I’ve been keeping company with The Golden Rule for the past couple of weeks, wondering and being curious about it, and seeing what arises while doing so. When you really look at it and think about it, it’s kind of an odd phrase. This is not a bad thing. In the Zen Koan tradition we have more than our fair share of odd phrases which we hang out with, being curious and wondering about them, and seeing what comes to meet us in the process, and I enjoyed connecting with The Golden Rule in that way. There’s a deeper level and meaning which it seems we go to more readily, due to it being such a well-known phrase, and what I find at the bottom of it is the encouragement to treat others with dignity and respect, as that is fundamentally how I would I like to be treated by others. And I’ll come back to this, but first I want to speak to what I find odd about the phrase, which comes by meeting it on the surface level and taking it at face value.
So, The Golden Rule tells me to treat others how I want to be treated. This assumes that I know how to treat and care for myself well, and that I’m doing right by myself while doing so. It also suggests that I should impose this upon others, essentially saying that what’s good for me must certainly be good for them. To some degree it seems to be saying don’t pay too much attention to their individuality and their needs, and instead treat them the same way I treat myself. That’s odd advice.
I could also try to use the phrase to my advantage and manipulate others into treating me a certain way. For instance, I love chocolate. So, with The Golden Rule in mind, I decide to give people chocolate on a regular basis, hoping they’ll catch on and realize I am treating them the way I want to be treated. Give me chocolate!
Moving beneath the surface level, another reason I find The Golden Rule to be odd is because one of the central teachings of Zen and Buddhism is that there is essentially no me and no you; we are not separate, self-existing entities, but rather are connected and interwoven with one another. We arise together; because you are there, I know that I am here. To be clear, this is not to say that we are all one, for each of us, each thing, has its distinct individuality; this is instead to acknowledge and understand that we are not-two, that we are intertwined and we interpermeate one another continually, in perpetual relationship. And not just us humans and our fellow living and breathing creatures; all things are connected and a part of the same whole. So, to lean too heavily in the direction of one of us – whether it’s primarily acting for myself or giving myself wholly to others – is to violate and dishonor this relationship.
Considering this, I was thinking about how here in Colorado we have mountains to the west, and plains and prairies to the east; two very different and distinct environments with their particular terrains and climates, yet both part of the same landscape. In light of The Golden Rule, let’s say that I’m a mountain and you’re a prairie. As a mountain, I’ve come to learn how to be, what I need to survive and thrive, and what’s good for me. Yet, if I treat you, the prairie, in the same I way I treat myself, it will not be good for you; it might be helpful in certain ways, but overall would not truly give you what you need to survive and thrive, and in the end would be quite harmful. So I must take care of myself in ways that are beneficial to my landscape, and support you in taking care of yourself in ways that are beneficial to your landscape, offering what I can when I can, and vice-versa. And each of us can do so while realizing there is a greater ecosystem of which we are a part, and by taking proper care of ourselves and others, we are nurturing and sustaining that greater ecosystem as a whole.
This is how it is with us humans and all beings, all things. There is a vast field of existence of which we all are a part; it’s made up of you and me and everything else, our interconnections and interweavings, but is not limited to simply being the sum of these parts – something greater comes about through the deep realization and manifestation of our not-two-ness, and it is to that which I have my allegiance, and that is what I wish to care for and serve, for the benefit of all. The invitation and opportunity here is to allow this vast field of existence to be my common denominator, to be connected to and rooted in it at all times, as I care for myself and others and all things in this world of ours.
One of those Zen phrases came to mind as I was pondering this, and I offer it (well, a paraphrase of it) as a companion to The Golden Rule: the way you care for one thing is the way you care for all things. Initially, I notice my mind wants to discover what the one way to treat all things is - the perennial, fail-safe, blanket approach that works in all situations and under all circumstances – because that would make things much easier. Fortunately, I find I am unable to let myself off the hook, which leads me to look for the deeper significance of this phrase.
In one respect I take it quite literally, keeping in mind the vast field of existence spoken to above. Because of the interconnection and interpermeation of all things, what I do at any particular moment is a part of that greater whole. An instant of taking a breath and being at peace is an instant of peace permeating the field; an instant of being kind and helping another is an instant of kindness permeating the field; an instant of standing up to injustice and oppression is an instant of resistance and solidarity permeating the field. So, knowing that in this moment, in each and every moment, the way I am caring for things (myself included) affects and contributes to the vast field of the whole, how do I want to carry myself and be and make my way through this life?
After meeting with this phrase in this way, I found that there is the possibility of a blanket approach as a way of caring for all things, and that comes back to dignity and respect. It seems to be another helpful common denominator in which to abide and from which to respond, and fortunately what the responses look like are wide and varied. First, to treat things with dignity is to allow and acknowledge that they are here, in this world, a part of the vast field; regardless of how I feel about them and what opinions I hold, they are here, and I offer them the dignity of being seen. And then, to treat things with respect is to listen to what they have to say, find out what they want and need, to notice what they are offering and contributing, and then to respond appropriately. Again, there is no pat, cookie-cutter response, which frees us from always trying to come forth with kindness and gentle compassion, as certain circumstances call for harshness and fierce compassion. True compassion is offering what is needed when it is needed, not coming forth from an idea of what it should look like but as an authentic expression and appropriate response to what is. Responding in such a way honors and nourishes our relationship with all things, that which unites and binds us all.
In regard to caring for all things with dignity and respect, I find the first and crucial step is to offer these to ourselves, each of us to allow and acknowledge: I am here, I have a place in this world, I have something to offer and a willingness to contribute. And then we extend this dignity and respect to all things as we arise together, meeting and responding to one another. To a loved one going through hardship and difficulty, we listen and comfort, hug and hold hands; to a stranger in need, we ask how we can help and offer what we can; when a child is acting cruelly, we speak stern words and establish consequences; when we see affluence in one community and lack in another, we engage in programs that are working to address inequities, and notice how we may be contributing to the problem as well as how we can help support the solutions; and in times of tyrants and dictators pursing their narrow, harmful agendas, we stand up, make our voices and presence known, resist and persist, for the benefit of all.