How to be kind according to Buddhism

Buddha kindWith consideration for others we determine to avoid negativity because we don’t want to hurt others. (This carries on from this article.) Non-harmfulness is the guiding principle in Buddhism. No one who deliberately harms others is a follower of Buddha ~ the chief refuge commitment he gave to be a Buddhist is:

Not to harm others.

So we develop love and compassion in our hearts, and then put our money where our mouth is, as it were, by developing the determination to avoid actions that would disturb or harm others. Our self-cherishing desires are like a black hole that can never be filled, so, as it says in Transform Your Life:

Before we act on a wish we should consider whether it will disturb or harm others, and if we think that it will we should not do it.

That’s a good rule of thumb.

Also we need to try and practice consideration whenever we are with other people, as Geshe Kelsang says – which means any other people! Not just a few people whom we want to impress. Buddhist moral discipline is practical, not abstract – there is no point developing compassion for all those people in China and then acting crazy around our co-workers. How we behave with the people under our nose, whether these are the people we’d choose to be with or not, is where the rubber hits the road, where we get to really manifest what is going on in our hearts in our verbal and physical actions. One of my favorite sayings is in Meaningful to Behold:

We should not act as if we are sleepwalking or allow our habits to dominate our behavior.

Making a determination is moral discipline, and it means we are awake due to mindfulness, not allowing ourselves to be dominated by our habitual delusions. Who else are we going to practice this with, if not the people we are presented with each day, whether friend, enemy, or total stranger?

Way to make friends

If we are considerate, Geshe Kelsang says, people will like and respect us. Makes sense – people like us generally based on the way we make them feel, as opposed to whether we are scintillatingly fascinating, witty, and gorgeous to look at (I’m talking about like as in affection, not attachment, here.) If the people around us think that we are basically trustworthy, that we are not out to get them, and that in fact we are interested in their welfare, they will probably like us. (Doesn’t mean we can’t be fascinating too …)

Genuinely goodgreatest test

Integrity is important – the same study showed that we try to get away with appearing better than we are, whereas would it not be more cool to appear good because we ARE good?! (Funny how the Sanskrit word for moral discipline, “shi la”, literally means “coolness”.)

Sense of shame and consideration help us overcome this disconnect, this hypocrisy, this pretension and deceit, and become genuinely good people. As it says in Transform Your Life:

Whether we are a good person or a bad person depends upon whether or not we have sense of shame and consideration for others.

No guilt though

Confession time. When I took Marty out one day, in the big “historic” January New York blizzard that never was, he pooped right in the middle of a wide and deep puddle. I had on shoes, not boots, and I tried to get to it, but the puddle was about 9 inches deep, so I gave up. I did notice that I had self-cherishing attachment to my dry feet over someone else’s stepping in poop, and it wasn’t pretty. But, having acknowledged that, I did not let myself feel too bad about it. Why?!clean up after dog

Because sense of shame is not guilt — perhaps it is the opposite as guilt holds onto the baggage and identifies with the negativity, “Oh, I’m such a horrible person! What’s the point!” We feel worthless and unmotivated. Whereas with sense of shame or consideration, when we do something less than stellar we don’t beat ourselves up but recognize we did it under the influence of our enemy, the delusions, and so we can purify and move on.

We are not fixed or inherently anything — in fact the me who didn’t pick up after my dog has already gone out of existence, thanks to impermanence, leaving me free to identify with my pure nature and re-impute or re-identify myself as a decent dog-owner once again, to greet the new moment and Marty’s new bowel movement. (Wish I could say I picked up another dog’s poop to make up for it, and to make me seem better than I am … but I didn’t 😉  Ah well, at least I picked up all Marty’s poop after that, making sure I always had on my Wellies.)

You are your own witness

And others cannot police us; we have to just do this thing ourselves. I will leave you as I started in the last article, with another piece of memorable advice from Buddha: You are your own witness

What would a Buddhist do?

change mindWhen asked to sum up his lifetime’s teachings, Buddha managed with his typical genius to condense all 84,000 of them into one short verse:

Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good,
Control the mind.
This is the teaching of Buddha. ~ Vinaya Sutras

In Transform Your Life, in the section “A Daily Practice”, Geshe Kelsang explains how we can do this with 6 daily practices, 2 of them being sense of shame and consideration for others, which are both characterized by a determination to refrain from negative actions. These enable us to live a kind, ethical life.

Raising our standards ~ sense of shame

Sense of shame helps us avoid negative actions by appealing to our Jiminy Cricket-type conscience, avoiding inappropriate actions for reasons that concern ourself, eg, because we’re a dad, a Buddhist, a Christian, a teacher, etc. You know that old saying: “What would a [fill in the gap] do?!”

“Shame” in Buddhism, by the way, has nothing whatsoever to do with guilt. It is more of a sense of conscience.

So what kind of conscience we have depends on whom we are identifying ourselves with. If we feel pretty worthless, we won’t care much about our behavior, there won’t seem to be much point – and some studies on poor prison sense of shamebehavior bear this out. If we identify with being a spiritual practitioner, for example, or a teacher, an adult, a doctor, a social worker, or even just a decent human being, we will care that our actions are in keeping with that.

As we are not fixed, we can identify with being what is most beneficial (without grasping at it.)

Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander

I read a study somewhere once on behavior around the water cooler at the office, where apparently 90% of the conversation revolves around other’s moral failings 🙂 “Ooh, guess what so and so did … left the lights on all night, don’t they care about global warming! Didn’t pick up after their dog, so gross and selfish. Ran off with someone else’s partner, how could they!” etc.

These double standards are interesting and utterly in keeping with our tendency to externalize all faults, many of them in fact just projections of our own faults. Do we love rummaging around in the garbage cans of others’ faults or strolling in the sweet-smelling meadows of their good qualities?! Without sense of shame, we might agree with the principles of ethical behavior and be quite happy to have others abide by them, yet, when we are tempted by attachment, we might also leave the lights on all night and think it doesn’t matter because we are some kind of exception and the planet won’t mind. We might not pick up after our dog if we are in a hurry because we have better things to do. We might run off with other people’s partners because this is true love. We stonesmight not, in other words, remove the plank from our own eyes before attempting to remove the mote from the eyes of others. As Atisha says in a well-known Buddhist saying:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

The same goes for our behavior. Moral outrage is fine when we actually have a leg to stand on, so that is what we need to check — do we?! Why be judgmental, high and mighty, or goody two shoes? We need to be genuine and humble in our wish to be better. As it says in Advice from Atisha’s Heart (the whole text of which is available here!)

Do not look for the faults of others, but look for faults in yourself, and purge them like bad blood.

Do not contemplate your own good qualities, but contemplate the good qualities of others, and respect everyone as a servant would.

An ex’s father was fond of saying that he’d read a study which found that, when questioned, each member of a couple always said they did 70% of the housework. (And this is no different if you question anyone in any shared living arrangement, where people often complain that they are doing more than their fair share.) You gotta wonder why the math doesn’t add up — and the article said it is because we are keenly aware of all the work we do as we are with ourselves all the time, whereas we only see a fraction of what others are doing. Thinking of our own good qualities and others faults, perhaps, rather than the other way round …!?

Rationalizations, justifications …

moral ethicsWhen we are under the influence of delusions we rarely think we are wrong at the time — we can justify and rationalize almost any behavior. We almost always have the perfect excuse (even though no one else has any excuse.) This is why sense of shame comes in handy because all the time we are identified with being, for example, an adult, we’ll naturally not behave like a four-year old. While we are identified with being a doctor or social worker or a teacher — when that is our basis of imputation for our sense of self, when that is who we think we are — we’ll naturally avoid actions that seem out of keeping or inappropriate. While we are identified with being even just a decent human being, we are far less likely to do something un-decent, even if no one is watching us.

What goes around, comes around

MartyWith sense of shame, we also consider karma – we avoid a negative action because we don’t want to experience its negative result, a bad experience. If you are wondering what is with this mention of dog poop, I just looked after a big black Labrador called Marty for 3 weeks, and learned far more than I ever needed or wanted to know about dog poop on the streets of New York. So, for example, when  I’m about to leave the dog poop because it is inconvenient to wade through a foot of snow with the wrong shoes, and, besides, no one is looking, I can remember that I am creating the cause to tread in dog poop myself down the road. And because karma increases, if I don’t purify this action I could end up treading in dog poop, or worse, hundreds of times. So better just to pick up in the first place.

Next time, consideration for others.