My Religion is Kindness: A Zen Priest Reflects on the Mysteries of the Human Heart

My Religion is Kindness: A Zen Priest Reflects on the Mysteries of the Human Heart April 7, 2018




The other day I saw an image called the “Hierarchy of Disagreement.” It was developed by Paul Graham, described on the web as “a programmer, essayist, and venture capitalist.” I know nothing else of him beside the image and the essay “How to Disagree” that the image is based on.

I find it pretty good, actually very good. Would that people paid a little more attention to it and other pointers about how to seek the truth of a matter a bit more than merely trying to “win” an argument.

However, for this reflection what caught my attention was the third from the bottom point, that is the antepenultimate (I think that’s the right word) worst way to argue about something. That is to argue against “tone.” As a way to distract people from the actual argument, I understand, and agree that’s a problem. It can be a way of throwing dust in people’s eyes. Merely distracting people, again, rather than seeking the truth of the matter.

However, that’s not the end of the matter for “tone.” For one thing if your tone is snotty, well, people aren’t actually likely to hear your argument. This is a point some of my friends do not seem to get.  I figure it falls into the “sometimes being right is not enough” category. Respect matters. And, no, its not that it shouldn’t be. Respect matters. So tone is a two-way street in that sense. It’s lousy as a part of an argument. But, it can derail an argument before it gets going, as well. A word to the wise.

And, there’s something else to note that is carried within that holding up the importance of tone. And this is the thing that I’m more concerned about in the moment.

Over time I have discovered my online persona is a bit nicer than I am in what I have heard called “meatworld.” Apparently, this is worth noting, as more people appear to be a little less kind when dealing with others online than they are in the world.

Now I’m not arguing against anger being expressed. There are lots of things to be angry about. Nor, am I disdaining the aggressive pursuit of one’s goal or ideal or whatever. If it is important and true, well, putting some real energy into presenting it makes all the sense in the world.

But, too often the online social encounter, as someone I read online noted, has become 24/7 road rage. People appear to love to hate. And oh my do we get it out on the interwebs. It can make me despair of our human condition. We get one step removed from face to face and we seem too often to degenerate into snotty adolescents, except worse.

Some raise the question, is this in fact who we really are behind some mask of civility? Is bad behavior on full display a mere one step from immediate public accountability evidence of something deeper, and darker about our human condition? Me, while I can see how some might believe that, I actually don’t think so. But, I also don’t think we’re necessarily kind and loving at core, either. I don’t think we’re all at core “good,” either.

There’s that story I’ve mostly heard presented as “American Indian” wisdom, sometime attributed to a Cherokee elder, giving it a feel of gravitas. Actually it appears to trace to the late Fundamentalist Christian evangelist Billy Graham. It goes that we have two wolves living within our hearts. One is evil. The other is good. The punchline the one that will win is the one we feed. Perhaps you know it?

Now, I think we’re vastly more complicated than the dualistic division at the heart implied in that story. There’s more to us. We are a world of possibility. But, the narrowness of the story noted, there is a truth within it.

And here’s the truth. We are what we think, we are what we do.

Nearing death Aldous Huxley said, “It’s rather embarrassing to have given one’s entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than, ‘Try to be a little kinder.’” I think kindness is a key to many thing.

The Dalai Lama once famously declared, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” I’ve thought a lot about that declaration of kindness as a religion. There are a host of false approximations. Sentimentality for one. Pity for another. And in Buddhist circles when speaking of “near-enemies” of our higher aspirations note an expectation of some pay-off is still one more. I find this last one really interesting. The truth of the matter is that the kindness I believe the Dalai Lama is pointing to, the kindness I am thinking of represents a possibility always present within our human hearts.

So, what is this kindness? Merriam-Webster defines kindness as the quality or state of being
“kind,” which isn’t especially helpful by itself. So, turning to “kind,” we find sympathy or helpfulness. Another dictionary speaks of kindness as generosity. For me kindness is the state of sympathy for the other, a desire to helpfulness, and most of all it means generosity of heart.

To use a Buddhist term, I believe kindness is bodhisattva action. It is the manifestation of the generous heart in the world. The reason why it isn’t about something transactional, that looking for some pay-off falls short is that it is rooted in the profound realization that we are all of us intimates, all of us connected. Sympathy is seeing into that connection. Wishing to be helpful follows. Generosity is sharing with the family where no one is excluded from the family.

Now, kindness, while as natural as natural can be, is also just one among a number of contending possibilities in our lives. We do not have two wolves in our hearts, we have a whole pack of wolves living within us. So, if the wolf we feed wins, if we are what we do, what follows?

There are a host of quotes about how to do this. Stephen Covey in his one time best selling 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which raged through management circles during my active ministerial life, famously said “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” In all likelihood he wsas drawing upon Mohandas Gandhi, who told us, “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”

The truth is we can find variations on this going back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to Laozi, to Gautama Siddhartha who is quoted in the Majjhima Nikaya (19) telling us “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.”

So, its a bit more complicated than even “you are what you do,” or “you are what you think.” For one thing they are completely connected. A thought without action, well, its just a dream. And, actions without a thought, is just mindless power. I would dig in just a bit more and suggest thought includes both rational thinking and emotions. The divide, that left brain, right brain thing is an artificial divide. The human mind is the human heart.

And, so, back to that my religion is kindness.

And a necessary but, I promise, quick thought about “religion.” In popular contemporary shorthand religion is all the bad things about the spiritual enterprise, hierarchy and rules near the top of a long list. Fair enough. But, there’s something that can be and often is lost in looking to some “spirituality” that’s above the human fray.

One thing about the word religion is that it can be understood as regular, as, well, as in habit, as in doing something over and over again.

And, I suggest, there’s a bit of a feedback loop. We do kind things, we say kind things, we speak from a kindly perspective, and, well, we will think from a kind perspective.

The Buddha actually offered a path to this attending to kindness as something we think and as something we do.

For me I find the Dalai Lama’s line “Kindness is my religion,” a koan. Now that word “koan” is another term that has a popular use, which is a thorny question. And, okay, sure, “kindness is my religion” is certainly a thorny question. All those things of intention and action and what they mean; you have a pretty thorny question.

But, I mean koan in its sense as a spiritual discipline. Here koan means a statement about a reality and an invitation to stand in that place. With this “kindness is my religion” becomes an invitation. It is an invitation into possibility. It is an invitation into hope. For ourselves. For the world.

Kindness. Just kindness.

Just this.


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