When an English word is used to convey a Buddhist concept it may be intended to have a subtly different meaning from the common English usage of the word, which can lead to misunderstandings of Buddhist teaching. So I thought I would look at some of these terms, starting with acceptance.
We talk a lot in Buddhism about the need to practice acceptance, but as far as I can make out acceptance is not a term used by the Buddha and therefore hasn’t been translated from a Pali or Sanskrit word, though I am not a scholar so please add a comment if you have more information about this.
The fact that Buddhists teach acceptance is frequently, and mistakenly, taken to mean that Buddhists advocate passivity and a have a fatalistic outlook on life. This is far from the truth. My Concise Oxford Dictionary has 4 senses for accept:
- consent to receive (something offered)
- regard favourably or with approval
- believe to be valid or correct
- take on (a responsibility or liability) or tolerate or submit to.
Immediately I can see how misunderstandings arise. When we talk about acceptance in the Buddhist sense, it is only the first definition that is relevant. When we talk about the importance of accepting this moment as it is, it means that we should be willing (consent) to receive the input of our senses. In other words we should be open to see what is actually here, without resisting, denying or pushing away.
Accepting the behaviour of another person means that we try to see it clearly. It certainly does not imply meaning no. 2, that we regard it favourably or with approval. If, for example, someone is doing something which harms us, we are not being asked to approve, and also not to tolerate or submit (meaning no. 4) but to accept in the sense of accept that harm is being done and that we may well need to take action to stop it.
Similarly, we can accept that a person has a different view than we do on an issue, but it doesn’t mean we believe it to be valid or correct (meaning no. 3), and there’s nothing to stop us putting forward our view if it seems good to do so.
Acceptance, in the Buddhist sense, means to be willing to face life full on and take responsibility for ourselves and act as skilfully as we can. And the more we are willing to open to what is in front of us, the greater our ability to act with wisdom and compassion.
Perhaps the most important thing to accept in any situation is our own response to it, our own thoughts and emotions. Whatever we feel – anger, frustration, shame, grief – we need to let go of any self-judgement. What we feel is simply what we feel, neither good nor bad. Giving ourselves the gift of acceptance enables us to make peace with ourselves and go forward.
I have some ideas for further blog posts, but please feel free to suggest any words that you think are unclear or cause confusion and I’ll try and include them.