I read this phrase yesterday, out of context, and was struck by it
Are we inherently kind? I’m trying to notice this lately, out in the world. I had a birthday yesterday, an event I’ve always considered a fluke. But today, with social media reminding friends and other connections, birthdays are now general knowledge. So, we have a birthday and seemingly random strangers congratulate us for coming into existence! Is that kindness?
When I was 11 or 12, I read a book about Buddhism. It may have been Hesse’s Siddhartha, given the time period, when books about the Buddha were fairly rare in the West. I’m really not sure it was Siddhartha, though I love this parallel fable of a home-leaver* in the time of the Buddha. In any case, the book had a profound impact on me and I was one hundred percent certain that I was a Buddhist, a certainty that continues into the present, some fifty years later. I was so certain that I announced to my parents that I no longer would attend church on Sundays, something I feel was an obligation they felt, rather than a faith thing. When I went to the Methodist services I felt nothing but boredom and irritation at the banality of their message. I really think we went because my mother liked the singing. But I digress.
Siddhartha, after leaving his life as a prince, went into the forest as a renunciant. When this did not lead to clarity, he returned to society and sought to win the love of a beautiful courtesan, who required him to provide her with gifts and social standing. So he sought a job. When confronted with the fact that he had no experience, he responded that he had three skills: he could fast, he could wait, and he could think. This made eminent sense to that young version of myself. It still does. Fasting gives you the power to not be driven by needs, waiting gives you the power to not be driven by impatience, and thinking gives you the ability to move forward. They remain my standard for the necessary skills of life.
Buddhism has always seemed more of a training regimen than a religion. It is atheist in the sense that there are no gods, no deities running things. Its central tenet is compassion, especially for those who make life difficult for you. If you can set aside your anger and frustration, you clear your mind and that clarity grows as large as the sky. This is the power of kindness without conditions. The kindness of strangers…
*The Buddha defined his followers in two categories, lay people and home-leavers or renunciants. The latter are monks who have left the material world and seek to help others awaken. Buddha means The Awakened One. The basic belief is that we are all awake by nature, but we have lost track of our essential compassion and openness. Again, we seek to be the kind stranger.