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Lions Roar : January 2019
IT’S LATE. YOU’RE TIRED. There’s a lot on your mind. And then it comes— the critical email from an antagonistic coworker or the goading Facebook comment from your Trump-loving cousin. You can’t help it if people push your buttons! How in the world are you sup- posed to be kind? The thing is, there aren’t two versions of kind- ness: one for people we like and one for people we don’t. The kindness we cultivate through Buddhist practice has to work no matter what or else it isn’t real— and that means being kind even when we’re tempted not to be. It turns out that life is full of those situations, and always has been. So, it’s not surprising that Zen’s principal teach- ing on kindness is not in a high-minded treatise on morality or ethical conduct. Neither is it confined tice like this: any time I am out and about, I try to notice the people I come into contact with. I look at them, make eye contact if I can, and speak to them if possible. I’m aware that it can sometimes be inap- propriate to look at or speak to people in public, so I am sensitive to that as I make an effort to reach out. I’ve been working on this for some time. So, by now, when I see a stranger in public, I feel that he or she is a friend, a person like me, who wants to live not die, love not hate, and probably has lots of chal- lenges not unlike mine. The other day at the gas station I said hello to the guy at the next pump—a young fellow wearing a backwards baseball cap and fueling a big truck. I asked him how he was doing and whether or not the gas station charged more for using credit cards than paying cash. The fellow seemed surprised and pleased that I’d addressed him and said, “Yeah, they do charge more for credit cards.” As I am writing this now, I remember him with a positive feeling. I really do wish him well. In the diverse world we live in, practicing kind- ness toward neutral people isn’t simple. I appear to be an older white male. I’m not that big, but I’m not small—I’m probably taller and weigh more than most of the people I run into. As a Zen Buddhist priest, I keep my face and head shaved, but since I don’t necessarily shave every day I might sometimes appear a little grizzly. When I encounter another person, I take into account the impact my appear- ance might have on them. Of course, reactions to my appearance will be different for different people. A woman will react differently than a man, and it will make a difference if the woman or man is young or old, straight or gay, African American, Hispanic, Asian, or white. And I also have different reactions to the different kinds of people I meet. So the practice of kindness toward a neutral person turns out to be much stron- ger and more complex when you do it in the world, rather than on the cushion. Sometimes, despite my efforts, I fail to be kind to a neutral person, but I do learn a lot from my failures. The other day I was at a bookstore and a huge African-American guy with tall hair came rushing in looking disoriented. My usual smile and sense of friendliness deserted me for a moment, and I felt a little tense. There were no other Black people in the store—something I’d completely missed before this fellow entered. The guy turned out to be connected to several of my poet friends, was a poet himself, and one of the brightest and funniest people I have ever met. My initial reaction to him showed me that I’m not immune to the messages our society communi- cates to so-called white people about darker people. Seeing how I’m as susceptible as anyone to these messages gave me a lot to think about regarding our racially charged world, and it gave me a lot to practice with. The practice, of course, requires that when we notice that kindness isn’t our initial con- ditioned reaction, we intentionally return the mind to kindness. The study of enlightenment is the study of delu- sion, and this is true of practicing kindness toward neutral people. Not only does this practice eventu- ally help us develop kindness, it also shows us our sticking points and opens our eyes to society’s sad dynamics. NORMAN FISCHER is the founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation. His books include Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. Be Kind to DIFFICULT PEOPLE True kindness means being kind even when you’re tempted not to be. The secret, says KAREN MAEZEN MILLER, is found in an ancient Zen manual for overworked cooks. LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2019 52