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Keeping in mind the essence of kindness

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The Dalai Lama said: “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” I found that quote quite remarkable. Really? That’s it? He also stated more fully, “This is my simple religion. No need for temples. No need for complicated philosophy. Your own mind, your own heart is the temple. Your philosophy is simple kindness.” So here is one of the most revered men on the planet, who speaks at length and in depth about the disciplined focus through many lifetimes required to stay on the path to enlightenment…but concurrently saying that the essence of kindness is at the heart of it.

He speaks often about kindness and generosity and how they are interwoven with gratitude and compassion.

Now, you may not be interested in Buddhism, but it’s hard to argue that more kindness wouldn’t improve our personal and global environments where polarization is rampant along with self-centered indulgence. It’s hard to imagine the suffering he has endured, persecuted by the Chinese, leading his Tibetan followers out of China to India in 1959, and unable to return to his homeland, yet he has inspired people around the world with his focus on compassion and loving kindness. He has a lovely face and the sweetest smile, radiating serenity, which might lead you to believe that he has figured out some pretty important things along the way.

Definitions of kindness are many: the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate; doing something and not expecting anything in return; respecting and helping others; a behavior marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and a concern for others. Consider this slew of synonyms: warmheartedness, affection, warmth, concern, care, thoughtfulness, helpfulness, unselfishness, selflessness, altruism, compassion, sympathy, understanding, benevolence, benignity, hospitality, neighborliness, magnanimity, charitableness. That one small word packs a wallop.

The Dalai Lama also points out the benefits to ourselves: “When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.”  That’s a pretty nice bonus! He goes on to promise, “The various features and aspects of human life, such as longevity, good health, success, happiness, and so forth, which we consider desirable, are all dependent on kindness and a good heart.” 

So, given all that, why would anyone ever be unkind? Unkindness can show up as rudeness, criticism, malicious gossip, and selfishness, and in more subtle ways by not taking opportunities to be thoughtful, helpful, considerate, and compassionate. If kindness is rooted in empathy and acceptance, it means paying attention to the people and circumstances around us. Of course, there are many levels of kindness possible in any given situation: meeting someone you know in a store, you can simply give them a nod or a warm hello; you could ask how they are and take the time to listen; you could lend them money if they’re in need; you could give them a ride or help them with their packages to their car; you could offer them a drink or a meal or even a place to stay. How far are you willing to extend your kindness? Are you as kind to people who are disagreeable or who look very different from you? Are you generous to those you may think have an easy life, that may trigger envy in you?

Karen Armstrong, British author and commentator, well-known for her History of God and other writings, feels that understanding the principle of reciprocity is key to peace and understanding on our planet. She won a $100,000 TED prize and used it to work with others to create a Charter for Compassion, based on the Golden Rule, the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated. It is a central tenet of Christianity but did not originate with Christian thought. Jesus spoke of it often, quoting text from the Judaic Torah, the basis for the old testament. Matthew 7:12: states, “Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.” The second commandment directs, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

It is a maxim that is found in almost every ethical tradition. The Golden Rule was not practiced in the Arabian peninsula prior to the advent of Islam, for the Arabs felt the survival of the tribe was essential, protected with bloody vengeance. But along came Muhammad who advocated, “Pay, Oh Children of Adam, as you would love to be paid, and be just as you would love to have justice!” (Qur’an 83:1-6.) The Hadith, a guide to correct belief and action considered second only to the Qur’an, has several versions of the law of reciprocity: “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” and “That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind.”

Sufism is the inner mystical dimension of Islam, and the basis of Sufism is consideration of the hearts and feelings of others. Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh of the Nimatullahi Sufi order said, “If you haven’t the will to gladden someone’s heart, then at least beware lest you hurt someone’s heart, for on our path, no sin exists but this.”

Munetada Kurozumi of the Shinto faith said, ““The heart of the person before you is a mirror. See there your own form.” From the Nigerian Yoruba, an ethnic group and religion, “One who is going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”  And from Zoroastrianism: “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself.”

Philosophers through the centuries chimed in as well. In the 5th century BCE in Greece, Socrates said, “Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.” Plato (Greece, 4th century BCE), Aristotle (Greece, 4th century BCE), Seneca (Rome, 1st century CE), Thomas Hobbs (England, 17th century), and Kant (Germany, 18th century), all joined in the chorus with John Stuart Mill summing it up nicely: “To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.” (Britain, 19th century).

Or, as Karen Armstrong contends, all religious practice should help you to become more compassionate by removing yourself from the center of your universe and putting another there. While loving our neighbor or our enemy might be a stretch, we can probably all reach for kindness.

I’ll close with some more thoughts from the Dalai Lama which express the sadness I often feel about the human condition: “Something is lacking. As one of the seven billion human beings, I believe everyone has the responsibility to develop a happier world. We need, ultimately, to have a greater concern for others’ well-being. In other words, kindness or compassion, which is lacking now. We must pay more attention to our inner values. We must look inside.”

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