Karen Armstrong was a featured speaker at the Unitarian Universalist
General Assembly this past June. When I learned she would be speaking, I
read her new book: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. I admit I was a bit
curious about why a religious historian and scholar had chosen to write a
book about compassion. It seemed to me to be a more likely subject for
Buddhist teachers, rabbis, or UU ethicists.
As it turns out, Armstrong didn’t set out to write a book about compassion.
She actually thought she’d had it with religion. She’s British, and, like so
many others in her country, she’d turned away from religion. But after
making some unorthodox statements, she was catapulted into the limelight
and actually began to study religion. That study helped her see what religion
can be, what’s possible, what’s hopeful.
While she still doesn’t adhere to any religious tradition herself, she does
recognize that people in the United States and, other places as well, still want
to be religious. The challenge for Armstrong was to figure out how people
could be religious in a way that created more good than harm. She found
herself on a quest for a religious ethos that could promote peace and
harmony rather than the polarization, dogmatism, and conflict that’s so
prevalent among individuals and nations. As an historian, she was especially
interested in finding historical precedents for such an attitude.
Armstrong’s efforts led to a conclusion we Unitarian Universalists have also
arrived at. Religion is about behaving differently, not holding set ideas. We
often say religion is about deeds not creeds. This idea can be found at the
core of each of the world’s major religions. It is the compassionate ethos.
Compassion means “to endure [something] with another person, to put
ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our
own, and to enter generously into his point of view. … Compassion can be
defined…as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism” (Armstrong). This
altruistic attitude is embodied in the Golden Rule, which most of us think of as
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Each of the world’s
major religions has developed some version of this Golden Rule. They each
embrace compassion. This doesn’t mean all religions are basically the same
at heart. Each still has its own distinctive qualities.
Confucius was the first to formulate the Golden Rule. He said, “Do not do to
others what you do not want them to do to you” (Confucianism. Analects
15.23). This has sometimes been referred to as the “Silver Rule.” The silver
rule is the golden rule expressed in the negative, in what not to do. In
Confucianism, the principle is expressed in how not to treat people. “Do not
do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” The goal is to behave
according to this rule “all day and every day.”
In Buddhism, there is the concept of the Bodhisatttva. The Bodhisattva is an
individual who is on the path to Enlightenment. His or her commitment to
compassion for others, however, is so profound that he or she delays
reaching Nirvana. Instead the Boddhisattva makes the vow to remain in a
suffering world to help others reach Nirvana. According to the Buddha, “It
was not enough simply to enjoy a religious experience. … To live morally was
to live for others. After enlightenment…a person must return to the
marketplace and there practice compassion to all, doing anything he or she
could to alleviate the misery of other people” (Armstrong).
In Hinduism, adherents learn that “One should not behave towards others in
a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality”
(Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8).
In Christianity, the Golden Rule is found in the teachings of Jesus. He valued
the commandments to love God and neighbor above all others. In the Gospel
of Matthew, the Golden Rule is expressed this way: “In everything do to
others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets”
(Matthew 7:12). A passage from the Gospel of Luke elaborates the concept:
Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who
love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who
love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is
that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from
whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners
lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do
good, and lend, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:31-35).
Jewish scripture teaches that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”
(Leviticus 19.18). There is a famous story told about the Jewish sage Hillel
that makes the point. A nonbeliever approached him and promised to convert
to Judaism if Hillel could only recite the entire Torah while standing on one
leg. Hillel replied: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That
is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go study it.”
Hillel’s was an admirably succinct statement of spirituality. Wouldn’t it be
something if we Unitarian Universalists could all learn to recite our faith
standing on one leg?!
These all sound so familiar, don’t they. Compassion is at the very core of our
faith as well. According to Richard Gilbert, a UU minister, “Compassion is the
spiritual value that undergirds Unitarian Universalist ethics.” Unitarian
Universalism, like other religious traditions, encompasses the Golden Rule.
Compassion is expressed in our second principle, in which “we affirm and
promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” Feeling
another person’s suffering is a compelling motivator to seek justice and
This past Wednesday I felt quite lucky to find myself in three different venues
where compassion was center stage. At our church’s lunch bunch, I engaged
with UUs about the common good. The common good is our monthly worship
theme for September. Our services on the 10th anniversary of September 11th,
the 21st century water crisis, and now compassion have explored this idea
from various perspectives. Our lunch conversation eventually turned to
peace and altruism. It was International Day of Peace. In the afternoon, I
attended a peace service at Phoebe Berks where I offered a prayer. The
featured speaker was a young man who shared his experiences in Iraq. He
spoke very simply about how he discovered the Iraqis to be a peaceful
people – more peaceful in many respects, he said, than we are. In the evening
I went to Albright College to offer a prayer. The program included
representatives from the Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Zen and Tibetan Buddhist,
Jewish, Quaker, Unitarian Universalist and secular perspectives. Woven
throughout our various chants, prayers, songs, and readings were some
common themes. These included respect for people who are different than
we are and the desire for more peaceful relationships among individuals and
nations. The remarks were peppered with the word “love.”
In each of those venues, I was surrounded by others who share a desire for
world harmony – for peace, compassion, and respect for the other. Being in
the company of likeminded individuals, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the
larger network of people and organizations working toward similar goals. We
are not alone in our quest for a more compassionate world and in our
commitment to deeds over creeds.
At the same time, we know that all too often, ideology trumps compassion.
Religion has too often been driven by dogma and rigid ideology rather than
compassion and an open heart. When ideas and hearts become rigid,
compassion wanes. Greed, fighting, fear, and anger take over.
Unitarian Universalist Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist who practices
meditation, knows just how easy it is to close our hearts to others. She
remembers leading a psychotherapy group a few years ago. She found
herself irritated rather than compassionate. One member of the group, Tom,
liked to tell long stories about how he resolved problems others raised. In
one session a young man shared that his wife’s judgment made him feel tense
and self-conscious. Tom advised him to pretend to be confident or his wife
wouldn’t respect him. After one session, he stayed to tell Brach how he didn’t
fit in with the group, describing everything that was wrong with everyone
else. She thought to herself: “Why don’t you just leave? That will solve
She knew she was supposed to be helping him, but she felt agitated and
angry. As she recognized her own intolerance, she began to shift her
attention to focus on what Tom needed. She realized he wanted to be seen as
a helpful person with a lot to offer. They ended up talking, listening and
laughing together. She ended up being able to offer him some gentle
feedback about his role in the group. At a future session, Tom told the young
man he had previously offended: “You remind me in some ways of my son. I
wanted you to look at me as a knowing father, but I did the same thing wrong
with you that I did raising my son. I forgot to find out what you really needs. I
just wanted to help and didn’t know how.” This allowed the young man to
open up and share that what he needed was to feel that he mattered. Tom
made him feel that way (Radical Acceptance).
Brach knows how easy it is to close our hearts to others. Most of us have
been in groups like this where our patience and tolerance ran thin. Even
when we share a genuine commitment to living compassionately, we have to
acknowledge how hard it is to practice compassion “all day and every day,”
as Confucius urged us to do.
But we also know that it’s possible to open our hearts to others. Brach shows
us that it’s possible. Compassion can and does transform us and others. Just
as Brach opened her heart to Tom, and Tom to the young man and the young
man to the group, we too can open to compassion. In the words of our
responsive reading, it’s possible to “radiate friendliness over the whole
world” (“Boundless Goodwill,” Metta Sutta).
On those occasions when we find ourselves being testy, irritated, afraid, and
resentful with another person, that doesn’t mean we’re failing (Brach). It
means we need to listen more closely to what is happening inside us. When
we do - when we are able to see what we need - then we’ll also be able to
begin to see what others need. We’ll be able to listen more closely to the
other. Compassion for others will arise.
The Dalai Lama teaches: “If you want others to be happy, practice
compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Let us practice
compassion. Let us learn to be happy. Let us embrace compassion “all day
and every day.”
Amen. Blessed be.