The Golden Rule
religions preach it, we’re all taught it, but how many of us live it?
In this adaptation of her 2010 Meng-Wu Lecture at Stanford University,
religious historian and compassion activist Karen Armstrong argues that
living the Golden Rule is the key to our future.
love the endeavor taking place to encourage a scientific way of
thinking about compassion, happening in places like the Center for
Compassion and Altruism Research and Education here at Stanford
University. I also want to talk about a different kind of science of
compassion. Years ago, when I was a young writer, I read a quote from
the great Islamist scholar Louis Massignon, who said that a historian of
religion should not approach the great spiritualities of the past
solely from the standpoint of post-Enlightenment rationalism. Instead,
he said, you should reproduce, in a scholarly fashion, the spiritual,
social, intellectual, political, and economic ambience of the time until
you had so broadened your perspective that you could imagine yourself
in a similar circumstance, feeling the same way as people did then.
is what Massignon called the science of compassion. It is science not
in the modern sense, but science from the point of view of the Latin sciencia,
the form of knowledge that is acquired through compassion. By putting
yourself in the other’s place, he said, by putting yourself in their
shoes, you “make place” for the other in your mind.
I read that, I was immediately struck by this phrase—to make place for
the other. It seemed to be the only authentic way to approach the study
of religion. It transformed both my view of religion, and, essentially,
my life. I noticed how seldom we make place for the other; how instead
of entering into somebody else’s perspective, we tend to approach other
cultures or peoples from a position of omniscience, imposing our own
thoughts, feelings, and prejudices on them. I began putting my
over-educated modern self on the back burner and entering into the minds
and hearts of people living in the hell of seventh-century Arabia, or
in India two thousand years before the birth of Christ.
I have discovered through this approach, which is really a kind of mind
training, is that every single one of the major world religions that
I’ve studied—whether it is the Eastern traditions or the monotheistic
religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—keep coming back to
compassion. It’s not that all the religions are the same—they all have
significant, interesting, and revealing differences—but they do agree on
this: there’s something wrong with your spirituality if it doesn’t
manifest in practical compassion.
was the first, as far as we know, to enunciate the Golden Rule. This
was some five hundred years before Christ. His disciples asked
Confucius, “Master, which of your teachings can we put into practice all
day and every day? What is the central thread that runs through all
your teachings?” And Confucius said tsu, “likening
to the self.” You look into your own heart, discover what gives you
pain, and then refuse under any circumstances to inflict that pain on
anybody else. Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to
you. Confucius believed that if we did that consistently—all day, every
day—then we would gradually leave ourselves behind, because compassion
requires you to dethrone yourself from the center of your world and to
put another there.
one of my favorite Golden Rule stories from the Judaic tradition, the
great Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus, was approached by a
pagan who promised to convert to Judaism on the condition that Hillel
recite the whole of Jewish teaching while standing on one leg. Hillel
stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to
your neighbor. That is the Torah; everything else is only commentary. Go
and study it.” Many of the things that we think essential to Judaism,
such as the unity of God, the creation of the world, the exodus from
Egypt, the 613 commandments, they’re all commentary on the Golden Rule.
Go study it, said Rabbi Hillel; make it your reality.
do we find it so difficult to make compassion our reality? I did some
reading on the neuroscience of compassion, and what I understood the
science to say made a lot of sense to me, because I recognized it in
myself. We’ve inherited a sort of reptilian brain from our distant
ancestors, which still contains a lot of ferocious drives that helped
our species survive. Often these drives are called the four Fs:
fighting, fleeing, feeding, and… reproduction (laughter).
drives are automatic, and they are powerful. If a lion suddenly ran
into this theater, we’d be right to immediately abandon our high-minded
deliberations and run for our lives. These drives are about survival,
and they are all about “me.” When people were freed from the desperate
struggle for daily survival that dominated the species for thousands of
years and had the leisure to reflect upon their experience, they began
to explore ways to enhance the more positive emotions of the so-called
mammalian brain and put the four Fs in their place, to keep them under
control. Because we have a duty to protect each other from our
destructive impulses, whether that involves killing somebody or uttering
an unkind word that remains lodged like a piece of ice in the heart for
years to come.
primitive drives can infiltrate anything, including religion. So how
did people learn to train their minds to control these destructive
impulses and promote positive emotions? The people of India were always
in the vanguard of religious change, and in the seventh century before
Christ, the Upanishads inspired a lifestyle that developed the more
positive emotions. Yoga, a technique that the sages of the day were
gradually devising, was a way of systematically taking the ego out of
your thinking, so that you no longer saw things just from the
perspective of “me.” These sages found that when you’re no longer seeing
the world through the filter of your own fears and desires, people and
objects reveal unexpected qualities.
before you could even begin to sit in a yogic posture, you had to
undergo a five-point program that was sort of an assault on the four Fs.
Nonviolence was point one. That didn’t just mean that you couldn’t
kill; you had to express affability and friendliness to all, even the
most annoying monkey in the compound. Point two was feeding. Instead of
just grabbing food and eating as much as you could, the aspiring yogi
had to take whatever food was offered. He was not allowed to be
avaricious. We’re not good at saying “enough”—our brains evolved for
scarcity, and we’re not good at plenty. A lot of the economic problems
we’re having now are because people can’t say “enough.” The aspiring
yogi also forswore intoxicants and sex. He did this not because these
are bad, but because they cloud the mind and would vitiate yogic
progress. And until your guru was satisfied that all this was second
nature, the yogi couldn’t begin even the simplest yogic exercise.
Buddha, of course, was a past master of these practices who had studied
energetically with all the leading yoga teachers of his day. He put
himself through dreadful penances and nearly destroyed his health.
Finally, just as he reached the end of his tether, a memory occurred to
him—how when he was a small child his father had taken him to watch the
ritual ploughing of the first field before the sowing of the harvest.
His nursemaid had put him under a rose apple tree while she went off to
watch the ceremony. The little boy saw that shoots of young grass had
been ploughed up and the little insects clinging to these blades of
grass had died. A pang of pure grief filled him, as if these insects
were his own relatives. Then that feeling of sorrow and empathy was
succeeded by a moment of joy, and even though he had never had a yogic
lesson in his life, the little boy entered a state of trance.
this experience, the Buddha thought, “If I can reproduce those positive
emotions—that moment of empathy, that pure joy in life that has nothing
to do with my own needs and desires—if I can cultivate these positive
emotions and gently put to one side the negative impulses that erupt
within us all the time, then I will be working with my human nature to
achieve nirvana.” And that’s what he did.
of the practices that the Buddha taught was the meditation on love
known as the four immeasurables. In this practice, you send out feelings
of goodwill, loving-kindness, compassion, and unbiased love to all the
corners of the farthest reaches of the world, not omitting a single
creature from your radius of concern. If you do this consistently, you
make room for the other in your mind, and gradually the barriers you
erect between yourself and the outside world come down. You experience,
the Buddha taught, an expansive feeling of love, a release of the mind,
and, ultimately, enlightenment.
omitting a single creature from our radius of concern—Chinese sages of
this period also taught this principle, but were less interested in the
psychological aspects of compassion and more interested in its social
and political implications. In the fifth century BCE, Mo Tse said that
everybody had to have jian ai,
concern for everybody. That is sometimes translated as “universal
love,” but that’s a bit emotive for the practical, pragmatic Mo Tse. He
was living at the beginning of the era known as the warring states, when
for a period of two hundred years or so the various states and
principalities of China fought each other to the death until only one
remained. Mo Tse said the only way to stop the Chinese from killing each
other was to practice jian ai,
concern for everybody. If you applied the Golden Rule, you would not
invade another’s state because you wouldn’t like that done to you and
your state. In war, harvests are destroyed, expensive horses and weapons
ruined, and there are thousands of casualties, so there is no one to
look after the fields. How, Mo Tse asked, could this benefit anybody?
Today, with all our modern weapons, we also have to ask ourselves: How
can war really benefit us?
of course, took it so far as to say, “Love your enemies.” That teaching
needs some context. Jesus was commenting on a text in Leviticus that
said, “Love your neighbour,” and he extended that to “Love your enemy.”
Leviticus was a legal text, and it was not talking about love as feeling
or sentiment. Love was a technical term used in the ancient Near East
in international treaties, in which two kings would promise to love each
other. That meant they would look out for each other’s best interests,
even if it went against their own immediate short-term interests, and be
loyal and faithful to each other.
is something we can all do with our enemies. Because, as Mo Tse said,
if we don’t love our enemies in this way it will eventually rebound upon
us. That’s what we’re seeing in our world today—bad karma has been sown
in the past and some of it is coming back to haunt us. We are
interconnected as never before, so that what happens today in
Afghanistan or Gaza is likely to have repercussions tomorrow in
Washington or London. Because we are not sealed off in a separate,
privileged enclave, we have to consider the theme of others’ suffering,
which all religions place right at the top of their agendas.
central place of suffering is taught in the Buddha’s life story, in his
determination to leave home, become a monk, and find a cure for the
pain of the world. It is said that when he was born, his father the king
held a feast and invited all the priests to come and tell the little
boy’s fortune. One of these priests predicted that the young man would
see four disturbing sights that would inspire him to leave the comforts
of home and become a monk. This didn’t exactly fit his father’s career
ambitions for his son, so he immured the little boy in a beautiful
garden in a pleasure palace, and around it he planted guards to keep any
disturbing sight at bay. Buddhism is a psychologically acute religion
and this is a brilliant image of the mind in denial. We all want to keep
pain at bay, to deny the pain in our own lives and endlessly put on a
brave, cheery face.
if we do that, it’s likely that we’ll dismiss the pain of other people
too, and the Golden Rule requires us to recognize our own pain so that
we will not inflict such pain on other people.
course it’s futile to try to keep suffering out of our lives, and
indeed it proved futile for the Buddha too. When he was twenty-nine, the
gods decided he had lived in his fool’s paradise long enough. Four
gods, disguised as a corpse, a sick man, a poor man, and a monk, slipped
past the guards into the garden. The young man was so appalled by these
sights that he left home that very night, determined to find an end to
the world’s pain.
purpose of this story, as in any mythos, is not simply to tell a
charming tale. This story tells Buddhists what each one of them must do
to achieve his or her own enlightenment. Your quest cannot begin until
you have allowed the pain that surrounds us on all sides to invade your
heart and mind. In our modern world, we are deluged with images of
pain—every night they are beamed into our homes on the evening news.
Sometimes we just want to switch it off, but we should see this as a
spiritual opportunity—this is the pain of the world entering our
privileged enclave and breaking our hearts open.
of pain is an important part of the way that we develop a compassionate
mind and heart. We need to recognize our own pain and to allow the pain
of others to affect us—to enter into our lives and disturb our
thoughts. The Greeks knew this. The Athenians were a warlike people but
they had a uniquely tragic vision. In the fifth century before Christ,
they annually performed tragedies in honor of Dionysus, the god of
transformation, as part of a religious festival. Every citizen had to
attend. The plays usually took one of the ancient myths and recast it to
mirror the predicaments that Athens was then experiencing. The plays
became a civic meditation on the plight of the city, of the polis, and
periodically the leader of the chorus would turn to the audience and
say, “Now weep.” And people would weep, because they felt that weeping
together created a bond between human beings. They realized that they
were not alone in their sorrow. It was jian ai—their sympathies were extended toward people whom they would normally not have given any room in their mind to.
when we begin to equate our pain to the pain of others, particularly to
the pain of the enemy, that we have the potential to override the
selfishness, the prejudice, and the rage so prevalent in our world, and
to see the divine spark that lies in every single one of us. We have a
choice. We can emphasize those aspects in our religious traditions that
speak of exclusion, dislike, disdain, contempt, and hatred, or we can
emphasize the teachings that speak of compassion and making place for
the other in order to make a better world.
often when religious leaders come together, they talk about some
abstruse point of doctrine that everybody must believe, or condemn a
specific sexual practice, or have a lengthy and often acrimonious debate
over who can be ordained as a priest or bishop. I’m not saying that
these are not important issues, but why don’t we hear more from
religious leaders about compassion? With their teachings on the Golden
Rule, it seems to me that religions should be playing a major role in
one of the chief tasks of our times, which is to build a global
community in which people of all persuasions can live together in peace,
harmony, and respect. If we don’t achieve that, it’s unlikely in this
age of global terror that we’ll have a viable world to hand on to the
is vital to restore compassion and the Golden Rule to the center of
religious and moral life. When I won the TED prize in 2008, I asked TED
to help me create, launch, and propagate a Charter for Compassion that
would be composed by leading thinkers and activists in a range of major
faiths. Hundreds of thousands of people contributed their ideas to a
draft charter online, and with the aid of a council representing six of
the major world religions, together we crafted the charter. It’s short,
sharp, and essentially a call to action. Nonetheless, the work of
compassion has to begin with ourselves. We cannot seriously ask our
church leaders, our political leaders, or indeed our enemies to behave
more tolerantly and compassionately if we ourselves give way to
unexamined prejudice. The great sages who developed the ethos of
compassion were convinced it was possible. The great Confucian sage
Sunzi said that every single man and woman in the street has the power
to become a sage—a compassionate, fully mature human being. It can be
done; it must be done. Join us to work for a more compassionate world.
Her first book, Through the Narrow
Gate, described the years that Karen Armstrong spent as a Catholic nun.
She has since published numerous bestsellers, including A History of
God, Islam, and Buddha. Awarded the $10,000 TED Prize in 2008, she
advocated drafting a global Charter for Compassion in the spirit of the
Read the inspirational call to action for a more compassionate world.