‘The Book Of Joy’ By Dalai Lama And Desmond Tutu
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Nobel Peace Prize winners His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu spent five days together to celebrate His Holiness’s 80th birthday and to answer one timeless question—how do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering? The result of their time together is The Book of Joy, co-written by Douglas Abrams, who interviewed both men and serves as narrator. In this exclusive excerpt, they explain how acceptance is one of the eight pillars of joy
When we had visited the Tibetan Children’s Village in January, we noticed a wall displaying a quote that the Dalai Lama referenced in the dialogues. It was a translation of Shantideva’s famous questions that His Holiness had mentioned, only in a slightly different translation: “Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy if it cannot be remedied?” In this short teaching is the profound essence of the Dalai Lama’s approach to life. It was at the root of his stunning ability to accept the reality of his exile without, as the Archbishop put it, being morose.
Once we can see life in its wider perspective, once we are able to see our role in its drama with some degree of humility, and once we are able to laugh at ourselves, we then come to the fourth and final quality of mind, which is the ability to accept our life in all its pain, imperfection, and beauty.
Acceptance, it must be pointed out, is the opposite of resignation and defeat. The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama are two of the most tireless activists for creating a better world for all of its inhabitants, but their activism comes from a deep acceptance of what is. The Archbishop did not accept the inevitability of apartheid, but he did accept its reality.
“We are meant to live in joy,” the Archbishop explained. “This does not mean that life will be easy or painless. It means that we can turn our faces to the wind and accept that this is the storm we must pass through. We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin.” The Archbishop had said that when one grows in the spiritual life, “You are able to accept anything that happens to you.” You accept the inevitable frustrations and hardships as part of the warp and woof of life. The question, he had said, is not: How do we escape it? The question is: How can we use this as something positive?
The Archbishop’s prayer practice involves reading quotations from the scriptures as well as quotes from the saints and spiritual masters throughout history. One of his favorites is the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love, penned shortly after she recovered from a life-threatening illness in 1373, is believed to be the first book written by a woman in the English language. In it, she writes,
…deeds are done which appear so evil to us and people suffer such terrible evils that it does not seem as though any good will ever come of them; and we consider this, sorrowing and grieving over it so that we cannot find peace in the blessed contemplation of God as we should do; and this is why: our reasoning powers are so blind now, so humble and so simple, that we cannot know the high, marvelous wisdom, the might and the goodness of the Holy Trinity. And this is what he means where he says, “You shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well,” as if he said, Pay attention to this now, faithfully and confidently, and at the end of time you will truly see it in the fullness of joy.
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.
So many of the causes of suffering come from our reacting to the people, places, things, and circumstances in our lives, rather than 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.
Much of traditional Buddhist practice is directed toward the ability to see life accurately, beyond all the expectations, projections, and distortions that we typically bring to it. Meditative practice allows us to quiet the distracting thoughts and feelings so that we can perceive reality, and respond to it more skillfully. The ability to be present in each moment is nothing more and nothing less than the ability to accept the vulnerability, discomfort, and anxiety of everyday life.
“With a deeper understanding of reality,” the Dalai Lama has explained, “you can go beyond appearances and relate to the world in a much more appropriate, effective, and realistic manner. I often give the example of how we should relate to our neighbors. Imagine that you are living next to a difficult neighbor. You can judge and criticize them. You can live in anxiety and despair that you will never have a good relationship with them. You can deny the problem or pretend that you do not have a difficult relationship with your neighbor. None of these is very helpful.
“Instead, you can accept that your relationship with your neighbor is difficult and that you would like to improve it. You may or may not succeed, but all you can do is try. You cannot control your neighbor, but you do have some control over your thoughts and feelings. Instead of anger, instead of hatred, instead of fear, you can cultivate compassion for them, you can cultivate kindness toward them, you can cultivate warmheartedness toward them. This is the only chance to improve the relationship. In time, maybe they will become less difficult. Maybe not. This you cannot control, but you will have your peace of mind. You will be able to be joyful and happy whether your neighbor becomes less difficult or not.”
We come back to the beginning of our discussion and Shantideva’s questions. The kind of acceptance that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop were advocating is not passive. It is powerful. It does not deny the importance of taking life seriously and working hard to change what needs changing, to redeem what needs redemption. “You must not hate those who do harmful things,” the Dalai Lama has explained. “The compassionate thing is to do what you can to stop them—for they are harming themselves as well as those who suffer from their actions.”
One of the key paradoxes in Buddhism is that we need goals to be inspired, to grow, and to develop, even to become enlightened, but at the same time we must not get overly fixated or attached to these aspirations. If the goal is noble, your commitment to the goal should not be contingent on your ability to attain it, and in pursuit of our goal, we must release our rigid assumptions about how we must achieve it. Peace and equanimity come from letting go of our attachment to the goal and the method. That is the essence of acceptance.
Reflecting on this seeming paradox, of pursuing a goal yet with no attachment to its outcome, Jinpa explained to me that there is an important insight. This is a deep recognition that while each of us should do everything we can to realize the goal we seek, whether or not we succeed often depends on many factors beyond our control. So our responsibility is to pursue the goal with all the dedication we can muster, do the best we can but not become fixated on a preconceived notion of a result. Sometimes, actually quite often, our efforts lead to an unexpected outcome that might even be better than what we originally had in mind.
I thought of the Archbishop’s comment that it takes time to build our spiritual capacity. “It’s like muscles that have to be exercised in order for them to be strengthened. Sometimes we get too angry with ourselves, thinking that we ought to be perfect from the word go. But this being on Earth is a time for us to learn to be good, to learn to be more loving, to learn to be more compassionate. And you learn, not theoretically. You learn when something happens that tests you.”
Life is constantly unpredictable, uncontrollable, and often quite challenging. Edith Eva Eger explained that life in a concentration camp was an endless selection line where one never knew whether one would live or die. The only thing that kept a person alive was the acceptance of the reality of one’s existence and the attempt to respond as best one could. Curiosity about what would happen next, even when she was left for dead in a pile of bodies, was often all she had to pull herself forward to the next breath. When we accept what is happening now, we can be curious about what might happen next.
Acceptance was the final pillar of the mind, and it led us to the first pillar of the heart: forgiveness. When we accept the present, we can forgive and release the desire for a different past.
Excerpted from The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams. Copyright © 2016 The Dalai Lama Trust, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 issue with the headline, “Joy To The World…”, p. 62-64.