My religion is kindness.” – The Dalai Lama
Growing up, as a Christian, my great confusion concerning religion was simply that I could not find enough kindness in it. I understood fully the instructions of Jesus to love your neighbor, to forgive, to do for the least among us, to practice tolerance. In my childish understanding, this is what religion was supposed to be. What I could not find was much evidence of these teachings in the practice of religions. I know that many others have experienced the same confusion and disillusionment.
My disillusionment led to a rejection of religion and all things spiritual, but this left what is sometimes referred to as a “God shaped hole” in my life; as I speculate, it does for others. Without a spiritual understanding at the center of a person’s life, something elemental is missing. St. Augustine spoke of this archetypal need, describing it as, “Humanity’s innate desire for the infinite.”
In the 1600’s, the philosopher Pascal also described this fundamental human requirement in this way: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
What is this “infinite” that humanity seeks, this “God?” These are questions humanity has struggled with since emerging from caves, and it is perhaps humanity’s greatest dilemma and challenge. The human species’ entire orientation to life, society and Nature is in the balance. Religion has been given the responsibility to answer these questions, but for the most part, sadly, often tragically, has failed the challenge.
Although it can be difficult to see in a world divided into the camps of those where religion is separated from the secular and political, and those that believe in political theocracies, the failure of organized religion to answer these questions is ultimately modern humanity’s greatest crisis. It is this loss of connection to the infinite that has left the majority of modern humanity experiencing an existential “abyss” they attempt to fill with materialism, personal importance, political and/or religious affiliation. That these attempts are failures is evident in the cruelty, competition, exploitation and divisiveness that mark human affairs despite religions’ claims of authenticity and revealed truth.
Religions have failed because, just like individuals and secular societies they attempt to fill that hole with, as Pascal said, “everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are…” Even our religions seek fulfillment in a kind of materialism, in their dogma and exclusivity that draws hungry souls, hoping to have the hole filled, mistakenly believing that absolute obedience and faith in the instruction and decrees of religion will fill it. But the hole persists, clearly it persists, as evidenced by the lack in the world of the compassion and kindness that Jesus and other fountains of spiritual light taught.
Later in life, I was attracted to Jewish mystical traditions, Native American spirituality and the religious/philosophical/psychological teachings of Zen Buddhism particularly because of its lack of dogma, and because of its refusal to identify with any kind of anthropomorphic God. Rather, it, and generally the other traditions of Buddhism, including the Tibetan led by the Dalai Lama, seemed to emphasize the nature of God to be Nature, the infinite, the mystery to which the answer lies only within the deepest dimension of human consciousness and direct contact with the mystery of life. It emphasized, rather than religious dogma, understanding and transcending the aberration in nature that is human psychology, the human ego, that creates the abyss, the chasm, the sin (in its original etymological meaning as separation from the divine) that leads to suffering.
The teachings of Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, recognize human egoic separateness and the compulsion to cling to identity in separateness as the source of human suffering. This identity in separateness, with all its insecurities and attempts to assuage insecurities in attachments to the material and to individual and collective importance, is the hell that humans create. As a curative, these teachings suggest quieting the chattering and insecure egoic dimension of mind through meditation and turning inward to a place of inner silence and stillness beneath the noise and activity of the human mind and the world it has created. This inner stillness and quiet reflects and makes real for us the perfection of the underlying stillness and quiet of the natural world experienced non-dualistically, where there is no inner/outer divide.
The Buddhist teachings on mindfulness instruct us to see the world as it is, interconnected and wondrous, not as our delusional egoic minds represent it, as separate objects whose only meaning is in their utility. In mindfulness, humanity can discover the infinite, the heaven it seeks. Having touched the infinite within meditation, we are instructed to be available to the infinite that we are within, the Universe, Creation, and so, find our placement, at one with life. One can call it God, but not if such a labeling suggests a force outside ourselves, when life resides within and all around us, all sacred. This realization is not unique to Buddhism, but amongst contemporary religions and spiritual practices, Buddhism perhaps expresses it most readily and most compatibly with modern life.
Through mystical realization and Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, the God-shaped hole can be filled. The chasm of self, lost in the world, can be bridged. Separate worlds of within and without are discovered to be illusions. There is only one infinity. Religious mystics can call it God. Buddha called it Nirvana, the emptiness of material and separate-self obsession that creates human hell.
Through Buddhist teachings and meditation, it is possible to reconnect with and understand more fully, the teachings of Jesus and many of the original source spiritual/religious expressions of humanity. It is possible to understand fully what Jesus was teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven as exactly what I intuited as a child, that it was “at hand,” that it was about the way we lived our lives and connected to each other and to our kin, the animals and all the world. His teaching was about connectedness and not the many levels of separateness and exclusion that institutional religions so often teach. It was about kindness and compassion.
And so, how unlike the declarations of the leaders of the Western and Islamic churches about what is necessary to live a religious life is the Dalai Lama’s statement: “My religion is kindness.” How different the world could be if we held as a religious obligation to treat each other, the animals, the planet, all Creation and ourselves with kindness and compassion, to realize that the infinite is right here, the miracle unfolding every day. Spirituality and psychology and politics can be all one, but not as the theocrats insist, bending religious teaching to egoistic/political prejudice, but rather, dissolving all prejudice in the fire of non-dual realization to construct a world of peace, compassion and kindness.
My childhood intuition was right. Jesus was an avatar, a Zen master, a Bodhisattva, an awakened and compassionate Being, instructing us to “be like the children.” To fill the hole, to connect to the infinite, we must reconnect to all Creation with kindness and wonder in the manner that every uncorrupted small child is naturally capable of. We must love and be kind. Then, the intellect will know what is needed and what to do so that you can discover “The kingdom of Heaven is within you… Seek ye first the kingdom of Heaven and all things will be added unto you.” (John 8:32) Nothing else is needed.