“Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You”
The Golden Rule, highlighted above, has a strong association with western Christianity. Yet the Dalai Lama unintentionally put a Buddhist spin on it, that showed up the differences between the two belief systems.
In the early nineteen nineties, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader scheduled a day on the Cornell campus in Ithaca New York, near my home town of Rochester. Given a long-time interest in Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, I was excited to drive down and see him speak. I wasn’t alone- nearly twenty thousand people came to see him and there was an entire day of programs devoted to Tibet and Buddhism in general. We got into town just before lunch and went to the famous Moosewood restaurant to get some lunch, however we were told they couldn’t seat us because two busloads of Zen Buddhists had reserved the entire restaurant! It was that kind of day.
That afternoon we climbed the hill to the upper campus where we had tickets to see the Dalai Lama speak in a large athletic facility. The crowds were so great that the overflow was in other buildings with video feeds. His Holiness walked through the campus with a small entourage and the walkways were jammed with people hoping to get a glimpse of him. My girlfriend and I were standing next to a guy who had recently returned from Tibet, a pretty unusual accomplishment back then. When the Dalai Lama walked by us, the guy yelled a friendly greeting in Tibetan and he immediately turned and came over to us and briefly asked the man about his experiences in his home country, which he had not seen since 1959. We all had a chance to say hello before he continued on.
In the large hall where he spoke it was jammed and he gave a modest talk about Tibet and Buddhism, then took some questions. One person asked him to define the Buddhist approach to life. Without hesitation he said:
“If you can’t help someone,don’t hurt them”
The simplicity of this statement belies its complexity. Unlike the Golden Rule, which implies doing things to people, a very Western approach, his statement simply says that if you can’t improve a situation, don’t make it worse. This goes directly to the heart of compassion, which cannot be reserved only for those you feel a connection to, but must be applied to all, especially those who test you. This is the central tenet of Buddhism. And if you cannot be compassionate, don’t make things worse with anger or fear.
The Dalai Lama embodied this simplicity in his remarks that day and has continued to do so today, nearly thirty years later. And I’ll never forget that simple answer to a very complex question.