Part 1 • Karen Armstrong Interview on Applying the Golden Rule & Teaching Compassion

Part 1 • Karen Armstrong Interview on Applying the Golden Rule & Teaching Compassion


Sahil Badruddin: The Golden Rule to treat
others as we wish to be treated ourselves, you’ve often mentioned is the foundation of
the virtue of compassion. Dr. Karen Armstrong: Yes. SB: While easier said than done, it’s actually
a very difficult commitment. In a way—
Dr. Armstrong: It is. SB: —it requires a constant daily struggle
and a great deal of humility. Could you speak about the Golden Rule, compassion,
and the power they have to create a peaceful global community? Dr. Armstrong: I came to the Golden Rule,
by my study and by my research. I found that every single religious tradition
has formulated that Golden Rule — and said that it is that — and not a particular doctrine,
that is the fundamental teaching of their tradition. The first person to emphasize this in a way
that was actually written down was Confucius, who was writing about some 500 years before
the Common Era. Right back at the very beginnings of civilization
in ancient Egypt, the Golden Rule was of the essence of that morality, because it was the only
way to run a decent society. It requires of you…it’s formulated in various
ways, some people put it in the positive way, as you did yourself just now, always treat
others as you’d like to be treated yourself. Others put the negative view forward, never
impose on others, said Confucius, what you yourself do not desire. It requires of you that you look into your
own heart, discover what gives you pain, and then refuse under any circumstance whatsoever
to inflict that pain on anybody else. The people who devised this wonderful saying,
and who came to this conclusion, they were not living in loving, peaceful societies,
but they were living in violent times, like our own, where aggression and warfare had
seemed to reach an unprecedented level. They were doing this in a sense of urgency,
and this was not just something for your private life, it was also essential for politics,
they said. As one Chinese sage put it, if you honor the
state as you honor yourself, you would not invade that state, because you’d know you
would not wish to be invaded yourself. It now seems to me that, unless now we implement
the Golden Rule globally, so that we ensure that all people whoever they are, are treated
as we would wish to be treated ourselves, the world is simply not going to be a viable
place. All these, every single one of them, all these
sages insisted that you cannot confine this benevolence to your own group. You must have, what one Chinese sage calls
Yàn Aí — concern for everybody. Love the stranger, says the Jewish Bible. Love your enemy, said Jesus. Frankly now, unless we treat our enemies with
the practical help of the sort and with the respect that we would wish to have for ourselves,
really, we’ll be in a very dangerous situation. If we’d done this more assiduously in the
past, we wouldn’t be having so many terrible problems today. SB: What, in your opinion, are the top two
or three challenges you feel individuals face today that actually undermine their ability
to make compassion a priority in their daily lives? Dr. Armstrong: Well, number one is ego. I mean basically, because what this does,
it means that every day you can’t put yourself in the center of the picture. You have, in a sense, to dethrone yourself
and put yourself in the position of somebody else. Now most people, frankly, don’t want to do
that. We are programmed to be pretty selfish in
order to survive. Our species wouldn’t have survived if we all
sat down being without aggression. We survived as a species by terrible aggression. Our civilization depends upon violence and
aggression. No state, however peace loving it says it
claims to be, can afford to disband its army. Our state is founded on force, and all states,
however lofty their ideals, have always been unjust, there have always been inequitable. The challenge is its ego, and of course compassion
demands, as I say, that you dethrone yourself from the center of your world, put another
person there, but you do it as Confucius said – not just when you feel like it but all day
and every day. That’s why also it’s not just a political
practice but a spiritual practice, too, because what holds us back from what is called enlightenment,
or holiness, or deification, or whatever you wish to call it, is selfishness, preoccupation
with ourselves. The best way of doing that is by a system
of compassion where you put other people first. It requires a great deal of intelligence. It’s not just a question of going around being
nice. You have to decide what is actually the best
situation from that person’s point of view and from the point of view of the whole and
do a great deal of thought. Again, people don’t want that kind of spirituality
these days. A lot of them just want that spirituality
to make them more than themselves. They want to have a nice warm glow, and they
go to the church or the mosque, or the synagogue, or the temple. And to feel that they’re good people and one
with the world, and then not likely to [have it] impinge too much on their lives. This is the demand that religion makes. It’s certainly there in the whole of Islam,
the whole of the Qur’an is basically a cry for compassion—
SB: Right. Dr. Armstrong: —to look after the poor and
the needy, to give to people when you’ve got very little yourself. The bedrock message of the Qur’an is it’s
wrong to build a private fortune, and good to share your wealth, so that you create a
just and decent society where poor and vulnerable people are treated with respect. We don’t see much of that today, frankly,
with all our fine talk about democracy and equality; compassion demands equality. Compassion is often mistakenly confused with
pity, but pity means that you are in a superior position, and you look mercifully down at
somebody in a more inferior position, to who you can show pity. Compassion, it comes from a Greek and Latin
root that means “com-pathein”. Pathein to feel, or to endure, or to experience,
and “com” with somebody else, so that you are constantly feeling with something,
of not just hugging your own feelings for yourself or polishing just your own soul.

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