The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, published in 2016, is based on five days of talks between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Dharamsala, India. The leader of the Tibetan community-in-exile and the anti-apartheid crusader have been friends since they met at a gathering of Nobel Laureates years ago, and the week they spent together was punctuated by laughter and a birthday party for the Dalai Lama.
Below, the book’s editor, Doug Abrams, recalls moderating the discussion between the legendary religious leaders and activists.
You had the opportunity to spend nearly a week with the Dalai Lama and Tutu. Tell me about spending time with them. They just love each other and have this incredible friendship. We knew they would enjoy being with each other, but we didn’t know how much it would mean for them to be with each other.
We arrived on the tarmac and the Dalai Lama came down—which he rarely does because it shuts the whole city down—to greet Tutu, and they embraced. Arch, as he likes to be called, is holding the cheeks of the Dalai Lama like a grandfather holding a beloved child’s face. He goes in for a kiss on the cheek of the Dalai Lama and the Dalai Lama is all giggles because he was taken away from his family at the age of 2 and probably has had very few, if any, kisses in his lifetime!
We had this amazing opportunity not only to have a dialogue but also to have the Dalai Lama teach us to meditate and Archbishop Tutu give the Dalai Lama communion.
What was your favorite moment during that week? We planned for what we thought would be a small birthday party for the Dalai Lama, but 2,500 people came out! This was one of the most moving parts of the entire experience.
Children who are sent to India from Tibet at a very early age to attend these boarding schools operated by the Dalai Lama were there. The children’s parents send them away knowing they may not see them for 13 years, if ever again. The school had done a whole curriculum on joy in the face of adversity, which is really the core of the book. It’s not, “How do we have joy when everything is wonderful?” but “How do we have joy when life is challenging?”
We watched the Dalai Lama dance for the first time at his party. As a Tibetan Buddhist monk he is prohibited from dancing, but Arch, being African, was having none of it. The school band was playing “We Are The World,” and Arch gets up, and he’s all elbows as he’s dancing. He pulls up the Dalai Lama —who was about as comfortable on the dance floor as a junior high school boy—and His Holiness starts shuffling back and forth, swaying with a little bit of jazz hands.
Another incredible moment was when we were talking about their deaths and the Dalai Lama said to the Archbishop, “I think that at the moment that I die, I will see your face.” It was an unbelievably beautiful expression of love and friendship.
The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama were laughing the whole week, and one of the running jokes was about who was going to heaven. The Dalai Lama was saying that maybe if Arch—as a “believer”—went to heaven first, he could argue to get him in. Or he could hold on to his skirts and get a free pass. At the very end when we were talking about death, the Dalai Lama said, “You know, I’ve decided. I don’t want to go to heaven. I want to go to hell. There are more people there who I can help.”
Spirituality and prayer can be viewed as passive, but both the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have combined political action and spiritual practice. In The Book of Joy, Tutu says that it was important to recognize apartheid as a part of reality but not to accept it is inevitable. Both the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have been incredible social justice activists around the world in addition to dealing with their own countries and causes. I think they would say that taking action is the proving ground of one’s spirituality. It’s how we interact in our relationships, fulfill our values, and determine if we’re really living our spirituality.
And I think they would both say compassion is one of the ways that we hold on to our humanity, even during a struggle. I remember the Archbishop telling me how he would begin each day by praying for the well-being of the members of the apartheid regime, even though he was actively working for the movement’s downfall. Ultimately, he says that helped him work with them when the regime change occurred. This is a really profound reminder of the important role of righteous indignation and anger but not, as the Dalai Lama would say, letting that anger turn into negative experiences that get in the way of our goals.
Not surprisingly, what you’re talking about here points to the Buddhist teachings, including the practice of shifting your perspective. Early on in their conversations, Tutu turned to the Dalai Lama and said, “Why are you not morose?” The Dalai Lama did not know what the word “morose” meant, so Thupten Jinpa, his translator, interpreted this as sad. “Why are you not sad?” The Dalai Lama has been exiled—one of the most tragic and heartbreaking things that can happen to anybody—but he still seems luminous and full of joy.
The Dalai Lama said to Tutu: “I would never have met you. Or I would never have met all of the people I’ve met.” Then, Tutu replied, “You know, you’re almost saying that it’s not despite the adversity that you discovered this joy, but because of this adversity that you have discovered this joy.” This was an incredibly powerful reframe, because we often think of happiness as “don’t worry, be happy.” And what they were really going after is the idea that at the deepest level, these sources of suffering can be seeds of joy.
There are a few parts in the book where these two wonderful men disagree. One time is when the Archbishop says negative thoughts and emotions are natural and unavoidable, but the Dalai Lama thinks they can be avoided by cultivating “mental immunity.” Arch was really wanting to remind people of the four fundamental human emotions—fear, anger, sadness, and joy—that all our other emotional flavors come from. Three of those we often consider negative: fear, anger, and sadness. Arch was really adamant about not beating ourselves up when we do have these human experiences. The Dalai Lama agreed that these are very natural, but said that you can experience less anger, fear, and sadness by disciplining the mind and cultivating practices of joy. The Dalai Lama is saying that if you do these meditative and spiritual practices before you start having negative emotions, then you’re less likely to fall into fear, anger, and sadness. And then the Archbishop is there to remind us to be easy on yourself once you’ve fallen in and before you’ve recovered.
We live in a time of war, genocide, climate change, and refugee crises. Did the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama think that this book was particularly important to publish now? We didn’t know how timely the book would be. The question they are continually asked from people around the world is not how to live with more joy, but how to experience joy when so many others are suffering.
Arch and His Holiness say the world is actually getting much better. It is very easy to get fixated on an election cycle, a terrorist attack, or another particular issue. And certainly we are very much aware of all of the violence that’s happening in our world in a way that we weren’t even a couple generations ago.
One of the interesting statistics is that up until a few hundred years ago, your chances of dying at the hands of another human was one in four. Now it’s one in 100,000. This doesn’t mean contemporary conflicts are not incredibly concerning or horrific. But I do believe what they say in the book: despair—the loss of hope—is in many ways the enemy.
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop both said that human beings are fundamentally good. The aberration is when we harm and hurt each other. The Dalai Lama sat up straight in his chair one day and said to Archbishop, “What you said before, that sense that humans are fundamentally good—that should give us some confidence. That should give us some hope.”
The Archbishop is very adamant that hope is different than optimism. It’s not this sense of, “Oh, yeah. Let me be optimistic and hope that things get better.” It’s really a fundamental conviction in humanity, in the future, in the possibility of what we can create together. We can zoom out, realize that we don’t recognize the whole picture, and be able to laugh at ourselves and the outrageous comedy of errors that is human life. And finally, to be able to have forgiveness and gratitude for all that we have and open our hearts in compassion and generosity. Then we have the possibility to not only experience more joy for ourselves, but also to create a more joyful and peaceful world.
At the Dalai Lama’s birthday party, a student asked him if joy can be a part of creating world peace. He had a really wonderful response: “Yes, absolutely. Because when you think about it, when you have a happy family, there is less conflict. When you have a happy community, there is less conflict. And when you have a happy humanity, you have less conflict.”
[This story was first published in 2017]
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