The Book of Joy
The Book of Joy chronicles a series of conversations and interactions between two of the world’s great spiritual leaders. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and one of the world’s most recognizable spiritual icons. Desmond Tutu was the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in South Africa. He won a Nobel Peace Prize and played an integral role in helping the people of South Africa move past the era of apartheid. In the book, Archbishop Tutu visits the Dalai Lama’s private residence in Dharamsala, India, and they spend about a week together talking about joy. Author Douglas Abrams is responsible for mediating and guiding these conversations, and he has a prominent role in compiling the narrative of the book.
The Connection Between Suffering and Joy
Early in the book, the reader is struck by the physical weakness of these two globally celebrated religious figures. While society subtly deifies spiritual luminaries such as the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu, these men, both of whom are well into the later stages of old age, inhabit bodies plagued by various ailments. Archbishop Tutu battles recurring prostate cancer and takes medicine that leaves him greatly fatigued. The Dalai Lama wears his trademark glasses because his eyes are sensitive to light and walks with a limp due to a bad knee that is inoperable.
These physical weaknesses directly underpin two of the primary points of the book: suffering produces a beautiful outcome, and suffering does not eliminate the ability to live a joyful life. While both Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama experience regular suffering in their human bodies, these experiences of suffering pale in comparison to the great difficulties and trials that both men have faced during the course of their lives. Archbishop Tutu persevered through the racism and violence of apartheid while the Dalai Lama’s home country of Tibet was captured by the Chinese and he was forced to flee to safety in India. He has lived the rest of his days as a political exile.
When Archbishop Tutu talks about suffering and difficulty, he frequently cites the example of Nelson Mandela. Mandela spent twenty-seven years in jail. While the injustice of his imprisonment could have broken and hardened him, Desmond Tutu argues that prison refined and transformed Mandela into a compassionate leader who would go on to form the Truth and Reconciliation Commission along with Archbishop Tutu’s help.
In the book, the Dalai Lama shares a personal story about a time that his own personal suffering lead to a greater sense of compassion for others. In the middle of one of his talks to a large crowd of people, the Dalai Lama experienced an intense pain in his abdomen. He was rushed to the hospital to have his gallbladder operated on. Along the way to the hospital, he saw children in poverty and an old man lying on the ground. Instead of thinking about his own suffering, which was intense at the moment, the Dalai Lama thought about the man and his suffering. He found that by doing so his own suffering in the moment decreased.
In this story, the reader finds one of the most profound insights of the book. Whenever we suffer, the temptation is to turn inward and dwell on our own pain and misery. When we do, we feel isolated and alone in our troubles. By contrast, if we can turn our gaze outward, then our compassion for others will grow and our suffering will decrease. I have found this insight to be true in my own experience. Troubles often cause me to wallow in self-pity, “Why is this happening to me?” A narrow focus on our personal troubles has the further effect of making our troubles seem monumental and insurmountable, “No one else is experiencing something as difficult as me!” When we consider the suffering of others in light of our own suffering, we realize that we are not alone in the trials we face. We grow in compassion for others facing both similar and different troubles, and we can see our own troubles in the greater light of the massive amount of suffering faced by the whole of humanity.
The remaining sections of the book address the obstacles that prevent people from living joyfully and outline the pillars that support a joyful life. Most readers will find these chapters of the book to be informative and practical. However, readers looking for an explicitly and rigorously Christian outlook on joy may find themselves disappointed. While it is surely commendable to bring together religious leaders for interfaith discussions, the book nearly crosses over into the self-help category.
Near the beginning of the book, it becomes clear that Archbishop Tutu has over time moved more and more to embrace progressive theological and social positions such as religious pluralism, universalism, and full LGBT inclusion. In one scene, Archbishop Tutu asserts his confidence that he will see the Dalai Lama again in the kingdom of God. Even more, Archbishop Tutu serves the Dalai Lama communion in a later scene, a decision many Christian leaders will find perplexing at best and deeply troubling at worst. The Dalai Lama is open about his skepticism and lack of belief in a creator God, yet the Archbishop welcomes him to the table of Jesus’ disciples. This wildly open approach to communion fellowship is certainly at odds with the teaching of the vast majority of Christian traditions. In another scene, the Archbishop voices his whole-hearted support for his daughter’s gay marriage, a choice that resulted in her losing her official position with the Anglican Church.
Herein lies the book’s greatest weakness. While the two great teachers differ on some points, there is nearly no difference between the Archbishop’s increasingly progressive view of Christianity and the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan form of Buddhism. In today’s world of religious violence and tribalism, any kind of religious unity should be viewed as a welcome relief from the divisiveness of religion. However, religious pluralism often produces a kind of lowest common denominator form of religion that neglects the richness and complexity of each religious tradition. At one point in the book, Archbishop Tutu draws a connection between his point and C.S. Lewis’ much loved work, Surprised by Joy. Readers of Lewis, who appreciate his clear and authentic Christian voice, may find The Book of Joy to be lacking in the same kind of depth and theological rigor.