“My Religion is Kindness”: The Charter of Compassion and a New Global Ethic
“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”
Tenzin Gayatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
It seems inconceivable that in the 21st Century the world is still plagued by greed, selfishness, sectarian hatred and violence… but it is! The President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the reality of the holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel. Some Christian fundamentalists equate Islam with the Anti-Christ. Militant Islamic groups call for a “Jihad” or “holy war” to destroy infidel America. Extremists pit religion against religion: Protestants vs. Catholics, Muslims against Jews, Buddhists contra Hindus…
In 2008 Karen Armstrong, a former nun and author of a number of books on the world’s great religions and religious leaders (including biographies of Buddha and Muhammad), won the prestigious TED prize and a chance to fulfill her dream for a better, more compassionate world. TED is a small non-profit organization dedicated to “Ideas Worth Spreading”. The two annual TED conferences bring together some of the world’s most interesting minds and give them an opportunity to speak about their ideas and convictions. TED then makes these video conferences available, free of charge. TED, each year, also selects an exceptional individual who receives $100,000 and, much more importantly, “One Wish to Change the World.”
You can find out more information on TED, the fascinating work that they do and you can also enjoy the talks of past conference speakers here:
What Ms. Armstrong intended, and indeed accomplished, was to spend her prize money to launch the “Charter of Compassion”. She articulated her wish to TED as follows:
“I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.”
You can find a copy of the Charter, here, download a .pdf in any of more than 30 languages and you can even add your name to it.
For your convenience, I’ve copied the Charter in its entirely below:
The Charter of Compassion
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others–even our enemies–is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings–even those regarded as enemies.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.
The Charter of Compassion has been endorsed by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and has been affirmed by such diverse individuals as Queen Noor of Jordan, the Grand Mufti of Egypt Sheikh Ali Gomaa, author Deepak Chopra, actress Goldie Hawn and musician Paul Simon.
At the heart of the Charter is a maxim that has been associated with all of the world’s principal religions and philosophies: The Golden Rule.
“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” or alternatively,
“Do not do unto others as you would not have others do unto you.”
The Golden Rule embodies the principal of reciprocity and embodies a genuine respect for self and for the rights of others.
Ms. Armstrong says:
Every single one of the world faiths has developed its own version of the Golden Rule… and insists that this — not orthodox belief or ritual devotion — is the test of true spirituality and that it is this that brings us into relation with what we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. The only way we can create a just and viable world is to apply the Golden Rule globally, so that we treat all nations, all peoples, as we would wish to be treated ourselves and create a global democracy, where all voices are heard and taken as seriously as those of the rich and powerful.
Why do we need the Charter for Compassion? Again, in the words of Karen Armstrong:
One of the chief tasks of our generation is to build a global society where peoples of all persuasions can live together in peace and mutual respect. And the faith traditions, which are often seen as part of the problem, should be making a major contribution to this endeavor… But all too often the voices of religious extremists drown those that speak of compassion, the disciplined effort to put oneself in somebody else’s shoes and ‘experience with’ the other. All the faith traditions insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group. You must have “concern for everybody,” honor the stranger and love even those we regard as enemies. We need to make the compassionate voice of religion a potent force in our troubled world, develop a religious and moral discourse to counter those that speak of hatred and disdain.
Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism went beyond mere reciprocity in his teaching and reached right into the heart of compassion when he said:
The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 49
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus answers a lawyer’s questions about how to inherit eternal life and defines who is our “neighbour”:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke, Chapter 10, verses 25-37
One of the principal and substantive differences between Theravada Buddhism and later Mahayana Buddhism is the Bodhisattva way, or a commitment not only to the enlightenment of the self, but a dedication to the welfare and enlightenment of all sentient beings: The recognition of the Buddha Nature within all of us, not just the historical Buddha.
The Buddha himself said:
Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.
An earlier document similar to the Charter of Compassion, “Towards a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration”, an interfaith declaration, was drafted initially by the prominent theologian and religious thinker, Dr. Hans Küng, in cooperation with the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions staff and Trustees and experts.
“Drawing on many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, the declaration identifies four essential affirmations as shared principles essential to a global ethic.
1. Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life
2. Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order
3. Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness
4. Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women
This Declaration was signed at the Parliament of the World’s Religions gathering in 1993 by more than 200 leaders from over 40 different faith traditions and spiritual communities. Since 1993 it has been signed by thousands more leaders and individuals around the world. As such, it established a common ground for people of faith to agree and to cooperate for the good of all.”
A further elucidation of the Declaration is to be found here:
At the basis of compassion is the understanding and belief in the interdependence of all living beings. Thomas Merton said:
“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”
Karen Armstrong believes that we stand at an important crossroads; one in which compassion provides the basis for the kind of future we all hope and dream of:
At this moment of history, we have a choice: we can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, be they religious or secular, which breed hatred, chauvinism and exclusion, or we can bring to the fore those that stress the importance of compassion and the Golden Rule.
Finally, compassion is not optional, it is a necessary, if not the necessary ingredient for our survival. The Dalai Lama said:
“Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.”
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.