I am reading The Book of Joy. It is a dialogue with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The title is very apt.
Here are two spiritual leaders from two different belief systems that would seem to be utterly contradictory—one theistic and one atheistic—and yet they are devoted friends from way back who think very much alike. In their eighties, they are still vibrant, eloquent, witty, and both with a puckish sense of humor. “Mischievous” they say of each other and themselves. Filled with joy despite the hardships and bitter disappointments both have faced in their lives. Both are political as well as religious leaders, fighting for a justice that seems impossible to achieve. And yet they continue to do so with reason, compassion, and steady determination.
Marvelous, admirable men. This is a book well-worth reading for any person of a philosophical bent, anyone who yearns to understand the meaning of life and the enigma of true happiness.
What is riveting for me, and makes me go back and read certain passages over and over again, is their agreement on what is true. Here are two learned men, educated in very different wisdom traditions, from very different cultures, and yet they have come to very similar conclusions. As I have said before, I find the scientific method to be the best way to assess reality. If the same experiments can be done, the same data collected, and the same conclusions reached by any individual regardless of ideology or background, one can be pretty sure they are factual. This can be a working truth to build more understanding on. One experiment is not enough. There must be corroboration.
Here is corroboration in a spiritual search for truth.
I became an atheist because the whole business of the existence of God was controversial. There wasn’t universal agreement. People conducted their own spiritual research, if you will, and were coming to a host of different conclusions. It was an unresolvable mare’s nest. Belief in God required all sorts of mental calisthenics, and still people throw up their hands and declare that His ways are mysterious. The best parallel I can come up with is the Ptolemaic model of the solar system which held sway for hundreds of years. The Earth sat at the center, and a convoluted choreography tried to explain the motions of the heavenly bodies. Then along came the Copernican system which put the Sun in the center. It was simple, elegant, and explained everything without the need for all those celestial gymnastics. Although it was controversial at the time, considered heresy by many, it emerged as the working truth upon which science has operated ever since.
For me, eliminating God made everything simpler. No need to wrestle with the problem of evil or the contradictions inherent in free will vs. the omniscient, omnipotent deity, or given the vastness of the universe and our utter, vanishing insignificance, how a personal creator in whose image we are created can make any sense.
Of course, your results may differ. And that’s just the point.
The results the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop came to in this book did not differ except in minor ways. In matters of religious dogma, the two agree to disagree. They come from different belief systems. No matter. What does matter is the fundamental purpose of life and the key to happiness. We are here in this world to seek true happiness, which is achieved through compassion and caring for our fellow creatures. We are a part of a slow process of working towards perfection. Each individual strives for it in their lifetime (many lifetimes in the Dalai Lama’s belief system) and humanity as a whole is striving towards it. The Archbishop points out that our news media makes us feel as if the world is rife with violence and injustice, and getting worse, that people are basically bad and there’s no hope. But a study of history shows strong, steady improvement. Once, some human beings, and all women, were considered no better than cattle. This attitude is heading towards extinction. Because slavery and abuse still exist it only means there is more work to be done. People are basically good, and are generally kind and helpful. This does not make the news. The ugly exceptions do, because they are startling exceptions to the norm.
True joy is found in simple things, in connecting with others, in being content with what one has and at peace with oneself. Happiness is not the goal; it is a byproduct of living a good life, avoiding negative emotions like fear, anger and envy, cultivating patience, tolerance, and empathy. No wonder there is so much depression, so many people steeped in anxiety, despairing, desperately searching for the key to happiness. Western society is built on materialism, competition, suspicion, fear and outrage. From an early age we are set against one another, stressing over test scores, trying to be the best. We celebrate winners and scorn losers. Whether it is beauty, income, power, material possessions, or any of the other idiotic yardsticks we measure ourselves by, we envy those above us, compete against our peers, and feel contempt for those beneath us.
In other words, we have built a society designed to make us unhappy. That is why we find joy elusive.