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Lions Roar : May 2014
T RUE STORy: A longtime Western Buddhist was meeting with a famous old lama for the last time. The master beckoned the student to approach. The student came close, figuring he was going to receive the master’s pithiest and most secret instruction. The master whispered his final teaching: “Be kind.” kindness is, with wisdom, the essence of the Buddhist path, and of life itself. Perhaps there is only one thing we long for more than to be treated kindly. It is to be kind people ourselves. Our deep longing for kindness is reflected in the surprising response to a simple eight-minute convocation speech. It was delivered by the great American writer george Saunders (Tenth of Decem- ber, civilWarland in Bad Decline, Pa s- toralia) to last year’s graduates of Syra- cuse University, where he teaches. Three months after he gave the speech, a tran- script was published on the New York Times website, and it went viral. Saunders told the graduates a simple story: of Ellen, a shy girl in his seventh-grade class, and his failure to be kind to her. His meditation on such “failures of kindness,” and why they’re our greatest regret, is now a small, inspiring book entitled congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. When I spoke to Saunders, he was shy about his unex- pected role as a spokesman for kindness and humble— unnecessarily so—about his Buddhist practice. But in an era when values like kindness and compassion are often put down, he’s talking thoughtfully and bravely about what needs to be at the very core of our lives and our society. — Melvin Mcleod How did you decide on the theme of kindness for your convocation speech? I first gave a version of this speech to my daughter’s middle-school graduating class. Because I knew and loved those kids, and also didn’t want to look like an old fogey, my intention was to be really truthful with them, even at the cost of my own dignity. First I considered the banalities you would normally use on an occasion like this. But, I thought, these kids are bet- ter looking than I am, they’re in a better George Saunders giving his convoca- tion speech at Syracuse University. paintinGs By JiM dine The famed writer talks about a little girl named Ellen, a failure of kindness, and a convocation speech that went viral. George Saunders on Kindness SHAMBHALA SUN MAy 2014 35