Tag Archives: Buddhism
23andMe effectively shuts down (Dec 7th, 2013)
Try typing “23andMe scam” into Google. You’ll be directed to my most popular blog post of 2013, in which I posted the results of my genetic test with 23andMe. It’s the third most popular search term leading into this website (behind Buddhism and Hunger Games in 1st and 2nd place). 🙂
You can read the original post here.
In December 2012, I spat into a tube and sent it to 23andMe, a genetic testing company in California. In January 2013, they sent me the results of my genetic information over several days. I sifted through swathes of data and posted all the conclusions worth hearing onto my blog. There were 12 of them.
As someone trained in biology, particularly in genetics, I knew how to interpret the genetic data. I knew to ignore all of the health information, especially the vague correlations in tiny studies with genes of unknown function, and posted only the inconsequential genes and the ancestral information instead. This wasn’t a privacy concern—I posted all the findings that I found genuinely interesting. But I did omit any findings that I knew to be total bunk.
In one blatant statistical blunder, 23andMe told me I had a 1.5x greater chance than the “average person” of getting cleft lip. In another, they told me I had double the likelihood of getting certain diseases for which environmental factors were by far the greatest predictors. 23andMe doesn’t consider environmental factors and doesn’t differentiate between meaningful and meaningless statistics.
People not trained in genetics or statistics wouldn’t have the same level of insight that I did. Some customers could read all the misleading data like numbers on a die, and then make false conclusions as a result. 23andMe never did enough to protect its customers from such confusion. In fact, they passively encouraged it with gimmicks like “Genetic Melody” and the inclusion of vague correlation studies in tiny populations for very serious diseases. This data could worry people unnecessarily. While 23andMe communicated science much better than did the average newspaper, there was still a gaping linguistic chasm between scientists and consumers. The way that 23andMe reported health information to the public was still in need of major improvement.
But that improvement didn’t come quickly enough, and last week, the FDA shut down 23andMe’s entire genetic health reporting service. Its ancestry service lives on, which has always been 23andMe’s most interesting component in my opinion, and only new customers (after November 22, 2013) will be affected. Nevertheless, this decision is a huge blow for 23andMe and a momentous victory for advocates of science communication.
Rightly so. The fact that so many people are typing (and I see you!) 23andMe scam into Google indicates that a problem is at foot.
So while I’m pleased it’s been shut down, I also regret not making these shortcomings clearer in my 23andMe post one year ago. Despite the comments and emails I received from people trying to make sense of their 23andMe results, I forgot that not everyone is science-literate.
Fortunately, the FDA remembered. Thank you.
- 23andMe to Follow FDA Order to Halt Test Sales – ABC News (abcnews.go.com)
- 23andMe Stops Offering Genetic Tests Related To Health (forbes.com)
- 23andMe’s Most Useful Service Is Dead (businessinsider.com)
- 23andMe Provides An Update Regarding FDA’s Review (23andme.com)
Book: Choose Life
A vision of utopia shared by East and West
375 pages, ★★★★★
This book entered my reading list via a DVD called Let Harmony Redeem (和谐拯救危机). The DVD is a dialogue between Buddhist monk Ven. Master Chin Kung and renowned Buddhist Dahui Chen. This approximately 12-hour dialogue has had massive influence in Asian countries and in overseas Asian communities by revitalising traditional Chinese culture.
The DVD was modelled on a book called Choose Life. Choose Life is a dialogue between Daisaku Ikeda and the renowned British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee. Their conversations cover all aspects of life and culture and are organised by theme. Like the DVD, Let Harmony Redeem, the authors reach a consensus on all the topics despite their very different cultural perspectives. The result is calming and utopian.
Topics in Choose Life range from subconscious thought process to the social role of literature; from our animal instincts to the ideal property market. Most interesting was the dialogue on the purpose of a school education. The authors agreed that the primary aim of education should be to teach children how to live, and practical benefit should be relegated to just a secondary aim. I agree completely.
Choose Life reminds me of The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang (reviewed here). These two books describe a meaningful life at large and small scales.
I recommend Choose Life particularly for non-Asians who want to explore East Asian culture in more depth (like me!) ★★★★★
Book: The Secret of the Seven Seeds
A perfect, textbook parable of Buddhist transformation.
191 pages, ★★★★★
The great “Western Disease” is rapidly spreading around the world! The disease is called, “I will be happy when…” When I get that money, when I get that racy car, when I get that new house, when I get that promotion. — Foreword
It seems contradictory to review a book that says, “Don’t evaluate this book—evaluate yourself” on page ix.
Protagonist Ignacio Rodríguez—he might as well be called Ignoramus—is a stereotypically stressed businessman who’s worrying about hitting his company’s performance targets and bullying his staff to “try harder”.
Ignacio’s stress-induced, non-fatal heart attack prompts his doctor to prescribe some rest. He resists at first, but eventually—reluctantly—seeks the help of a spiritual guide who shows him how to improve his life through restful, mindful meditation and by cultivating compassion. (See my review of Cultivating Compassion here.)
After following the master’s advice, every aspect of Ignacio’s life improves: his marriage, his relationship with his children, his sales performance, his company’s profits, his physical and mental health, and his happiness. His co-workers even get along better with each other. Compassion spreads.
The Secret of the Seven Seeds is a slightly-too-perfect version of a life transformed by Buddhism. Being fictional, the transformation story is more ‘textbook’ than in Tiny Buddha, which was autobiographical. Both books inspire, but The Secret of the Seven Seeds is more parable than legend. Read whichever one works best for you. ★★★★★
Book: Cultivating Compassion
Experiment 8: Mr. Einstein is on a railroad car moving to the left with velocity v, and on his car are two light bulbs that, from his perspective, come on simultaneously. To confirm this, he could also rig some sort of detector that would go off only if both beams of light arrive at his position simultaneously.
Question: What will Mrs. Einstein see?
Answer: She will agree that both beams of light reach Mr. Einstein at the same time. However, since from her point of view the light on the right has greater distance to travel, she will see the light on the right come on first!
Conclusion: From the above experiments we see that events which may be simultaneous for one observer can happen in a different sequence for another observer. This leads us to the startling conclusion that there is no such thing as a universal “now” for which everyone will agree on what happens “now”. That is, I can see two events as happening “now” while another observer will see one event happening “now” with the other event yet to occur!
I enjoy these bewildering thought experiments in special relativity. They stretch the mind for its own sake, like riddles, quizzes or a work of art. The more I think about the implications of Mr and Mrs Einstein on moving trains, the more I realise the triviality of our human senses. Our senses and feelings, as beguiling as they are, hardly represent the real world at all.
Recently, the number of books I’ve been reading has inflated my ego. This January, I read 21 books—that’s more than I read between the ages of 0 and 23. I’m also way ahead in this year’s Mad Reviewer Reading Challenge.
Thought experiments brought my ego back to normal again. Not special relativity, this time, but something much more useful…
Guided meditation. Thought experiments that sharpen your worldview.
190 pages, ★★★★★
Two thought experiments from this mid-level Buddhist book stood out for me.
First, everyone on earth is either your friend, neutral, or an enemy. Given that Buddhists believe in infinite reincarnation, everyone on earth has, at different points in the past, been your friend, neutral, and enemy. The author gives a political example:
“China was a close friend of the U.S. during the Second World War, then became an enemy during the Korean War, and now is supposedly a political friend again” — page 69
People also make up, make friends, and fall out within lifetimes. Given that all enemies can become friends, and that all friends can all become enemies, in this lifetime or the next, we can choose to mould the kinds of relationships we want in life.
The book phrases this much better (and longer) than I did, but the concluding ‘meditation’ is this:
“Just as I want happiness and don’t want suffering, so this friend wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. And equally, this neutral person wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. And equally, this enemy wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering.” — page 81
Irrefutable logic here cultivates your compassion for enemies, friends and strangers alike. So why not all get along?
Next, the ‘moon-ripples’ analogy, as I’ll call it, reminds us that our perception is just a mirage, a vague approximation of reality. The world behaves like the reflection of the moon in a rippled ocean:
“In the blink of an eye, everything is changing. Or, even more subtly, in each three-hundred-and-sixtieth of a blinking of an eye or of a snapping of the fingers, everything is disintegrating. For a Buddha, the realisation of this is still more subtle, but at our level, this measurement affords a glimpse of subtle change. It is said that all impermanent phenomena possess a nature of such subtle disintegration” — page 171
We fixate on false ideals and try to solidify the future. This is an impossible goal, since the world is unpredictably complex; elusive and in constant flux. The future is never certain, nor should it be. When you encounter something you will never understand or see clearly, just think about the ‘moon-ripples’ analogy.
This interactive book is written for people already familiar with Buddhism. Author Jeffrey Hopkins uses his experience from the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in the United States to formulate these exercises. There are dozens of meditations, and pages of prose provide the supporting logic behind each one. Everyone will find something they need in this book—I recommend Cultivating Compassion for all Buddhists. ★★★★★
Book: Eating Animals
Eighteen months ago, I stopped eating meat. I also changed from drinking coffee to drinking tea, and for the first time ever, embraced a religion—Chinese Buddhism—into my life. It was the best thing I ever did.
Vegetarianism came first. My main concern wasn’t animal welfare, but the quality and nutritional content of the meat I was eating. In Beijing, my local vendor only sold the fattiest cuts of pork, the quality (and hygiene standards) of which were questionable at best.
I didn’t miss meat. Cooking became quicker, cheaper and cleaner, and ordering restaurant dishes became a smoother operation (just read the menu back-to-front, starting with the vegetable side-dishes). Vegetarians have it easier in the grocery store, too—we can avoid the meat, fish, dairy, and alcohol aisles and cut browsing times roughly in half. I also feel much calmer—probably due to the lack of excessive lipid-based animal hormones in my system.
Tea came next. I met a tea connoisseur, who introduced me to different teas and teahouses in Beijing. Tea replaced my daily coffee because its easier to brew and can be consumed safely all day. Green, white and oolong teas made me calm enough—for the first time ever—to read books, which gave rise to this blog.
Chinese Buddhism then came easily. I already loved China and wanted to become more Chinese. I already ate vegetarian, and already resonate with Buddhism’s teachings of “letting go” (放下) and “going with the flow” (随缘). I already loved the colourful rituals, the calmness, the smell of incense in a temple—my first date with my fiancée was in a temple! Through books and videos, Buddhism taught me the importance of respect, of true happiness and of family values. Nothing could make me more Chinese than a Chinese moral education (and a Chinese wife), and I feel much happier and more stable as a result.
Anyway, it all started by eating vegetarian…
Convincing argument for a vegetarian diet.
341 pages, ★★★★★
Eating Animals is the argument for eating vegetarian. Author Johnathan Safran Foer is a vegetarian who argues not that we should stop eating meat, but that our methods of meat production are both cruel and unhealthy, and that the resulting diseases and environmental damage make factory factory meat production detrimental in so many respects.
His argues for a return from factory farming to family farming in this book.
Johnathan Safran Foer uses lawyer-tactics to fight from health, moral and economic perspectives. His most poignant remark is about our children’s health, on page 112.
Why are entire flocks of industrial birds dying at once? And what about the people eating those birds? Just the other day, one of the local pediatricians was telling me he’s seeing all kinds of illnesses that he never used to see. Not only juvenile diabetes, but inflammatory and autoimmune diseases that a lot of the docs don’t even know what to call. And girls are going through puberty much earlier; and kids are allergic to just about everything, and asthma is out of control. Everyone knows it’s our foods… Kids today are the first generation to grow up on this stuff, and we’re making a science experiment out of them. Isn’t it strange how upset people get about few dozen baseball players taking growth hormones, when we’re doing what we’re doing to our food animals and feeding them to our children? — page 112.
The overwhelming stench of blood in the animal-houses makes (temporary, immigrant) farm-workers violently sadistic, resulting in widespread animal abuse (cutting animals’ legs off, chasing hogs into boiling water, penetrating orifices with electric cattle prods—for ‘fun’). Animals husbandry has been turned into animal abuse. Manure—traditionally a source of fertiliser—has been turned into toxic waste. The factory farm industry seems to be destroying animals, the environment, and its (temporary, immigrant) workers. Suicide rates in the industry are sky-high. I’m pleased to see that the New York Times agrees with Eating Animals’ thesis that factory farming should be stopped.
This book reaffirmed my strong conviction that a vegetarian diet is a healthier, cheaper, cleaner and more moral way to eat.
See these films if you’re hungry for more:
- Super Size Me ★★★★★
- The Corporation ★★★★★
- The Future of Food ★★★★
- Fast Food Nation ★★★
- Book Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Johnathan Safran Foer (randomlibrarianblog.wordpress.com)
- The Vegan Chroicles: June Axelrad (ninedegreesbelowzero.wordpress.com)
- Vegetarianism versus ‘flexitarianism’ – what’s not to like? (telegraph.co.uk)
- What You Must Know About Vegetarian Diets (belmarrahealth.com)
- Dalai Lama: ‘It’s Best to Go Vegetarian’ (ecorazzi.com)
Book: An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy
Just too scholarly. Buddhism backwards.
434 pages, ★
I’m a follower of the Venerable Master Chin Kung, a Buddhist teacher from Anhui Province in China. One highly memorable thing I learned from his lectures (which are all on YouTube), is the distinction between 学佛 (xue-fo) and 佛学 (fo-xue).
The distinction is much clearer in Chinese than English. The former, 学佛, describes the study of Buddhism with practice and spiritual belief. We can these students “Buddhists”. The latter, 佛学, describes Buddhism as an academic subject like chemistry. We can call those students “Buddhologists”. Even more beautifully, in Chinese, the words for “Buddhist” and “Buddhologist” are palindromes, implying that the latter of these opposing groups has learned Buddhism backwards.
The Venerable Master Chin Kung said:
In English, roughly:
We are Buddhists, not Buddhologists. To treat Buddhism as an academic subject amounts to learning nothing at all! When modern people make the mistake of studying Buddhism without practicing it in their everyday lives, they are failing to grasp Buddhism’s fundamental concepts [of compassion in our everyday lives]. This method is rotten to the core. Buddhology will forever be the wrong way to learn Buddhism.
Given that one of my most-respected teachers said that, how can I give this book any more than one star? It was also dry, academic, picky, and boring. Buddhism is supposed to make you feel good, but this book fails at that, too. Read Tiny Buddha or An Open Heart by the Dalai Lama instead. ★
Book: An Open Heart
Classic Dalai Lama speeches. Buddhism on Earth.
191 pages, ★★★★★
The Dalai Lama has the following of a rock star. The book begins with a scene of the Dalai Lama giving addressing 3,000 followers in New York City. The book explains the fundamentals of Buddhism.
I love this book for its thick, soft, sepia-tinted pages, and its large, readable font. This book looks as close to an ancient Tibetan prayer-sheet as a mass-production publishing house can make it.
I also love this book for its secular, practical simplicity. This book is Buddhism on Earth, not Buddhism in Heaven.
Perfectly suited for a crowd of multicultural, metropolitan New Yorkers. ★★★★★
Book: The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World
A non-interactive version of McKinney’s “Happiness”. Practical psychology that’s coincidentally Buddhist.
368 pages, ★★★★
The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World tells us why we should be happy. It does so in fluent prose, a substantial proportion of which is paraphrased from dialogues between the author and the Dalai Lama (hence the Dalai Lama’s name and giant picture on the front cover). It teaches us that we should all be happy, that happiness is contagious, and that happiness is always the antidote to suffering. Very Buddhist.
The author raises many points that would make interesting conversation topics. He argues that hit TV show “Survivor” is the epitome of American individualism and greed: when a dozen strangers are left stranded on an island, they are rewarded for infighting (not co-operating) and all strive to be the last one standing—alone, atop a huge pile of cash. “How unhappy the winners must be!”, the author writes.
He also argues that racism is rooted in a human evolutionary preference for remembering negative news over positive news. Positive news can make you happy (e.g. “we have a bumper harvest this year”) but negative news can save your life (e.g. “a hurricane is coming”). He says this is why one group will more easily remember negative information about another group, unless they are well-acquainted. He thus infers that racism can be eliminated by cultural understanding. I like that.
The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World more closely resembles a psychology book than a Buddhist book. He talks about the roots of fear, and recovery from trauma with the soothing tone of a psychologist. Like McKinney’s book, The Power of Happiness (see review here), The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World is Buddhist by coincidence.
This book concludes with a dramatic change in tone. First, it resembles Thomas Freedman’s The World Is Flat. Not only are we are all equal human beings on a level playing field, who achieve great things when we work together, but we are also much more interconnected than we realise. (The latter example is illustrated by the famous Milton Friedman question, “how many people does it take to make a pencil?”). Answer: probably billions, both past and present. The effect here is to remind us that happiness is not only necessary and possible, but also contagious in the modern world. Happy people make people happy. 🙂
I’m glad I’ve read this book, even though it’s not the best in its genre. (Those, I gave five stars: see Tiny Buddha, Happiness and The Power of Happiness for better-written, 5-star examples.) I gave this book four stars because I’m such a fan of the genre. Most other reviewers would give it just three. ★★★★
- Famous Buddhist Books (famous101.com)
- From birds to humans, happiness may be embedded in evolutionary process (vancouversun.com)
- Dalai Lama: Spiritual Leader Coming to Boston to Speak to Community & Meditate (bostinno.com)
- “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” -Dalai Lama (leskyla.wordpress.com)
Mind Map: Schools of Buddhism
The good life: a beginner’s guide based on Song Dynasty culture.
Written for women but highly relevant for men too.
322 pages, ★★★★★
Maosen Zhong (钟茂森) is highly regarded in China. He writes books and essays, and teaches ‘open classes’ (公开课) about traditional Chinese culture. His academic background is impressive, too: he studied undergraduate in Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, then finished his masters and doctorate degrees in Louisiana and Kansas. In 2003, at just 30 years of age, he was awarded a lifelong position as Associate Professor in Finance at the University of Queensland, Australia. Such an impressive degree collection earns one great respect in contemporary China.
Maosen Zhong uses this pedestal of respect to preach the growing movement of Traditional Chinese Culture (传统文化). His books and ‘open classes’ are mostly about history and Chinese spiritualism, with a particular emphasis on Chinese Buddhism. In my view, Zhong’s teachings are an attempt to plug China’s “spiritual vacuum” (a problem to which almost everyone in China acknowledges); China’s “self-racism” (which causes many young Chinese to reject Chinese norms in favor of KFC, basketball, and California); and the “moral breakdown” that’s occurred since the Communist era ended (from which corruption and other misdemeanors stem). To solve these issues, Zhong advocates moral education (伦理道德教育), a greater influence of Chinese religions in modern life and a greater respect and understanding for China’s own history and culture.
[Zhong addresses China’s] spiritual vacuum… self-racism… [and] moral breakdown
Maosen Zhong first convinces us of the need for moral education not just in China, but worldwide. He appeals to common sentiments by referring to the collapses of Enron and Lehman Brothers, and the Financial Crisis of 2008 that followed. Personally, I didn’t need much convincing: I already know that mainland China is morally bankrupt. People are kept in line by the heavy hand of the government, not by an inner sense of doing what’s right. Thank God for that heavy hand.
The Solutions: society is made up of families, which in turn are made up of people. To build a moral society, we first have to carry out moral education at the individual and family levels.
This book therefore starts at the individual level. It tells us to wake up between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., to open the curtains immediately, to stretch, sweep the floor, make a lukewarm breakfast, and wash the tea leaves ready for brewing after breakfast. And so on. He teaches the tiniest aspects of a good life in polite verbatim. I feel more educated than patronized.
The book then progresses to how to look after your family. There’s a chapter on taking care of your children and a lengthy chapter on taking care of elderly parents. The most minute aspects of life are spelled out very clearly.
“Men and women are equal but different” is very clear in this book. It contradicts the Western feminist movement, which was based on the idea that “women can be men, too”. Despite the Chinese title (which intends the book to be read by “fair ladies”), the role of women is a very minor aspect of the book.
To build a moral society, we first have to carry out moral education at the individual and family levels.
Dozens of key ancient texts are quoted throughout this book, each followed by Zhong’s own interpretations of these texts in a modern context. I didn’t fully understand these text excerpts (古文), but I still get the intended message: “the ancient Chinese would have done better”.
I learned two lessons from this book: the first is, “take great care in absolutely everything you do”. The second is, “no matter how morally you think you’re behaving, you’re almost certainly not doing enough”. China should listen. How to get masses of morally-starved, money-obsessed Chinese to listen to Zhong’s teachings, however, is a tricky problem to solve. ★★★★★
Book: Tiny Buddha: Simple Wisdom for Life’s Hard Questions
Buddhist by coincidence; written from a self-help perspective; story of my life.
278 pages, ★★★★★
I’m anything but tiny. But after three days of doing stressful bank-related stuff, I really needed to read this book. I’d already waited several weeks for it to be published (I got caught up in the pre-release internet hype) and yesterday, it finally arrived at my lavishly-decorated front door. Happy Lantern Festival! It was well worth the wait.
Tiny Buddha is Buddhism without Buddha. Author Lori Deschene steers so clear of jargon that the usual Sanskrit and self-help vocabulary (except “mindful”) are nowhere to be seen. Rather than teach us the basics, the history (or anything) about Buddhism, Tiny Buddha condenses all the worthwhile advice from hundreds of self-help manuals down to one easily-readable book. Read this book properly and you can ignore everything else from the self-help section. By omitting Buddha almost entirely, Lori Deschene both proves that Buddhism is not a dogmatic religion, and that the new-age self-help genre is merely Buddhism re-evolved.
The author’s journey is the most inspiring aspect of this this book. She spent years drifting (as I did) in what David Brooks would call the “Odyssey” (the stage between adolescence and mature adulthood). She hopped between tiny apartments, overworked, underslept, and didn’t trust anyone long enough to maintain friendships or relationships. She did almost exactly the same things as I did (there’s mention some friends of teaching in China) and uses her own experience justify her authority as a teacher.
Episodes from Tiny Buddha resonated with me. The author analyses why she once overworked and found it unsatisfying (I used to set financial goals before I realised that nothing happened when I achieved them). The author also tells us why she felt cheated after a $495 “life-changing” seminar (I can relate to this). Read this book and you’ll find your own stories. All of them are accompanied with covertly Buddhist solutions.
Tiny Buddha might not be a book about Buddha, but it’s certainly a book about you. ★★★★★
- What would Buddha do? (cabriolablog.wordpress.com)
- Understanding about the Dharma (hilitehead.com)
- On Buddhism (marcwilliamwrites.wordpress.com)
- Understanding Nonattachment: Basics of Buddhism from the Temple Buddhist Center (magneticwind.com)
Book: The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching
Your map to the labyrinth of Buddhism
282 pages, ★★★★★
I never thought I’d read this book. Yet I never thought I’d be a vegan who likes to stay at home, bake bread and read books (especially on Buddhism). But here I am.
The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching is an elementary roadmap to enlightenment. You know you’ve arrived at your destination (happiness, compassion) when you no longer need the map (or this book). Like any map, this book is quite theoretical. It made me hungry for practical Buddhism more than it taught me how to practice. It’s thus a perfect starting point for non-Buddhists to learn about Buddhism.
Buddhism grips you with irresistible numbered lists. Each one opens doors to yet more numbered lists of wisdom. “The Four Noble Truths” leads to “The Eightfold Path”; each of which leads to yet more numbered lists (“The Four Establishments of Mindfulness” and “The Seven Factors of Awakening” to name just two). It’s highly-structured, but, like a labyrinth, could make you feel lost at the same time. Each list solves tiny problems in our lives—ideally, before they even occur.
The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching lends itself very well to being mind-mapped. All the Buddhist theory in this book could be mapped onto a very large, beautiful poster, with “suffering” at the centre, followed by “The Four Noble Truths” as the first-level branches. That’s a project for another day.
The layered structure of The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching also lends itself well to lesson plans. Each lesson would contain one numbered list. The title would intrigue students, and there are enough stories and personal examples in the book to be shared in the class.
The book becomes repetitive after the middle. You’ll start seeing the same metaphors and ideas rearranged in multiple fashions towards the end. In the last few pages, you’ll even read the same sentences over and over with minor modifications in the “discourses” section. The book does this to train your patience and focus. It prepares you for the repetitive, meditative approach used widely throughout the rest of Buddhism, which it leaves me very tempted to read. ★★★★★
Book: Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill
Healthful soul tonic that everyone needs. Read it with Orchid-Scented Phoenix Tea.
272 pages, ★★★★★
Happiness is an extroverted book with nothing to hide. You’ll notice this from the moment you open it. The friction coefficient of the paperback cover is equal to that of the pages inside, so the fingerfeel of the inside and outside seem to be ‘one’ (very Buddhist). The paper is grippable, not polished, and the pages are slightly imperfectly-cut, which helps author Mattieu Ricard emanate his soothing modesty and humour onto paper. Watch him speak here at TED.com, again, with nothing to hide.
Happiness covers Buddhist teachings of the ego, karma and inner happiness. First, a true Buddhist is egoless. Second, karma (or 因果, “cause-and-effect”) rules the universe: “If we sow the seeds of poisonous weeds, we cannot expect to reap crops”. Third, happiness is independent of external circumstances, particularly material abundance. This is illustrated with numerous examples and meditation exercises. The classic anecdote of a lottery winner becoming ecstatic, then indifferent, then increasingly depressed over time (sometimes suicidal) is used. However, metaphors that relate to nature will dominate this book (in a very Tibetan way), for example, “sating desire is like drinking seawater—it only makes you more thirsty”. The best anecdote of how happiness differs from pleasure comes in the form of the lab-rat who, in control of an electrode that stimulates the ‘pleasure’ parts of its brain, will continue to stimulate itself until it dies of hunger or exhaustion. Happiness uses science and Buddhism, East and West, modern and traditional in tandem.
Science is used throughout Happiness. Compassionate people can withstand pain for longer. Optimistic people live 19% longer. Experienced meditators exhibit significantly-higher gamma-wave activity in the left pre-frontal lobe (associated with happiness) when meditating. Despite knowing that we should never take the pop-sci genre for face-value, the author’s biochemistry background leaves me questioning not the credibility of his research (which has been submitted to Nature), but the credibility of a slightly-conflicting book, A Whole New Mind (read my review here). Both books discuss brain-waves and happiness.
There was an apparent contradiction in this book. The author writes that enlightenment needn’t be preceded by suffering or wrongdoing; that benevolence is not merely practiced to counteract previous crimes. But at the same time, the author writes in the first chapter, that “the first step to ‘happiness’ [in the book’s sense] is to acknowledge that our way of acting and feeling has been wrong”. Whether suffering is to alleviate our own pain or that of others, it does seem that experiencing pain and focussing on it does seem to be a prerequisite to enlightenment. Fight Club‘s chemical burn scene was right.
Another thing that surprised me were his repeated references to China. Being a compassionate monk, he showed no anger in writing (8 times) about the plight of the Tibetans during the Chinese Liberation period. But as a Sinophile, I’m tempted to now go and read more books by Tibetans in exile, and the Communist Party’s official view of this slice of Tibet’s history. Did Tibetans suffer any more than the Han suffered during Liberation and the Cultural Revolution? Possibly not…
I should have read this book years ago (it was published in English in 2006). The section labelled “Why blame the world?” would have been particularly educational for me when struggling a few years ago. I found guidance in Marxism and Maoism, but would have been infinitely better-off with Buddhism (and happiness). I recommend this book for anyone caught up in the superficialities of democracy, the “captivity of negativity” or the trivialities of daily life. ★★★★★