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Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 151-154

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Book Review

The Happiness Project: Transforming the Three Poisons that Cause the Suffering We Inflict on Ourselves and Others

The Happiness Project: Transforming the Three Poisons that Cause the Suffering We Inflict on Ourselves and Others. By Ron Leifer, M.D. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion, 1997.313 pp.

This book focuses mostly on Buddhism and psychotherapy, but it ranges widely and includes many reflections on Christianity. Today there are many good books that compare Buddhism with Western psychology, but this one is not to be missed by anyone interested in the topic. Leifer (a former colleague and friend of Ernest Becker, who wrote TheDenial ofDeath) is obviously a very experienced psychiatrist, with deep knowledge of psychoanalytic theory to supplement his many years of practice [End Page 151] as a therapist. This book is many things: a primer on demythologized Buddhism; a superior "self-help" book; a history of psychotherapy, including a critique of its modern medicalization; a speculative account of the evolution of human consciousness; and, not least, the most insightful interpretations of the Job, Oedipus, and Eden myths that I have encountered. The prose style is lucid, and only space limitations keep me from quoting it at length.

The title turns out to be ironic, since our Happiness Projects are the main source of our unhappiness. Our selfish strivings for happiness are, paradoxically, the main cause of the suffering we inflict on ourselves and others.What we "fail to see" (avidya)is not some great mysterious wisdom. "The core of the esoteric knowledge we seek consists of secrets we hide from ourselves. We hide from them because they are not what we want them to be. The world is not what we want it to be. Life is not what we want it to be. Others are not what we want them to be. We are not ourselves what we want to be. We hide from these truths because they mystify and terrify us" (12). The basic "secret" of happiness is that the three poisons--greed, ill will, and ignorance--are the source of our pain and suffering, by creating rebounding karmic ripples. The ego is a trickster who is continually the victim of his own trickery. True happiness can only be the product of an inner transformation that changes our habitual patterns of thought and action, enabling us to "relax into existence." Leifer's psychologized Buddhism is a therapeutic path cleansed of the mystical and paranormal; there is no place here for psychic powers or any transcendental salvation (nirvana is not discussed). The focus throughout is on how we are bedeviled by our own desires.

The book is organized into four main parts. The first offers Leifer's understanding of the first two Buddhist truths. The second part, "Western Views of Suffering," includes profound interpretations of Job and Oedipus Rex. Job's suffering illustrates the first truth, that life is suffering, and his patience is virtuous, even heroic, in its refusal to demand that life be different than it is--an endurance that allows him to avoid making life worse: "Patience is the willingness to suffer without aggression" (131).

The key to the Oedipus story is in his answer to the Sphinx's riddle: humans are the creatures who walk on four legs as infants, on two legs as mature adults, and then on three legs (with a cane) in old age. The riddle is a metaphor for the truths of our impermanence, old age and death. But Oedipus cannot accept it. "From a Buddhist point of view, the story of Oedipus is a metaphor for neurotic mind. Oedipus was the victim of his own grasping ego--of his desires and aggressions. His fate was sealed by his own efforts to escape it. The source of Oedipus' pain and tragedy were his own ignorance, passion, and aggression: the three poisons" (135). His desire for Mom is better understood as a symbol of human desire generally: our refusal to grow up...


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