Issue 16: Winter 2011/12

Book Review

12 Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

By Michael Elsmere

This book was previously reviewed in MS 13 but is reproduced here due to its relevance to this issue and because it is such a powerful and clear call for compassion to be at the heart of our culture.

In November 2007 Karen Armstrong an author and commentator on religion whose work I have long admired learned she had been awarded $100,000 prize by TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) a private non-profit organisation promoting ideas worth spreading. Apart from the money the recipient is also granted a wish for a better world which TED will do their best to make happen. Karen knew immediately what she wanted which was to build a global community in which all peoples could live together in mutual respect; yet she saw that religion which should be making a major contribution to this was often today seen as part of the problem. She knew from her deep knowledge of the world’s faiths that all insist that compassion is a test of true spirituality and that this could bring believers into a state of transcendence which they might call, God, Brahman, Nirvana or Dao. She also discerned that there always seemed to be a universal ‘golden rule,’ which very simply stated meant ‘always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.’ Karen’s concern was that to a marked extent the place that was once occupied by the wiser aspects of many religions had now been drowned out by fanaticism. Certain aspects of scientific fundamentalism also seemed to insist that compassion or altruism were romantic nonsense, that we were inescapably, deterministically selfish.
Yet in the ‘global village’ so electronically ‘wired up’ we are able to see perhaps more clearly than ever before the results of discrimination, war, poverty and ecological degradation as well as the fact that we are all truly connected in so many varying and deep ways. TED was asked to help her create, launch and propagate a Charter for Compassion that would be written by leading thinkers from a wide spectrum of faiths with a view to restoring compassion to the centre of our lives. The Charter was launched in November 2009 in many locations throughout the world in synagogues, mosques, temples and churches as well as the Sydney Opera House and the Karachi Press Club.
The title of the book ‘12 Steps to a Compassionate Life’, will immediately evoke the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous for good reason. We are all in our conditioned state addicted to egotism to that sense of separateness from the world and others. Asking us to accept this addiction the book then proceeds to outline possible steps we might take to help us move towards the compassionate life in the company of others. Much of what is suggested will be familiar from our practice but the allusions to the work and teachings not only of Buddha but also Confucius, Mohammed, Jesus, Socrates and many other great spiritual teachers is absorbing and inspiring. This task of restoring the ‘golden rule,’ to the centre of our western civilisation is a formidable one but clearly needs to be undertaken. I can think of few people better equipped to take on the task than the author. This is a passionate and wise book that deserves a wide audience.
You may want to go to the Charter for Compassion website above and affirm your support for its intentions. Thank you.

Ko Gan Mu Ju

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