Two renowned religious leaders reflect on finding happiness in the face of tragedy, loss, and injustice.
Krista Tippett (host of Krista Tippett on Being, produced by American Public Media): Your Holiness, you radiate happiness. And yet, you are familiar with suffering. How does your understanding of happiness encompass the hardness of life?
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (head of state and spiritual leader of Tibet): Of course, my life is not easy. When I see some problem, some tragedy, I always look at it from different angles to see if that same event may also have something positive. When I look more holistically, then that event is not 100% negative; there are also positive parts. We lost our own country, but I tell people that a sad event can bring new opportunities. And if faced with something that looks unbearable from a close view, then look at it from a distance. Another thing—if the situation can be overcome eventually, then there is no need to worry.
Rabbi Sacks, how might a Jewish approach to sadness differ from that of the Dalai Lama?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth): It is true that if you read Jewish literature and history, happiness is not the first word that comes to mind. We offer degrees in misery, post-graduate angst, and advanced guilt, and yet, in the end we get together and celebrate. His Holiness has lived a story I resonate with—a story of suffering and exile—and he has come through it still smiling. That is how I, too, have always defined my faith as a Jew. The definition of a Jew—Israel, as it says in Genesis 34—is one who struggles, who wrestles with God and with humanity and prevails. And Jacob says something very profound to the angel: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” That is how I feel about suffering. When something bad happens, I will not let go of that bad thing until I have discovered the blessing that lies within it.
Do you believe that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental right?
The Dalai Lama: I believe that happiness is the very purpose of our existence. As mentioned in your Constitution, happiness is also a right. It is also ultimately a responsibility of the individual. You see, happiness does not come from the sky; we must make a happy life. The government cannot provide happiness. We must create happiness within ourselves and our family.
Rabbi Sacks: I’d like to reflect the word “pursuit.” Finding happiness doesn’t necessarily follow from pursuing it. Sometimes the deepest happiness comes when you’re least expecting it. There is a wonderful story about an 18th-century rabbi, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who is watching people running frenetically to and fro in the town square. He stops one and says, “Why are you running?” The man answers, “I’m running to make a living,” to which the rabbi says: “How come you’re so sure that the living is in front of you and you have to run to catch up to it? Maybe it’s behind you and you’ve got to stop to let it catch up with you.” When in contemporary culture do we stop and let our blessings catch up with us? On the Sabbath, when we celebrate the things that are important, but not urgent. Once I took an atheist who’s the premier child care specialist in Britain to visit a Jewish primary school on a Friday. The children were playing at preparing for the Sabbath; she saw a little five-year-old mother and a five-year-old father blessing their five-year-old children and welcoming their five-year-old guests. Fascinated, she asked one five-year-old boy, “What do you like least about the Sabbath?” Being an Orthodox child, he said, “You can’t watch television. It’s terrible.” Then she asked, “What do you like most about the Sabbath?” and he said, “It’s the only time Daddy doesn’t have to rush away.” Sometimes we don’t need to pursue happiness. We just need to pause and let it catch up with us.
Where does the human body fit in to happiness?
Rabbi Sacks: One of the most striking sentences in Judaism is that in the world to come, a person will have to give an account of every legitimate pleasure he/she deprived themselves of in this life (Jerusalem Talmud). Because God gave us this world to enjoy.
One aspect of Judaism I find beautiful beyond measure is the tradition of hospitality—giving physical pleasure to those who have too little. One very great Hasidic teacher once said, “Somebody else’s material needs are my spiritual duties.” That is how we join in sharing our pleasures with others.
Your Holiness, what do you think about the body and happiness?
The Dalai Lama: There are two different kinds of satisfaction: physical and mental. Having comfortable shelter, sufficient food, and also sufficient sleep provides a certain degree of happiness. If the body is tired, mental function is more difficult. So a certain degree of happiness is related to satisfying your physical needs. But of the two states, the mental state is more important. You can be mentally happy even when you experience physical hardship, so long as you see some purpose to your difficulty. Voluntarily taking on physical hardship gives you mental satisfaction. Mental satisfaction can subdue physical difficulties, but physical comfort cannot subdue mental pain.
How does compassion toward your enemies inform your understanding of living a happy life?
The Dalai Lama: We need to learn the practice of patience. The answer to violence is nonviolence; the response to physical action is mental action. When one tries to stop wrongdoing through violent action, ultimately all will suffer.
Rabbi Sacks: In Deuteronomy 23, Moses is talking about the Israelites’ experience in Egypt. It’s a time of oppression, of slavery, of attempted genocide. Eventually the Israelites escape. They go through the desert, and as they’re about to cross the Jordan, Moses says: “Do not hate an Egyptian, for you are a stranger in his land.” Now, that language is very odd. “You are a stranger in his land” sounds as if the Egyptians gave the Israelites hospitality, the equivalent of putting them in the Cairo Hilton. It wasn’t like that. So what is Moses saying? He is telling the Israelites: You have left the physical Egypt. Now you must leave the mental experience of Egypt. You have to let go of hate, because otherwise you will never be free. Had the Israelites continued to hate their enemies, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would not have taken Egypt out of the Israelites. They would be slaves to their past, slaves to their feelings of pain, injustice, and grievance. This is what we have to repeat, day after day, in this difficult, dangerous 21st century. You have to let go of hate if you want to be free.