Book review: ‘The Book of Joy,’ by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams
December 3, 2016
In times of uncertainty, one looks to those who seem to give comfort without effort. One can't help but feel drawn to certain individuals who seem endowed with a remarkable ability to put out into the world exuberance and a buoyancy of spirit that inspires others to do the same. His Holiness the Dalai Lama and South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu are two spiritual leaders who have managed to cross the boundaries of seemingly divergent faiths to discover the core of what makes human existence the wondrous and messy journey that it is.
The new release, "The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World," narrated by biographer Douglas Abrams, chronicles the special week in which the two men, both in their 80s, sat down for a historic meeting of the minds. Making a powerful force, the Tibetan leader and the Archbishop speak as one, inviting the reader to strive for joyful, purposeful living, which, they insist, is not through the sensory pleasures and materialism that engulf modern society but through compassionate and generous living, both key elements to finding personal joy no matter the burdens one has to bear.
What is most remarkable about the book is the tone, which is light and heartwarming, much of which comes from the obvious love His Holiness and the Archbishop have for each other, even though they have only met several times for brief periods. They refer to each other as the other's "mischievous spiritual brother," and as biographer Abrams repeats often, the men find ample time during their days of interviews to dissolve into laughter and mutual teasing, which is never far away.
Both leaders have had their share of suffering, so they speak from wells of knowledge and perspectives that will inspire even the most cynical of readers. The Dalai Lama has spent 56 years in exile from his homeland of Tibet, where he was witness to the hardships and depravations of countless countrymen. Tutu worked tirelessly in his beloved South Africa during the horrors of apartheid, and he has long suffered from prostate cancer. Neither of them is free from sadness or frustration.
Cultivating a Joyful Mind
Both of them insist that it is how one deals with suffering that determines one's ability to achieve a life of joy. One cannot experience the bounty of existence without having experienced the sadness, which "is seemingly the most direct challenge to joy." But as Abrams tells, the Archbishop argues "it often leads us most directly to empathy and compassion and recognizing our need for one another." This, Abrams writes, is an overarching theme for joyous living, according to the two spiritual leaders.
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The modern world is a lonely place. To move among a throng of people and feel no connection is a disheartening experience. Humans have become increasingly "physically close and emotionally distant." Science has shown that cooperation is crucial, even at the most primitive levels of human existence, a notion that both the Dalai Lama and Tutu describe as "Ubuntu," the teaching that says, "a person is a person through other people."
When cultivating a joyful mind, one can be utterly alone and still be emotionally connected to the wider world and everyone in it. Key, they both say, is that instead of focusing on the "I" and the "me," it is better to focus on the "you," the "us" and the "we."
Both Tutu and the Dalai Lama have made it their life missions to focus on others, and it is clear that the more they give, the more joy they get in return. Abrams marvels at how many times during their week together, the two men seemed "more 8 than 80." Much of the book is one profound insight after another, and there is much to take away in a practical sense, as well. Striving for compassionate living is really a biological survival mechanism. Both men advocate for what is called, "reciprocal altruism," which will literally improve one's health, as compassion is a good behavior that is contagious.
In essence, the more one gives, the more one gets, and the more one takes, the more one loses. Anyone who has "paid it forward" knows the pleasure that comes from giving to others. Tutu and the Dalai Lama embody this notion and have each made it his life's mission to put out compassion and gratitude into the world, bringing immense joy to millions. "The Book of Joy" reinforces their teachings and gives a powerful message of hope in a rapidly changing, and often overwhelming, world.
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