Howard Cutler, M.D., the psychiatrist and (now) best-selling author, from Phoenix, Arizona.
In 1999, I had the pleasure of meeting both authors, His Holiness and Dr. Cutler, when the American Buddhist Congress held a fund-raiser and presented the Dalai Lama with its Bodhi Award for Compassion at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. Representing the Congress, I had invited the Dalai Lama to receive the award and speak at the venue, which actually is a synagogue, not a Buddhist temple. Upon receiving his acceptance, I called Dr. Cutler, who also agreed to come to Los Angeles to speak at the event and to introduce His Holiness to the attendees.
The event was very successful; through ticket sales the American Buddhist Congress and the Dalai Lama’s Foundation shared the proceeds, which were used to help Tibetan refugees and for other humanitarian projects in the United States. I must say, however, that arranging an affair like this is not easy; with it comes some suffering. The kind of suffering I’m talking about could also be called worrying: worrying about whether or not the tickets would sell, whether or not all the participants would arrive on time, etc., etc. Worrying is just another word for a type of suffering. I learned from reading The Art of Happiness that not only is happiness an art, but there is an art in suffering, too. One needs to find a way to suffer skillfully, realistically, and beneficially.
Nineteenth Century philosopher and writer Henri Frederic Amiel found a way when he asked and answered thusly: “You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering.”
Of course we know that the Buddha’s basic teaching was about dukkha, which is usually translated as suffering, but includes in its meaning such things as frustration, anxiety, displeasures, and the un-word unsatisfactoriness. His teaching is that although life for the unenlightened is filled with dukkha, it doesn’t have to be. Once one becomes enlightened the dukkha disappears. But even if all of it doesn’t all go away, one can benefit from even a little enlightenment. Dukkha or suffering isn’t a bad thing . . . and it certainly isn’t a good thing, either. It just is. It’s the nature of life. So if one can learn how to handle it, how to benefit from it, then one begins to wake up to the reality of life and apply the art of suffering to lessen our ignorance, our self-centeredness, and our feelings and expressions of frustration.
One doesn’t have to be an intellectual giant to become more enlightened and to benefit from suffering. It’s really quite easy: just practice loving kindness and compassion. Nothing new, right? We were taught those two desirables early in life in the form of The Golden Rule and the little truism, “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”. Those who have tried it liked it . . . and discovered that by understanding the roots of their suffering, they could become happier. In other words, by practicing the art of happiness we also are practicing the art of suffering.
Thanks to my friend Jean Parcher, who sends me quotations from time to time, here’s one I received from her that further emphasizes the point: “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder’.” That was said or written by my friend, Aldous Huxley. I say friend, not because I knew him personally, but because through his thoughts and writing I have gotten to know him well enough to refer to him as “friend”. Excuse the name dropping, but I did, however, meet him in the fifties, when I heard him speak at a little church in Hollywood. Some years later, coincidentally, I wound up living on the same West Hollywood street he once lived on, Kings Road.
Suffering is something we all have in common. No matter what is our nationality, ethnicity, religion, or politics, no matter how well educated, how rich or poor, or how famous or infamous we are, we are all susceptible to suffering. Even if we could change any of those things, suffering would still be a seed in us that when nourished blooms, just like a poisonous plant flourishes when watered. While we cannot control some of life’s most devastating events, like famine, war, illness, old age and death, we can control how we handle or cope with them. The way to do that is to acquire more skill in the art of suffering.