Guest Column By Ven. Thubten Nyima
All sentient beings seek happiness and avoid suffering. This is true of humans, animals and even insects. At our very core, we are not different from each other. We all have aversion to situations and things that cause us pain, and look for and are attracted to that which brings us happiness. Yet, this is not the only way in which we are connected. In addition to filial and friendship bonds, human beings are also connected through kindness and interdependence.
One of those things that we are attracted to, look for, and cherish is kindness. Humans have a deep capacity for kindness, particularly during trying times. Recent stories from all over the world show how people are being kind in the midst of loss and fear. From appreciation to health care workers in the front lines of the pandemic, to teachers going the extra mile to stay in touch with students during lockdowns, to scientist working long hours to develop a vaccine, acts of kindness have been abundant.
The heroes we celebrate are often those who, in challenging or dangerous situations, show courage and self-sacrifice in order to benefit others. Admiration and respect for such actions run deep in our heart. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, to name a few, personify principled, non-violent response to harm and injustice.
All major religions in the world call for kindness to others. Here are some quotes I borrowed from the Feed Kindness website:
One should not behave towards others in a way that is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish nature.
– Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
– Leviticus 19.18
Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.
–Islam. Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 13
Response to Injustice
Because as humans we value kindness, we also show great outrage in the face of injustice, abuse, and cruelty. Recent widespread protests in response to the death of George Floyd underscore this.
In Buddhism we practice seeing all beings as having been our mothers in the past. This is logical in the context of having been born numberless times. Therefore, according to the Buddhist worldview, we all have a very close connection with each other, having been each other’s family and friends in past lives. As a result of such close connection, we have been the recipient of everyone’s kindness and care since beginningless time.
This morning, as I sat contemplating the great fortune of having a meal to eat, I thought of all the human beings who made that meal possible. The people who donated it where foremost in my mind, as well as others in the long chain of causation—through space and time—that culminated in the plate of food in front of me. For example, the ancient peoples who discovered fire, developed the wheel, embarked in the systematic cultivation of fruits and vegetables, and engineered irrigation systems to support nascent agricultural efforts. Also those who, through the ages, perfected those innovations into their modern versions, and many, many others right up to the grocery store clerks who stocked and sold the items.
The truth of our human condition is that, despite the individualistic attitude and the “pull-myself-up-by-my bootstraps” narrative we often hear, we are very much dependent upon each other for our very existence. If nothing else, the reality of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate just how connected we are to each other and the planet. No longer can we ignore the fact that whatever happens in remote corners of the world will eventually impact our lives. Likewise, our actions and choices affect those far away.
We depend on others for our very survival. What do you think are your chances of surviving alone on a deserted island? Mine are not so good. Survival requires a lot of skills, most of which I don’t have.
We can only cultivate spiritual qualities in relationship to each other. Love, compassion, forgiveness, altruism—the very mental states that define our spiritual realizations— can only be cultivated as a result of our interaction with others.
We also identify ourselves in relation to others. Our culture, ethnicity, race, socio-economic status, language, educational level, and other demographic markers, do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are part of an intricate tapestry of human development and experience that can only be revealed and expressed as we interact with each other.
When we see clearly the kindness of others and our interdependence, we are less likely to feel lonely or alienated. Feelings of gratitude and closeness arise more easily in the mind, creating conducive conditions for cultivating joy and compassion.