The Book of Joy
His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams
by Dona Winger from nourishmewellness.com
How do we find joy in the face of suffering? Is it right for us to seek and experience joy when so many are suffering? These are the questions asked and answered in The Book of Joy by two men who are experts in both joy and suffering. I was drawn to this book because of my love for the Dalai Lama, but what I found was a broader meaning of joy, the idea that my happiness is my own responsibility, and a new perspective on Christianity.
For a week in April of 2015, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa travelled to Dharamsala, India for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. The two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and good friends had bigger plans, however. They wanted to create a gift for the world. For several hours each day, these humble spiritual leaders poked fun at each other, traded perspectives, and talked deeply about what it means to truly experience joy. Luckily, Douglas Abrams was there to document the conversations and tell their story.
Thus, this book was born. Each chapter is full of highly quotable musings and life lessons. Even now, as I revisit it for the third or fourth time in two years, I find lessons that weren’t relevant to me when I read it last. I’m sure there are more that I have still to discover.
What is Joy?
“Discovering joy does not, I’m sorry to say…save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet, as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.” -Archbishop Desmond Tutu
The Book of Joy uncovers the true nature of joy, the obstacles to joy, and the qualities that allow us to experience more joy. Joy is resilient, enduring happiness. It is finding the silver lining in the darkest of times. Through the conversation, they agreed on eight pillars of joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity.
“The way you see the world, the meaning you give to what you witness, changes the way you feel.”
The way we see the world is the way we experience it. We create our own reality. There is never all good or all bad in something. You can choose to see the good and turn your experience from one of suffering to one of joy.
Throughout the book is the theme that joy is profound happiness in the face of terrible suffering. Examples are given of people who have found greater happiness not only in the face of hardship and suffering, but oftentimes because of it. People like Nelson Mandela, imprisoned during apartheid, now an advocate for peace; Viktor Frankl, Auschwitz survivor and inspirational writer (“Our perspective toward life is our final and ultimate freedom.”); the Dalai Lama himself, separated from his people and his country, living in exile, his people suffering, yet an advocate for forgiveness and peace. All of these people have witnessed and experienced terrible hardship, yet have not become hard. They are now inspirational leaders for peace.
“My talk may offer them something relevant, but if I consider myself something special, or if they also consider me something different and special, then my experience will not be of much use…When I was young, and had to give some formal teachings, because I was not thinking that we are all the same, I would experience anxiety. I would think of myself as something special, and that kind of thinking would make me feel isolated.” -His Holiness the Dalai Lama
A barrier to happiness, and therefore joy, is feeling superior or different from our fellow human beings. The most wonderful thing is when we can connect on a personal level. A human level. In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama says, “When I’m at a very holy or formal meeting, I truly am thinking that I wish something would go wrong,” because people can maintain a false facade when things are going well, but when things go wrong they have to get real and that is when authentic connections can be made.
Humility is not something someone can claim to have. It is finding humor in the serious. It is treating the guy sweeping the floor the same as you would expect to be treated yourself. It is understanding that we are all the same. We all need one another. When things fall apart is when we understand that we are not superior but, under it all, the same.
“When we learn to take ourselves slightly less seriously, then it is a very great help. We can see the ridiculous in us.” -Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Throughout The Book of Joy there are many examples of how much humor these two holy men possess. When we think of religious summits, dialogs, or debates, humor isn’t something that is expected. Many times in this book, these two religious leaders poked fun at each other, teased one another, and laughed at themselves. Humor is also a form of the humility we spoke of earlier. Humor breaks down social barriers, and makes people feel easier around one another. It is the most obvious symbol of joy.
When you are able to laugh at yourself, the humor you find about the world becomes less malicious. Then you are able to laugh at life despite the tragedy, suffering, and uncertainty. Many people think that no one will respect them or take them seriously if they display anything but a serious nature. Contrariwise, these two highly respected leaders display a large capacity for humor. In fact, the Dalai Lama says, “I believe very fervently that one of the ways of getting into the hearts of people is the capacity of making them laugh.” What better test of respectability is there than winning someone’s heart?
“Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy if it cannot be remedied?” -a quote by the Dalai Lama which hangs in the Tibetan Children’s Village, slightly different from a teaching by Shantideva, an 8th century Buddhist master.
Acceptance is the opposite of resignation. It is welcoming the beauty and joyfulness of life in the face of suffering and hardship. Through acceptance, we are able to see the big picture, and our place in it.
Archbishop Tutu says, “We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin.” Denying that there is a storm will not make the storm pass quicker. But accepting the storm, with all of it’s ugliness, gives us a chance to learn, gain experience, and move on wiser. It gives us a chance to maybe see the storm in a more positive light. To not only endure, but to thrive.
“I have seen remarkable instances of forgiveness carried out by people we would not have thought could possibly do it.” -Archbishop Desmond Tutu
After this quote, in The Book of Joy, the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama discuss examples of unthinkable acts of forgiveness. Some examples are hard to read because of the tragedy that had been endured.
The Dalai Lama has forgiven China for what they have done and continue to do to his people and his country. Nelson Mandela has forgiven his captors. Mothers have forgiven the murders of their children. This book contains a story about a man falsely accused of murder who spent 30 years in a maximum security prison, yet harbors no malice in his heart. He said, “If I’m angry and unforgiving, they will have taken the rest of my life.” Likewise, people who endured terrible tragedy during apartheid found peace through forgiveness.
When speaking of forgiveness, it is important to remember that forgiveness is for you. Not for the other person. Forgiveness gives you peace, it makes you whole, it softens your heart, it allows you to experience joy. In that respect, it is a selfish act. You don’t need to forget what the other person did, in fact it is better that you learn from it, but you forgive them nonetheless.
“When you are grateful, you are not fearful, and when you are not fearful, you are not violent. When you are grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not out of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share.” -Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic Benedictine monk who spent time in Christian-Buddhist interfaith relations.
Gratitude means looking beyond what is right in front of you and finding the beauty and wonder. When you are grateful, you see the possibility in the moment, and in this possibility there is beauty hidden in even the most dire of circumstances. It is another way to reframe our experience to one that is more positive. To embrace whatever the day may bring with love.
Being thankful for everyday things enhances joy. To pause and be mindfully grateful allows us to appreciate the present moment more fully and so to experience greater joy within it. It is understanding that every moment is a gift. It is celebrating the good in yourself, your world, and in others.
Gratitude has also been scientifically proven to increase positivity and general well-being and decrease stress. According to a study performed by Emmons and McCullough of UC Davis, people who practice gratitude tend to exercise more, have fewer physical symptoms, were more motivated, and felt more positive about the future than those who didn’t.
“When we say ‘I, I, I, I, I’…you are going to come a cropper. But when you say, ‘How can I help?’ even in the midst of you deep anguish, it’s got an alchemy that transforms your pain.” -Archbishop Desmond Tutu
When you expand your consciousness to include people around you, you open yourself up to receive more joy. The Dalai Lama suggests when going through a difficult experience, look around you at the people who are going through it with you. Instead of focusing on your own pain, focus on lessening the pain of others. In this way, you help the other person and find that you are helping yourself as well. This is compassion. Instead of thinking “I need,” change the thought to “Weneed.”
How good does it feel to help others? When you give to charity or buy someone lunch, it doesn’t just help you, it helps those around you. The universe responds to those who practice compassion by increasing abundance. Just like in the case of forgiveness, with compassion you receive more than you give.
“I’ve sometimes joked and said God doesn’t know very much math, because when you give to others, it should be that you are subtracting from yourself. But in this incredible kind of way—I’ve certainly found that to be the case so many times—you gave and it then seems like in fact you are making space for more to be given to you.” -Archbishop Desmond Tutu
It is often said that giving to others increases your capacity for abundance. The more you give, the more you are able to receive. Generosity is encouraged by almost every religious tradition, because it is something we learn to enjoy. The more we do it, the better we feel about ourselves and the world. Generosity lights up reward centers in our brains, literally makes us happier, and then we are more likely to give to others in the future. It is even linked to better health and longer life expectancy.
So in this competitive, eat or be eaten, stressed out world, how do we find capacity for generosity? You don’t always have to give money to reap the benefits generosity provides. Giving time, effort, knowledge, counseling, protection, or love are also generous practices. Collaborating with others not only helps them, it helps you as well. We are all interconnected. We need one another. We cannot survive on our own; as humans or as people in business.
The Final Word
How do we increase joy in our world?
The Dalai Lama says, “I think the only way really is, as we have said, is through education. Education is universal. We must teach people, especially our youth, the source of happiness and satisfaction. We must teach them that the ultimate source of happiness is within themselves. Not machine. Not money. Not power. We are not talking about heaven or hell or Buddhahood or salvation; these are too far away. So our book is part of this important process to help spread the message that love, kindness, and affection are the source of joy and happiness.”
What is the intention for this book?
The Archbishop says, “I hope this book will leave you with more hope and a sense of greater responsibility rooted in genuine concern for others’ wellbeing. You see, in order to become a happy person, we need to live more from the compassionate part of our nature and to have a sense of responsibility toward others in the world we live in…If you live this way, until your last breath comes you will be a happy, happy person. That’s the goal of human life—to live with joy and purpose.”
There are also video and audio recordings available for these interviews at
Would you like to know more about His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu?