‘We don’t need more money, we don’t need greater success or fame, we don’t need the perfect body or even the perfect mate – right now, at this very moment, we have a mind, which is all the basic equipment we need to achieve complete happiness.’
Dalai Lama's public talk on the 'Art of Happiness' given in Klagenfurt, Austria. (2012)
Dalai Lama's public talk on Compassionate Ethics in Difficult Times (2009)
Dalai Lama's Official Spotify Podcast
The Dalai Lama at Stanford Podcast
The Art of Happiness (1998)
HH Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler
In Summary

We are more than the sum of our circumstances – just ask the Dalai Lama, who always seems full of happiness despite having been exiled from his homeland for well over half a century.


Shifting amid rigor mortis, the lifeless gaze of the former Dalai Lama now pointed north-east, indicating where the search for his successor should begin. Narrowing the hunt to a town on the north-eastern border between China and Tibet, the search party discovered a fearless two-year-old who appeared to have secret knowledge, speaking to them in a language he had not been taught and identifying who they really were before they had in fact revealed themselves. Placing random objects before the child, they watched as he picked out and played with only the items that had belonged to the former Dalai Lama, confirming in their minds that he was the next reincarnation.

Even at the tender age of two, the discovery of the 14th Dalai Lama sparked conflict on all sides, with everyone clamouring to control, claim and ransom the future leader. Thrust into an adult world of politics and religion, he was only a teenager when he had to negotiate with the ever-increasing demands of the encroaching Chinese. At 23 – with Chinese sovereignty over Tibet now essentially absolute – he fled for his life to India, where he has since ruled in exile for over 60 years, awaiting a day when he might return home to his people. And yet, despite all the trauma, executions, blood and broken dreams, he is known today not for his sorrow but for his smile; for the laugh that always seems ready and waiting upon the edge of his upturned lips.

The 14th Dalai Lama has become a prophet for happiness in spite of our circumstances, advocating for mind over the realities of matter. Curious about the nature of this otherworldly joy, psychiatrist Howard Cutler sat down with His Holiness, leading to a series of books based upon their conversations, the first and most famous of which was The Art of Happiness (1998).


According to the Dalai Lama, the ‘purpose of our life is to seek happiness.’ While his pursuit of happiness is shared by many in the West, it remains untarnished by Western cynicism and Freudian gloom, for he believes it is actually attainable. The concept of ‘achieving true happiness’ has, in the West, always seemed ill defined, elusive, ungraspable. Even the word ‘happy’ is derived from the Icelandic word happ, meaning ‘luck’ or ‘chance.’ Yet the Dalai Lama insists that our natural state is bliss (our ‘Buddha nature’) and this nature can be returned to and embraced through disciplining the mind, rather than through luck and happenstance.

One of the central tenets of Buddhism is the inescapability of suffering (at least, in this life). While many Westerners seek to flee suffering by changing their material circumstances, the Dalai Lama emphasises changing your mindset instead: ‘Happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than by external events.’ By facing suffering head-on, embracing change, disciplining our thoughts and emotions, avoiding self-created pain and shifting our perspective (for example, comparing ourselves to those who have less than us rather than those who have more), we can help reprogramme our minds to be happy regardless of our circumstances. In particular, he emphasises the necessity of suffering for personal growth, finding the silver-lining in all things. Quoting Graham Greene, the text notes that, ‘In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed – but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they have brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.’

The Dalai Lama also believes our suffering is the key to having empathy and compassion for others. Suffering is universal and so provides a bridge upon which to enter into the soul of another and experience our common humanity. Compassion allows us to see past the negative towards the good that dwells within us all, even our enemies: ‘Within all beings there is the seed of perfection. However, compassion is required in order to activate that seed which is inherent in our hearts and minds…’ We can even empathise with the worst of the worst (he uses Stalin as an example), for we know that all those who have inflicted suffering have at some point been its victim. Whether ‘it is an old friend or new friend, there’s not much difference anyway, because I always believe we are the same; we are all human beings.’ These statements are not merely made in the abstract but come alive when the Dalai Lama speaks of his ‘compassion towards the Chinese,’ who drove him from his homeland.


As the most influential text by one of the 20th century’s most influential figures, The Art of Happiness might be considered essential reading for anyone wanting to take the pulse of contemporary spirituality. It also captures a unique meeting of East and West, with the Dalai Lama’s personable and practical wisdom coming face-to-face with a quintessentially Western perspective. Cutler locates the discussion within the broader history of Western philosophy, theology, psychology and science, including the scepticism and enquiries that come along with it. He ultimately concludes that the Dalai Lama’s teachings are ‘simple’ but ‘not simplistic’. This adage could perhaps be applied to the book itself, which might be of interest to anyone looking for an accessible yet disarmingly deep conversation.

Further Reading By This Author

Countless books authored or co-authored by the Dalai Lama have been released over his many years. Among them, a number have stood out on a popular level, including The Book of Joy, How To See YOURSELF As You Really Are, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, My Spiritual Journey: Personal Reflections, Teachings, and Talks, The Universe In A Single Atom: How science and spirituality can serve our world, and Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for the New Millennium.

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