I exit the subway to my quiet Brooklyn neighborhood and there he is again, wearing a ragged T-shirt, torn jeans, and dirty sneakers, sweeping the subway steps with an old broom.
He looks at me pleadingly. Feeling generous, I reach into my pocket for a coin but find only crumpled bills. Too much, I think. Mumbling a quick “Sorry,” I avoid his eyes and hurry on past.
The next morning I wake up with a new resolve. Today, I promise, I’ll manifest compassion to friend and foe alike. But the hard fact is that by the time I’ve finished shaving and listening to the news on the radio, I’m shaking my head at George Bush for vetoing another humanitarian bill, and as I step out of the subway in Manhattan to walk to my office, I’m puffing up my chest at the woman with the shopping bags who blocks my way on the sidewalk. And so it goes throughout the trying day, until by the time I make my way home again, the homeless man sweeping the subway steps can consider himself damn lucky to get even a dime from me, after what I’ve been through.
Buddhism claims that loving kindness is the fundamental expression of human nature. But my experience shows me that caring for others doesn’t come easily or naturally. In this world of child abuse and street snipers in Sarajevo, are Buddhists—with all their ideas about loving kindness—just whistling in the dark?
Buddhists say that the capacity for human compassion is immense, perhaps infinite, but Western science suggests something else entirely: “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes…. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts which simply do not make evolutionary sense.” These are not the words of a misanthropic quack. Rather, they are the considered conclusions of one of the world’s preeminent sociobiologists, Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, who voiced these astonishing sentences in his seminal book, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press).
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