Joy from within

The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu give insightful teachings in their joint book

THE BOOK OF JOY

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams

Penguin Random House-Avery Books/Hardcover/354 pages/ $31.57 with GST/Books Kinokuniya

Britain's poet laureate T.S. Eliot once wrote "April is the cruelest month".

But over five days in the Indian city of Dharamsala in April last year, two titans of spirituality had a deep, chuckle-filled chat about the nature of joy, what hinders it and how anyone can live fully.

  • Much to mull about

  • Dutch historian Frank Dikotter will be at The Big Read Meet on Nov 14 from 6.30pm at The Pod, Level 16 National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street. The date for next month's Meet has been brought forward because Dikotter, who lives in Hong Kong, will not be able to stay till the last Wednesday of the month, when the Meet is usually held.

    The award-winning author will speak on his new book, The Cultural Revolution: A People's History. At press time, more than 80 readers have signed up to meet him, so seats are limited. Book yours at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov.sg/golibrary and look for The Big Read Meet.

They were the 14th Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who fought for South Africa's freedom and now drives its truth and reconciliation efforts.

Tutu, 85, weak from prostate cancer, made the difficult journey to his friend's mountainous refuge to celebrate the latter's 80th birthday. In 2011, the Dalai Lama had planned to be with Tutu on his 80th birthday, but the South African government denied him a visa.

The result of their five-day meeting of minds in India is The Book Of Joy. Both men had asked JewishAmerican author, editor and literary agent Douglas Abrams to shape all their dialogues in Dharamsala into a flowing narrative, and Abrams, a long-time collaborator of Tutu's, has done so most elegantly.

Abrams has, in fact, gone one better and structured this book like a birthday cake with three layers:

•The first layer comprises the distillation of the two men's teachings on joy;

• The second tier is made up of the latest scientific research on how to find and sustain joy. So, for example, psychiatrist-educator Daniel Siegel talks about how meditation, the Dalai Lama's way to sustained joy, is scientifically solid because meditating helps the brain delay its fight-or-flight impulse. As Abrams says: "The real secret of freedom may simply be extending this brief space between stimulus and response. Meditation seems to elongate this pause and help expand our ability to choose our response"; and

•The third layer contains all that happened in Dharamsala over those five days in April last year.

  • FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS


  • 1 What are the roots of everlasting joy?

    2 Why is the happiness from having nice things and moments so fleeting?

    3 How should you approach guilt and shame?

    4 Why and how does meditating give you joy?

    5 What is the greatest loss anyone can incur?

Throughout, Abrams has captured their voices well and woven in his reactions to their ruminations. For example, their teachings on drawing hope from personal tragedy resonates with what Abrams' father said when he fell down a flight of steps and injured his brain.

"It's all part of my curriculum," said the elder Abrams, underscoring how there are facets to any experience and it would be best to focus on what is positive.

This is the core teaching of the legendary, non-denominational book A Course In Miracles, which explores how to transform oneself spiritually by, among other things, forgiving oneself and others because everyone is equal. First published in 1975, it was scribed by the late American psychologists Helen Schucman and William Thetford.

Cynics might say it is an exercise in tricking the mind to deny what is reality. But Tutu and the Dalai Lama are not about trickery, merely hoping to lift and heal wounded souls.

To Abrams' credit, he notes faithfully how both men are all too human themselves. Tutu proves quite cranky on certain mornings, Abrams notes, and the Dalai Lama's doctor urges him, for the sake of his health, to give up Coke Zero, his substitute for his beloved rum and Cokes.

The Dalai Lama often startles others with his forthrightness, such as when he confronts the issue of celibacy on Day 1 of the dialogues.

Most humbling, perhaps, is Tutu's rather grudging admiration of his friend's ability to fill football stadiums with his devotees.

Noting the Dalai Lama's light grasp of the English language, Tutu muses: "What they've come for is that you embody something, which they feel, because some of the things that you say, in a sense, are obvious. Yet, it's not the words. It's the spirit behind those words."

The pursuit of happiness has spawned many a course at top universities such as Harvard, countless self-help tomes and troves of tired cliches, such as "love your neighbour as yourself".

But Tutu and the Dalai Lama will tell you that joy, which makes you thankful, cannot be pursued. It wells up from within under certain circumstances, especially when one is in mental or physical pain. The surest way to join, they say, is always to look beyond your "limited self-awareness and interests" to how others are also struggling, often more desperately than you.

Tutu best expresses the essence of joy, perhaps, when he talks about dealing with a traffic jam.

As he says in the book: "You can let the frustration really eat you up. Or you can look around at the other drivers and see that one might have a wife who has pancreatic cancer. It doesn't matter if you don't know exactly what they might have, but you know they are all suffering with worries and fears because they are human. And you can lift them up and bless them. You can say, Please God, give each one of them what they need. The very fact of not thinking about your own frustration and pain does something... and it will make you feel better."

The Dalai Lama concurs with this way of regarding everyone else.

He and Tutu have no illusions that this antidote to despair is hard to swallow, especially in an age when many consider human lives cheap and most people look askance when someone retaliates violently to a slight. Indeed, they devote an entire chapter to that.

Every page is packed with insights. For instance, on Day 1 of their dialogues, the Dalai Lama noted a classic scientific study that found people who use the words "I" and "me" very often are also at greatest risk of having heart attacks.

If you read only one book this year, let this be the one.


Just a minute

THE GOOD

1. Everyone knows what happiness is, but after this book, you will not mistake it for joy. Joy, as the Dalai Lama and his close friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu see it, is a state of clear-eyed calm and buoyancy that exists because of, and not in spite of, anger, fear and suffering.

As the Dalai Lama says: "If there are no difficulties and you are always relaxed, then you complain more."

2. The two titans chose American author, editor and literary agent Douglas Abrams to streamline their many dialogues on joy into a book. Abrams has done a fine job overall, lending a light, well-informed touch to the material. The reader will feel that he is sitting at the two men's feet, drinking in every drop of their wisdom.

3. There is much rib-tickling ribbing between Tutu and the Dalai Lama, which humanises them and helps the reader absorb quickly the points they make on joy. This book is an instant classic not because the two men are great, but because they are real, with irks and quirks which everyone can relate to.

4. Those who admire the late Nelson Mandela will find many anecdotes and insights on him in this book. Tutu worked closely with him in South Africa's anti-apartheid movement and watched him grow from "a very angry young man" to one who was kind, patient and generous to all after 27 years in prison.

Mandela's change of heart is the epitome of both Tutu and the Dalai Lama's teachings on joy; the real wonder is how Mandela stayed sane while being stripped of his dignity daily.

Tutu notes in the book that even at mealtimes, Mandela was discriminated against: "Six ounces of meat for coloureds/Asiatics and five ounces for Bantus (blacks); one ounce of jam or syrup for coloureds/Asiatics and none for Bantus."

THE BAD

1. Abrams set himself a tall order with this book. He had to stay true to the distinct voices of Tutu and the Dalai Lama while capturing the dynamics of how they teased out and bounced ideas off each other; weave into the narrative the latest scientific and medical studies on joy; and put all of the above together coherently. Something had to give, and for Abrams, the trade-off has been not to help readers settle into the changing days in each chapter. So the reader will sometimes find himself a little confused as to who is telling a story or arguing an idea. The book would have been neater if Abrams had put the researchers' views and findings in separate information boxes, which would also have doubled as nifty visual devices.

THE IFFY

1. The lack of an index for a book awash in ideas and personalities is another disservice to the reader.


Fact File: Rising above the challenges

The Dalai Lama turned 80 last year, while his good friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu celebrated that milestone birthday in 2011.

The reader might shrug that off with a "so what?".

Well, to begin with, the very existence of The Book Of Joy, which they wrote together with the help of their friend Douglas Abrams, is a miracle because neither the archbishop nor the head of Tibetan Buddhism were expected to live this long.

As a boy, Tutu contracted polio. His father had to buy wood for his coffin and his mother bought black clothes to mourn him.

Then, as a teenager, he coughed blood into buckets as corpses of his fellow tuberculosis sufferers were wheeled past him in his hometown hospital in South Africa.

His doctor would tell friends looking in on Tutu: "Your young friend is not going to make it."

In The Book Of Joy, Tutu recalls praying: "God, if you want, if this is curtains for me, then it's okay."

Tutu went on to marry, have four children and eventually helped secure freedom for South Africa from apartheid in 1994. He was, in fact, the ambassador of the anti- apartheid struggle globally.

The Dalai Lama, born Lhamo Thondup and now known as Tenzin Gyatso, had a happy-go-lucky childhood among 16 children in the Tibetan village of Taktser in Amdo province. But when he turned 16, communist China began invading Tibet and Tibetans wanted him to lead them against the Chinese.

Theirs was a lost cause.

On March 17, 1959, when he was 24 years old, the Dalai Lama fled on foot, disguised as a palace guard, to India, where he is still exiled.

He was forced to flee because his countrymen had begun repelling China's troops in Lhasa on March 10, 1959.

If he had stayed, there would be bloodshed because Tibetans would have fought to the death to prevent the Chinese from capturing him.

Today, ensconced on the Indian side of the Himalayan mountain range, he says the only thing he fears are the earthquakes that plague the region. With Tutu, his firm friend and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, he is still raring to ease the lot of humanity.

So, tied by a bond of having survived personal and national adversity, they decided to write The Book Of Joy - over soup and Tibetan yogurt pudding.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline 'Joy from within'. Print Edition | Subscribe