By Rev. Kinrei Bassis
“All acceptance is the key to the Gateless Gate.” ~ Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett
The practice of acceptance is the only way we can open our hearts and embrace the whole of our life and the world. Acceptance sounds simple but how to have right view of acceptance is not that simple and straightforward. It is very normal that people misunderstand some of the basic aspects of how to practice cceptance.
Underlying the practice of acceptance is the Buddhist teaching that we can be a peace with all conditions, both what is going right and what is going wrong in our lives and what is going right and wrong in the world. The most common ways to misunderstand acceptance is that to accept some difficult condition, to have acceptance of something going wrong, means we will be passive in the face of this difficulty and not feel the need to respond. This is a mistaken view as acceptance does not stand against of ground of Buddhist training, Right Action. If I have a serious illness, it is not helpful for me to not accept the fact that I am ill and my body is having difficulty. I can still try to be at peace with my illness and accept what is unfolding in my life. That does not stand against the fact that I need to have Right Action and I should do all that I can to try to cure my illness and relieve my body of whatever distress I am dealing with. It is the underlying spiritual attitude that we try to cultivate in Buddhism of dealing with all of life’s difficulties in a responsible manner but also accepting that life is going to always be providing us with conditions we do not want and we can still accept them and responsibly deal with them.
The reason people often feel acceptance sounds passive is that they have an underlying belief that many difficult situations require us to be upset, angry, worried or fearful in order to motivate us to respond. People will often feel that the fact that something is going wrong in the world requires them to be upset and outraged, and this flow of strong emotions accomplishes something positive. Yet the changes in the world do not happen just because we feel upset or angry but come out of what actual right actions that we do that will bring positive change. In Buddhism, we are practicing taking the Buddhist precepts to heart and being driven to do what will bring about the most good in all our actions. A good parent can see their child doing something wrong and instead of being driven by anger, they can correct their child with love and compassion. A Buddhist is trying to see all beings with an attitude of kindness and compassion. We are also trying to acknowledge that there must be some deep karmic reasons for all the mistaken behavior that we encounter. We are often willing to see the mistakes of small children with compassion but the mistakes of adults we judge and then often judge harshly. Yet both children and adults are being driven into wrong behavior by difficult karma.
If we use anger and outrage to motivate us to act when we see something wrong, we have a very shaky foundation for our behavior. Being angry and upset are feelings that will be very difficult to sustain over time. They will usually burnout as they are too exhausting for us to keep them alive indefinitely. Plus, sometimes we should act but since we lack the anger and the outrage to motivate us, we then fail to act. The right motivation comes from just trying to do what is good and accepting our karmic conditions. This right motivation is something that can keep flowing indefinitely, whether the right changes happen or there is no progress.
Acceptance does not mean we do not feel bad about our own suffering, feel bad about someone’s else’s suffering, or do not feel moral outrage at some egregious wrong in the world. Acceptance does not mean that all the difficult feelings such as outrage, fear, anger and worry do not arise in us. In fact, the open mind and heart of the meditative mind means we are more open and aware of all these difficult feelings. However, we can just let them arise and past and do not feel the need to cling to them. If we can take some positive actions, it is good to do that. However, to keep dwelling on the difficulty will just create suffering for ourselves without generating anything positive. We maintain staying in a state of suffering because of something going wrong in the world for long stretches of our lives. Right and wrong conditions are always going to exist and we need to not cling to either and we can work at seeing both as ephemeral and empty.
Nelson Mandela was unjustly imprisoned for 27 years in South Africa. Yet it was clear when he spoke, both before and after his release from prison, that he was not filled with anger about his mistreatment or anger about the dreadful mistreatment of the black South Africans by the white government. Nelson Mandela’s lack of anger and outrage allowed the white South Africans to trust that if they allowed Nelson Mandela and black citizens to gain democratic control of the government, there would not be horrific reprisals and mistreatment for the white population. Nelson Mandela was a good example of right action with his lack of anger and his forgiveness and he provided a living example of how this universal truth which had been taught more than 2500 years ago by the Buddha, can transform the world.
When we hold fast to such thoughts as,
“They abused me, mistreated me,
molested me, robbed me,”
we keep hatred alive.
If we thoroughly release ourselves
from such thoughts as,
“They abused me, mistreated me,
molested me, robbed me,”
hatred is vanquished.
Never by hatred is hatred conquered,
but by love alone.
This is eternal law.
~ Dhammapada-Words of the Buddha
One of our main ways to resist taking the Dharma to heart is adding a but, an exception, to the Dharma. I should accept this but and we can have a host of seemingly good reasons to be upset and not accept what is happening. One of the ways this shows up is our clinging to worry. We feel we need to worry about some problem we face. Someone we care about is facing some hardship and we allow ourselves to be filled with worry. Something is seriously going wrong somewhere in the world and we feel the need to be disturbed and worried. Yet all our worried and disturbed feelings are not coming from these difficult conditions that are triggering these emotions, but rather, the worry and disturbed feelings are coming from our lack of acceptance of these difficult conditions. The solution to worry is amazingly simple and straight forward, accept the worst may happen and trust that it will still be okay even if the worst happens. If I have a biopsy to see if a tumor is benign or malignant, I hope the answer is that it is benign, but if it cancer, I tell myself that it is not a problem in the deeper sense. It will be my Buddhist practice to now have the opportunity to train with cancer and use the illness as a teacher. If we take into our heart the teaching that anything that happens is alright, then we are pointing ourselves to finding a solution to our worries and fears. The very expression, “consumed with worry” points us to the mind that is trying to control conditions that are actually outside of our personal control. I remember talking to many people before the last election who were consumed with worry. They had no control over the national politics and they needed to trust that even if things go in a seemingly bad direction, they do not need to obsess about those conditions. It is just making them suffer without promoting any good. The world is filled with all sorts of things going well and all sorts of things falling apart and we need to trust spiritually that nothing, in a deeper sense, is being fundamentally lost or damaged. Each day there is actually a real possibility that we could die today. Yet that would not a disaster in a deeper sense but rather a normal and inevitable part of life that has been a living truth from the very moment of birth. And we are trying to have the faith in Buddhism that nothing fundamentally real will be dying or lost. The following famous verse from the Diamond Sutra expresses the deep wisdom of the Dharma.
Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world: A star at dawn,
a bubble in a stream; A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
Another aspect of practicing acceptance is that finding this place of all-acceptance is the journey’s end, and our spiritual path will always include the hard work of finding acceptance for many of the karmic conditions that we are still finding difficult and rejecting. The mind of acceptance is the real medicine for all our suffering. We are all suffering due to the Second Noble Truth, that we are clinging to our desires-we want this and we do not want that. Acceptance is our embracing of the Second Noble Truth and we are trying to bring an awareness that our lack of acceptance is true source of all our suffering. Yet just telling ourselves to accept some problem is just the necessary first step of an often difficult and lengthy process. If someone hurt me deeply, it helps to tell myself the Dharma that is pointing us to accept what has happened and to have compassion for the person who hurt me and compassion for myself being hurt. Yet this is generally just the first little step in dealing with these deeply held feelings of anger, hurt, and injustice. We will need to keep trying to remind ourselves to accept and not to keep obsessing on our thoughts of anger or harsh judgments. We will often be needing to work at letting go of our hurt feelings and the angry thoughts for many years before we realize the peace of truly felt acceptance.
Acceptance includes accepting the fact that we are not accepting something. The following teaching may sound contradictory but it is not. We have to have acceptance for our difficulty in that we are not accepting something. In everyone’s life, there are numerous things that have gone astray and hurt us that we have been unable to fully accept. The practice of acceptance must also include practice of accepting our own lack of acceptance. Just like when we are angry, we need to accept we are angry but still try not to let anger control our words and actions. We need to accept our greed whenever it arises but we still try not to blindly act upon the greed. And we need to keep letting go of the greedy or angry thoughts and bringing ourselves back to trying to find the peace and wholeness of acceptance. To convert our lack of acceptance, we need to just be willing to sit still with whatever we are having difficulty in accepting, hopefully gain a better understanding of where this lack of acceptance is coming from and see better what we need to let go of. Then we can do the difficult work of trying to let go of what is causing us not to be at peace.
Spiritual bypassing is a useful way to describe how people can misuse a spiritual teaching.
“Spiritual bypassing is the tendency to use ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”
An example would be to tell yourself that you are not angry and upset since nothing really happened when you are actually still deeply hurt and angry.This is a misuse of the Dharma teaching in that we are creating problems by closing our hearts to what we are feeling. The Buddhist path is the embracing of all our feelings. The defiled feelings, our greeds, our fears, our worries, our anger, can only be resolved by accepting them into an open heart. To do the spiritual work of letting them go, we need to see them better, understand better what they want and then we can work at seeing what is needed in order to let them go. But we do not control when we be able to let them go. If I have a fear of something, I can work on accepting that I will be alright if whatever if the worst happens. Yet when this conversion of the fear to fearlessness will happen is not up to me. People are frequently asking me when some problem they are having will be resolved and my answer is almost always, it will take as long as it takes. We have to just be willing to let something go but it will go whenever it goes.
An enlightened being is at one with their karma.
Enlightenment means we must have all-acceptance. Buddhist training is converting our heart and mind from the mind that keeps making problems out of the difficult conditions we face. We need to trust in the unfolding of our karma and the unfolding of the world’s karma, that nothing is fundamentally being lost or damaged even when things go astray. The following verse is recited at many Buddhist ceremonies and expresses this basic Buddhist teaching.
We live in the world as if in the sky,
Just as the lotus blossom is not wetted by
the water that surrounds it.
The mind is immaculate and beyond the dust.
Let us bow to the highest Lord.