Filed in Compassion

Compassion Restored

An interview with Karen Armstrong, creator of the Charter for Compassion

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Before becoming one of the great world religion scholars of our time and a self-proclaimed “freelance monotheist,” Karen Armstrong had given up on religion. Raised in England in the years following World War II, Armstrong became a Roman Catholic nun in the order of Society of the Holy Child Jesus when she was still a teenager. After seven painful years, Armstrong left the church, frustrated and fed up with what she felt was an overly dogmatic institution.

Following her unhappy experience with Catholicism, Armstrong spent the next 15 years distancing herself from religion, a system she felt had failed her. Then, following the success of her first book, Through the Narrow Gate (1981), a memoir of her tormented years as a nun, Armstrong moved to Israel in 1984 to make a documentary for a British television network on the life of Saint Paul. It was in Jerusalem that she encountered Judaism and Islam for the first time, and her interest in religion was restored. As she observed Jews, Muslims, and Christians living in close proximity to one another Armstrong noted the profound similarities between the core teachings of the three religions and their shared vision for a more compassionate world.

After her experience in Jerusalem, Armstrong went on to become a respected scholar of world religions, publishing over 20 books, including The Gospel According to Woman (1986), A History of God (1993), Buddha (2001), Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time (2006), The Case for God (2009), and, most recently, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010). In February of 2008, Armstrong was awarded the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) Prize, which grants recipients $100,000 to put toward realizing a wish. Armstrong’s wish was to create a Charter for Compassion, a document she hoped would transcend religious, ideological, and national differences and help to restore the message of the Golden Rule in the world. The charter was first drafted online by the public, then finalized during a meeting in Geneva by the Council of Conscience, a multifaith group of 18 religious leaders. In the fall of 2009 the final Charter for Compassion was unveiled, and to date over 75,000 people have signed the document.

Last November, Tricycle editors Rachel Hiles and Sam Mowe met with Armstrong while she was in New York to speak at a TED event hosted by the United Nations.

How did you first conceive of the Charter for Compassion? The charter came into being after I won the TED Prize, which gives you a wish for a better world. I had long been frustrated by the fact that the religions of the world, which all have a compassionate ethos at the heart, haven’t been making a major contribution to one of the biggest tasks of our time, which is to build a global community where people of all persuasions can live together in peace and harmony. In fact, religion is often seen as part of the problem. So I asked TED to help me create, craft, propagate, and launch a Charter for Compassion that would restore compassion to the heart of the spiritual, religious, and moral life and make it an active force in the world. The charter was written by hundreds of thousands of people online on a multilingual website in Arabic, Urdu, Hebrew, English, and Spanish, and then it was composed by a council of 18 people representing six major world religions.

Seventy-thousand people have already signed the Charter. Yes, but equally important is the fact that we have at least 150 partners worldwide who have been doing this kind of work for a long time and have incorporated the charter into their program. These groups represent practically every region of the globe, and they’re all translating the message of the charter, which is fundamentally a call for action rather than just the incitement of a feeling, in order to make it an active force in their particular locality. The Ethiopian partner—the ambassador for Ethiopia here at the UN—declared April 5 to be Golden Rule Day, and we hope to celebrate this every year in order to encourage educators, members of the media, and journalists to think about compassion and what it means.

Our partners in Seattle, the Compassionate Action Network (CAN), declared Seattle to be the first city of compassion. They’re working out in practical terms what that means in the 21st century, especially in terms of environmental ethics and business ethics for the city. This isn’t the end of it; they’re working out how to call other cities worldwide to join them in this endeavor. My dream is that young people in all these cities can start emailing each other, breaking down those barriers of ignorance, building friendships, and creating an international network of cities dedicated to exploring the ethos of compassion.

We’re also putting together a package to help guide people through interfaith communications. I’m working with people who’ve stepped forward to help in Pakistan and the Middle East. These are individuals who have believed that compassion is the way forward and are working out the best ways to integrate the compassion into these difficult trouble spots.

How do we get the charter into the hands of the people in the most volatile parts of the world—the areas that need it the most?
We need it, too. I’m often accused of preaching to the choir or preaching to the converted. I don’t mind doing that at all, because the choir isn’t singing. If all the people who said “We believe in compassion” really worked to bring it about, we could change the world. But in fact, the choir is lulling its choristers and not doing anything. The extremists that we’re up against—I have no hope of converting them; they’ve gone too far. But if we all got active, really active, beyond saying, “Yeah, I believe in compassion,” we could make a difference, everyone in their own sphere. I can’t issue dictates as to what this has to be, but if you’re a lawyer, how do you become a compassionate lawyer? Politician? Or businessman, banker, caregiver, bus driver? How do you make the world a more compassionate place? We need to cultivate a global attitude. That’s why the Twelve Steps end with “Love your enemies”—because unless we start treating all peoples, all nations, as we wish to be treated ourselves, we’re not going to have a viable world to hand down to the next generation.

Is compassion the highest common denominator between the world religions? The religions are not all the same—they have significant and revealing differences. That’s what’s wonderful about them. But what they all say, what they’re all in agreement about, is that there’s something very wrong with your spirituality if it does not result in compassion. If it results in unkindness and hatred and violence and belligerence, you’ve lost it. I can have faith that moves mountains, but if I lack charity it’s nothing. If the Golden Rule is practiced as Confucius said, all day and every day and not just when we feel like it—not just doing your good deed for the day, as we say, and then returning over the next 23 hours to selfishness and unkindness as usual—but all day and every day, you break down that ego. It’s ego that keeps us back from the enlightenment that’s called nirvana or brahman or God.

Does the method for cultivating compassion affect the quality of compassion? No. Compassion, as Confucius said, is not something that’s quantifiable. Unless you do it, you don’t know what it is. Unless you do it all day, every day, you don’t know it any more than a dancer can explain at first how she pirouettes across the room. It takes practice and years of discipline. Those who have experienced it say that it brings you into a deeper dimension of your humanity.

Does the motivation behind cultivating compassion—whether it’s to get into heaven, or achieve enlightenment— matter?
You don’t do it to get it. If you’re doing something to get it, you’ve lost it. It’s not something you get; it’s something you give. So if you’re going to do it to get something and you’re only going to be motivated until you get it, that’s not compassion. This is a lifetime’s work. When I was in Seattle for the proclamation of the Charter I talked about the Twelve Step program, and they said to me, “Great, we’ll have graduation programs, ceremonies every six months when someone’s become compassionate.” I said, “No. No. No.” That is something that never ends: our selfishness, our desire to preserve ourselves at all costs to get something, rather than just to give without receiving something in return. This is something we hardly ever achieve. But if we practice it to the last gasp, then perhaps we’ll have made the world a better place.

Do you think that compassion and capitalism can coexist? It’s difficult. Capitalism has created great things, and living here as we do in this sort of privileged existence, we benefit from capitalism. I’ve been able to travel around the world because of capitalism. But the capitalism that says, “It’s all got to be for me and what I can get” or “What’s the motivation for this?” will not enable us to create a viable world where we can bring up our children and grandchildren in peace.

And capitalism relies on the suffering of others. Exactly. We have to be very much aware of that. Existence is dukkha, suffering: this is the meditation for our world. We should care about where we buy our products and who made them and what suffering they’re enduring. While we’re enjoying ourselves, people in other parts of the world don’t even have clean water. In some parts of the world people are suffering from eating disorders, while there are others who simply don’t have enough to eat. This is a terrible business. We should feel it in our souls as a problem and as something that keeps us awake at night, but in a productive way, so that we don’t just sink into despair but instead ask, “How can we make this better?” There aren’t easy answers. We have to engage with the problems instead of just throwing up our hands and saying it’s too difficult. This is what the great thinking of our time should be engaged with. When I got the opportunity for this TED Prize wish, I thought, Let’s at least bring compassion back to the table, because people are so ignorant about it, they don’t even know what compassion means. People think it means pity or feeling sorry for people.

Your new book is broken down into twelve steps. Are any of the steps inspired by what you’ve learned from Buddhism? The mindfulness chapter was influenced by Buddhist teachings, as were many of the exercises in the book. The lovingkindness meditation is basically the spine of the book: you have to keep making space for the other in your mind, and that’s hugely important. Each of the religious traditions has its own particular brilliant take on compassion, and the Buddhist brilliant take is its psychological relevance. Our brains are actually changed by Buddhist meditations.

I loved writing my biography of the Buddha, and it was one of the things that helped to put me on the path to the Charter of Compassion. After reading about the Buddha, I realized how compassion was absolutely key. I see the Buddha as the star of the axial age—easily the most advanced, from what we know. My encounter with the Buddha, with the Buddhist tradition, is only just starting. I’ve still got a lot to explore, but already it gives me a sense that religion is possible, that compassion is possible. During my rather unhappy experience with Christianity, I didn’t get the sense that it was a very compassionate religion. But now I look back and I see—as a result of an encounter with the Buddha, with Confucius, with the Upanishads—I see now what the Christians were trying to do, and I see how they were really doing it in their own way.

I read a quote this morning that said something along the lines of “The best religion can do is inspire wonder, not explain the mystery.” Yes, and to make you ask questions. Religion should not be giving you explanations or quick answers, which is what we kind of expect—we type something into Google and up comes the answer. Instead, religion should help you to live with questions for which there are no answers, like cruelty and pain and suffering and death, capitalism and injustice. It should teach us to live with these questions so that whatever horror or sorrow or dukkha is going on out there, you can live with it creatively, not turn your back to it.

Practicing compassion requires a very creative and active engagement with the world. Yes, and you see this in the life of the Buddha. After enlightenment, he is tempted to stay there under the tree. Should he go and teach? No, he says it’s going to be too upsetting and depressing. Then Brahma comes down and kneels before him and says, “Please, save the world. Look at it. Look at it.” God kneeling to the enlightened man, it’s a wonderful image. So the Buddha looks at the suffering world—just as we’re looking here at New York with the eye of a Buddha—and he spends the next 40 years tramping around trying to find a cure for the suffering of the world. The religious experience is not about getting a lovely warm glow and then basking in it. The religious experience should impel you back onto the street, just as I’ve been impelled out of my nice quiet study to come and travel endlessly on airplanes from place to place. I’ve hardly been at home for the last three months. I’ll be home next month, and then the next seven months I’m traveling constantly again. But if people keep asking you for help, then you must give it to them rather than thinking, “No, I’d much rather be sitting in my study having that lovely warm glow.”

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jackelope65's picture

Mohammed Yunus, who began micro loans out of his own pocket in Bangladesh, also started the "Social Business" concept and wrote a book about it. The primary graph to demonstrate success uses customers served on the Y axis. However the business must be profitable. He teamed up with Yoplait to make tasty and very nutritious yogurt to sell for about 3 cents as well as Nike to sell 1 dollar sneakers: but these businesses, again, were profitable. His model is for compassionate and financially profitable business. To develop right action, we must first develop right intention.

sallyotter's picture

Could there be "compassionate capitalism"? What I see in the US now is the greed of the 1%, always wanting more. Putting their profits out of the country either in off-shore accounts or into factories propelled by slave labor. There really isn't the opportunity for the poor and middle class that the upper class portrays; it's all illusion, smoke and mirrors.
As a practicing Buddhist, I do my best not to support this rampant greed. I buy local, shop thrift stores, recycle everything. Compassion for the earth, the water, for my children and grandchildren and, by implication, their peers around the world. We are all in this together. And may I remind you, if you believe in rebirth, you will be returning to the world that you left in whatever shape you left it in.

jimgoldsworthy's picture

There is a movment among some economists to use the term economic freedom in place of capitalism. If we seriously consider the difference between the use of capital to aquire political power and the means of production and the economic freedom to use ones labor, talents, and knowledge to prosper in an economy we can start to move away from the present global capitalist system where those with the greatest financial resources either buy out their potential competitors or purchase political power to suppress them. Western society has limited how much political power an individual or group can amass. Perhaps we need to find ways to achieve this with economic power.

sds's picture

I am delighted to see this discussion of capitalism being sparked by Armstrong's discussion of compassion and I am delighted to read comments that recognize the reality of the harm that capitalist accumulation wreaks on the world. I don't think anyone here is saying 'down with capitalism' or yes to totalitarianism or communism or whatever other ism there might be. From my perspective, if we are to be a compassionate community we need to get away from knee-jerk reactions (which of course Buddhist training teaches us to do) and take a good hard, and dispassionate look at reality.

Will.Rowe's picture

I was quite shocked to see capitalism attacked here. The question "Do you think that compassion and capitalism can coexist?" is quite leading. To imply that they cannot is rather absurd isn’t it? We have proof here in America that it can and does. In fact it is not European socialists who give the most to help others through charities, but capitalist Americans. We are also the same country who gives the most to aid other countries in their times of suffering. The examples are countless.

And to state that: “capitalism relies on the suffering of others” is disingenuous if not deceitful. Capitalism has helped alleviate suffering. Suffering is the nature of this world, as the First Noble Truth points out, and was here long before capitalism. While capitalism certainly is not perfect—how could it be since it is administered by humans?—it certainly has proven the best economic plan for people who want to better themselves being allowed to do so. Consider the torture, literal enslavement, totalitarianism, and outright murder of 100 million by communism and the collective does not look so admirable.
As for suffering in other countries, I think as they embrace capitalism they can begin to eliminate their own suffering. Even, Communist China, who still persecutes religions, democratic proponents, and even a Nobel Prize winner, may one day be overthrown. How? By capitalism creating a middle class who demand certain human rights, which we here in the West take for granted. Communism does not recognize the right to own capital or even property. The collective in the form of a dictator under one party owns everything.

The questions posed and the ones not asked make wonder at the motivation behind the questions.

m.goulash's picture

Will.Rowe, I disagree that it is a leading question, given the simple fact that Karen Armstrong's reply implies that there is more than one kind of capitalism. Also, you are presenting a false choice by suggesting that the only alternative to the present form of capitalism is totalitarian communism. It is those kinds of conversation killers that serve to prevent any kind of reform. Thank you for your comments, though, and I wish you well even though we disagree.

two.z3ro's picture

What is it about "capitalist America" that we don't also rely on the supposedly enlightened, on super-committees, and a false perception that our justice is best and that we should have so much confidence in it? We have a system that entertains a "debate" of whether we should strengthen our social welfare or push for more personal responsibility from individuals, as if the two were mutually exclusive somehow, and not symbiotic. I suppose to make it clear what influences my reply most is any suggestion our system is capable of administering justice when our system, economically, and also politically, depends on social and economic inequalities to function.

I don't know that we could have a better system for us, but I would imagine there are better systems for others. I would also be much more comfortable in my capitalist skin if we wouldn't kill children (or adults) to put fuel in my motor vehicle and nice things in my airtight and leak-proof home, should anyone wish to speak of atrocity committed for the sake of allocating scarce and non-renewable resources.

I'm also ever-mindful as well, that it would seem that most people around the world learn to live with a lot less than one might want to. What I'm trying to say is that even I, as a low-income American, am filthy rich compared to our brothers and sisters across the border in Tijuana. It is very clear to me that I live with a much higher quality of desperation and troubles. Why should I avoid acknowledging that for the sake of not insulting an American? I am grateful that I can go to school at 40 years old and embark on a second career of digging up rocks and such to try to discern the reasons past civilizations came up with for torturing and killing each other. I'm so rich I don't even have to care that I'm poor and always will be.

In the essay and especially in the replies we all illuminate how we are all so disingenuous and as long as we are blind to it, we suffer, they suffer, we're smarter and better while they should have our pity for having foolishly taken another path to governing people and allocating resources... or is it governing personal defensiveness and allocating pity that we are talking about?

And this way we never have to look at anything with an open mind. Thanks, but that's what I hope to overcome in my life, and I'm not going to fall into a trap of taking insult at a critical essay, and take it as an attack on my almighty American way of life.

And I'm certain my reply will be well taken. I know I sleep well knowing everything I do and the ways in which I live my life are all unquestionably the right ways because I always know justice when I see it.'s picture

Thank you for addressing this issue and calling into question this attack on capitalism. Having just subscribed to Tricycle about 20 minutes ago, I was so disappointed and horrified that I nearly cancelled. But your defense of capitalism and its appearance here is satisfactory to me. I believe capitalism gives everyone a chance while other systems that rely upon some enlightened supercommittee to administer justice to all seems like a dangerous fantasy. Thank you again.

gotimsiegel's picture

I view your points differently: First, it's not about comparing or us vs. them, capitalists vs. "socilaists." Second, Europe is more rife with capitalism than socialism. Third, "America" or Americans are electing to share some wealth from resources that have been extracted and gathered and yes, dominated, from around the world. If our generosity was so pure, then our carbon footprint and usurping of material would be much different than present reality, no? If it was so sincere it would be optional charity, but just sharing of resources and a minimal "floor" for quality of life and opportunity. Fourth, one of the precepts of capitalism is that (short term) profit to shareholders/owners trumps everything else. How can that, by definition be a humane system? And with it, the exploitation of labor. Fifth, every economist knows that there is no such thing as a free or true or visible marketplace. There are huge shadow costs that hurt others (dumping our toxic waste in foreign lands for instance). And there are oligopolies and locked up markets: oil, diamonds, chemicals and pharma to name a few.
To me the question comes down to is unbridled capitalism (in various forms and nations) fair, constructive, humane and esp. healthy for the next seven generations? Clearly, no. And with Business so Big and powerful, is it realistic to think that global regulation will work to prevent or correct abuses? If so, we would not have Gulf Spill, no leaking nuke plant in Japan, no mono agriculture based on one patented corn seed, etc.
So rather than just accept it as the best so far in an imperfect world, let's significantly reform it or invent anew. Why stop with such an imperfect system of haves and have nots? That does NOT mean the old systems of socialism or of communism are the only alternative.
Look around the world for the past decades or century. This is the best economic system we can think of for the next 100 years?
Please, we can do better and must.

Kjf49617's picture

Please look at how dogmatic language can be used to insult and degrade. Clinging to ideologies and berating others with them have nothing to do with compassion, or "suffering together."

robertomainetti's picture

love your is familliar too and i love the art work...thank you