Stories of the Compassionate Life
In her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong writes
"All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule: DO not treat others as you would not like them to treat you, or in its positive form, ‘always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.’ Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody – even your enemies."
As we saw in Sunday’s responsive reading, compassion and the Golden Rule shows up across the world in a variety of ways. Armstrong highlights this connection, reminding us that compassion isn’t an anomaly, it’s a hallmark of being human. Armstrong may start with the world’s religions, but she then sets us on a journey that begins – and ultimately ends – with us. You see, this stuff is personal. It’s about you, and it’s about me. It’s about how I see myself and how I can be compassionate to myself, and how my understanding of myself as having inherent worth and dignity helps me see your inherent worth and dignity. It’s how my understanding of how little I actually know about other cultures, other situations, other ideas can be an opportunity to create space, connection, and lovingly take on a responsible search for truth and meaning.
And we see it reflected in our own Unitarian Universalist principles, which are a call to live a compassionate life – if we take them seriously. A compassionate life calls us to affirm and promote inherent worth, peace and justice, spiritual exploration, the search for truth and meaning, connection, interconnection, civic responsibility, and a sense of the interconnected world community – that includes the very earth itself.
Over and over again, we are reminded in these twelve steps how central compassion is – not just to us, but to everyone. We see it reflected in stories from around the world – passages from sacred text, from historical, from folktales, tall tales, fables, art, theatre, and literature. Each of them confirming – over and over again, with one clarion voice of humanity – that compassion must be at the center if we are to survive as a person, as group, as a community, as a world.
Below are three stories I particularly like, and I hope you find meaning in them as well. Please read them one at a time – and let the truths in those stories write compassion on the tablet of your heart.
A pupil asked a great teacher, “How do I find wisdom?” The teacher answered, “By good choices.” “And how do I make good choices?”, asked the pupil. “From experience”, said the teacher. “And how do I get experience?”, asked the student, “From bad choices”, said the teacher.
Four pilgrims gathered together to peregrinate to India: a Persian, a Turk, a Greek and an Arab. The four pilgrims were resting by the shore of a river when there passed by a religious man, who, seeing that they were pilgrims, offered them some rupees so that they could get breakfast.
When the man had departed, the Persian said: “With this money I am going to buy angur so that we all can eat”. The Turk protested: “No way, we will buy unzum”, but the Greek replied bluntly: “Nothing of that; we’ll buy stafyllia”, while the Arab intervened to affirm: “We’re going to buy inab”.
At that moment all started to argue and even exasperated they turned to hit each other. But other peaceful pilgrim passed by there and tried to appease and reconcile them. “What is going on among you, good friends?” When they explained to him what’s happening, the man said: “Give me your money. I will go to the marketplace and will satisfy all of you.” He departed and, a little later, came back bringing a package with great amount of grapes. When the Persian saw them he exclaimed: “My angur!”, and the Turk: “My unzum!”, and the Greek: “My stafyllia!”, and the Arab: “My inab!”
The holy Buddha was sitting on the side of the road when a handsome young soldier walked by and seeing him said “you look like a pig”. The Buddha replied “and you look like a god”.
The soldier taken aback asked him what he meant be that. The Buddha replied that he sits all day contemplating god and so that is who he sees. “You, my friend, must be contemplating other things.”