Tonight I will present the last in a series of three Dharma talks about some of the key points in The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. The book contains inspirational dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the theme of finding joy amidst life’s suffering. (Once again, I’ll take the liberty of referring to His Holiness as “H.H.”)
In the first Dharma talk, we touched upon two topics that H.H. and Desmond Tutu discussed: the nature of true joy and the obstacles to joy. The second talk examined four qualities of mind that are part of what they call “eight pillars of joy,” which provide the base for lasting happiness. These mental pillars are perspective, humility, humor and acceptance. Today we will discuss the equally important remaining four pillars of joy, which are all qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity.
The fifth pillar of joy is the heart quality of “forgiveness.” During the South African Truth and Reconciliation, the Archbishop witnessed remarkable instances of forgiveness for heinous crimes. He concludes that “all of us have the latent potential…to be sorry for others who disfigure their humanity….[N]o one is incapable of forgiving and no one is unforgivable.” The Dali Lama explains that forgiveness does not mean that you do not seek justice or that the perpetrator is not punished. It may be necessary to take appropriate counteraction to stop wrong actions. Toward the perpetrator, however, he says, “you can choose not to develop anger and hatred. This is where the power of forgiveness lies—not losing sight of a person’s humanity, while responding to their wrong action with clarity and firmness.” H.H. continues, “We stand firm against the wrong not only to protect those who are being harmed but also to protect the person who is harming others, because eventually they, too, will suffer.” Instead of raging at the perpetrator, we can direct our anger towards the causes of aggressive actions—ignorance, shortsightedness, and narrow-mindedness—and we can feel compassion for people who suffer from those conditions.
The sixth pillar of joy is the heart quality of “gratitude.” Every day the Dalai Lama awakens thinking, “I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it.” In his view, gratitude means embracing reality and counting blessings rather than burdens. In Buddhism, enemies are considered as our “most precious spiritual teachers” because they help to develop our spiritual practice and to cultivate equanimity in the face of adversity. Archbishop Tutu describes how Nelson Mandela transformed during decades of imprisonment, using the incarceration as an informal university to develop his character. Afterwards, when asked why he was not bitter towards those who robbed his freedom for so many years, Mandela responded that if he were angry and unforgiving, they would have taken the rest of his life.
“Compassion” is the seventh pillar of joy and the heart quality of compassion. H.H. states that we are neurologically wired to care for one another. The term “helper’s high” refers to endorphins that are released in the brain whenever we reach out to help others. Our facial expressions reflect the extent to which we are connected with compassionate impulses. Comparing photos of the [tense] faces of Stalin and Hitler with photos of the [smiling] face of Mahatma Gandhi, H.H. reflects, “You can see that the person who has all the power [and who thinks only about control], but who lacks compassion, can never be happy…. [Tyrants] do not sleep soundly, and they always have fear. Many dictators sleep in a different place every night.”
Evolutionary scientists view cooperation and its related emotions of empathy, compassion, and generosity as fundamental to our species’ survival. The term “reciprocal altruism” pertains to treating people compassionately and trusting that they will act similarly towards us. The Dalai Lama notes that when we ask, “How can I help?” even in the midst of our own suffering, the pain is more bearable than it is when we think only about ourselves and worry about “poor me.” Through bringing joy to others, we most easily experience joy ourselves.
Compassion naturally leads to the eighth pillar of joy, “generosity,” which expresses our interdependence and fundamental need for one another. We learn to be generous through acting. For that reason almost every religious tradition prescribes what Christians call “charity.” Known as zakat, it is one of the five pillars of Islam. In Judaism, it is called tzedakah, which means “justice.” Hindus and Buddhists use the term dana.
Generosity is important for our survival. Neurologists have found that the reward centers of the brain tend to light up more strongly when we give than when we receive. Generosity is associated with better health and longer life expectancy. What gives us a sense of meaning and purpose in life is intimately connected with making contributions in the world and with feeling needed and valued by others.
In Buddhism, there are three kinds of generosity: material giving, providing freedom from fear (through protection, counseling, or comfort), and spiritual giving, which can involve offering wisdom, moral and ethical teachings, and helping others to become more self-sufficient. Both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu exemplify generosity of the spirit with their big-heartedness, tolerance, broad-mindedness, patience, forgiveness, and kindness. Each of them aims to be what the Archbishop describes as, “an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that ripples out to all of those around us.”
By practicing generosity of spirit, we express all the other pillars of joy. There is a wider perspective when we expand beyond self-interest to honor our interconnection with others. With humility, we recognize that, like all human beings, we will have times of material, emotional or spiritual need. Our sense of humor helps us laugh at ourselves, not taking ourselves too seriously. Our acceptance of life prevents us from trying to force life to fit our preferences. Along with this acceptance, we forgive others who stand in our way, and we feel gratitude for the many blessings of life. Compassion motivates us to help those who are in need. All eight pillars bolster our innate capacity for joy.
Now we will practice a slightly adapted version of a joy meditation known as “The Eight Pillars” (p. 342):
Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
Breathe gently into your heart.
Let a problem come to mind. Reflect on a situation, person, or challenge that is causing you pain or suffering.