A Religion of Kindness

Investigating a Famous Quotation

Buddhist monk with kitten
A young Buddhist monk with a little cat in a monastery near Nyaung Shwe, Burma. © Luisapuccini / Getty Images

"My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness." This may be one of the most famous quotes of any modern-day religious figure -- on social media, anyway -- attributed to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

Of course, on the Web, things will take on a life of their own. Along with the many artistic memes of this quotation posted on social media, there are also a number of longer and more embroidered versions of this same quote.

Are these quotes authentic?

His Holiness may have said this, or something like it, on many occasions. One version of the quote that I trust is authentic is from The Dalai Lama: A Policy of Kindness, edited by Sidney Piburn (Snow Lion, 1990), page 58:

"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness."

This quote is popular with people who think religious institutions are all outdated vestiges of pre-modern times; in short, the "spiritual but not religious" crowd. We don't need religion! We can just go about being really, really kind.

Is that what His Holiness actually meant, however?

Consider the Source

By many accounts His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama regularly gets up at 3:30 a.m. so he can put in a few hours of meditation and rituals before breakfast. He also is known to participate in elaborate Buddhist ceremonies, often in richly decorated temples.

Further, His Holiness is said to be one of the world's leading scholars of a brain-bending philosophy called Madhyamika, as well as a leading scholar of Tibetan Buddhism generally. And, make no mistake, Tibetan Buddhism can get complicated.

Is he really saying that we can just skip the temples and the complicated philosophy, if he doesn't skip these things himself?

Consider the Context

Reading the essay from A Policy of Kindness (Chapter 5: Kindness and Compassion), it appears to be a speech to a non-Buddhist audience. My copy of the book gives no information who is being addressed. However, in this speech His Holiness stresses that his message of kindness and compassion is universal and can be applied to believers of any religion or no religion. He is very careful to not insist everybody has to be Buddhist.

In this speech, His Holiness advises that we must all confront our own anger and replace it with compassion and patience. This creates healthier interpersonal relationships, he said. Further,

"World problems similarly cannot be challenged by anger or hatred. They must be faced with compassion, love, and true kindness ... If you look deeply into such things, the blueprint is found within -- in the mind -- out of which actions come. Thus, controlling the mind is very important." [page 55]

By "controlling the mind," he said, "I am not talking here about controlling the mind in the sense of deep meditation," but rather about simply reducing anger and cultivating compassion. This begins by being aware of anger. If you are aware of your anger, you can control it.

"If you usually remain angry for ten minutes, try to reduce it to eight. Next week make it five minutes and the next month two. Then make it zero. This is how to develop and train our minds." [page 56]

I'd be the first to say that it's a tad unrealistic to expect someone with genuine anger issues to get to zero anger in a couple of months. The larger point, though, is that His Holiness is explaining how Buddhists are encouraged to work with anger -- be aware of it, acknowledge it, let it go.

Read More: Anger and Buddhism

I am not authorized to speak for His Holiness, of course, but my impression is that he wanted to give his audience some basic tools for reducing anger without "turning them off" by making it all about Buddhism. He was deliberately downplaying the "religious" nature of reducing anger.

The Religious Roots

Ironically, a lot of what His Holiness said in this speech really does have its roots in the often complex philosophy of Buddhism. We are creating our reality with our thoughts (see, for example, "Samsara: The World We Create.") Mind is the forerunner of action, and of karma. But we cannot control the mind through force of will; we must thoroughly investigate and find the roots of our anger or discontent for ourselves.

And this is done through practice. Practice, in Buddhism, is that religious stuff like chanting and rituals, as well as meditation. One suspects that if you were a student of the Dalai Lama he would expect you to know the philosophy and spend some time in the temples.

The trap of thinking that we can just go around being kind is that true kindness is pretty much impossible if we're still tripping ourselves up with our greed, anger and ignorance. As much as we might try to zip ourselves into a Kind Person persona, as soon as our buttons are pushed the "old me" will come bursting out, warts and all.

So, whether you call it "religion" or something else, some sort of spiritual discipline is necessary to be genuinely kind. And I think the Dalai Lama would agree with that.