What is compassion? Is it sympathy or empathy? Or is it a more personal and ever growing journey? Is it a way we can learn to love the world and share it with every other living being? Are humans even capable of this?
Early in 2008, Karen Armstrong, a provocative and original thinker on the role of religion, won the TED Prize to launch her project: the Charter for Compassion. After great amount of study and genuine interactions with leading thinkers around the world, a common document was drafted, which transcends all religious, ideological, and national differences. When she made her TED Prize Wish, she said:
‘When I look back on my life the last thing I ever wanted to do was write, or be in any way involved in religion. After I left my convent, I’d finished with religion, frankly…. But then I suffered a series of career catastrophes, one after the other, and finally found myself in television…And I was doing some rather controversial religious programs. This went down very well in the U.K. where religion is extremely unpopular. And so, for once, for the only time in my life, I was finally in the mainstream. But I got sent to Jerusalem to make a film about early Christianity. And there, for the first time, I encountered the other religious traditions: Judaism and Islam.’
After her trip to Jerusalem, where Karen witnessed the meshing and clashing of three interconnected religious traditions, she became highly curious and began studying the different religious doctrines and traditions all around the world. Quite contrary to how she had grown up with the idea of religion, she became interested in the commonality between these various doctrines. She continues at TED:
‘Instead of deciding whether or not to believe in God, first you do something. You behave in a committed way, and then begin to understand the truths of religion. And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action; you only understand them when you put them into practice is given to compassion.’
Spinning from this, with the help of TED, she brought together many leading thinkers on compassion and the role of religion to come together and shape this charter, something open and personal whatever their religious views anyone can commit to as a statement of life. It reads:
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.
Over the last three years, Karen Armstrong’s wish for a common platform based on the principle of compassion, began to shape up with the contributions of over 80,000 people from around the world. Various cultural and scholarly initiatives have helped in exploring compassion and deepening the journey of this charter. For instance, we think the six short talks by Tenzin Robert Thurman, Robert Wright, Rev. James Forbes, Rabbi Jackie Thick, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, and Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf conducted by the Council are a must watch. They explore in detail and with such eloquence, the importance and beauty of compassionate living. We are in a need of a world where you, me, the man down the road, and everyone can stand next to each other; and not just be tolerant of each other.
The final charter was drafted after carefully reading hundreds of contributions by the Council of Conscience, a multi-faith and multi-national group of religious thinkers and leaders brought together by Karen Armstrong. Learn more about the evolution of this Charter and browse through the brilliant collection of resources that further this dialogue.