COMPASSION: THE KEY TO A CARING AND INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY
Recently I had the tremendous good fortune to spend twelve days in Toronto attending a series of teachings given by His Holiness the Dalai. As a Tibetan Buddhist monk, this was an occasion of great religious significance for me. But as I took the teachings to heart, I found that they were of equal importance to me as a human being, as an individual living within a community. Throughout the entire time, His Holiness kept returning to the theme of compassion and its impact on the dynamics of any form of human interaction, especially when there is a need to avoid or resolve conflict. He was speaking to a very diverse group made up of people from all religious backgrounds and of many different ethnic backgrounds. Of course, it was only natural that I began to relate his words to our situation here in Birmingham and to consider the benefit that could be derived by applying His Holiness's message to our own daily lives. So I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that came to mind as I contemplated his teachings from that point of view.
There was a time in the past when we believed we could define ourselves by our differences. We thought knew who "we" were and by focusing on ways in which others were different, we excluded them from consideration. "They" were reduced to nothing more than a set of unchallenged generalizations, almost invariably negative or at best dismissive. We put their problems and struggles aside as inconsequential and labeled their concerns unreasonable. Such a seemingly heartless attitude contradicts basic human nature which is moved by suffering wherever it is encountered.
That attitude was possible only because we lived our day-to-day lives apart, without meaningful contact with those who we did not mentally include in whatever we saw as our own group. That is no longer the case. The level of diversity within our face-to-face community, the people we meet and interact with every day, is such that now we must give up clinging to our differences and, instead, turn our focus on our commonalities.
Thinking in terms of "us and them," "friend and enemy," can only bring harm within a community. We must broaden our definitions of "us" to include the entire community. This becomes easier if we consider that we are all part of the same human family. Our mental, emotional and physical similarities are much greater than our differences. Our hopes and fears are essentially the same. In every situation, each of us seeks to achieve happiness and to avoid suffering. And in today's world, the well-being of each of us is interdependent upon the well-being of all others in our community.
Even if we put aside all human values, our entire community is interrelated and interdependent in countless areas that relate to factors that are vital to each of us such as the economy and the environment. It is therefore in our own self-interest to maintain a viewpoint that considers the well-being of all. But as people of religion, we know that there are even more important reasons to consider the needs of others.
If, as individuals, we are sincere practitioners of whatever religion we accept, we can do a great deal to direct our community toward a more positive future because every religion teaches that we should relate to others with love and compassion. If we are sincere in our beliefs, we must look upon others compassionately.
By compassion, sometimes a vague term, I mean a feeling of closeness and concern, combined with respect, that can arise on the basis of the recognition of our commonalities. As human beings, each of us has the potential for compassion, and as human beings we can use our intelligence to extend and expand our capacity for compassion and make that compassion the foundation of our approach to solving the problems that are faced by our community.
Where there is conflict within a community, it is inevitably because there are people who have aligned themselves into groups who feel that their own interests will be harmed if the needs or interests of the "other side" are met. When we make our religious practice real, generating compassion in our hearts for all, we will find that there is no place for "us and them." There will be no "other side." We will recognize the reality that we are one community, one human family.
With compassion in our hearts, we will view the needs of every member of the community as our own needs. When we have compassion, where we see that needs exist, we will feel a strong desire that those needs be met, a desire so strong that those needs become genuinely our own, our own in the sense that we can never be comfortable with an outcome that meets the needs of some while neglecting or at the expense of others.
With just such a compassionate, holistic outlook we can work together to find solutions to any problems that face us. This concern for the welfare of every member, just as it is what makes a healthy, functioning family, is also what makes a healthy, functioning community. When the members of any group are motivated by a compassionate, caring point of view, the group will thrive, and conflict will be fleeting.
Followers of different faiths, who found their religion to be a source of division in the past, can lead the way to unity by focusing on our common values of human love and compassion. Even non-believers, those who do not adhere to any religious tradition, can be comfortable working as part of an undertaking made up simply of those who approach all others with good will and compassion. It is my belief that as members of the Interfaith Institute we can demonstrate for the Birmingham community as a whole that, no matter how our spiritual convictions may differ, it is through those convictions that we each can be inspired to firmly implement the religious imperative that we generate compassion for all and make that compassion an unwavering part of how we approach our daily lives. I believe that we will then discover that the foundation of a peaceful, caring and inclusive community infused with compassion can be found within individual human hearts that embody those same qualities.