In 2015, two of the most pious men on the planet, the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa met up for a five-day retreat at the residence-in-exile of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India.
The occasion was the 80th birthday celebration of the Dalai Lama and both holy men and long-time friends sat down for a five-day conversation moderated by Doug Abrams. Excerpts from these conversations were distilled into the instant New York Times bestseller, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, an agreeable manual about cultivating joy in everyday living.
That landmark meeting of friends gets the cinematic treatment in the feel-good documentary, Mission: Joy- Finding Happiness in Troubled Times which premiered June at the Tribeca festival. Oscar winner, Louie Psihoyos (The Cove) and co-director, Peggy Callahan present for the first time ever, video excerpts from this meeting of like minds. Comfortable in each other’s presence and with Abrams’ questioning, they tackle some of the big concerns of the world tracing them to individual responsibility.
Despite obvious religious differences, both spiritual leaders clearly take delight in each other’s company. They come across as mischievous elders who despite having each suffered adversity- displacement for the Dalai Lama and apartheid for the archbishop- managed to retain a light within them. Years in exile have done little to blunt their joyous spirit and it is this strength of will and capacity for goodness that they are interested in sharing with the world.
They get the chance to demonstrate this practically while visiting an orphanage for children from Tibet. A little girl spoke of her experience hiding in a bus in order to escape the Chinese border police. At some point, the narration became overwhelming and she breaks down while reliving her escape. Instead of offering her cold comfort and kind words, the Dalai Lama zeroed his penetrating gaze on her and offered that perhaps the upside of the experience could be an opportunity to learn more about the culture she had been displaced from. Knowing better than most people about forced dislocation, the Dalai Lama could have offered a genuine moment of simple uplift. He recognized this but found it more useful to present to her the choices she could make that would eventually lead to a silver lining silver.
There will be viewers who might find Mission: Joy- Finding Happiness in Troubled Times and the charge to live a joyful life a tad pedestrian and lacking a compelling core rooted in evidence. For those people, Abrams and the filmmakers went in search of experts to help provide scientific backing. As if anyone would dispute the basic philosophies expounded by the religious leaders. They provide a few cursory research results that help prove the physical benefits of being joyful.
Back stories of both subjects are injected via crisp animation sequences and archival footage while close friends, family or associates elaborate on the lives of the holy men. The Dalai Lama is essentially thrust into leadership position as a kid before he is expelled from his home and forced to live as a refugee. While Archbishop Tutu discovers his conscience moving from teaching to priesthood and freedom fighter under a hostile apartheid regime.
The true pleasures of the film however lie in the simple exchanges between Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama. As individuals, each man comes with their own compelling arc and engaging, larger than life personality. But in each other’s company, they become almost childlike again, leaving their legend at the door and dishing out profound wisdom on the go. When not expressing mutual admiration, they are playfully trading barbs and luxuriating in a friendship so powerful it defies religion or geography. The
Dalai Lama even joins the Archbishop in communion service at some point. Their interactions are heartwarming and likely to leave a wide grin on your face. Representing the best of organized religion, these two friendships show by living example that preaching and practicing aren’t mutually exclusive.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.