We find that people's unexpected acts of consideration are heartening and refreshing. Such acts inspire in others gratitude, respect, and a desire to be like the people who perform them. To inspire others, we should all strive constantly to improve ourselves and to be warm and generous.
Keiko Higuchi, a well-known commentator on women's issues, writes of two brothers who lived with her family immediately after World War II. One day her mother mentioned how well brought up the boys were. She gave the example of their ready, courteous acceptance of her unthinking invitation to bathe even though they had presumably bathed earlier that day, while visiting relatives. After their bath they commented on how refreshed they felt. The boys were willing to go to the trouble of undressing and bathing again rather than reject a kindness. Both Higuchi and her mother were impressed by the way the boys put respect for hospitality ahead of the perfectly normal desire to avoid taking two baths in a short time.
Such seemingly unimportant consideration heartens the people who notice it and fosters pleasant social relations. Unfortunately, however, few people today are that considerate, since they are selfishly preoccupied with their own day-to-day affairs.
Certainly one cause of insensitivity is the lack of an environment that encourages thoughtfulness. For example, because of modern transportation, we no longer consider the distance a visitor must come to call on us. In the past, when walking was a common way to travel, distance was a matter of great concern. Now we are seldom grateful for the distance people travel for our sake. In times like these, then, it is all the more important to strive to put ourselves in the other person's place to understand what he or she thinks and feels.
Another factor complicating social relations is the tendency to stress information and knowledge so much that people's feelings are overlooked. For example, assume that a small child runs home excitedly to tell his or her parents of a gleaming golden fish the child has discovered in a nearby pond. Forgetting children's sense of wonder, the parent may belittle the child for not knowing a goldfish when he or she sees one and may lecture the child on their varieties. The child will hardly be satisfied; the child cares nothing about the various kinds of goldfish. In instances of this kind, imparting knowledge is of secondary importance. The vital thing is to share the child's excitement. A truly caring parent will share the joy of discovery, show surprise, and perhaps offer to join an expedition to examine the fish.
When associating with adults, too, we should always try eagerly to be aware of other people's ways of thinking so that we can understand their thoughts and feelings. To this end, we must constantly try to change our narrow, self-centered views, purify our minds, and cultivate in ourselves the generosity to put others' feelings first. Daily effort and consideration of this kind build a cheerful, hospitable society and a meaningful life.
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For the sake of fellowship, happiness, and deep spiritual fulfillment, it is essential that we try to understand others. We must tune in to others' frequencies or channels, just as we tune a radio or a television set to receive a broadcast.
Understanding begins with attentive listening. Often people are too preoccupied with themselves to understand what is being said to them. One cause of this preoccupation is selfishness. Self-centered people interrupt others to express or impose their own ideas. Some people, while seeming to listen, are in fact so lost in the jumble of their own concerns that they understand nothing at all. Prejudices also hinder understanding. Although prejudiced people may appear to listen, mentally they are stopping their ears.
To become better listeners, we need constantly to reflect on our shortcomings and improve our attitude through religious discipline. A marked improvement in attitude can take a long time, and we should not be discouraged by our failings along the way. All we can do is try to make as much progress as we can each day. Furthermore, we must learn not to be self-centered when we talk with others. Once we have learned this, we will not only understand what others say but also penetrate to their innermost thoughts.
Some people simply want to be heard. Some are too overcome by their suffering to see that the answer they seek is in the very words they themselves utter. Others bring unhappiness on themselves through selfishness. But once we can sense people's thoughts from their conversation, we learn naturally how best to relate to them.
Sensing others' thoughts in this way is relatively easy for experienced people, but the inexperienced need not be discouraged to try. As is written in the great Confucian text Ta-hsueh (Great Learning), "If you seek sincerely, though you may not hit the mark you will not be far off." Thus the task of understanding other people is not impossible if you go about it diligently and sincerely.
For instance, instead of immediately and flatly denying a child's request, parents should try to discover what lies behind it. Why are new toys or other playthings so important? After starting a dialogue with a question like "Must you have it right now?" or "Would something else do just as well?" parents can explain their own views with the likelihood of being understood. Obviously, parents must sometimes sternly refuse a child's request. Nonetheless, an exchange of this kind is convincing to children even though they may not get their way.
To too many parents, their children's demands are a nuisance. When this is the case, parents and children fail to agree because their ways of thinking differ. This lack of agreement results in a feeling of being misunderstood that can sadden children and exert an undesirable influence.
The world changes every day. People become busier, and there are always new ideas. Under these circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain calm and to understand what others think. But it is precisely because we live in such a changeable world that we must strive all the harder to enhance mental and spiritual contacts and communication. The fruit of our striving can become the foundation for a truly humane society based on mutual trust and concern.
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As a guide in training ourselves to be people who are like receivers tuned to others' sufferings and interests, we can turn to Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World. To tune ourselves to other people's frequencies, we need to elevate ourselves to a high enough spiritual plane to be able to respond appropriately to their feelings. We must also keep ourselves free of bias, selfish desires, and attachments, all of which interfere with reception of what others say.
Besides being an excellent receiver of the signals of distress sent out by sentient beings, the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World is a transmitter, too, in that he extends them a helping hand. He is a kind of transceiver, receiving word of suffering and, through acts of compassion, transmitting assistance.
Action is essential to the furtherance of the Buddha's work. But not just any action is satisfactory. Before acting, we must enter a meditative state in which we can see and understand others.
Attaining a state in which the mind is clear and receptive demands good physical health because mind and body are inseparable. It also requires the feeling of repose that is associated with sitting. We often acknowledge the need for the repose of sitting. In Japan the formal sitting posture is believed to produce a sense of repose. And many people have experienced the calm of seated meditation (zazen); the stability and calm of sitting in the so-called lotus position are conducive to good physical health. Statues of buddhas in this posture suggest the wisdom and compassion of beings deep in meditation. When time permits, we should all sit in the lotus position and calm our minds to provide a firm foundation for action.
Only in a state of physical and mental selflessness and receptivity can we observe the great vow of the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World, showing compassion for others' suffering and considering it our own. In that state, when we try to help people through talking with them, meditating on their salvation, we are of one mind with Regarder of the Cries of the World. We are then tuned in to others' thoughts, and both reception and transmission are accurate.
Consequently, it is most important that we not only resolve to emulate bodhisattvas, exemplars of compassion, but also carry out that resolve. With that resolve as the foundation of our lives, the profoundly compassionate Regarder of the Cries of the World will never be far from us. Instead of relying on his power, however, we must be aware of the need to strive to be like him on our own and must manifest the spirit of this awareness in our daily interaction with other people.