Book Review: The Book of Joy by The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

I fell off the writing wagon for 1.5 months with all the travelling — but I’m back and trying to make up for it! While I was on the road (that deserves more attention in a separate post), I managed to finish this great book.

It starts off poignantly by setting up the context behind the meeting between these two spiritual leaders — this could very well be the last time the two friends see each other face to face, given the ravages of old age, sickness and political roadblocks that make arranging another meeting difficult and unlikely.

On one hand, this captures their reflections on what true joy is and how to cultivate it within yourself and in others, but it is also a reflection about their their deep friendship and affection for each other.

One of the things that struck me most is the playfulness of the relationship between these two elderly men that have experienced tragedy and hardship in their lives — the Dalai Lama being exiled from Tibet for almost 50 years and having to be the spiritual and political leader of the embattled Tibetans, and Archbishop Tutu who had to battle apartheid in his homeland, and cancer in his later years. Every other page records instances of the two ribbing and teasing each other, revealing a depth of comfort possessed by kindred spirits.

The book is essentially a record of a series of interviews held over a few days in Dharamsala, with the author Doug Abrams adding in scientific findings that corroborate with what the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu espouse about finding and sustaining joy.

The good news is that there is nothing groundbreaking revealed here (at least I think that’s good news). It is not like the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu have been harbouring the secret of lasting joy to themselves and have only just decided to share the keys to this elusive garden with the world. Nonetheless, coming from these two, and articulated in a clear narrative, will hopefully help more people find joy in a world filled with suffering.

[This wasn’t discussed at length in the book, but my here are my side thoughts about suffering: all suffering is relative. When one suffers, it completely fills your heart and mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. This is not a statement to validate nor dismiss the ‘size of suffering’ of different people, but to simply recognize that suffering is relative. Therefore, our choice of perspective to our suffering determines our response. OK, tangential point made, back to the main narrative.]

The Dalai Lama made an observation that even though both of them are spiritual leaders of their respective faiths, there is a recognition that no single faith will ever be universal, however, he believes that there are some human values that are universal across cultural, geographical, political boundaries. And for these values to be propagated throughout the world, widespread education is the only way. This ambition remains the guiding objective of this book.

[Side note: I’m in two minds about whether there is indeed such a thing as ‘a set of universal values’, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume for now that there is.]

The book summarises eight pillars of joy: 1) Examining one’s Perspective 2) Living with Humility 3) Humor: Laughing and Joking often 4) Acceptance: The only place where change can begin 5) Forgiveness which frees us from the past 6) Exercising Gratitude 7) Exhibiting Compassion 8) Demonstrating Generosity.

The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu believe that these values transcend religious, cultural, economic and political differences between people, and can not only help them attain lasting joy through sustained practice, but also help others in their orbit to be impacted as well.

I particularly enjoyed this old refrain from the famous serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; 
courage to change the things I can; 
and wisdom to know the difference.
- Reinhold Niebuhr

There are some helpful meditative practices in the appendix of the book that help one start to put some baby steps into practising the principles covered.

This book tackles some pretty heavy topics, but there’s always room for a laugh here and there-The Dalai Lama is self-deprecating about his poor English; Archbishop Tutu laughs about his distinctive nose. I’ve come away thinking that that is one small thing that I can try to do each day-take a deep breath and have a chuckle about myself.

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