Despite having only met a handful of times, the Dalai Lama and Anglican Archbishop Tutu are terrific friends. Their mutual love, respect, generosity, and self-deprecating humor is wonderful to witness. The Book of Joy, by Douglas Abrams, chronicles a meeting spanning several days in which the author both observes and asks questions of these two revered spiritual leaders. The questions are about joy, happiness, the toxic state of the world and how to find joy and happiness within it. There are also questions regarding their personal lives, experiences, and challenges.
Both men have overcome great obstacles in regards to health and national politics. Both have had to adapt their spirituality and personal philosophies to the changing world. Both are highly disciplined (although the Dalai Lama clearly excels in this trait.) They also differ in many ways. Archbishop Tutu is a Christian, the Dalai Lama is a self-described “non-theist” Buddhist. The archbishop is married with children, the Dalai Lama leads a celibate lifestyle. The archbishop chose his path in life, while the Dalai Lama was sought out and plucked from his very large family at the age of 3 to fulfill his spiritual obligations.
The book could be described as “pleasant.” But I cannot describe it as groundbreaking. It is endearing to see the banter between the men and to hear about their histories, especially the Dalai Lama’s exile, but my interest did not go too far beyond this. The concepts of love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness are, no doubt, very important, but I did not extrapolate any significant depth from the discussions. The Dalai Lama was always the one who initiated answers, while the archbishop usually “seconded” them. However, for a reader such as myself who believes in God and an afterlife, unlike the Dalai Lama (who frequently reminded the reader of this fact,) it often felt like a large puzzle piece was missing.
The person who doesn’t give himself enough credit is the author himself, who often contributed insights that elaborated and enhanced the discussions. As the book continued I found myself highlighting more and more of his thoughts. By the end, after color coding the contributions of all three men involved, the Dalai Lama had the most highlights, the author was second, and the archbishop was third.
Make no mistake, I do think an audience exists for this book. Someone who reveres these men more than myself, someone who is a nontheist or agnostic, someone who lacks personal or scriptural resources on joy and happiness, someone who wants to read a pleasant book about joy without digging too deep, someone who enjoys a wider range of reading material than myself…there are plenty who would enjoy this book very much. Sadly, my enjoyment had its limitations.