Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life

Paperback | December 27, 2011

byKaren Armstrong

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Karen Armstrong explains how to practise the religion of compassion that her last books have preached.

In November 2009 Armstrong and TED launched The Charter of Compassion, which states that "We call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings — even those regarded as enemies." To date, it's been signed by over 48,000 people on the Web, including such figures as The Dalai Lama and Queen Noor, Dave Eggers and Meg Ryan. ( Out of the ideals of that Charter has come this humane, accessible, indispensable short book for our times.

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Karen Armstrong explains how to practise the religion of compassion that her last books have preached.In November 2009 Armstrong and TED launched The Charter of Compassion, which states that "We call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering...

KAREN ARMSTRONG, one of the foremost commentators on religious affairs, is the bestselling author of A History of God (1993), The Battle for God (2000), Islam: A Short History (2000), Buddha (2001), The Spiral Staircase (2004), The Great Transformation (2006) and The Case for God (2009), among many other books. Having spent seven years...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:240 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 0.76 inPublished:December 27, 2011Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:0307400662

ISBN - 13:9780307400666

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THE FIRST STEPLearn About Compassion  All twelve steps will be educative in the deepest sense; the Latin educere means “to lead out,” and this program is designed to bring forth the compassion that, as we have seen, exists potentially within every human being so that it can become a healing force in our own lives and in the world. We are trying to retrain our responses and form mental habits that are kinder, gentler, and less fearful of others. Reading and learning about compassion will be an important part of the process and should become a lifetime habit, but it does not stop there. You cannot learn to drive by reading the car manual; you have to get into the vehicle and practice manipulating it until the skills you acquire so laboriously become second nature. You cannot learn to swim by sitting on the side of the pool watching others cavort in the water; you have to take the plunge and learn to float. If you persevere, you will acquire an ability that at first seemed impossible. It is the same with compassion; we can learn about the neurological makeup of the brain and the requirements of our tradition, but until and unless we actually modify our behavior and learn to think and act toward others in accordance with the Golden Rule, we will make no progress. As an initial step, it might be helpful as a symbolic act of commitment to visit and register with the Charter for Compassion. The charter is essentially a summons to compassionate action, and the website will enable you to keep up, week by week, with the charter’s progress in various parts of the world. But the charter was a joint document that does not reflect the vision of a particular tradition, so it is important to integrate it with a mythos that will motivate you. No teaching that is simply a list of directives can be effective. We need inspiration and motivation that reach a level of the mind that is deeper than the purely rational and touch the emotions rooted in the limbic region of the brain. It is therefore important to explore your own tradition, be it religious or secular, and seek out its teaching about compassion. This will speak to you in a way that is familiar; resonate with some of your deepest aspirations, hopes, and fears; and explain what this journey toward compassion will entail. In the Suggestions for Further Reading at the back of the book, you will find titles that will help you expand your knowledge about your own and other people’s traditions. You might find it useful to form a reading discussion group with whom you can go through the twelve steps. It might be interesting to include people from different religious and secular traditions, since the comparative study of other faiths and ideologies can enrich your understanding of your own. You might also like to keep a private anthology of passages or poems that you find particularly inspiring and make notes of what you have learned about the mythos that introduces us to the deeper meaning of compassion. The concept of mythology needs explanation because in our modern scientific world it has lost much of its original force. A myth is not a fanciful fairy tale. In popular speech the word “myth” is often used to describe something that is simply not true. Accused of a peccadillo in his past life, a politician is likely to protest that the story is a myth—that it didn’t happen. But in the premodern world, the purpose of myth was not to impart factual or historical information. The Greek mythos derives from the verb musteion, “to close the mouth or the eyes.” It is associated with silence, obscurity, and darkness. A myth was an attempt to express some of the more elusive aspects of life that cannot easily be expressed in logical, discursive speech. A myth is more than history; it is an attempt to explain the deeper significance of an event. A myth has been well described as something that in some sense happened once—but that also happens all the time. It is about timeless, universal truth. If somebody had asked the ancient Greeks whether they believed that there was sufficient historical evidence for the famous story of Demeter, goddess of harvest and grain, and her beloved daughter, Persephone (Was Persephone really abducted by Hades and imprisoned in the underworld? Did Demeter truly secure her release? How could you prove that Persephone returned to the upper world each year?), they would have found these questions obtuse. The truth of the myth, they might have replied, was evident for all to see: it was clear in the way that the world came to life each spring, in the recurrent burgeoning of the harvest, and, above all, in the profound truth that death and life are inseparable. There is no new life if the seed does not go down into the ground and die; you cannot have life without death. The rituals associated with the myth, which were performed annually at Eleusis (where Demeter is said to have stayed during her search for Persephone), were carefully crafted to help people accept their mortality; afterward many found that they could contemplate the prospect of their own death with greater equanimity.1 A myth, therefore, makes sense only if it is translated into action—either ritually or behaviorally. It is comprehensible only if it is imparted as part of a process of transformation. 2 Myth has been aptly described as an early form of psychology. The tales about gods threading their way through labyrinths or fighting with monsters were describing an archetypal truth rather than an actual occurrence. Their purpose was to introduce the audience to the labyrinthine world of the psyche, showing them how to negotiate this mysterious realm and grapple with their own demons. The myth of the hero told people what they had to do to unlock their own heroic potential. When Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung charted their modern scientific exploration of the psyche, they turned instinctively to these ancient narratives. A myth could put you in the correct spiritual posture, but it was up to you to take the next step. In our scientifically oriented world, we look for solid information and have lost the older art of interpreting these emblematic stories of gods walking out of tombs or seas splitting asunder, and this has made religion problematic. Without practical implementation, a myth can remain as opaque and abstract as the rules of a board game, which sound complicated and dull until you pick up the dice and start to play; then everything immediately falls into place and makes sense. As we go through the steps, we will examine some of the traditional myths to discover what they teach about the compassionate imperative—and how we must act in order to integrate them with our own lives. It is not possible here to give an exhaustive account of the teachings of all the major traditions. I have had to concentrate on a few of the seminal prophets and sages who developed this ethos. But this brief overview can give us some idea of the universality of the compassionate ideal and the circumstances in which it came to birth. We have seen that there are brain mechanisms and hormones that induce such positive emotions as love, compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness but that they are not as powerful as the more primitive instinctual reflexes known as the Four Fs located in our reptilian old brain. But the great sages understood that it was possible to reorient the mind, and by putting some distance between their thinking selves and these potentially destructive instincts they found new peace. They did not come to this insight on lonely mountaintops or in desert fastnesses. They were all living in societies not unlike our own, which witnessed intense political conflict and fundamental social change. In every case, the catalyst for major spiritual change was a principled revulsion from the violence that had reached unprecedented heights as a result of this upheaval.3 These new spiritualities came into being at a time when the old brain was being co-opted by the calculating, rational new brain in ways that were exciting and life-enhancing but that many found profoundly disturbing. For millennia, human beings had lived in small isolated groups and tribes, using their rational powers to organize their society efficiently. At a time when survival depended on the sharing of limited resources, a reputation for altruism and generosity as well as physical strength and wisdom may well have been valued in a tribal leader. If you had not shared your resources in a time of plenty, who would help you and your people in your hour of need? The clan would survive only if members subordinated their personal desires to the requirements of the group and were ready to lay down their lives for the sake of the whole community. It was necessary for humans to become a positive presence in the minds of others, even when they were absent.4 It was important to elicit affection and concern in other members of the tribe so that they would come back and search for you if you were lost or wounded during a hunting expedition. But the Four Fs were also crucial to the tribal ethos, as essential for the group as for the individual. Hence tribalism often exhibited an aggressive territorialism, desire for status, reflexive loyalty to the leader and the group, suspicion of outsiders, and a ruthless determination to acquire more and more resources, even if this meant that other groups would starve. Tribalism was probably essential to the survival of Homo sapiens, but it could become problematic when human beings acquired the technology to make deadlier weapons and began to compete for territory and resources on a larger scale. It did not disappear when human beings began to build cities and nations. It surfaces even today in sophisticated, wealthy societies that have no doubts about their survival. But as human beings became more secure, achieved greater control over their environment, and began to build towns and cities, some had the leisure to explore the interior life and find ways of controlling their destructive impulses. From about 900 to 200 BCE, during what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the “Axial Age,” there occurred a religious revolution that proved pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity. In four distinct regions, sages, prophets, and mystics began to develop traditions that have continued to nourish men and women: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism on the Indian subcontinent; Confucianism and Daoism in China; monotheism in the Middle East; and philosophical rationalism in Greece.5 This was the period of the Upanishads, the Buddha, Confucius, Laozi, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Ezra, Socrates, and Aeschylus. We have never surpassed the insights of the Axial Age. In times of spiritual and social crisis, people have repeatedly turned back to it for guidance. They may have interpreted the Axial discoveries differently, but they never succeeded in going beyond them. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, were all latter-day flowerings of this original vision, which they translated marvelously into an idiom that spoke directly to the troubled circumstances of a later period. Compassion would be a key element in each of these movements. The Aryan peoples of India would always be in the vanguard of this spiritual and psychological transformation and would develop a particularly sophisticated understanding of the workings of the mind. Aggressive, passionate warriors addicted to raiding and rustling the cattle of neighboring groups, the Aryan tribes, who had settled in what is now the Punjab, had sacralized their violence. Their religious rituals included the sacrificial slaughter of animals, fierce competitions, and mock raids and battles in which participants were often injured or even killed. But in the ninth century BCE, priests began systematically to extract this aggression from the liturgy, transforming these dangerous rites into more anodyne ceremonies. Eventually they managed to persuade the warriors to give up their sacred war games. As these ritual specialists began to investigate the causes of violence in the psyche, they initiated a spiritual awakening.6 From a very early date, therefore, they had espoused the ideal of ahimsa (“nonviolence”) that would become central to Indian spirituality. In the seventh century BCE, the sages who produced the earliest of the spiritual treatises known as the Upanishads took another important step forward. Instead of concentrating on the performance of external rites, they began to examine their interior significance. At this time Aryan society in the Ganges basin was in the early stages of urbanization.7 The elite now had time to examine the inner workings of their minds—a luxury that had not been possible before humans were freed from the all-absorbing struggle for subsistence. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad was probably composed in the kingdom of Videha, a frontier state on the most easterly point of Aryan expansion, where Aryans mixed with tribesmen from Iran as well as the indigenous peoples.8 The early Upanishads reflect the intense excitement of these encounters. People thought nothing of traveling a thousand miles to consult a teacher, and kings and warriors debated the issues as eagerly as priests. The sages and their pupils explored the complexity of the mind and had discovered the unconscious long before Jung and Freud; they were well aware of the effortless and reflexive drives of the human brain recently explored by neuroscientists. Above all, they were bent on finding the atman, the true “self” that was the source of all this mental activity and could not, therefore, be identical with the thoughts and feelings that characterize our ordinary mental and psychological experience. “You can’t see the Seer, who does the seeing,” explained Yajnavalkya, one of the most important of the early sages. “You can’t hear the Hearer who does the hearing; you can’t think with the Thinker who does the thinking; and you can’t perceive the Perceiver who does the perceiving.”9 The sages were convinced that if they could access the innermost core of their being, they would achieve unity with the Brahman, “the All,” the indestructible and imperishable energy that fuels the cosmos, establishes its laws, and pulls all the disparate parts of the universe together.10 The sages and their pupils claimed that their mental exercises, disciplined lifestyle, and intensely dialectical discussions had uncovered the atman and introduced them to a more potent mode of being. The way they described this experience suggests that it may have originated in the brain’s soothing system, which takes over when an animal is at rest and free of threat. A person who knows the atman, said Yajnavalkya, is “calm, composed, cool, patient and collected.” Above all, he is “free from fear,” a phrase that runs like a thread through these texts.11 But the peace discovered by the sages was more than bovine relaxation. They distinguished carefully and consistently between this new knowledge and a temporary, contingent contentment that is repeatedly overwhelmed by the Four Fs. The peaceful mood of a calf resting quietly beside his mother cannot withstand the incentive/resource-focused mechanism: when hungry, he reflexively leaps to his feet and roots around for food. If a lion appears on the scene, the threat-focused mechanism automatically fills him with the terror that will make him flee for his life. But the sages seem to  have gained a more permanent degree of immunity from these instinctive drives. Once a person had accessed “the immense and unborn atman, un-ageing, undying, immortal and free from fear,” he was free of terror and anxiety.12 He was no longer so completely in thrall to the instinctual acquisitive drive that compelled him to want more and more, to pursue, desire, achieve, and consume: “A man who does not desire—who is freed from desires, whose desires are fulfilled, whose only desire is his atman—his vital functions do not depart. Brahman he is and to Brahman he goes.”13 The sages did not see this state as supernatural; it had not been bestowed upon them by a god but could be achieved by anybody who had the talent and tenacity to cultivate it, albeit with considerable expenditure of time and effort. A trainee ascetic had to study with his guru for as long as twelve years, and during this time his lifestyle was just as important as the intellectual content of his education. Enlightenment was impossible if he did not curb his aggressive, assertive ego, so he lived in a humble, self-effacing manner, tending his teacher’s fire, collecting fuel from the forest, and begging for his food. All violence forbidden, he was expected to behave with detached courtesy to all. Even Indra, god of war, who never stopped boasting about his military and amorous exploits, had to study for 101 years with a human guru, giving up fighting and sex, cleaning his teacher’s house, and tending his fire.14 Once his training was complete, the student would go home, marry, and bring up his children, putting into practice everything that he had learned from his teacher: he would continue to study and meditate, forswear violence, and deal kindly and gently with others.15 As urbanization developed in India, the sages were disturbed by a new level of aggression. By the sixth century BCE, infant states were developing; these brought a degree of stability to the region, but the kings could impose order on their subjects only by means of their armies, which they also used to conquer more territory for themselves. The new market-based economy was fueled by greed, and bankers and merchants, locked in ceaseless competition, preyed ruthlessly on one another. To some, life seemed more violent than when cattle rustling had been the backbone of the economy. The old religion no longer spoke to the changing times. Increasingly people felt uneasy about the cruelty of animal sacrifice, which seemed at odds with the ideal of ahimsa, and looked instead to the “renouncers” (samnyasins), who had turned their back on society to craft an entirely different kind of humanity. The mind-changing discipline of yoga had become central to Indian spirituality.16 Classical yoga was not an aerobic exercise but a systematic assault on the ego. The word yoga (“yoking”) is itself significant. It was originally used by the Aryans to describe the tethering of draft animals to the war chariot before a raid, but the new men of yoga were engaged in the conquest of inner space and in a raid on the unconscious drives that held human beings captive to their me-first instincts. In order to achieve an ekstasis, a “stepping outside” the norm, a yogi did the opposite of what came naturally. Instead of succumbing to the ceaseless motion that characterizes all sentient beings, he would sit as still as a plant or a statue. He controlled his respiration, the most fundamental and automatic of our physical functions, his aim being to stop breathing for as long as possible between exhalation and inhalation. He learned to master the ceaseless flux of thoughts, sensations, and fantasies that coursed through his mind in order to concentrate “on one point” (ekagrata). As a result, he found that he saw other objects and people differently; because he had repressed the aura of memory and personal association surrounding each one of them, he no longer saw them through the filter of his own desires and needs. The “I” was disappearing from his thinking. But before he was permitted to practice the simplest yogic exercise, an aspiring yogi had to undergo a long apprenticeship, which amounted to a head-on collision with the Four Fs. He had to observe five “prohibitions” (yamas). Violence of any sort was forbidden: he must not swat an insect, speak unkindly, make an irritable gesture, or harm a single creature in any way. Stealing was outlawed, which also meant that he could not grab food when he was hungry but must simply accept what he was given whenever it was offered. Renouncing the acquisitive drive, he forswore avarice and greed. He was required to speak the truth at all times, not altering what he said to protect himself or serve his own interests. And, finally, he had to abstain from sex and intoxicants, which could cloud his mind and hinder his yogic training. Until his guru was satisfied that this behavior was now second nature to him, he was not even allowed to sit in the yogic position. But once he had mastered these disciplines, explained Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, he would experience “indescribable joy.”17 Making a deliberate effort to transcend the primitive self-protective instincts had propelled him into a different state of consciousness. Siddhatta Gotama, the future Buddha, studied yoga under some of the best teachers of his day before he achieved the enlightenment of Nirvana. He quickly became expert, attaining the very highest states of trance. But he did not agree with the way his teachers interpreted these peak experiences. They told him that he had tasted the supreme enlightenment, but Gotama discovered that after the ekstasis had faded he was plagued by greed, lust, envy, and hatred in the same old way. He tried to extinguish these passions by practicing such fierce asceticism that he became horribly emaciated and almost ruined his health. Yet still his body clamored for attention. Finally, in a moment of mingled despair and defiance, he cried, “Surely there must be another way to enlightenment!” and at that moment a new solution declared itself to him.18 He recalled an incident from his early childhood, when his father had taken him to watch the ritual plowing of the fields before the first planting of the year. His nurse had left him under a rose-apple tree while she attended the ceremony, and little Gotama sat up and noticed that some tender shoots of young grass had been torn up by the plow and that the tiny insects clinging to them had been killed.19 He felt a pang of grief as though his own relatives had died, and this moment of empathy took him out of himself, so that he achieved a “release of the mind” (ceto-vimutti). He felt a pure joy welling up from the depth of his being, sat in the yogic position, and, even though he had never had a yoga lesson in his short life, immediately entered a state of trance. Looking back on that pivotal episode, Gotama realized that for those blessed moments his mind had been entirely free of greed, hatred, envy, and lust. So instead of trying to quench his humanity with harsh practices, he thought perhaps he should cultivate the emotions that had brought him ceto-vimutti: compassion, joy, and gratitude. He also realized that the five “prohibitions” should be balanced by their more positive counterparts. So instead of simply crushing his violent impulses, he would try to encourage feelings of loving kindness; instead of just refraining from lying, he would make sure that everything he said was “reasoned, accurate, clear and beneficial.”20 He would no longer be content to avoid theft, but would learn to take pleasure in the freedom he gained by possessing the bare minimum. In order to enhance the natural impulse to empathy and compassion, Gotama developed a special form of meditation. In his yoga sessions, at each stage of his descent into the depths of his mind, he would contemplate what he called the “four immeasurable minds of love,” that “huge, expansive and immeasurable feeling that knows no hatred,” and direct them to the farthest corners of the world, not omitting a single creature from this radius of concern. First, he would evoke maitri (“loving kindness”), inducing in his mind an attitude of friendship for everything and everybody; next he meditated on karuna (“compassion”), desiring that all creatures be free of pain; third, he would bring to his mind mudita, the pure “joy” he had experienced under the rose-apple tree and that he now desired for all creatures; and finally he would try to free himself of personal attachment and partiality by loving all sentient beings with the “even-mindedness” of upeksha. Over time, by dint of disciplined practice, Gotama found that his mind broke free of the prism of selfishness and felt “expansive, without limits, enhanced, without hatred or petty malevolence.” 21 He had understood that while spite, hatred, envy, and ingratitude shrink our horizons and limit our creativity, gratitude, compassion, and altruism broaden our perspective and break down the barricades we erect between ourselves and others in order to protect the frightened, greedy, insecure ego.22 The Buddha’s crucial insight was that to live morally was to live for others. It was not enough simply to enjoy a religious experience. After enlightenment, he said, a person must return to the marketplace and there practice compassion to all, doing anything he or she could to alleviate the misery of other people. After achieving Nirvana, he had been tempted to luxuriate in the transcendent peace he had found, but instead he spent the remaining forty years of his life on the road teaching his method to others. In Mahayana Buddhism, the hero is the bodhisattva, who is on the brink of enlightenment but instead of disappearing into the bliss of Nirvana, decides to return to the suffering world: “We will become a shelter for the world, the world’s place of rest, the final relief of the world, islands of the world, lights of the world, and the guides of the world’s salvation”23 The Chinese sages focused less on the psychology of compassion and more on its potential social and political implications. In the West, Confucius is often seen as a petty-minded ritualist, obsessed with the minutiae of stultifying rules governing family life. He did indeed revive these ancient rites but saw them as a means of controlling egotism and cultivating compassion. These rituals (li) had been deliberately developed in the Yellow River basin during the eighth century BCE to moderate the extravagant behavior of the nobility. Aggressive deforestation had made more land available for cultivation but had destroyed the natural habitat of many species and decimated the region’s wildlife.24 Hunters now came home empty-handed, and because so much land was now devoted to growing crops, there was less for the breeding of sheep and cattle. In the old days, without a thought for the morrow, aristocrats had slaughtered hundreds of beasts and given lavish gifts to demonstrate their wealth. Concerned above all with status and prestige, they had engaged in bloody vendettas and petty feuds. But in the dawning age of scarcity, the new watchwords were moderation, control, and restraint. Court ritualists evolved complex codes to control every detail of life (even warfare was strictly governed by elaborate chivalric rites that mitigated the horror of battle).25 The nobles discovered the virtue of self-restraint and no longer called out the army in response to every imagined slight. For more than a century the li seemed to have worked.26 But by the time of Confucius, the Four Fs had reasserted themselves. In the incipient market economy of the sixth century BCE, people were casting restraint to the winds in headlong and aggressive pursuit of luxury, wealth, and power. Large new states, ruled by erstwhile barbarians unfamiliar with the li, attacked the smaller principalities with impunity, resulting in terrible loss of life. Confucius was horrified. The Chinese seemed bent on self-destruction, and in his view, salvation lay in a renewed appreciation of the underlying spirit of the old rites. The rituals of consideration (shu) ensured that people did not treat others carelessly and were not driven simply by utility and self-interest; these gracious codes of behavior had made people conscious of the dignity of every human being; they expressed and conferred sacred respect; they taught every family member to live for the others; they introduced individuals to the virtue of “yielding” to their fellows, helping them to cultivate the “softness” and “pliability” of ren. Properly understood, therefore, the rites were a spiritual education that enabled people to transcend the limitations of selfishness. In the old days, it was thought that the li conferred a magical power on the recipient. Confucius reinterpreted this: when people are treated with reverence, they become conscious of their own sacred worth, and ordinary actions, such as eating and drinking, are lifted to a level higher than the biological and invested with holiness. The implications for politics were immense. If instead of ruthlessly pursuing his own self-interest to the detriment of others, a ruler would “curb his ego and submit to li for a single day,” Confucius believed, “everyone under Heaven would respond to his goodness!”27 What is ren, asked one of his disciples, and how can it be applied to political life? In exactly the same way as you apply it to family life, Confucius replied: by treating everybody with respect. Behave away from home as though you were in the presence of an important guest. Deal with the common people as though you were officiating at an important sacrifice. Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no feelings of opposition to you, whether it is the affairs of a State that you are handling or the affairs of a Family.28 There would be no destructive wars if a ruler behaved toward other princes and states in this way; the Golden Rule would make it impossible to invade somebody else’s territory because nobody would like this to happen to his own state. It was quite simple, Confucius explained to his outspoken pupil Zigong: As for ren, you yourself desire rank and standing; then help others to get rank and standing. You want to turn your merits to account; then help others to turn theirs to account—in fact, the ability to take one’s own feelings as a guide—that is the sort of thing that lies in the direction of ren.29 Any ruler who behaved in this way, working for the true welfare of the people and laying his own interests aside, would become a force for great good in the world. The family was the place where a junzi learned to live as a fully humane and mature person.30 It was a school of compassion. But ren could not be confined to the family. In a vision that was not unlike the Buddha’s, Confucius saw each person at the center of a constantly expanding series of concentric circles of compassion.31 The lessons a junzi had learned from taking care of his parents, his wife, and his siblings would educate and enlarge his heart so that he felt empathy with more and more people: first with his city or village, then with his state, and finally with the entire world. Th e summons of ren was never ending. It was difficult because it required the abandonment of the vanity, resentment, and desire to dominate to which we are addicted.32 And yet because ren was natural to us, an essential part of our humanity, it was easy. “Is ren so far away?” Confucius asked. “If we really wanted ren, we should find that it was at our very side.”33 Those who followed his Way found that it transformed their lives, even though it was a lifelong struggle that would end only with death.34 Confucius did not encourage speculation about what lay at the end of the Way; walking along the path of shu was itself a transcendent experience because, if practiced “all day and every day,” it led to a continual ekstasis that left the grasping self behind. The dynamic nature of a life of ren was beautifully expressed by Yan Hui, Confucius’s most talented disciple, when he said “with a deep sigh”: The more I strain my gaze towards it the higher it soars. The deeper I bore down into it, the harder it becomes. I see it in front, but suddenly it is behind. Step by step, the master skilfully lures one on. He has broadened me with culture, restrained me with ritual. Even if I wanted to stop, I could not. Just when I feel that I have exhausted every resource, something seems to rise up, standing over me sharp and clear. Yet though I long to pursue it, I can find no way of getting to it at all.35 Ren took him beyond the confines of selfishness and gave him fleeting intimations of a sacred dimension that was both immanent and transcendent—welling up from within and yet also an accompanying presence, “standing over me sharp and clear.” Confucius died in 479 BCE, regarding himself as a failure because he had never been able to persuade a ruler to adopt a more compassionate policy. Yet he had made an indelible impression on Chinese spirituality; even those who disagreed with him would not be able to escape his influence. One of these was Mozi (c. 470–c. 391 BCE), who seems to have come from a humbler background and had little patience with the aristocratic li. By this time China had entered the terrible epoch known as the Warring States, in which the larger kingdoms systematically destroyed the small principalities and then fought one another until, when the conflict ended in 221, only one—the state of Qin—was left. Warfare itself had been transformed.36 The old battle rituals cast aside, war was now conducted with deadly efficiency and enhanced technology, and was masterminded by military experts wholly intent on subjugating the population, even if this meant the death of women, children, and old men. It was a frightening warning of what could happen when the passions of the old brain were married to the new. Mozi’s message was utilitarian and pragmatic. The thread that ran through his philosophy, like Confucius’s, was ren, but he believed—wrongly—that Confucius had distorted the ethic by confining it to the family. He wanted to replace the potential egotism of kinship with a wider altruism: “Others must be regarded like the self,” he insisted; this love must be “all embracing and exclude nobody.”37 The only way to prevent the Chinese from slaughtering one another was to persuade the rulers to practice jian ai. Jian ai is often translated as “universal love,” but this phrase is too emotive for the tough-minded Mozi.38 A better translation is “concern for everybody”; ai was an impartial benevolence that had little to do with feeling but was based on a deep-rooted sense of equity and a disciplined respect for every single human being. Without this broader benevolence, even the positive virtues of family love and patriotism could degenerate into collective egotism. At present, Mozi argued, the rulers loved only their own states and felt no scruples about attacking others. But this would be impossible if they were taught to have as much concern for others as for themselves: “Regard another’s state as you regard your own and another’s person as you regard your own,” he urged. “If the lords of the states are concerned for each other, they will not go to war.” He was convinced that “in all cases, the reason why the world’s calamities, dispossessions, resentments and hatreds arise is lack of jian ai.”39 Mozi argued his position with a pragmatism that resonates with our own situation in the twenty-first century, asking rulers to weigh the cost of war against its benefits: warfare ruined harvests, killed thousands of civilians, and wasted expensive weapons and horses. The capture of a small town could result in unacceptably high casualties at a time when men were needed to farm the land. How could that be to the advantage of any state? The larger kingdoms thought that they would gain by conquering the smaller principalities, but in fact their wars benefited only a tiny portion of their people. Whereas if everybody could be persuaded to respect others as they did themselves, there would be peace and harmony throughout the world. If a ruler practiced jian ai¸ how could he raze a city to the ground or massacre the population of an entire village? And the good accruing from an impartial concern for everybody was incalculable: Now if we seek to benefit the world by taking jian ai as our standard, those with sharp ears and clear eyes will see and hear for others, those with sturdy limbs will work for others, and those with a knowledge of the Way will endeavour to teach others. Those who are old and without wives and children will find means of support and be able to live out their days; the young and orphaned who have no parents will find someone to care for them and look after their needs.40 During the Warring States period, Mozi was more widely revered than Confucius, because he spoke so pertinently to the terror of the time. But the Confucians responded to the growing crisis in their own way. In 260 BCE, the army of Qin conquered the state of Zhao, the birthplace of the great Confucian scholar Xunzi (c. 340–245 BCE), massacring four hundred thousand Zhao prisoners of war, who were buried alive. But Xunzi refused to lose faith. He still believed that the “yielding” spirit of the rituals could bring China back from the abyss, although he admitted that in these hard times they would have to be backed up with incentives and punishments. He remained convinced that a charismatic, compassionate ruler could save the world: He takes up arms in order to put an end to violence and to do away with harm, not in order to compete with others for spoil. Therefore when the soldiers of the benevolent man encamp, they command a godlike respect; and where they pass, they transform the people. They are like seasonable rain in whose falling all men rejoice.41 It was a beautiful vision, and although Xunzi had to admit that the Confucians had never succeeded in persuading rulers to let the Golden Rule guide their policies, he insisted that it was not an impossible ideal. Any man in the street, he believed, could become a Confucian sage. The violence and cruelty of the Warring States had made Xunzi more acutely aware than Confucius of the darkness of the human heart. Everybody, he said, “is born with feelings of envy and hate, and if he indulges these, they will lead him into violence and crime, and all sense of loyalty and good faith will disappear.”42 But if he found a good teacher, submitted himself wholeheartedly to the li that taught him to treat others with respect, and obeyed the rules of society, he could become a sage.43 It was no good doing what came naturally or relying on Heaven, the High God of China, to step in. It was pointless singing hymns to Heaven and paying no heed to the conduct of human affairs. If we concentrated on Heaven and neglected what human beings could do for themselves, Xunzi insisted again and again, “we fail to understand the nature of things.”44 According to popular legend, the rituals (li) had been devised in remote antiquity by the legendary sage kings of China, Yao, Shun, and Yu. Xunzi argued that when these saintly men had contemplated the world, they realized that the only way they could end the intolerable misery they saw all around them was by a huge intellectual effort that began with the transformation of their own selves. So they created li based on shu (“likening to oneself”) and the Golden Rule to moderate their own unruly passions, and when they put them into practice, they discovered an inner peace. By looking into their own hearts, critically observing their behavior, and taking note of their own reactions to pain and joy, these sages found a way to order social relations. 45 A ruler could bring peace and order to society only if he had mastered his own primitive instincts. The rituals, Xunzi believed, had been inspired by the sages’ analysis of humanity; they had shaped the basic emotions engendered by our brain, just as an artist skillfully brought form and beauty out of unpromising material: they “trim what is too long, and stretch out what is too short, eliminate surplus and repair deficiency, extend the forms of love and reverence, and step by step, bring to fulfilment the beauties of proper conduct.”46 Even the stars, the planets, and the four seasons had to “yield” to one another to bring order out of potential chaos.47 So far from being unnatural, the li would bring a practitioner into alliance with the way things are and into the heart of reality. The three monotheistic religions also stressed the importance of compassion. Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, the form of faith practiced by most Jews today, both developed during a period of warfare and economic exploitation. The Jewish uprising against the Roman occupation of Judaea resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Roman army in 70 CE. Hitherto there had been no single Jewish orthodoxy; the period leading up to the catastrophe of 70 had been characterized by a rich religious diversity and a multitude of competing sects, all of which claimed to be the true Judaism and all preoccupied with the status and rituals of the temple. After the destruction of that temple, only two of these sects—the Jesus movement and Pharisaism—were able to survive. Building on the insights of the Pharisees, the rabbis of the Talmudic age were able to transform Judaism from a temple faith into a religion of the book. Hitherto the study of the Torah (the teachings and laws attributed to Moses) had been a minority pursuit; now it would replace temple worship. In the course of a massively creative intellectual effort, the rabbis composed new scriptures: the Mishnah, completed in about 200 CE, and the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, completed in the fifth and sixth centuries respectively. Compassion was central to their vision, as we see in a famous story attributed to the great sage Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus’s. It is said that a pagan approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if he could recite the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go study it.”48 This provocative statement was intended to shock the audience into an appreciation of the importance of compassion.  There is no mention of such doctrines as the unity of God, the creation of the world, the exodus from Egypt, or the 613 commandments. For Hillel, all these were simply a “commentary” on the Golden Rule. Other monotheists would come to the same conclusion. It is not that other devotions and beliefs are unimportant; the point is that there is something wrong with any spirituality that does not inspire selfless concern for others. Hillel was also making a statement about exegesis, the interpretation of scripture. He concludes with a miqra, a “call to action”: “Go study!” As they scrutinized the ancient texts in an effort to make them speak to the post-temple age, Jews should use their creative insights to make them all a “commentary,” a mere gloss, on the Golden Rule. The great rabbi Akiva, executed by the Romans in 135 CE, taught that the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” was the greatest principle of the Torah.49 Only his pupil Ben Azzai disagreed, preferring the simple biblical statement “This is the roll of the descendents of Adam” because it emphasized the unity of the human race.50 In order to reveal the presence of compassion at the core of all the legislation and narratives of the Torah, the rabbis would sometimes twist the original sense and even  change the words of scripture. They were not interested in merely elucidating the original intention of the biblical author. Midrash (“exegesis”) was an essentially inventive discipline, deriving from the verb darash, “to search,” “to  investigate,” or “to go in pursuit of” something that was not immediately self-evident. A rabbi would be expected to find fresh meaning in scripture, which, as the word of God, was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation. Another famous story shows that from the very beginning, the rabbis realized that compassion was the key to religion now that the temple had been destroyed. It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: “Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.” Then said R. Johanan, “Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds [gemilut hasadim], as it is said, ‘I desire love [hesed] and not sacrifice.’ ”51 Practically expressed compassion was now a priestly act that would atone for sins more effectively than the temple sacrifices. It is a good example of the new midrash. Rabbi Johanan is quoting the prophet Hosea, who would probably have been surprised by his interpretation.52 In its original context, hesed had meant not “love” but “loyalty”; for Hosea, God had not been speaking of the loving deeds that Jews would perform for one another but of the cultic fealty that Israelites owed to him. The rabbis had seen too much of the horror of warfare to condone the old chauvinisms. Not only had they witnessed the destruction of their holy city in 70, but the Bar Kochba revolt against the Roman occupation in 132–35 CE had resulted in catastrophic loss of Jewish life. Judaism, like the other monotheisms, is not a wholly pacifist religion; warfare is permitted, but only in self-defense.53 Yet for the rabbis, peace (shalom) is one of the highest values of all: shalom was more than a mere absence of conflict; it can also be translated as “wholeness, completion.” Shalom was to be pursued as a positive harmonious principle in which opposites could be reconciled.54 The rabbis cited the Jewish command “You shall not hate your brother in your heart,” pointing out that it was not sufficient to refrain from cursing or slapping your neighbor, but that enmity had to be extirpated from the deepest reaches of the mind55 and that hatred of one’s fellow creatures put a man beyond the pale.56 True power lay not in martial strength but in compassion and reconciliation. “Who is mighty?” the rabbis asked. “He who turns an enemy into a friend.”57 In their interpretation of the biblical doctrine of creation, the rabbis focused on the fact that all human beings were made in God’s image. To show disrespect to anyone was therefore regarded as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism, and murder was not simply a crime against humanity but a sacrilege.58 God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying a single life was equivalent to annihilating the world, while to save a life redeemed the entire human race.59 To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was, like murder, a sacrilegious desecration of God’s image, and to spread a libelous story about anybody at all was to deny God’s existence.60 Charity was the ultimate test of faith. You could not worship God unless you honored your fellow humans, whoever they might be. Compassion seems also to have been central to the Christian ethos from the beginning. Like Hillel, Jesus taught the Golden Rule—but in its positive formulation.61 Like the rabbis, he believed that the commandments to love God with your whole heart and soul and your neighbor as yourself were the most exalted commandments of the Torah.62 The gospels show him practicing “concern for everybody,” reaching out to “sinners”: prostitutes, lepers, epileptics, and those denounced as traitors for collecting the Roman taxes. His followers should refrain from judging others.63 The people admitted to the Kingdom of God, in which rich and poor would sit together at the same table, were those who practiced deeds of loving kindness, feeding the hungry and visiting those who were sick or in prison.64 His most devoted disciples must give all their possessions to the poor.65 Jesus is also presented as a man of ahimsa. “You have heard how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” he told the crowds. “But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well.”66 You have heard how it was said; you must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good and his rain to fall on honest men alike. For if you love those who love you, how can you claim any credit? Even the tax-collectors and the pagans do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? You must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.67 Like the rabbis, Jesus brought the compassionate message of scripture to the fore by giving a more stringently empathetic twist to an ancient text. Here he comes close to the Buddhist ideal of upeksha, “equanimity.” His followers would offer kindness where there was little hope of any return. Saint Paul, the earliest extant Christian writer, quoting an early Christian hymn, presents Jesus as a bodhisattva figure who refused to cling to the high status befitting one made in God’s image and lived as the servant of suffering humanity.68 Christians should do the same: “Everybody is to be self-effacing,” Paul insisted. “Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first, but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead.”69 Compassion was the test of true spirituality: If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. If I have the gift of prophecy, understanding all the mysteries there are, and knowing everything, and if I have faith in all its fullness, to move mountains, but without love, then I am nothing at all. If I give away all that I possess, piece by piece, and if I even let them take my body to burn it, but am without love, it will do me no good whatever.70 The earliest Christian community was remembered as a community of love, “united heart and soul”71 and deliberately turning away from the me-first drive to acquire more and more: “The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed.”72 But that, of course, is not the whole story. There is a great deal of tribalism in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Hence we find texts such as the book of Joshua, which describes Israel’s brutal slaughter of the indigenous people of Canaan, and the book of Revelation, which imagines Christ slaughtering his enemies in the Last Days. Not surprisingly, some have been puzzled by the Charter for Compassion’s call “to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.” But we have to remember that people have not always read scripture in the way it is read today. Rabbinic midrash was not interested in the original meaning of the biblical author; far from sticking slavishly to the literal sense of the ancient scriptures, the rabbis sought a radically new interpretation for a drastically altered world. They took from the old texts what was useful to them and set the rest reverently aside. Henceforth Jews would read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of the Mishnah and the Talmuds, which entirely transformed it. Christians were equally selective in their exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, focusing on texts that seemed to predict the coming of the Messiah (which they understood in an entirely different way) and paying little attention to the rest. Even Martin Luther (1483–1546), who saw scripture as the only valid path to God, found that he had to create a canon within the canon, because some biblical texts were more helpful than others. The reading of the Bible was, therefore, a highly selective process, and until the early modern period nobody thought of focusing solely on its literal meaning. Instead, Christians in Europe were taught to expound every sentence of the Bible in four ways: literally, morally, allegorically, and mystically. Indeed, as a Catholic child in the 1950s, this was how I was taught to read the Bible. For the Christians as for the rabbis, charity was the key to correct exegesis. Saint Augustine (354–430), one of the most formative theologians in the Western Christian tradition, insisted that scripture taught nothing but charity. Whatever the biblical author may have intended, any passage that seemed to preach hatred and was not conducive to love must be interpreted allegorically and made to speak of charity.73 In many ways, Islam can be seen as an inspired attempt to counter the violence of tribalism, urging Muslims to use their new-brain capacities to control and redirect their aggression. For centuries, Arabs had lived a desperate nomadic life in the inhospitable Arabian steppes, perpetually on the brink of starvation and malnutrition. Their chivalric code was called muruwah, which is difficult to translate succinctly; it meant courage and endurance, a determination to avenge any wrong done to the tribe, to protect its more vulnerable members, to respond instantly to any perceived threat, and to defy all enemies. Each tribesman had to be ready to leap to the defense of his kinfolk at a second’s notice and to obey his chief unreservedly, right or wrong. “I am of Ghazziyya,” sang one of the ancient poets. “If she be in error, I will be in error; and if Ghazziyya be guided right, I will go with her.” Or as a popular maxim had it: “Help your brother whether he is being wronged or wronging others.”74 This loyalty, of course, extended only to your tribal unit: outsiders were regarded as worthless and expendable, and if you had to kill them to protect your fellow tribesmen, you wasted no time on regret. Hence tribal existence was characterized by jahiliyyah, a word traditionally used to refer to the pre-Islamic period in Arabia and translated as “the Time of Ignorance.” But though the root JHL has connotations of ignorance, its primary meaning was “irascibility.” In the early Muslim texts, jahiliyyah denotes aggression, arrogance, chauvinism, and a chronic tendency toward violence and retaliation.75 By the late sixth century CE, when the Prophet Muhammad was born, tribal warfare had reached an unprecedented level, and there was an apocalyptic sense of impending disaster. The Quraysh, Muhammad’s tribe, had left the nomadic life behind and established a commercial empire based in the city of Mecca. In order to make trade possible, they had abjured tribal warfare, cultivated an attitude of lofty neutrality toward local disputes, and made the area surrounding the Kabah, the ancient shrine in the middle of Mecca, a sanctuary in which violence was forbidden. These measures enabled Arabs from all over the peninsula to do business there without fear of vendetta. But the Quraysh had retained the old jahili arrogance. They had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams and were now free from the terror of want, but in their desire for wealth they had forgotten some of the more humane aspects of the tribal system. Instead of looking after weaker tribal members, some families were forging ahead and becoming richer, while others were impoverished and marginalized. There was resentment and spiritual malaise, since the old tribal rituals no longer spoke to the new conditions in their infant market economy. The Arabs knew about the God of the Jews and Christians and believed that he was identical with their own High God, Allah, a word that simply means “God,” but were painfully aware that he had sent them no prophet and no scripture in their own language. But that changed in 610, when Muhammad began to receive revelations that would eventually be collected in the scripture known as the Qur’an. These inspired oracles spoke directly to conditions in Mecca and articulated a compassionate ethos to counter its aggressive capitalism. The basic message of the Qur’an is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth fairly to create a just and decent society where poor, vulnerable people are treated with respect. “Not one of you can be a believer,” Muhammad said in an off -quoted maxim (hadith), “unless he desires for his neighbor what he desires for himself.” To replace the aggressive jahili ethos, the Qur’an proposed hilm (“mercy”), another traditional but less popular Arab virtue.76 Men and women of hilm were forbearing, patient, and merciful; instead of venting their wrath, they would remain calm even in the most exasperating circumstances; they did not hit back when they suffered injury but were slow to retaliate, leaving revenge to Allah.77 Those who practiced hilm looked after the poor, the disadvantaged, the orphan, and the widow, feeding the destitute even when they were hungry themselves.78 They would behave always with consummate gentleness and courtesy. Men and women of peace, they “walk gently on the earth, and whenever the jahilun address them [insultingly], they reply ‘Peace’ [salam].”79 To counter the arrogant self-sufficiency of jahiliyyah, Muhammad asked his followers to make an existential “surrender” (islam) of their entire being to Allah, the Compassionate (al -Rahman) and Merciful (al-Rahim), who had given “signs” (ayat) of his benevolence to human beings in all the wonders of the created world.80 A muslim was a man or woman who had made this surrender of ego. One of the first things Muhammad asked his converts to do was to prostrate themselves in prayer several times a day; it was difficult for Arabs imbued with the haughty jahili spirit to grovel on the ground like a slave, but the posture of their bodies was designed to teach them at a level deeper than the rational that the “surrender” of islam entailed daily transcendence of the preening, prancing ego. Muslims were also required to give a regular proportion of their income to the poor; this zakat (“purification”) would purge their hearts of residual selfishness. At first the religion preached by Muhammad was called tazakkah, an obscure word related to zakat, which means “refinement, generosity, chivalry.” Muslims were to cloak themselves in the virtues of compassion, using their intelligence to contemplate God’s “signs” in nature in order to cultivate a similarly caring and responsible spirit that would make them want to give graciously to all God’s creatures. Because of Allah’s bountiful kindness, there was order and fertility where there could have been chaos and sterility. If they followed this example, they would find that instead of being trapped in the selfish barbarism of jahiliyyah, they would acquire spiritual refinement. Islam is not a pacifist religion; Muhammad had to fight a war of self-defense against the Qurayshi establishment of Mecca, who had vowed to exterminate the Muslim community. Aggression and the preemptive strike were strictly forbidden. Sometimes fighting was necessary to preserve such humane values as religious freedom.81 But it was always better to forgive and to sit down quietly and reason with your enemy, provided that this dialogue was conducted “in the most kindly manner.”82 Tragically, Muhammad found that war had its own deadly dynamic; in the desperate struggle, atrocities were committed by both sides. So as soon as the tide turned in his favor, Muhammad adopted a nonviolent policy, riding unarmed with a thousand unarmed Muslims into enemy territory. There, having narrowly escaped being massacred by the Meccan cavalry, he negotiated a treaty with the Quraysh, accepting terms that seemed to his outraged followers to throw away all the advantages they had gained. Yet that evening, the Qur’an declared that this apparent defeat was a “manifest victory.” While the Quraysh had behaved according to the violent jahili spirit, harboring “stubborn disdain in their hearts,” God had sent down the “gift of inner peace” upon the Muslims, so that they had been able to respond to this assault with calm serenity.83 The treaty that had seemed so unpromising led to a final peace: two years later, in 630, the Meccans voluntarily opened their gates to the Muslims. It is important to comment on the traditional method of interpreting the Qur’an, which is an entirely different kind of scripture from the Bible. Instead of being a library of disparate texts composed over a millennium, the Qur’an was created in a mere twenty-three years and must be seen as a homogeneous whole. The word qur’an means “recitation.” It is not designed to be read from cover to cover; instead, the words, chanted by a skilled reciter, are meant to be listened to. The sound of the words is an important part of their meaning. Themes, words, phrases, and sound patterns recur throughout the text, like variations on a piece of music, pulling widely separated parts of the scripture together so that over the years it forms a cohesive entity in the mind of the individual who spends a lifetime listening to evocative Qur’anic recitations. In the Qur’an, God told Muhammad, “Do not approach the Qur’an in haste, ere it has been revealed to thee in full.”84 On the basis of this text Muslims have traditionally been warned against a “hasty” approach, which draws hurried conclusions from isolated verses taken out of context. They should, rather, allow the whole scripture to take root in their minds before they attempt to interpret the details. Every single recitation of the Qur’an begins with an invocation to the mercy and compassion of God. And the relatively few texts dealing with the conduct of battle are counterbalanced by the far more numerous verses that speak of gentleness, forgiveness, kindness, courtesy, friendship, and forbearance. Most readers will be more familiar with one of these traditions than with the others and at this point will want to explore its teachings in greater depth. But it is important, even at this very early stage in the twelve-step program, to become aware of the dynamic of other faiths too. Compassion requires us to open our hearts and minds to all others. As Mozi explained, we must have “concern for everybody,” and, as the Buddha taught, we should make an effort to extend our benevolence to the farthest reaches of the world. This means that we must get to know about our neighbors in the global village and realize that our own tradition is not alone in its pursuit of the compassionate ideal. The comparative study of other religions is not designed to dilute your appreciation of your own or to make you convert to another tradition. Ideally it should help you to see the faith that you are most familiar with in a different, richer light. Each of the world religions has its own particular genius, its own special insight into the nature and requirements of compassion, and has something unique to teach us. By making room in your mind for other traditions, you are beginning to appreciate what many human beings, whatever their culture and beliefs, hold in common. So while you are investigating the teachings of your own tradition, take time to find out more about the way other faiths have expressed the compassionate ethos. You will find that this in itself will enable you to expand your sympathies and begin to challenge some of the preconceptions that separate us from “the other.” But as we begin our journey, we should recall that the sages, prophets, and mystics of these traditions did not regard compassion as an impractical dream. They worked as hard to implement it in the difficult circumstances of their time as we work today to find a cure for cancer. They were innovative thinkers, ready to use whatever tools lay to hand in order to reorient the human mind, assuage suffering, and pull their societies back from the brink. They did not cynically throw up their hands in despair, but insisted that every person had the ability to reform himself or herself and become an icon of kindness and selfless empathy in a world that seemed ruthlessly self-destructive. We need that energy and conviction today.From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

PREFACE Wish for a Better World
THE FIRST STEP Learn About Compassion
THE SECOND STEP Look at Your Own World
THE THIRD STEP Compassion for Yourself
THE FIFTH STEP Mindfulness
THE EIGHTH STEP How Should We Speak to One Another?
THE NINTH STEP Concern for Everybody
THE TWELFTH STEP Love Your Enemies

A Last Word
Suggestions for Further Reading

From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. Learn About Compassion Discussion Questions:1. In the preface, Armstrong writes that our “egotism is rooted in the ‘old brain,’ which was bequeathed to us by the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago” (p. 13). Even though we’ve developed a new brain endowed with the power of reason, our instincts for survival “are overwhelming and automatic; they are meant to override our more rational considerations” (p. 14). Why is it important to the practice of compassion to understand the functions of our old and new brain? 2. “The Buddha’s crucial insight was that to live morally was to live for others” (p. 40). Why was it not enough for the Buddha to attain the very highest states of trance and practice “fierce asceticism” to attain enlightenment? What was missing? 3. Confucius believed that “when people are treated with reverence, they become conscious of their own sacred worth, and ordinary actions, such as eating and drinking are lifted to a level higher than the biological and invested with holiness” (p. 42). He also believed in “a constantly expanding series of concentric circles of compassion” from family, to community, state, and world (p. 43). In what ways do Confucius’ beliefs apply to our world today? 4. Armstrong writes that compassion is central to the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What stories, quotes, or passages stood out for you in this chapter? What stories or myths in your cultural, religious, family, or other traditions emphasize compassion? Actions:1. Visit Affirm the Charter and invite your friends to do the same. 2. Examine the teachings of your own religious or secular tradition about compassion. 3. Revisit this passage on page 63: “Each of the world religions has its own particular genius, its own special insight into the nature and requirements of compassion, and has something unique to teach us. By making room in your mind for other traditions, you are beginning to appreciate what many human beings, whatever their culture and beliefs, hold in common. So while you are investigating the teachings of your own tradition, take time to find out more about the way other faiths have expressed the compassionate ethos.” 4. For the next month, keep a journal of notes, passages, poems, thoughts on what you learn about compassion (p. 27).2. Look at Your Own World Discussion Questions 1. “Can you think of a twenty-first-century equivalent to the li [ancient rites controlling egotism and cultivating compassion, described on page 40] that would make each member of the family feel supremely valued” (p. 71)? 2. “How can you make your family a school for compassion, where children learn the value of treating all others with respect? What would life be like if all family members made a serious attempt to treat one another ‘all day and every day’ as they would wish to be treated themselves” (p. 71)? 3. “What would be the realistic criteria of a compassionate company”, organization, school, or community (p. 71)? 4. To whom in your life—home, work, school, etc.—would you give a Golden Rule prize and why (pp. 71–72)?  Actions 1. Look at what’s happening in your family, school, workplace, religious community, penal institutions, etc. What teachings, practices, or policies contribute to a lack of compassion? Identify ways you might help bring them to light and/or change them—whether it’s writing a letter to the editor of the local paper, creating a curriculum on compassion, starting a mediation program in the schools, or whatever action resonates with you.3. Compassion for Yourself Discussion Questions 1. How has a lack of self-compassion affected your life? When are you least compassionate toward yourself? What traits do you most criticize yourself for?  2. We are all imperfect. We are all influenced by our reptilian brain that reacts instinctively to real or imagined threats and can cause us to behave badly. We are all influenced by environmental factors that affect our behavior toward others. And we all have a “dark side.” (pp. 78–79) How does knowing this help or hinder your ability to cultivate and practice compassion?  3. Armstrong discusses how suffering is a part of life, yet “in the West we are often encouraged to think positively, brace up, stiffen our upper lip, and look determinedly on the bright side of life” (p. 81). Discuss your experience navigating a difficult or tragic time in your life. What would have been most helpful to you at that time? How important was having someone just listen to or be with you? What is your experience offering help to others in difficult times? What helps or hinders you from being fully present when those around you face difficulties?  4. “When people attack us, they are probably experiencing a similar self-driven anxiety and frustration; they too are in pain. In time, if we persevere, the people we fear or envy become less threatening, because the self that we are so anxious to protect and promote at their expense is a fantasy that is making us petty and smaller than we need to be” (p. 88). What does it mean to remove yourself from the center of your world?  Idea from the field: In Dubai, participants were asked to take the self-compassion test at, record their score, and then use the resources on the site, as well as tools they learned from one another, to increase their level of self compassion over a two-month period. At the end of the two months, each participant will be encouraged to take the test again to gauge their progress. Actions 1. Make a list of your positive qualities, good deeds, talents, and achievements.  2. Our own suffering often increases our compassion for others. Acknowledge the difficulties and suffering you’ve endured and how you used or might use your experience to help others. For instance, if you’ve experienced a serious illness or took care of someone who did, consider volunteering to help others navigate a similar circumstance.  3. Practice the Buddha’s meditation on the four immeasurable minds of love, on page 85.4. Empathy Discussion Questions 1. Commenting on the futility of the Buddha’s father’s attempt to shield him from suffering, Armstrong writes, “As long as we close our minds to the pain that presses in upon us on all sides, we remain imprisoned in delusion, because this artificial existence bears no relation to reality” (p. 91). What defenses do you use to shield yourself from suffering? Do these defenses help or hinder your capacity for compassion?  2. “Art calls us to recognize our pain and aspirations and to open our minds to others. Art helps us—as it helped the Greeks—to realize that we are not alone; everybody else is suffering” (p. 98). Discuss a piece of art, a performance, book, or movie that has helped you develop empathy toward others.  3. Armstrong shares the story of Patty Anglin who “always claimed that the misery she experienced in a harsh boarding school, where she had learning difficulties, prepared her for her life’s work” (p. 101) caring for children abandoned by their parents. Was your choice of an avocation or vocation influenced by difficulties you experienced? Share your story.  Actions 1. Spend a day “tuning into” how people around you are feeling.  2. It is often difficult to witness suffering and to engage with someone in distress, especially when we are preoccupied with our own concerns. Notice, over the next month, when you want to turn away. Instead, remember how it feels to be hurt, depressed, angry, helpless, and distraught. Then remember what it was like to have someone be kind and caring toward you. Offer that person a kind gesture (pp. 101–102).  3. Follow the instructions on page 102 to add three more stages to the meditation on the “immeasurable minds of love.”5. Mindfulness Discussion Questions 1. For this session, it would be helpful to identify someone in your group or your community who regularly teaches or practices mindfulness and/or meditation. Invite that person to provide information about their practice and to lead the group in a guided meditation.  2. “The purpose of mindfulness . . . is to help us detach ourselves from the ego by observing the way the mind works” (p. 105). Ask if anyone in your group who has practiced mindfulness techniques or who meditates would be willing to share how these practices have affected their life.  3. “This is not a meditation that we should perform in solitude, apart from our ordinary routines. In mindfulness we mentally stand back and observe our behavior while we are engaged in the normal process of living in order to discover more about the way we interact with people, what makes us angry and unhappy, how to analyze our experiences, and how to pay attention to the present moment” (p. 106). How often have you noticed your reactions as they arise, rather than allowing your emotions or reactions to control you? Spend the time between this meeting and the next practicing mindfulness and report on your experience during the next meeting.  Actions 1. If you are not familiar with mindfulness meditation, check out one or more books listed in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life’s Suggestions for Further Reading on page 213.  2. A number of online resources may be helpful. The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Mindful Awareness Research Center has a series of downloadable meditations of varying lengths at Set a time each day to try one or more of these meditations.  Idea from the field: In Seattle, one group set a mindfulness bell ( to chime every twenty minutes during the discussion on mindfulness. Group members were encouraged to bring their attention back to their breath and to the moment each time the bell chimed. 6. Actions Discussion Questions 1. Think of “spots of time” in your life “when somebody went out of his or her way to help” you. Share some of those stories (p. 112).  2. Also, share “the effects of the unkind remarks that have been a corrosive presence” in your mind (p. 113).  3. How often are you conscious of thinking or behaving in a hurtful way? Has this consciousness helped you to stop or shift your thoughts or actions?  4. How often are you aware of or do you act on the positive or negative version of the Golden Rule? How might you incorporate it more consciously in your life?  Actions 1. “Make a resolution to act once every day in accordance with the positive version of the Golden Rule: ‘Treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself’” (p. 114).  2. “Resolve each day to fulfill the negative version of the Golden Rule: ‘Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you’” (p. 114).  3. Visit to read others’ stories of compassion and/or add one of your own.  7. How Little We Know Discussion Questions 1. Armstrong writes that “when we cling to our certainties, likes, and dislikes, deeming them essential to our sense of self, we alienate ourselves from the ‘great transformation’ of the Way, because the reality is that we are all in continual flux, moving from one state to another. An unenlightened person, [Chinese philosopher and mystic] Zhuangzi explained, is like a frog in a well who mistakes the tiny patch of sky he can see for the whole; but once he has seen the sky‘s immensity, his perspective is changed forever” (p. 122). How do you interpret this lesson? How might you put it into practice?  2. Discuss what “Socrates meant when he said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’” (p. 129).  3. Discuss the concept of the mystery of life that was underscored in this chapter. How does acknowledging and honoring the mystery of life and of each other contribute to our capacity for compassion?  4. Do the exercise on page 129: “conduct a debate in which everybody argues for a position that is the opposite of what he or she believes. Then discuss your experience.” Actions 1. Follow the three steps Armstrong lays out on pages 128–130.8. How Should We Speak to One Another?  Discussion Questions 1. “Plato described the dialogue as a communal meditation . . . [and believed] each participant should make a ‘place for the other’” (p. 132). How does this view of dialogue fit with current social discourse? How do we move toward this ideal?  2. “Confucius always developed his insights in conversation with other people because in his view we needed this friendly interaction to achieve maturity” (pp. 132–133). What do you think he means by this?  3. What habits do you bring to personal and professional discussions or arguments? Do you make a “place for the other” or simply try to advance your argument? Actions 1. Read through Armstrong’s questions on pages 141–142 to help you analyze and be more mindful of the way you approach discussions and arguments.  2. During the time between reading group meetings, observe how you speak to others. Observe how those around you speak to each other and to you. Notice when your own emotions and reactions arise in each situation and how they affect your interactions.9. Concern for Everybody Discussion Questions 1. “Think carefully about the concept of a just war. Find some examples of a just war in the past and then ask yourself how many of our current conflicts fit the just-war criteria. Can you detect the tribal spirit in any of them? Is military action improving the situation or is it increasing hostility” (p. 147)?  2. “Can you apply some of Gandhi’s ideas to a modern conflict? How would a nonviolent campaign work, and what qualities of mind and heart would it require” (p. 147-148)?  3. Read Sufi philosopher Muid ad-Din ibn al-Arabi’s warning against religious exclusivity on page 155. Do you practice this kind of nonattachment to religion or beliefs? How can you maintain your own worldview of your religion or beliefs without becoming attached to them?  Actions 1. Follow Armstrong’s suggestions on pages 148–149 for expanding your mindfulness practice to encompass the way you think and speak about people from other countries, cultures, ethnic groups, or religions.  2. “Incorporate a new Buddhist exercise into your mindfulness practice” as noted on page 151, which is designed to “help you to appreciate how dependent you are on people you have never met and who may live far away.”10. Knowledge Discussion Questions 1. Each of us has likely been the recipient of an ignorant remark about our nationality, religious or cultural traditions, physical or mental disability, etc. Share with the group something about yourself or your background that has been misunderstood and the reality behind that misunderstanding or ignorance.  2. Identify some of the nationalities, religions, cultures, etc., that are represented in your reading group. Share, as you feel comfortable, something about the backgrounds, traditions, and practices that define you, but that others may know little about. Use this time, and the safety of the group, to ask each other about your backgrounds, traditions, or practices.  3. Talk about what you don’t know about your own country, your own faith tradition, or your own culture, or what about them you would like to know more about. Actions 1. Follow Armstrong’s suggestions on pages 159–160 to “expand your sympathies” to those from other countries, religions, or cultures.  2. Complete the second exercise recommended for this step on page 162.11. Recognition Discussion Questions 1. Christina Noble’s story on pages 164–166, illustrates how we are all inextricably connected to one another, from the pain and devastation of being abandoned as a child to seeing herself in street children in Vietnam. Discuss a moment in your life when you saw yourself, or your suffering, in another. Were you able to acknowledge it? Were you moved to act? If not, what held you back?  2. When Noble decided to help street children in Vietnam, some of her friends said that she alone couldn’t make a difference. But, she said, “when I was a child I only needed one person to understand my suffering and pain” (p. 166). Describe a time when one person’s actions made a difference to you.  3. Reflecting on the story of Yaakov and Esau on pages 174–175, Armstrong writes, “If we want to achieve reconciliation, not only do we have to struggle with the enemy, but we have to struggle with ourselves. And in the struggle, this myth tells us, we may find ourselves blessed and embraced by the presence of something greater” (p. 176). Have you experienced this in your life? If you have, describe the experience.  Actions 1. On pages 168–169, Armstrong invites us to allow media images of suffering to touch and move us. Reread this passage and follow Armstrong’s instructions to employ the Golden Rule and act on these feelings.12. Love Your Enemies Discussion Questions 1. What do you think Gandhi meant when he said, “A love that is based on the goodness of those whom you love is a mercenary affair” (pp. 181–182)? 2. Armstrong points to the words and deeds of some of the world’s great moral leaders in describing the difficult practice of loving our enemies. One of them, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by the impenetrable walls of hate” (p. 182). How might you begin doing this? Have you been able to get past feelings of hurt, fear, or hatred to humanize an “enemy”? If so, how did you do it? If not, what holds you back?  3. Who inspires you to want to “love your enemies”?  4. How has participating in this reading group affected your life?  Actions 1. Use Armstrong’s guidance on pages 184–185 to direct your meditation on the immeasurables to an “enemy.”  2. Follow the directions on page 186 to “investigate your enemy.” Notice how you feel before and after the exercise. Do you view your “enemy” any differently? What has changed?  3. Share a personal story of compassion at Content provided courtesy of the Charter for Compassion. Visit to find out more.

Editorial Reviews

“Karen Armstrong is a genius.”
 — A.N. Wilson, author of Jesus: A Life
“Armstrong can simplify complex ideas, but she is never simplistic.”
 — The New York Times Book Review
“Armstrong is a masterful writer.”
 — Publishers Weekly
“Armstrong has the gift of being able to compress a lot of information into a small space without losing focus or clarity.”
 — Edmonton Journal

From the Hardcover edition.