A 21st-Century Plea for Empathy

His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

The 17th Karmapa, born in 1985, is head of the 900-year-old Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He has emerged as a global spiritual voice especially around issues of ecological compassion. Karmapa means “the one who carries out buddha activity” or “the embodiment of all the activities of the buddhas.” (See kagyuoffice.org.) Last year, Yale awarded him a Chubb Fellowship, which is devoted to encouraging an interest in public service.

Central to my beliefs as a Buddhist is the view that all of us are deeply interconnected. Whether we acknowledge it or not, from the moment we are born we depend on others in order to live. The source of our food and clothing and even the air that we breathe is external to us. From this perspective, there is no difference between rich and poor, high and low, or between religious and cultural traditions. Our well-being is dependent on others.

Even when one takes into account the various differences in practices and philosophy, the main message of all world religions seems to be the same: The source of our happiness lies in helping and giving to others. Though religions may diverge in metaphysics – for example, whether there is a God or not, or whether the law of karma, cause and effect, is accurate or not – their ethics converge. World religions have codes of conduct intended to stop actions that will harm others. They encourage people to act compassionately, to give to those in need, to forgive. Furthermore, they all seem to agree that ultimately happiness cannot be derived from material possessions alone.

Religions exist side by side in most parts of the world. Many people think of old Tibet as exclusively Buddhist, but in Lhasa there was a thriving Tibetan Muslim community, which has successfully re-established itself in Ladakh, and Tibetan Christians lived in the borderlands with China. And India, the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, has been a multicultural society for more than 2,000 years – also home to Zoroastrian refugees from Persia, different Islamic traditions, as well as one of the oldest branches of the Christian church. We have always lived in a world of diversity.

Religions have evolved within specific cultural histories and unique environments. With seven billion people in the world, it would be impossible for everyone to follow the same religion. However, we need to recognize that each religion has a treasury of good qualities to offer that are of great practical help. For instance, in Buddhism, we emphasize the quality of lovingkindness. Christianity emphasizes forgiveness. Islam encourages almsgiving. When we are confident in our own religious path, we have no need to feel threatened by others.

I often draw on a simple analogy to describe how we should relate to differences of religion. When we eat in a restaurant, we don’t expect everyone to eat the same food. If other people prefer different food, we are happy for them to choose the food they enjoy. We don’t get upset because they don’t like the food we like. Religions, likewise, are not in competition with each other but meet different needs and conditions.

When I visited universities in the US, including Yale University, I had many heart-to-heart discussions with members of other faiths. These experiences confirmed my view that connections between people of diverse religious traditions need to develop not on a public level but at an interpersonal level, so that people’s experience of other faiths develop into feelings of empathy and mutual respect. Nowadays, unfortunately, there are many negative actions taking place in the name of religion. In the same way that we may have attachments to our own ethnic group, we may have attachment to our religion; these attachments are based on irrational and unreflective habitual ways of thinking.

It is vital that we present the qualities of the religious path in a proper way. We must raise our voices to echo positive and peaceful messages of the various world religions.

Our 21st-century world is facing many dangers and difficulties: the environmental crisis, war and conflict, large migrations of refugees, and deep social divisions, to name a few. One of the most important things religious traditions can do is to shift people’s attitudes towards empathy and simple living. Scientists are very clear about the damage being done to our environment because of our unsustainable lifestyles, but most people seem indifferent to the implications. If people’s attitudes and motivations are to be positively transformed, religious leaders must show the way.

This means that all of us in the religious traditions have a great responsibility. As spiritual leaders, we need to remind people of the essence of the teachings of our respective traditions, not as mere philosophical concepts but as a practical guide to modern-day living. We have to transcend the borders of our affiliations and harness the potential of all religious traditions. It seems to me to be of the utmost importance that all religious traditions work together to ease the suffering of the world.