By Guy Newland
“My religion is kindness.”This is something that the Dalai Lama repeats again and again, like a mantra, wherever he goes.
The 80-year old Nobel Laureate entitled the Dalai Lama, whose actual name is Tenzin Gyatso, is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. So he is a Buddhist, but not a missionary for Buddhism. He is a zealous, radical missionary for kindness—by any means necessary.
If atheism helps you to be kinder toward your fellow living beings, then he is happy to encourage you. If prayer to Allah or to Christ or to Mother Earth, helps you to become kinder, then he is happy to encourage that. Whatever it takes. For that reason, he has prayed with Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Jews, and even taught Bible classes—even though he, personally, does not believe in any sort of divine creator at all.
We tend to think that kindness means being nice or gentle, but it is darker and more intimate than any code of manners. Primordially, it means treating one other as kinfolk—which, in fact, of course, we really are. Hamlet’s line, “I must be cruel only to be kind,” is in reference to well-intentioned harshness directed at his own mother. Hearing talk of brotherly love and so forth, we tend to take our kinship as a fluffy spiritual metaphor rather than as a literal fact. But of course it is a biological fact—a genetic fact. We are kin.
The word “kind” and the word “kin” both derive from the ancient word kunjam, which means “family.” Two thousand years ago, kunjam-iz—literally “family-ish”—already meant a natural sense of care or compassion (in Proto-German). It is fascinating to notice a similar word development in Chinese, where the character for “human” and the character for “two” were combined more than 2500 years ago to create the word “ren,” meaning human-hearted, humane, the natural care of one human for another.
Now we understand kindness rather as Aristotle and the New Testament use the Greek kharis: not just a good motivation or an empathetic feeling, but actual behavior intended to help another, and to help another for the sake of another rather than for the sake of repaying a debt or improving one’s own reputation.
The only worthwhile measure of spiritual growth is our dedication to effective kindness. Spirituality is not some special experience or private inner condition.
Some get spiritual feelings by singing together in church, others by meditating or chanting or praying. But what makes these things holy or spiritual? Samuel Coleridge, blessed-out on opium, wrote “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree.” It’s a great line, but is it a spiritual thing? William James’s answer is that blissful experience is religious only insofar as it is morally helpful.
If we are not becoming more kind, then aren’t we wasting time?
Like Aristotle, Confucius said that the rare virtue of true kindness (ren) does not mean being well intentioned. Rather, he specified that it means exerting oneself in the consideration of others just as much as most people exert themselves in matters of sex—and hence its rarity. Such exertion is directed toward converting kind feelings into actions that actually help. Thus I have suggested that the measure of spiritual growth is our dedication to effective kindness.
To be effectively kind, we must tune in to others, be fully present for them and skillfully responsive. In this way, caring propels us ever into the terrain of new skills, new information and new insights, according to our circumstances. So as to be kind, we keep learning things we never thought would matter, things we need to give better care to certain people in certain moments: We learn about changing diapers, the latest research on cancer treatment, or even parliamentary procedure per Roberts Rules.
And we can be alert to the ways the things we already happen to know, the talents we already happen to have, may better be deployed for the benefit of others.
The relationship between truly caring and knowing how to care well is expressed in the ideal of the fully awakened being who embodies wisdom and loving care so thoroughly that they are utterly nondual, indifferentiable; they have interacted synergistically to the point that each is the spontaneous expression of the other.
Kindness is spirit muscle; it grows through reps, exercise, through practice.
Someone once asked my teacher Jeffrey Hopkins why he was constantly talking about training in compassion. “Just be natural; just be yourself!” she told him. Jeffrey answered, “Maybe that would work for you, but without this effort I would mainly care for myself, even at the expense of others.”
Effective kindness requires deep and sometimes painful honesty. Honesty is the way we teach our kids, and ourselves, the path to wisdom: to see ourselves and others as we are, for better and worse, as best we are able. Radical honesty about what is going on here leads us to know that we don’t know any final answers—and that likely no one else does either. Not knowing is terrifying and so we run to those who lie and claim to know, and we harm others who tell the wrong story. But when we take it that that no one really knows, we grow humble, good humored—and more kind.
We understand that we are all afraid. We are all vulnerable. We can be kind sometimes, but we tend to be selfish. And we are in pain. And: we all have clever ways to avoid looking at these facts.
Our circumstances and the writing contortions we go through to avoid facing them—these are the very things that bind us together. We can never be alone in our suffering; and we are never alone in our desperate wish to avoid it. It is utterly obvious that others’ suffering is just as real and just as painful as our own. It matters just as much, yet we act as though it did not.
If we are honest, we will see that while we pride ourselves on being sensible and reasonable, there is no objective reason to privilege our own welfare over that of others. We see that this is just a preference to which we are each powerfully genetically disposed and culturally conditioned. A narrow sense of self-interest is actually not rational—and the pretense that it is has led the planet to the brink of catastrophe.
Each of us is born with built-in confusions, apparently driven by our genes.
- It seems obvious to us that we are central to the universe; our personal story is the main and most interesting story (the only story, really).
- It seems obvious to us that we are separate from the universe; there’s me and then, out there, all that other junk—dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and, you know, other people.
- Most absurdly, it seems to us that we are permanent and somehow inevitable. We feel sorry for others, but clearly our situation is quite different.
Honesty shows us that we naturally think in these ways even though all of this is wrong. And that is not all: If we are honest, we see that helping others actually makes us happier. As social animals, we naturally mirror the pain of those we see around us, unless we are given reason to see those others as “other.”
So, if we are honest, we will not resort to the claim that it is not in our nature to care for others, nor to the claim that it is the nature of others (such as Trump’s “losers”) to be stuck in misery.
In honesty, we recognize our intimacy with others.
Let’s stop deceiving ourselves about our inconvenient but inescapable relatedness to others. Vast needless suffering arises from our refusal to see this interconnectedness. Kindness is fact-based virtue.
Also: if we are honest, we see that our actions may actually make a real difference in others’ lives; justifications for apathy and nihilism don’t hold up. It is true that we don’t have any guarantees that we will help. But this is not an excuse for not trying to help and learning how to help more effectively. Each of us, looking carefully at her or his life, should consider what sorts of activities, practices, and situations have helped us to become more kind.
Let’s be intent on nurturing any tender sprout of kindness that we find within ourselves. Let’s commit to caring for one another.
Let’s resolve, each morning, not to miss our chances to be kind this particular day.
Guy Newland is the author of A Buddhist Grief Observed (Wisdom Publications, 2016), Introduction to Emptiness (Snow Lion Publications, 2009) and other books, articles, Dharma talks and sermons. He has two adult children and has taught Buddhism at Central Michigan University since 1988.
Editor: Dana Gornall