My True Religion is Kindness
by Venerable Thubten Chodron©
TC: What is the Buddhist attitude towards social
Rinchen: Buddhism gives it an important place.
In Dharma practice, we train ourselves to forget our own needs and
pay attention to others' needs. So when we engage in social service,
we are treading the path the Buddha showed. Although I am a lay
Buddhist, I believe that the best thing in life is to be ordained.
When we analyze why, we can see that being a monastic enables one
to be more available for human service: one gives up simply serving
one's own family to serve the human family. Most lay people are
wrapped up in the needs of their own family. Nevertheless, we can
recognize that our own needs and others' needs are the same and
thus want to work for others' welfare. Because they have professional
skills, lay people often have more knowledge of how to help. The
problem is that not many people choose to do that.
TC: But we don't see many monastics in the Tibetan
community engaged in social service work.
RK: That's true. When we lived in Tibet, before
becoming refugees in 1959, we didn't have social service organizations
or institutions. We had the concept of working for others' welfare,
and that can be acted upon in a variety of ways. For example, in
Tibet, if a beggar came to the village, almost everyone gave something.
It was similar if someone was sick: all the neighbors helped. This
is because we are Buddhists. In those days, people didn't think
to organize a social welfare project for a group of strangers outside
their village. The concept of giving has always been there however.
That is what is needed first. Then, if one acts according to it,
others will follow.
For a Tibetan in pre-1959 Tibet, the first good
work was to look after the sangha, to offer to the monasteries.
I see a change now that Tibetans are in India and in the West. People
are beginning to think about donating money to educate poor children
and to build hospitals. The concept of giving was already there
in our culture, and now people are seeing more and more new directions
to give, due to the example of Western people. Although Tibet was
materially backward, it was self-sufficient in its own way. The
family unit was strong; people in the same family or village helped
one another. People were basically happy and self-sufficient. One
would rarely see someone who was homeless or someone who was sick
and not cared for. Families and villages managed to help their own
people, so the thought to have social welfare projects on a large
scale didn't arise.
After 1959, when we went into exile, there was
a drastic change. People had nothing, everyone was in need, so people
were involved in getting what they needed for their own family unit
and couldn't help others as much. Now, where Tibetans are doing
well, they're again making offerings to monasteries and to schools.
Tibetans have the habit of helping those from their own family or
village first. But looking at it another way, that's good. One begins
with what's near to you and then enlarges it. If we don't help those
near to us, it's difficult to spread our generosity to a larger
group later. But we Tibetans do need to expand and think more universally.
There is fertile ground for this to happen: His Holiness the Dalai
Lama guides us in this way and if we discuss it more, then our social
service will expand. But if no one acts now, then nothing will grow
in the future.
TC: Do you see yourself as one of those who are acting
now, as a leader in this direction?
RK: Not really. I think there are many people
who think like this and who help in their own ways . We need to
get together, to put our energy together. I could count myself among
those who are tying to start something now.
TC: What has given you the impetus to become engaged
in social service?
RK: It's not something I thought of myself.
His Holiness teaches this. Sometimes we're like babies and he spoon
feeds us. His teachings and the example of how he lives made me
think I have to do something for others. My husband, Nyari Rinpoche,
is very practical and from him I've learned the importance of acting
instead of talking too much. The inspiration from His Holiness grew
over time, there was no particular incident that occurred. Actually,
the seed was sown in me when I was small. It grew and I began to
see things in a different light. My very up-bringing in a Tibetan
family sowed the seeds to be kind to others. In addition, His Holiness
is a living example of one who is kind. I'm not doing anything great,
but both of these factors -- my family upbringing and His Holiness'
example -- have made it possible for me to do what I'm doing now.
TC: Please share more about how your upbringing influenced
RK: My mother played a great role. She wasn't
well-educated or sophisticated. She was practical and down-to-earth,
with a kind heart. Sometimes she had a sharp tongue, but no one
minded that much because we knew that underneath, she had a kind
heart. In the storeroom of our home in Kham, eastern Tibet, my mother
kept a portion of tsampa (ground barley flour, the staple food of
Tibet) aside for the beggars. If for some reason, there was no more
tsampa for the beggars, she was upset. She made sure there was always
some there to give. Each beggar who came, no matter who it was,
got some. If someone covered with sores came to our home, she would
leave her work aside, clean the person's wounds and apply Tibetan
medicine. If travelers came to our village and were too sick to
travel further, she would let them stay in our home until they were
well enough to go. Once an elderly lady and her daughter stayed
over a month. If a neighbor's child was ill, she would go to help,
no matter what time of day or night. My mother was very generous,
giving food and clothes to those in need. If I'm doing anything
worthwhile today, it's due to my mother's example. One of my aunts
was a nun and she came from the monastery to stay in our house part
of each year. She was kind and very religious. I think my current
dedication to the nuns' project originated with her. Her monastery
was so beautiful and quiet. It was the place I liked best to run
to as a child. I'd spend days in her room. She made lovely toffee
and curd -- nothing tasted the same. Perhaps this is why I love
nuns so much! Although I never thought of becoming a nun myself,
I have always respected and liked the nuns.
TC: What has His Holiness said that has particularly
RK: He continuously reminds us that all beings
are the same. Just as we like to be treated kindly, so do others.
Stop for a moment and imagine someone being kind to you. Feel that.
If you could give that happiness to others, wouldn't it be wonderful?
So I'm trying hard. First we have to get in touch with our own wish
to be happy, and then recognize that others are the same. In this
way, we'll want to give and to help others. We must first be convinced
of something before we can act sincerely. When we experience happiness
ourselves and then see that others are the same, it inspires us
TC: How can we let ourselves feel the happiness that's
due to others' kindness without either blocking it out or becoming
attached to it?
RK: It's very sad: sometimes people feel happy
and want to preserve it for themselves. They don't want to share
it with others or give it up. But happiness is happiness, no matter
whose it is. If we want our happiness to last long, we have to share
it with others. Trying to preserve our own happiness in a self-centered
way actually makes us more fearful and unhappy. If you cover a light
bulb with a shade, only that small area is lit, but if you take
the shade off, the whole area is bright. The more we try to preserve
good things for ourselves alone, the more our happiness diminishes.
TC: Some people are afraid to share. They feel that
if they give, they won't be secure, they won't be happy.
RK: Unless one has courage, it's easy to feel
that way. It comes from our ignorance. However, when we try, our
experience will convince us and then our willingness to share and
to give will grow.
TC: To help others, we must be able first to assess
and then prioritize their needs accurately. How do we do this?
RK: All of us would like to be able to solve
everyone's problems in one day. But that's not possible. It's not
practical. We don't have the time, money or circumstances to do
that. It's important to be realistic. For example, if someone has
almost nothing in their house and we don't have the ability to buy
all they need, then we must think, "What is most essential
to get them going?" and try to arrange that. We don't need
to get them the best quality, most expensive thing. The person needs
something that is durable and healthy. It's not wise to give them
something very expensive that will spoil them, because when that
thing breaks, they won't be able to get something of such an excellent
quality again and they'll be unhappy. As much as we would like to
give the best, we must first determine if that's practical. If someone
gets the taste of something nice and later can't afford to get it
again, it's more difficult for them.
To be able to help others, we first must try
to understand their situation and if possible, to experience it
ourselves. For example, the person who always stays in a five-star
hotel and takes taxis around town will never know how it feels to
sit on a hot road in Delhi. The best way to understand others is
to be one with them from time to time, to talk with them as equals.
First we need to develop a pure motivation to help, to try to generate
feelings of kindness toward them. Then we need to be one with them,
that is, to go to their level. Most helpers regard themselves as
higher than those they help. Then the people who look to them for
help want to please them and aren't always frank about their situation.
Being one with them means being with them: "Tell me your problem
so we can solve it together. I don't have any special power or ability
to change your situation, but we can do it together." We shouldn't
approach people with the attitude, "I'm the helper and you're
the receiver." Although it's difficult and some times impossible
to regard ourselves as equal to those we help, it's important to
gradually train ourselves in this way. Once we can do this, others
will take us as one of them and will talk to us as a friend. Then
we can understand and prioritize their needs.
TC: We need to get ourselves out of the way in order
to benefit others. We need to free ourselves from seeing ourselves
as a helper. What are some ways to do this?
RK: When others don't recognize us as someone
who has come to help them, that's best. So in our own minds, we
must first recognize that we and others are equal in our wish to
be happy and to avoid suffering. Pain is pain, it doesn't matter
whose it is, we must try to eliminate it. If we think like this,
we won't see ourselves as special because we're helping. Instead,
we'll try to help others as naturally as we would help ourselves.
When we're with others, we may some times have to disguise ourselves
so that we don't appear as a "great savior."
TC: How can we counteract any pride that may arise
because we help others?
RK: We have to keep pulling ourselves back because
there's danger that we fall into thinking, as well as bragging to
others, that we've done this or that. When I was thirteen, my teacher
in school taught us "Pride comes before the fall." I imagine
myself at the edge of a precipice, falling over and never being
able to get up again. This helps me to remember how self-destructive
TC: Another ingredient in helping others is being
able to assess our own talents and capabilities accurately. How
can we do this?
RK: This can be difficult: sometimes we overestimate
ourselves, sometimes we underestimate ourselves. So for me, the
best is not to think too much about my ability. I just look at my
motivation and go ahead. If we keep assessing ourselves and our
own ability so that it becomes a form of self-preoccupation. It
becomes a hindrance. Sometimes a problem seems enormous. If I look
at the entire situation, it may seem overwhelming, and I may feel
I can't do anything. But if I think, "I'll do what I can,"
and start to act, then gradually things seem to fall in place. I
begin without a lot of expectations and hope for the best. The problem
may be great and I may want to solve the entire thing, but I don't
promise to others to do that. I start small with no promises, and
then go slowly and allow space for bigger things to happen. In that
way, there's no danger of committing myself to things I can't do
and later having to back out, leaving myself and others disappointed.
From young, I've been conservative in this way. I tend to be on
the careful side, to start small and give room for growth. I don't
know what it feels like to want to jump in and start big. Even when
I was in school, my friends said I was too cautious. When we're
involved in a project, we get an idea of how feasible it is unless
we're careless in how we look at it. It's important to think carefully
before promising and before acting. We have to think carefully,
but if we think too much, it becomes a problem. We must evaluate
our abilities before committing ourselves, but if we evaluate too
much, we'll never act because the situation may seem too much to
TC: But if we don't think at all, the situation may
also initially seem too much to handle. If we think a little, we
may see that we can do something.
RK: That's true. If we always think we can take
on anything, there's danger that we aren't evaluating things clearly.
On the other hand, if we always say no to things because we're afraid
of not being able to complete them, there's danger that we'll immobilize
ourselves. We need to think reasonably and then act. As we go on,
we'll come to learn more about our abilities. We need to evaluate
our abilities before committing and at the conclusion of a project,
but we should avoid the kind of constant self-evaluation that leaves
TC: What difficulties have arisen when you have been
involved in social service and how have you worked with them?
RK: It's happened that people have asked for
help, I've wished to help and have decided to do so, and then later
learned that I helped people who didn't really need it. So one difficulty
I've encountered is giving help to one person that could have been
directed to someone else who was in greater need. Sometimes I tried
my best to determine how to help someone and did what I thought
best. Then later I came to know that the help was not appreciated.
At that time, I must ask myself, "Was I helping the other person
or helping myself?" I have to check my original motivation
to see if it was pure or not. If it was, then I say to myself, "I
did my best. It doesn't matter whether that person was grateful
or not." It's difficult to hear someone I've tried to help
say, "I wanted this and you gave me that instead." There's
danger of regretting that part of our effort that was positive and
thus throwing our virtue away. In many cases it's difficult to know
what the right thing to do is because we don't have clairvoyance.
So we just have to have a good heart and act according to our understanding.
Another difficulty that has sometimes arose in helping others is
this: once I've decided what is the best way to help someone, how
can I make that person agree to let me help?
TC: Couldn't that be pushing help on someone?
RK: When we know for certain that something
is beneficial, then even if that person objects, we needn't be deterred.
For example, some new arrivals from Tibet aren't used to bathing
often and are resistant to doing that. In Tibet it wasn't necessary
to bathe often, but the climate in India is different. If we make
them bathe, then they'll come to see through their own experience
that what we advise is beneficial. One nun who just arrived from
Tibet had t.b. For a long time it wasn't diagnosed properly and
she became extremely thin. Finally we learned she had t.b. and gave
her medicine. By then, eating was so painful. But despite her groaning,
we had to force her to eat. At first she cursed us, but as the doctor
predicted, the more she ate, the less painful it was. His Holiness
was giving the Kalachakra initiation in another part of India at
that time, and she desperately wanted to attend. I had to say no
because she was still too weak. She was so upset. I explained to
her, "If you live long enough, you'll understand why I say
this." So when we're sure that our advice is correct, then
even if the person involved doesn't initially agree, we have to
go ahead and do it.
TC: What if we ignorantly make a mistake in our assessment
of a situation and find out later that our advice was wrong?
RK: Then we learn from our experience and try
not to do it again. We remember to talk with people beforehand to
see what they need and to check up before beginning, but there's
no need to feel guilty about making a mistake. Harshly judging ourselves
is counter-productive. We learn by experience. There's no other
way. We need to have some patience with ourselves.
TC: How do you balance social service with Dharma
RK: I don't really do any formal Dharma practice.
My intellectual understanding of Dharma is limited. I admit that.
But I have strong conviction in Buddhism. I have simplified the
Dharma to suit my own ignorance in the following way: I have great
faith in the protecting power of the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma,
Sangha), but unless I'm worthy of protection, they can't help me.
So I must try my best to deserve a little of their help and then
request it. My husband and I discuss this. He says that there's
no protection out there, that we must protect ourselves through
observing cause and effect, the law of karma. I agree with that
in the sense that strong faith in the Buddha isn't enough. We have
to make ourselves deserving of help by abandoning destructive actions
and doing constructive ones. Also, our prayers must be sincere and
selfless. His Holiness and the Buddha understand everyone, but unless
we pray for a good cause, I feel we have no right to bother them.
That's my religious practice: observing cause and effect and praying
to His Holiness and to Tara. How do you really differentiate social
service from Dharma practice in general? I find there's no difference
between Dharma practice and social service. If we help others with
a good motivation, then they're the same. And that way I don't need
to memorize a lot of prayers and scriptures!
TC: What qualities is it necessary to cultivate to
be able to help others in a sustained way? How can we become courageous
RK: We have to reduce ego involvement, but that's
a bit tricky. At our level, ego is like a truck: without it, how
will you carry things? We aren't yet able to separate our ego. Thinking
about the harmful aspects of self-centeredness helps reduce it,
but we shouldn't expect ourselves to be perfect. Unless we accept
that we have ego -- that we have ignorance, attachment and anger
-- then we'll be in continuous conflict with ourselves. If we say,
"Ego is totally undesirable. I shouldn't act if any little
bit of ego is involved," then we can't act at all and nothing
happens. So we have to accept our imperfections and act nonetheless.
Of course, when ego takes us on a trip, deep in our hearts we know
it and we have to let go of our self-centered concerns. The less
ego is involved, the better we feel. Ego can creep into our motivation;
they can be difficult to separate. So on one hand we have to believe
our motivation is as pure as it can be and act, and on the other,
simultaneously check to see if ego is involved and then reduce or
eliminate that. We shouldn't go to the extremes of thinking that
our motivation is completely pure and acting like a bulldozer, or
thinking that our motivation is totally ego and not acting at all.
We can often tell how pure our motivation was from the results of
our actions. When we do something half-heartedly, the outcome is
the same. The purer our motivation, the better the outcome of our
To continue to help others we have to avoid
discouragement. Sometimes we get discouraged because our expectations
are too big. We get too excited when something goes well and too
disappointed when they don't. We have to remember that we are in
cyclic existence and that problems are to be expected. In that way,
we can remain more balanced no matter what is happening in our lives.
Also, it's important not to be overly ambitious, thinking that we
should be the best and do the most. If we do what we are able to
and accept our limitations, we will be more satisfied and will avoid
falling into self-deprecation, which is both unrealistic and an
obstacle to developing our potential. So as much as possible, we
should try to have a good motivation and focus on what is good.