This afternoon, I was driving home listening to an audio copy of The Art of
Happiness ( search.barnesandnoble.com/textbooks/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?userid=2TLSUZ2VRE&isbn=1573221112&TXT=Y&itm=1
) by Howard C. Cutler and The Dalai Lama. Somewhere near the beginning of
the book (I don’t know the page number offhand, since I was listening
to it in the car), I had one of those don’t-forget-this kinds of
thoughts. Cutler was talking about one of his first meetings with the Dalai
Lama. Being a psychiatrist, he explained some of the problems he’s
faced in his daily work and asked the Dalai Lama for his views on what
might have been causing the sufferers to go through the things they were
going through. After a brief period of deep thought, followed by laughter,
the Dalai Lama shocked Cutler with the answer: "I don’t
The Dalai Lama, who has spent his entire life in disciplined pursuit of
happiness, doesn’t spend his time trying to figure out what makes
people tick. Our minds are too complex, he says, to fully understand how
they work. Instead, Buddhism advocates a simple approach to get you going
in the right direction and a conceptual framework to help you stay on
track. At it’s core, that is in fact all Buddhism is.
The don’t-forget-this-thought was my realization that a lot of the
power in Buddhist philosophy (for me, at least) is fueled by its
simplicity. And, its simplicity is driven by its goal-oriented nature.
Western science confronts complexity head-on by whipping out the
intellectual scalpel and trying to decompose it from the top down. Buddhist
thought, on the other hand, acknowledges complexity and focuses not on
decomposing it but on finding a few things that work and moving forward.
There’s a heavy focus in Buddhism on how to adapt and learn how to be
happy versus understanding how the mind works and creating a
one-size-fits-all recipe for happiness. This goal-orientedness is what
drives the Dalai Lama to always speak of "Happiness vs.
Suffering" and not "Happiness vs. Unhappiness". It has
always sounded strange to my western ears, like a word that rhymes with
itself. But, "suffering" is something that exists that we can
avoid. "Unhappiness" isn’t as actionable.
Thinking of it this way, I recognized a connection that I knew existed and
I’ve been fishing for lately. Extreme Programming, with its four core
values and 12 core practices (c2.com/cgi/wiki?ExtremeProgrammingRoadmap)
is in some loose ways reminiscent of Buddhism and its Four Noble Truths
leading to the Eight-Fold Path (www.buddhanet.net/4noble.htm).
In both cases, the four antecedents lead to a slightly longer subsequent
list of practices. And, both present simple, adaptive approaches to dealing
with complex problems (though comparing the complexity of software
development and the pursuit of happiness is admittedly a bit far fetched).
As I drove down the freeway listening to the Dalai Lama’s reaction to
Cutler’s Western-centric questions, I was reminded of Kent
Beck’s driving analogy from Extreme Programming Explained ( search.barnesandnoble.com/textbooks/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?userid=35062ST2KB&isbn=0201616416&TXT=Y&itm=1
). XP, he says, is like driving a car. You don’t line up the wheel
and step on the gas until you reach your destination. You don’t even
do that to travel in a straight line—the roads aren’t that
perfect. They can’t be predicted. Instead, you learn a few guiding
principles of driving and use them to adapt your way to your destination.
You’re always steering. This is core to both Buddhism and Extreme
When I got home, I fired up my news aggregator and saw Keith Ray’s
post ( homepage.mac.com/keithray/blog/2003/07/07/
), "These are not opposites". Keith pulls together several
sources discussing the meaning of "agile" and whether or not it
should be considered opposite to "disciplined" (another example
of the effect of the intellectual scalpel). For some reason, especially
with XP (maybe it’s the name?), outside observers get the impression
that agile processes advocate a loose-cannon approach to development.
It just so happens that Buddhism suffers the same misconception. Buddhism
is often dismissed as being nihilistic and self-centered. If it’s all
about being happy, we can just do what we want, right? (If there’s no
upfront design, then there’s no design, right?)
Toward their end goals, Buddhism and Extreme Programming are both extremely
rigorous disciplines. To say that either is an anti-discipline demonstrates
a fundamental lack of understanding. They are both adaptive. They are both
evolutionary. And, they are both more concerned with providing a loose
framework for things we know will work than with decomposing the
problem domain into a scientific formula.
So, the ultimate problem isn’t "discipline" versus
"anarchy". It’s "adaptive" versus
"predictive" and the misconceptions that each of these imply.