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The Book of Joy

By Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams 

Penguin, 2016

Reviewed by Andrew Bay


On 26 December 2021, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a member of an exclusive club whose courage changed the course of history, quietly passed away in a Cape Town medical care centre. I recall now how the influence of this great man of peace extended even to music and musicians – as exemplified by the electronic beats of Miles Davis’s avant-garde funk album Tutu. In 1986, Tutu won the Grammy Award for the best jazz recording of the year, just two years after the archbishop in whose honour the record was made received the Nobel Peace Prize. 

In many regards, Desmond Tutu served as a trailblazer for Nelson Mandela. He may be thought of today as a cheerful, avuncular fellow but during the 1980s he was vilified in South Africa. He was the man most of his white compatriots loved to hate – for his unfettered truth-telling about the evils of apartheid and the inevitability of its end.

Decades after listening to Tutu, my wife bought me The Book of Joy (2016) which documents a visit which Reverend Tutu paid to the Dalai Lama in April 2015, to celebrate the Tibetan master’s 80th birthday in Dharamsala, India. The week-long conversation between these two Nobel laureates rapidly gravitates towards a central theme: what is the nature of joy? Why is it scarce? How can it be attained and then preserved for our own, and others’ benefit and welfare? 

Re-reading The Book of Joy at the end of last year, it seemed that there are three major lessons to be taken from it. The first truth, which Reverend Tutu and the Dalai Lama want to impart to us, is that the root of joy is to be found in the acceptance that suffering is an integral part of life. Nothing of value can come to us without a struggle and it is that tension between suffering and joy which makes the valuable moments in our lives all the more precious. The second skill we must develop in order to master joy is to turn our suffering into a constructive force. This is achieved by learning to switch our focus on ourselves to others, instead. In so doing, we immediately put our concerns into perspective, and by supporting someone else, we re-align the negative forces that paralyse us. The third lesson consists of trying to understand the nature of fear. The daily practice of the simple art of patience shows us that most of the things we fear will either come to pass or prove to be beyond our control. This realisation robs fear of its devastating power to disrupt our lives. 

From these three lessons, Reverend Tutu and the Dalai Lama show us how we can start building a foundation for our own happiness, with the eight pillars of joy: perspective, humility, humour, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity.  ‘People with humility don’t think less of themselves; they just think of themselves less,’ they conclude. As the quote rings in my ears, I smile at the thought of this unlikeliest pairing of minds; two octogenarians giggling like teenagers is the purest expression of the human ingenuity and joy which the world so desperately needs today.–the-sunday-times-bestseller/9781786330444.html