From my viewpoint, Buddhism is not about getting enlightened—it’s about being kind. If I have a chance at the time of my death to take an accounting of what I’ve done, I won’t be asking how enlightened I’ve become, I’ll be asking how much kindness I’ve shown to others. This is how the Buddha began, who set out walking the earth not in quest of enlightenment but in search of a means to end the suffering he saw all about him. If I ever hope to realize a generous, loving, merciful, nonviolent human society, I too must carry on the daily practice of generosity, love, mercy and nonviolence that the Buddha set in motion. This is the practical and ordinary work of the bodhisattva. And yet the capacity for kindness is an invariable consequence of enlightenment, for enlightenment and compassion are not merely mutually reinforcing but one and the same, two movements of one understanding. And that understanding is the direct knowing that nowhere does there exist a single separate self. The perception of no self is one of compassion, since compassion is not so much a matter of feeling as one of identification. If you and I, in all our obvious uniqueness, are yet manifestations of one life and one mind, then what happens to you involves me. I have nothing solely of my own to grasp or defend. Our lives here on earth are grafted onto each other. We share a single root. However, kindness is something you do as much as something you are, and while enlightenment teaches you who you are—or more accurately who you aren’t—it doesn’t necessarily tell you what to do with the discovery. What enlightenment does is expose prior limits, as if you’d been a stable-bred foal and had spent the whole of your life in the confinement of a stall, being tossed a daily flake of baled alfalfa and a quarter bucket of oats for your feed. Then one day the whole face of the barn falls off and you and all your stable mates go whinnying into the sudden fields, exposed to immensely more space and options than any had ever dreamed existed. And while the green growing fields without walls stretch out to the far horizon with nothing to restrain you from galloping until your lungs burst, you’ll still have to learn simple things like which of the wild plants to feed on and where to bed down at night. Enlightenment is a beginning, but not an end. And it doesn’t come with a set of specific instructions. It takes practice to learn to run with the rest of herd. Old habits of mind and body will outlast the force of the deepest enlightenment. I may very well see through the delusion of a separate self and still go on acting in its behalf, defending a ghost of myself that never existed. The cultivation of compassion is largely a matter of stopping what I’ve been doing. If I want to do kindness, I must stop doing unkindness. If I want to do generosity, I must stop doing greed. If I want to do love, I must stop doing hate. This is a simple fact, a formulation of consequence: what we do is what we get. Or as Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “The ends are pre-existent in the means.” Or again, As Zen Master Dogen, insisted, “Training and enlightenment are one and the same.” It may be a tautotology to assert that until we stop doing what we’re doing we’re still doing what we’re doing, but if the transparent logic of this goes unacknowledged, I might very well find myself in pursuit of enlightenment without having undertaken to free myself from habits of self-interest and greed. I don’t ask of anyone—including myself-that they be occupying any level whatsoever of enlightenment. I only ask that we live kindly and decently, with care and concern for all the beings of the world. I don’t have to possess a superior insight or any insight other than that of the ordinary mind in order to work for the cessation of suffering. To experience a mind-shattering awakening might be a marvelous experience, like nothing else any of us will ever know, but it’s useless if it doesn’t move the hand that reaches out to heal the world’s ills. Willa Cather has written, “When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them.” Kindness, you see, is our natural condition. If we abandon kindness in favor of the pursuit of personal enlightenment, we risk fearing our own faces for dread of what we see there.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.