Monday, November 9, 2009

Religion As Service

The other day when I was writing this column for the Daily Star, I came across a profound book on religion called "How to Expand Love." It was written by the Dalai Lama who has been presenting his understanding of Buddhist Spirituality to the Western audience through a number of profound and readable books such as "The Wisdom of Forgiveness;" "Path to Tranquility" and others. I found "How to Expand Love?" to be an appropriate book to read at a time when there has been much religious misunderstanding and intolerance among the people of the world.

Since "How to Expand Love" epitomizes the quintessence of religion, love and spirituality, all of us can learn a great deal from this book. For the Dalai Lama religion means, "being motivated by compassion and love respecting the rights of others. Serving others rather than dominating them is the core of religion." We are not born for the sole purpose of acquiring wealth but to contribute something meaningful that is aimed at the welfare of humanity as a whole. Spirituality, in true sense of the term, implies that our responsibility is not just limited to our selves but extends to all human beings.

At the heart of religion is "Compassionate Humanism." It thrives on one's kind nature that wants to express compassion by serving others. The Dalai Lama emphasizes that mind's real nature is to be pure and empty. It is comparable to the blue sky. Clouds may envelop it temporarily but it remains untouched. Similar to the clouds, anger, hatred and jealousy might pollute the purity but the religious mind remains untouched by them. Since the core of the pure mind is love and compassion, it expresses itself through the intense desire to serve others by alleviating their suffering.

One can train the mind to develop love and compassion for others through certain techniques practiced by the Buddhist monks for centuries. The first consists of visualization aimed at getting rid of enmity. Visualize a friend, an enemy and a neutral person. Reflect on what attracts you, repels you and keeps you neutral of feelings. Envision treating all three equally as human beings. Tell yourself that each one seeks happiness and avoids pain. Focus on this realization intensely. Let it descend into your heart and become a seed that grows into love for all and malice towards none. Moreover, imagine each of them to change by becoming its opposite like the one you hate becomes the one you love; the one you love becomes the one towards whom you are neutral and the neutral becomes the one you love. Decide not to single out any one for any singular kind of treatment. This visualization is a good starting point. However, the following seven steps are recommended for a complete development of compassion: create a positive attitude toward others; recognize the kindness friends and family had shown to us; develop kindness towards others; acknowledge how people suffer by learning to love and to become friends of all; cultivate compassion by developing a deep desire to release others of suffering; become fully committed to altruism; and show love towards all beings!

In these turbulent times of uncertainty and stress where people are confused about the worth of religion and its genuine purpose, reading "How to Expand Love?" was a breath of fresh air. The religious books of the various faiths were created to bring diverse people together in order that they could live a meaningful life. If we follow the basic premise of the Abrahamic religions that we are born of Adam and Eve, then we are not only neighbors but also brothers and sisters. The same blood rushes through our veins. Those who believe in the "big bang" theory that it all began with a "dot" of energy creating all the universes, galaxies, solar systems, planets, our earth and all of its creatures including human beings, can come to a similar conclusion, which is that all of us are the children of the same star-dust and thus are related to each other through it.

We might look different, speak different languages, understand the almighty in our own unique ways through the books we have read and discourses we have heard, but remember that we are carved from the same spiritual block and painted with the same brush. The Dalai Lama might have a message for all of us: "We are born not just to acquire wealth but also to serve others because the real meaning of religion and religious life is hidden in the secret of compassionate service."

By Ashok Kumar Malhotra


  1. Ashok,

    I agree that love plays an important role as a desirable quality in many religions, as does service. But service can be performed without love. One can, for instance, be actively involved in a faith based organization, performing very useful services for the poor our of a sense of justice, without particularly loving the particular people she is serving. So can a person organize achools for girls without having any conscious relation to religion. And religions like Calvinism or Wahabism can be serving Truth without much interest in love.