Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

The Book of Joy

“The ultimate source of happiness is within us. ”

Images will skip through the mind’s eye at the mention of the word “joy.” Something luminous, certainly bright and lively. Daffodils swinging on a warm zephyr1 Jubilant faces of loved ones.

I can’t imagine anyone would mentally configure a dark, still corner where wind daren’t enter at the bell of “joy.”

Photograph of "Joy" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of joy: a dynamic, exploding arrangement of celosia, craspedia, gloriosa in bright purple and orange hues. Part of Interflora’s award-winning “Stories of Emotions” display at the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Joy is easily imagined yet tedious to define.

In his reclamation of overused words, Poet David Whyte calls joy a “meeting of place, of deep intentionality and of self forgetting” a definition which, while lustrous, shows what I mean about joy’s complexity.

So what is joy? We imagine it but can we define it?

In 2015 two friends and Nobel laureates, the Most Reverend Archbishop Desmond Tutu (October 7, 1931 – December 26, 2021) and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (born July 6, 1935) hugged, laughed and connected as long-time friends in Dharamshala, India, the home of the exiled Lama.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama in 2015. Photograph from BBC as part of the Mission Joy film.

They also perched themselves next to the issue of joy. Ruminating, gently turning it around in their minds, until a robust picture of joy based on eight pillars of human nature emerged.

A Holistic View of Reality

The first element, pillar, is what the Dalai Lama called it “a wider perspective,” literally stepping outside our own footprints and standing elsewhere. “We must look at any given situation or problem from the front and from the back” he began, “From the sides, and from the top and the bottom, so from at least six different angles.”

For every event in life,” the Dalai Lama said, “there are many different angles. When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces, and you have greater joy.” The Dalai Lama had discussed the importance of a wider perspective when he was telling us about how he was able to see the calamity of his losing his country as an opportunity. It was jaw-dropping to hear him “reframe more positively” the last half century of exile. He had been able to see not only what he had lost but also what he had gained: wider contact and new relationships, less formality and more freedom to discover the world and learn from others. He had concluded, “So therefore, if you look from one angle, you feel, Oh, how bad, how sad. But if you look from another angle at that same tragedy, that same event, you see that it gives me new opportunities.

Approaching Situations With Humility

The second pillar is one that should be remembered soon and often: be humble. In his second of three autobiographies, Stephen Fry begins with an apology, or rather an apology for his apologizing behavior. I love this man and almost everything he writes and I can’t help but wonder if he is seriously sorry or using it as a technique to ingratiate?

Regardless, what it does is introduce us to his imperfect, human side.

Archbishop Tutu does the same when he makes speeches: “I consider myself simply another person… same human being. So I am just one human being talking to other human beings.”

The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop were both insistent that humility is essential to any possibility of joy. When we have a wider perspective, we have a natural understanding of our place in the great sweep of all that was, is, and will be. This naturally leads to humility and the recognition that as human beings we can’t solve everything or control all aspects of life. We need others.

The Archbishop has poignantly said that our vulnerabilities, our frailties, and our limitations are a reminder that we need one another: We are not created for independence or self-sufficiency, but for interdependence and mutual support. The Dalai Lama was saying that we are all born and all die in the same way, and at these moments we are totally dependent on others, whether we are a Dalai Lama or a beggar, whether we are an Archbishop or a refugee.

The Warming Nature of Humor

When we learn to take ourselves slightly less seriously,” the Archbishop continued, “then it is a very great help. We can see the ridiculous in us. I was helped by the fact that I came out of a family who did like to take the mickey out of others, and who were quite fond of pointing out the ridiculous, especially when someone was being a bit hoity-toity. And they had a way of puncturing your sense of self-importance.”

Michael Palin in Four Yorkshireman sketch, 2014, featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on
“I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing ‘Hallelujah.'” Michael Palin in the Four Yorkshiremen sketch that satirizes our romance of memory. Photo by Eduardo Unda-Sanzana. © CC BY 2.0

Of course neither leader was oblivious to the importance of reconciling humor with a holistic view of reality. The Archbishop continued:

Of course it’s not a laughing matter not to know where your next meal is going to come from. It’s not a laughing matter when you get up in the morning and you don’t have a job. Yet it was those people who quite frequently were the ones who formed part of the crowds that used to come to the political rallies, the funerals. And they were the people who were able to laugh at themselves. And then their laughing at others would be less malicious. They weren’t particularly number one in God’s garden, but they were able to laugh at life in all its cruelty and uncertainty. Humor really is the saving grace.

As seen in their lives and perhaps in your own experience, humor acts as a primer. It loosens stiff muscles that would otherwise pull when asked to exercise compassion and kindness.2

The Openness of Acceptance

“Welcome is every organ and attribute of me,” wrote Walt Whitman in his glorious anthem of self. Whitman’s verse, ‘Acceptance’, was written and rewritten between 1855 and the poets death in 1892. Acceptance, both of our self and others, opens our hearts most broadly.

Acceptance—whether we believe in God or not—allows us to move into the fullness of joy. It allows us to engage with life on its own terms rather than rail against the fact that life is not as we would wish. It allows us not to struggle against the day-to-day current. The Dalai Lama had told us that stress and anxiety come from our expectations of how life should be. When we are able to accept that life is how it is not as we think it should be, we are able to ease the ride, to go from that bumpy axle (dukkha), with all its suffering, stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction, to the smooth axle (sukha), with its greater ease, comfort, and happiness. Many of the causes of suffering come from our reacting to the people, places, things, and circumstances in our lives, rather accepting them. When we react, we stay locked in judgment and criticism, anxiety and despair, even denial and addiction. It is impossible to experience joy when we are stuck this way. Acceptance is the sword that cuts through all of this resistance, allowing us to relax, to see clearly, and to respond appropriately.

Neither a weapon nor a shield, acceptance is the opposite of both, it recalls Whitman’s bare-heartedness and open-mindedness. It opens the door to an opening of self.

Illustration for Erich Fromm's "The Art of Loving" in the Examined Life Library.
An image of brotherly love, the love that underlines all others according to German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. Illustration by Ana-Maria Grigoriu for The Examined Life.

The Uplifting Nature of Forgiveness

In his role as the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Cape Town and Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Desmond Tutu was a world leader against oppression and developed best practices for countries to overcome near and long histories of oppression.

The Archbishop spent countless hours with families affected by the violence and inhumanity of South Africa’s apartheid and called attention to the dignity that accompanied forgiveness.

You know, when these mothers came to the Commission they were quite amazing, really, because no one demanded that they should forgive these people—they called them askaris—who were formerly members of the African National Congress who then turned and supported the government forces. The one who betrayed these young people came and appeared in front of these mothers and asked for their forgiveness.

“When the mother of the young man who had been dragged through the street saw the traitor, she took off her shoe and threw it at him,” the Archbishop said, laughing and pretending to throw shoe with his left hand. “We had to adjourn for a little while, but then during the break came a totally fantastic moment as they sat there…” The Archbishop closed his eyes, remembering the unbelievable power of her words, “My child-she said ‘my child’ to this one who had been responsible for the death of their children. She said, “My child, we forgive you.

“When we asked her about the granting of amnesty, she said, ‘What is it going to help us if he were to go to prison? It won’t bring back our children.’ And there is an incredible kind of nobility and strength. Yes, it’s difficult, but it has happened. We talked about Nelson Mandela, but there were these mothers, and many others who were not household names, who had this magnanimity.

“I keep on dying/ Because I love to live” wrote Maya Angelou in her generous poem “The Lesson” a copious call to forgiveness. It speaks to this idea that we withhold forgiveness for fear it will invite future pain, but what it really does is free us from the past pain.

cruelty and falsity of spring
Dried purple hyacinths. In Classical legend, Hyacinthus was a beautiful youth whom Apollo adored and accidentally killed. The purple variety means “Please Forgive Me.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“This is where the tenderness comes in” argues Pema Chödrön in her landmark book on embracing pain. “When things are shaky and nothing is working, we realize that we are on the verge of something.”


“I am now face to face with dying, announces Oliver Sacks’ in his last published book, Gratitude “But I am not finished with living.”

Gratitude is the most difficult for me, personally. I do not have the emotional language to understand it. Like any unpracticed muscle.

It is blank where brightness should be. The Book of Joy has a tonic for this blankness.

You can be helped to look at the world and see a different perspective,” the Archbishop said. “Where some people see a half-empty cup, you can see it as half-full. Perhaps people will be moved to see that there are very, very, very many people in the world today who will not have had the kind of breakfast that you had. Many, many millions in the world today are hungry. It’s not your fault, but you woke up from a warm bed, you were able to have a shower, you put on clean clothes, and you were in a home that is warm in the winter. Now just think of the many who are who wake up in the morning, and there’s not very much for them against the rain that is pelting down. Perhaps there is no warmth or food or even just water. It is to say in a way, yes, it is to say really, you do want to count your blessings.”

This is a very traditional view of gratitude, the things you have that others do not, and yet, I find it too general. Not because it is not true but because one’s empathy does not easily extend to the unknown. That is a human flaw.

I found the following passage more helpful.

Neither the Archbishop nor the Dalai Lama spent a great deal of time talking about enjoyment, perhaps because both of their traditions are skeptical of finding lasting happiness through sensual indulgence, but I had been happy to find that neither of them was opposed to the pleasures permitted in their spiritual lives, whether Tibetan rice pudding or rum raisin ice cream. Gratitude is the elevation of enjoyment, the ennobling of enjoyment.

The love of chocolate, tea and poetry, and my deep warm bed. I am grateful for these things. Start small and work the muscle.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.


The overwhelming force that lifts all others is compassion. Last because it naturally follows, last because it brings everything together, last because without it, there is nothing else. The heart of joy is compassion.3

I want to say,” the Dalai Lama now added, passionate and wanting to convince the skeptics, “look at Stalin’s picture or Hitler’s picture and compare it to the face of Mahatma Gandhi, and also the face of this person.” He was pointing to the Archbishop. “You can see that the person who has all the who lacks compassion, who only thinks about control,” the Dalai Lama said as he ground one hand into the other, “can never be happy. I think during the night they do not have sound sleep. They always have fear. Many dictators sleep in a different place every night.

“Nothing we say should be taken as an article of faith” said Archbishop at the time, “We are sharing what two friends, from very different worlds, have witnessed and learned in our long lives.”

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu died in 2021 at the age of 90, the Dalai Lama wrote to the Archbishop’s daughter MPho Andrea Tutu and referenced this soul-searching, joyous week:

As you know, over the years, your father and I enjoyed an enduring friendship. I remember the many occasions we spent time together, including the week here at Dharamsala in 2015 when we were able to share our thoughts on how to increase peace and joy in the world. The friendship and the spiritual bond between us were something we cherished.

Letter from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to MPho Andrea Tutu. Read more.

That we live in a time when humans such as these can be brought together across differences and continents – that brings me joy.

Nourish the foundations in The Book of Joy with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s urgent missive on the peaceful but robust tension needed to bring about civic unity and justice, Jason Reynold’s uplifting shout of hope and acceptance, Maira Kalman’s pursuit of happiness, and Gerald Durrell’s absolute delight at a miscellany of animals that can only be described as pure joy.