‘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?
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.