Living Our Values 1

Ideology Versus Compassion

To live our values, we must first figure out what values we want to live by. Religions can guide us in that as long as we are careful not to adhere rigidly to any system of beliefs. In The Song of the Bird, author and priest Anothony de Mello reminds us that it is dangerous to to make a rule-bound religion out of spiritual truths.

In the story, “Bayazid Breaks the Rule,” de Mello tells about a time, during the month of Ramadan, when Bayazid was traveling and teaching. He reaches a town in Iran where his worshipers rushed to greet him. They made a big stir. Weary from his travels and tired of adulation, Bayazid trudged to the marketplace where he bought a loaf of bread. In front of all his followers, he started to eat it, for he felt that his long journey justified this violation of a religious law.

His followers did not see it that way, however, and they left him. Alone with his disciples, Bayazid said, “Notice that as soon as I do something that contradicts their expectations, they stop venerating me.” Smiling gently, he enjoyed the silence and the sweetness of his meal. [1]

A Bodhisattva of Compassion, Living his Religious Values

Scandalous Leaders

True religious leaders scandalize us. They live by values rather than rules. They fail to live up to our expectations, so eventually we reject them. Indeed, no matter how kind and generous we normally are, when we get entrenched in our ideology or religion, we are capable of great cruelty. Wars, abuse, and torture come from clinging to the law.

That is why de Mello writes that “[c]ompassion has no ideology.” [2]

If we must choose between compassion or enforcing a set of rules, we should choose compassion every time. Rules are meant to guide us. When we cling to them rigidly and use them to judge others, we have deformed the rule.

Compassion and Mindfulness

Not that we shouldn’t be guided by ideologies, religions, and rules. Spiritual teachings are helpful. Practices such as prayer, meditation, service, and silence open our heart to wisdom and truth. In this way, we will hopefully know what is best in each moment.

The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, teaches us that from mindfulness come compassion and wisdom. “With mindfulness,” he says, “we know what to do and what not to do to help.” With meditation practice, we develop a sense of connection with all that is. In this way, we learn compassion for those who are wounded, and we wish to reach out. In other words, we will know how to help.

We see this in the story of the Buddhist monk who carried a beautiful, young woman across a muddy ditch. Since a monk should not touch a woman, this was against the teachings. His fellow monk who was traveling with him chastised him, scandalized.

Yet the first monk understand that rules serve us only as long as they guide us in right relationship with the universe, with one another, and with our god. When a compassionate and generous response would break a rule, we should break the rule.

What Values Are Important?

Teaching our children to live by the values of kindness, generosity of spirit, and compassion is not easy, especially in this world where many people live by different values. Our culture, for instance, is highly materialistic. We value money, status, power, and possessions.

These have their place. For instance, Stephen Jenkins, in his article, “Do Bodhisattvas Relieve Poverty?,” writes that “the satisfaction of material needs is seen as a prerequisite for moral development, and its absence is seen as the cause of moral decay.” The bodhisattva will strive, through “moral leadership” and “direct action,” to relieve those needs. [3]

I don’t totally reject materialism. I appreciate financial security and comfort. In the past, I have chosen freedom, family, and right livelihood over material wealth, and sometimes I regret that, especially now that survival has become so expensive. Overall, however, materialism is not a top value for me. Nor do I particularly value nationalism, obedience, strength, safety, and order.

Still, I am grateful someone approves of them. Certainly, I follow traffic laws because I want to avoid accidents whenever possible. Yet the core value that guides my driving is my desire to harm no one.

To Respond to Suffering

Stephen Batchelor, in Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil makes the case that meditation by itself does not teach us how to act. We can feel grounded in the moment, even understand how all life is interconnected, yet still not treat others with respect and compassion. He believes that how we interpret this sense of oneness will depend on the values we hold and the principles we live by.

For us to respond to another person’s suffering as if it were our own, he explains, it is not enough for us to have an intellectual recognition that we are one with the other. We must also, Batchelor writes, “hear the other’s call not to hurt her in such a way that [we] hear in it the echo of [our] own call for her not to hurt [us].” [4]

We must learn to listen deeply, to truly hear the other, and to care about her.

“As the deafening chatter of self-centeredness subsides,” he adds, “one recovers that silence wherein one hears more sharply the cries of the world.” [5]

Brilliance or Kindness

Finding our values in our capacity to truly hear the world’s cries is poignantly and poetically explored by Chaim Potok in his novel The Chosen. Reb Isaac Saunders, a rabbbi of a Hasidic community, has a son named Daniel. This boy is brilliant, with a jewel of a mind, and he eagerly soaks up information. At four, the boy read a long and complicated story of suffering and tragedy, yet was unmoved by the story’s pain. All he cared about was that he could read it, and not only read it, but memorize it. With great pride, the boy recited the story back to his father, word for word.

Devastated, Reb Saunders went off and cried out to God, “’What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son. Compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul.” [6]

So what did Reb Saunders do? How did he raise this son to be a tzaddik, a righteous one, a blessing upon the world? How did he raise Daniel to know how to suffer for his people, to hear their problems, to comfort and advise them?

The rabbi raised Daniel in silence. Except when they studied the Talmud together, the father no longer spoke to the son.

Raised In Silence

My mother, too, was raised in silence. This was not for any particular reason, however. When she was six, her mother moved to Chicago to get her masters in social work, leaving my mother in New York City with her father. My grandfather, Melvin, was a physicist, brilliant in the way Daniel was brilliant. As a young scientist, he invented a technique to measure the consistency of rubber, and the American Chemical Society still awards the “Melvin Mooney Distinguished Technology Award” for those who make significant contributions to rubber science.

Yet Melvin was not just a brain. He had strong emotions, loved deeply, and advocated for world peace and economic justice. Yet unless it was with fellow scientists, he did not know how to communicate. At least not with words. With me, he communicated with a smile when he saw me, with his willingness to hold and comfort me. I knew he loved me, and for me, that was enough.

For my mother, it was not. Feeling abandoned by her own mother, living alone with her father, she suffered. Although she never blamed her mother, she resented her Melvin.

Finding Peace with Silence

Not until she was 90, when her dementia took away some of her own brilliance, did my mother finally forgive him. We were looking at old photographs, she and I, and I showed her one of her as a teenager, looking over her shoulder at her father. They were smiling at each other tenderly.

“We really loved one another,” she said.

I wanted to cry, I felt so grateful. At last she could find peace in her relationship with her father. At last she could feel loved.

When I was perhaps ten years old, I complained to my father about how stupid I felt, at least compared to the super-smart members of my family.

“You’re lucky,” my father told me. “It’s not such a great thing to be so smart.”

That’s what Daniel’s father thought, as well. So Daniel grew up in silence, and it helped. As Reb Saunders explains why he stopped talking to his son, he says, “In the silence between us, he began to hear the world crying.” [7]

Becoming a Tzaddik

Daniel grew up to be the tzaddik his father hoped he would. My mother, too, grew up to be kind and tender-hearted. She was naive, and she held onto her anger. Yet she cried for those who suffered, she gave what she could to help them, and she tirelessly wrote letters trying to enlighten senators and congressmen. As long as she lived, she couldn’t understand why we kept hurting one another.

Perhaps silence isn’t such a bad thing. I guess it depends on what is important to us. What values do we hold, and which ones do we want to pass onto our children? Living our values is not easy. To find them in the first place may be harder still. What authority do we listen to? If we look within, will we understand what truly matters?

Rules show us a pathway. Yet sometimes we must step off the path. How do we know when to do this?

Religions help. Yet we turn religious teachings and spiritual truths into rule books. True spiritual leaders don’t teach rules. They teach us to be kind, to hear the world’s tears, to respond with compassion, to treat others as generously as we would treat those we love. Religions at their best teach us to listen, to be still, to be silent, because only in this way will we come to know what it is to be one with all that lives, not just in our minds, but in our hearts and bodies, as well. And only in this way, will be find values worth living. If we listen deeply enough, we may even figure out how to live those values. We may figure out how to be a tzaddik for the world.

In faith and fondness,



  1. de Mello, Anthony, The Song of the Bird, Loyola University Press, 1983, 163-4.
  2. Ibid 195.
  3. Quoted by Ken Jones, The New Social Face of Buddhism: A Call to Action, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1989, 19.
  4. Batchelor, Stephen, Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, New York: Riverhead, 2004, 173.
  5. Ibid 173.
  6. Potok, Chaim, The Chosen, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995, 246.
  7. Ibid 249.

Photo Credit: Public Domain, White-robed Kannon, Bodhisattva of Compassion by Kano Motonobu. 16th Century.

Copyright © 2017 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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