Following the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rehena Harilall reflects on how his life embodied the four brahmaviharas in Buddhism: loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu visit a girls empowerment program in rural Zambia. Photo by François D’Elbee | Girls Not Brides.

The heroes of my childhood were not those superhuman beings created for movies and cartoons who single-handedly saved the world. No, my heroes were living, breathing human beings who never strived to be anything other than being that: who spoke out for justice of the exploited, whose actions were filled with compassion for all including those who caused them harm, whose words did not call for division or hate and whose lives were in constant service. I am proud to come from a country of great people, to grow up with a hero like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He is my hero, not because he is famous, or for his vast contributions to the world we live in, but because he is a person who shows us what we are, what we can become and how to live our lives.

Today I stand a little taller on the shoulders of a hero — another ancestor reminding me of what a human life is meant to be.

Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu’s life embodies the practice of the four brahmaviharas, or the four immeasurables: loving-kindness/ metta (friendliness), compassion/ karuna (willing to cease suffering), appreciative joy/ mudita (feeling happy for others), and equanimity/ upekkha (calm based on wisdom).

His face, along with that of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, graces the cover of The Book of Joy. His work birthing the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa shows how compassion and love can overcome hate and fear — for it is love, and not retribution, that brings about reconciliation. “True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth,” he said, and it is only through deep listening and understanding that we cultivate the insight to see the humanity in all “because in the end only honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing”

I recently had the opportunity of asking the Dalai Lama about his relationship with Desmond Tutu and how we can apply that type of friendship to the world to bridge racial and ethnic divides. His Holiness smiled. His first words were “I really love him,” and he called Desmond Tutu his “elder spiritual brother.” He said that despite “different religions, different circumstances, we are all human,” and reminded us that like his friendship, we can all develop loving-kindness to all of humanity, regardless of religion or belief. Tutu said “We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths”

This loving-kindness is not the simpering eloquence of a skilled orator, but the embodied actions of someone who called out the injustices in apartheid South Africa, doing so without creating more hate or division. His quote that “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” is a clear reminder to me how, as a practitioner of Buddhism, I can still speak out against the injustices of others yet never forget that, as Tutu said “every human being is precious” and “every life has inestimable value.” There is no separation between my practice and acting in service for justice. In the end, the ultimate truth, interbeing, the insight of interconnection of Buddhist teaching is is that “we can be truly free… only together. We can be human only together.”

No, I will not cry today, I will dance instead to the sounds of the Soweto String Quartet. I will smile and I will laugh with joyous abandon, in honour of the man who laughed with the infectiousness joy of a child, who chuckled while pinching the chin of His Holiness, whose warm eyes are as expansive as the African sky and who danced in celebration of life. I will dance and my tears of joy will mingle with that of sadness, to honour this man whose zest for life, humour, courage, compassion, and humanity is a beacon, for me, for you, and for us all.

Today I stand a little taller — a little higher on the shoulders of a hero, another ancestor, reminding me yet again of what it is to be human and what a human life is meant to be. Today we are called to action, to continue the legacy of Desmond Tutu. May I too bring joy, service and a “little bit of good” wherever I am, for he said it is the “ little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” Greatness does not come from being born human, being human brings greatness.

Ngiyabonga Bishop Tutu. Hamba Kahle. (Thank you, go well/safely.)

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