Friday, August 21, 2009

The Golden Rule

The principle known as the Golden Rule – Do unto others what you would have them do unto you – is often thought of as the apex of Jesus’ moral teachings and even of being unique to Christianity, at least by some Christians. However, the Buddha made this same principle one of the cornerstones of his ethics too in the 5th century BCE. It occurs in many places and in many forms throughout the Tipitaka. For example, the Buddha said, ‘All tremble at punishment. Life is dear to all. Put yourself in the place of others and harm none or have them harmed’ (Dhp.130). ‘You should make this inference, “A person who is angry and who speaks angrily is unpleasant and disagreeable to me, so if I were angry and spoke angrily to others I would be unpleasant and disagreeable to them.” Understanding this, one should then think, “I shall neither be angry nor speak angrily.” ’ (M.I,99). ‘Knowing that as I am so are others and as are others so am I, harm none or have them harmed’ (Sn.705).
To make the so-called Golden Rule central to one’s thought and behavior, several prerequisites are necessary. One must be clear about one’s own true welfare; one must be aware of the reactions of others; and one must be detached enough to get out of one’s own feelings and enter into the feelings of others. So paradoxically, true empathy and compassion are preceded by mindfulness and detachment.
Here are some other examples of the Golden Rule predating Jesus and perhaps even the Buddha.

Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him. Pittacus, Greece (640-568 BCE), Fragment 10.3.

Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing. Thales, Asia Minor (624-546 BCE).

Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. Confucius, China (5th century BCE), Analects XV.24, also at V.12 and VI.30.

The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful. Lao Tzu, China (5th century BCE. Tao Te Ching, chap. 49.

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. Jewish, Palestine (500-500 BCE), Leviticus, 19:18.

What you wish your neighbors to be to you, such be also to them. Sextus the Pythagorean, Greece (4th century BCE).

Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others. Isocrates, Greece (436-338), Nicocles 6.

I will ask you a question. ‘Is sorrow or pain desirable to you ? If you say “yes it is”, it would be a lie. If you say, “No, it is not” you will be expressing the truth. Just as sorrow or pain is not desirable to you, so it is to all which breathe, exist, live or have any essence of life. To you and all, it is undesirable, and painful, and repugnant. The Jain Acaranga Sutra, India (3rd-6th cent CE?).

What thou avoidest suffering thyself seek not to impose on others. Epictetus, Greece (1st cent CE), Encheiridion.

Do to no one what you yourself dislike. Jewish, Palestine, (2nd century BCE), The Book of Tobit 4,15.

Just as pain is not agreeable to you, it is so with others. Knowing this principle of sameness treat other with respect and compassion. The Jain Canon, India (2nd century BCE), Suman Suttam v.150.

One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. (2nd century BCE - 3rd century CE). Mahabharata Anusasana Parva, cxiii, v.8

A man should wander about treating all creatures as he would like himself to be treated. Jainism, India (1st cent BCE) Sutrakritanga 1.11,33.

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn. Hillel (1st century BCE) Talmud, Shabbat 31a.


reasonable said...

Sometimes we should not follow the golden rule. For example, if I enjoy people dripping burning wax onto my body (i.e. I enjoy such pain), it does not mean that I should drip burning wax onto others' bodies. Sometimes I should not do to others what I desire others to do unto me.


aah-haa said...
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aah-haa said...
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aah-haa said...

A well researched article showing that the golden rule is not exclusive to any religion but a common sense one. Despite the golden tag, this rule is hardly treasured. We certainly do not want others to do unto us what we don't like. However, do we spare this thought when we do something to others?
"Do unto others what you would have them do unto you" is flawed. If I would have them do unto me a 'heinous' act, does it mean I should do unto others that heinous act?

David said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughtful observations. Indeed, there are many common expressions of “The Golden Rule” from diverse faiths.

It is interesting that it is often attributed to Christianity. It is also interesting, and somewhat insulting, that Christians often describe altruistic behavior as being “Christian” (as in, “That was a very Christian thing to do” to describe someone who aided another). Those of us who are not Christian should probably retort with, “Oh, I thought that was a very Buddhist/Jewish/Confucian/Jain/etc. thing to do.” Or perhaps, just an “Oh, I thought that was a very human or proper thing to do.”

Some philosophers and psychologists maintain that The Golden Rule” reflects an innate capacity for empathy and expectation of just reciprocity.

Of course, insight is needed to discern the correct response, as it would be naïve to believe that reciprocity is always identical in execution, or that reciprocity of consequences is always knowable.

In any event, I hope you find my humble responses as enjoyable as I found your initial entry that precipitated them.

no said...

Yes, when the Golden Rule is formulated into a one-liner, it can be very dangerous, as pointed out in the comments. I note that the Buddha did not use the single liner, rather it was instances of illustrations. I also note that Confucius, in the Analects, once or twice it was in the form of a one-liner, but it was formulated in the negative: "Do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you." This, in my mind, is a much better one-liner, if it is to be condensed into one, and perhaps it explains why Chinese culture is generally tolerant of different beliefs.