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Shambhala Sun | July 2010
You'll find this article on page 31 of the magazine.

Religions of Kindness

Brenda Shoshanna, like the Dalai Lama, sees kindness as the heart of religion. She shares with us the kindness connecting her two faiths and the different ways they express it.

Many years ago there was a great teacher known as the Tree Roshi who, naturally, lived in a tree, where he stayed in seclusion and meditated for many years. After his great awakening, birds flocked around him and people from all over were drawn to see him. Great groups of people gathered and begged him to come down from the tree and share his wisdom with them. Finally, the Tree Roshi gave in and climbed down. He sat with them and listened to their needs.

“Please tell us what you have learned,” they implored him.

“Whatever is harmful to you, do not do to another,” he replied. “Whatever would bring you benefit, do to others as well.”

“Is that it? Even an eight-year-old child knows that,” they said.

“Yes,” answered the Tree Roshi. “Even an eight-year-old child knows it, but even an eighty-year-old man cannot do it.”

The fruit of all true practice is kindness—kindness to others and also to ourselves. It is easy to speak and read about kindness, it is another to make it into your flesh and bones. We see many individuals acting holy and reverential, but unless their lives and actions are truly beneficial, all the words, lectures, and outward displays are far from the mark.

What is kindness, really? How does it appear and function in this world, and why is it so hard for an eighty-year-old man who has been practicing his whole life to obey the Tree Roshi’s simple teaching? This itself is a koan, a Zen question that is paradoxical and confusing to the logical mind. But kindness does not arise from the logical mind, it arises from another part of ourselves.

Both Zen and Jewish practice are based upon kindness. Zen is based upon the bodhisattva vow, the vow to save all sentient beings, to share oneself and one’s practice with the entire world. It is based upon the idea that as we practice truly, as we are purified of greed, anger, and delusion, others cannot help but be uplifted as well.

Jewish practice is based upon Tikkun Olam, healing the world and ourselves. The Jewish practice of kindness demands that we reach out to one another and be constantly aware of the needs of our neighbors, and fulfill them.

Both Zen and Jewish practice agree that there are, of course, the obvious appearances of kindness: encouraging words, smiles, and displays of emotion and concern. However, the external appearance of kindness is one thing; the inner action of kindness is something else.

Buddhism warns against “idiot compassion,” which describes someone who thinks that by adopting an external show of kindness, they are truly benefiting someone. Such a person may give a crying child candy to wipe his tears away, not realizing that he is diabetic and that the candy may do great harm. Or, extend a helping hand to another, which, in fact, may serve to weaken or enslave—when what the other person really needed was to be rebuffed and pushed away so they can learn to stand tall on their own. Who is so wise to know what is truly needed by a specific individual at a certain time?

Many say that Zen practice is gruff and unfeeling. However, in Zen practice the greatest form of kindness we can offer is to create a condition where others can practice and discover their own profound and unfailing strength. From the Zen point of view, unless we have cleansed ourselves thoroughly from self-centered absorption and negative responses, true kindness cannot be depended upon. It may arise temporarily now and again, but it is not established as the rock upon which our life stands.

In many ways Zen meditation, or zazen, seems to be the opposite of Jewish prayer. In Jewish practice, we praise God, praise life, and pray for help in being strong, connected, and able to live a life of kindness to all. In Zen practice, during zazen, we do not pray for help at all. We sit, back straight, legs crossed, eyes down, facing the wall. We do not speak, reach out, touch, or listen to the troubles of others. Certainly, we do not offer consolation or turn to others for support. In fact, what we thought of as support is taken away. If someone is having trouble on the cushion, experiencing sorrow or pain, we do not interfere. Their experience is precious and they are now being given the opportunity to face it fully. The support we offer is silent and profound, just sitting strongly beside them, facing our own experience and not moving.

This silent support, this sitting in zazen, is considered one of the greatest kindnesses of all. As we read the stories of ancient Zen masters and we work with teachers of our own, we see that kindness has many faces. Zen masters shout, yell, kick, and reject their students blatantly, in order to break their leaning, whining, dependent mind.

“Look at my great kindness,” one Zen master shouted as he hit a sleeping student with the stick. “I am thoroughly exhausting myself for your benefit. Wake up!”

Zen masters push students to see how deep the desire for practice is, to see whether the student will climb back up on the cushion despite the rough treatment. Is the student seeking candy from the teacher or is she seeking the real thing?

Jewish practice views kindness differently. Like Zen, it agrees that no individual is wise enough to know the consequences of their deeds. They do not have the breadth of vision to know what action will produce benefit and exactly when and where it is needed. Zen kindness, in Jewish practice, is not necessarily manifested in smiles or emotional displays. True kindness arises from observance of the mitzvot, specifically delineated thoughts and actions that are to be used at the appropriate times. These actions are to be taken whether we want to or not. Our passing moods and desires mean nothing. We are not enslaved by them. Even if resistance and negative emotions arise, we can always take the appropriate actions; we can always perform the mitzvot.

There are 613 mitzvot; these include actions to be taken and actions to be refrained from. No one is asked to do all 613 mitzvot. Some are only for men, others only for women. Some are to be performed only in Israel and others only on certain occasions. Some are to be performed at day, others at night. Taken all together, these mitzvot are an infrastructure for living a life of protection, benefit, and true meaning.

They are all concerned with the practice of kindness, and together provide a mindfulness practice for all aspects of everyday life. Some guide us to take actions that we would never think of. There are situations in which we have no idea that kindness is needed. The mitzvot point us to them. There are actions we might be inadvertently taking, or refraining from taking, that might be causing harm. The mitzvot alert us to these.

For example, it is a big mitzvah to pay a worker immediately after the work is done. Many might not realize this, or be aware that this person needs the salary to take care of himself and his family. He might feel ashamed to ask for it. It is forbidden to shame another person, to leave them wanting or hungry in any way. Therefore the money must be paid immediately.

It is a mitzvah to immediately return a lost object to the person who has lost it. Each object we have is considered to be part of our soul. When something is lost, a part of ourselves goes with it. It is of the utmost importance to be ready to return what an individual has lost, whether it be an object, a sense of self-worth, or anything else.

It is a tremendous mitzvah to welcome a person when they arrive, and accompany them when they leave. In this way an individual feels cared for, uplifted, and valued, not someone who can be tossed aside. Some of the greatest rabbis would accompany their guests all the way home.

Nature and animals are included. For instance, it is a mitzvah to take a mother bird away before we take her young from the nest. This protects the mother bird from suffering. If we are so careful to protect a mother bird from suffering, how careful must we be to protect one another?

Here are some of the other mitzvot related to kindness: We are forbidden to ever talk ill of another, or to listen to gossip or slander of any kind. We are instructed to give charity to our family, friends, and the world. We are told to judge everyone favorably and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Daily prayer is a central mitzvot, in which we pray for others and also give ourselves the great kindness of being connected to our Source.

All these mitzvot can and must be done, no matter how we feel. We may do them with a scowling face, and yet, even so, the actions themselves will bring benefit and well-being to the world. And by bathing our lives in the mitzvot, the scowling face will turn to smiles.

In Zen practice, “The great need before our eyes does not allow us to go by the rules” (Book of the Zen Grove). Instead, we sit, sit, sit. As we do, a deep trust develops in our original nature, which is not only filled with kindness, but knows instinctively exactly what action is needed, when. As we practice, this original nature emerges and spontaneously offers its gifts to the world. These gifts do not necessarily take a specific form, but arise freely as a spring wind, refreshing all it touches.

There is a story of a ripe Zen student—the Zen Fisherman. It is said eventually this practitioner comes down from the mountain and mixes with the world. If you look for him, you cannot find him. He is somewhere in the marketplace, with the other fishermen. The only way you will know him is that wherever he goes, withered trees burst into bloom.

In Judaism the Tzaddik is the equivalent of the Zen Fisherman, someone who has attained true wisdom and ripeness. A story is told of a Tzaddik who was on his way to synagogue for Kol Nidre prayers on the eve of Yom Kippur. These are prayers for forgiveness at the holiest time of the year. When he didn’t arrive, the congregation became worried and set out to search for him. He was finally found—in a nearby house cradling a baby.

Shocked, the congregation asked him what happened. The Tzaddik said that on the way to synagogue, he passed a home and heard a baby crying loudly. When he checked to make sure the child was all right, he found the baby alone. Distressed, the Tzaddik immediately picked him up and rocked him in his arms. Rather than go to synagogue for the prayers, he stayed and comforted the baby. There was nothing else he could do.

Both Zen and Jewish practice continually return us to everyday reality, to this moment and all it asks from us. When we are ripe, we simply give unconditionally whatever is needed, with no thought of ourselves or of being someone special. The Tzaddik comforting the baby was the deepest prayer—like the Zen Fisherman laughing with others while sitting anonymously on a pier. Both were concerned only with taking the very best care of life. The true fruit and test of both practices is kindness, expressed in all kinds of ways, wherever the practitioner may go. When a person lives in that manner, the withered branches of whomever she touches naturally come back to life.

Brenda Shoshanna, Ph.D., is a psychologist, author, workshop leader, and longtime practitioner of both Zen and Judaism. Her most recent book is Jewish Dharma: A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen. 



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