From childhood, we have been taught at home and in school to be kind to others, and to be gentle.
And I think it is indeed important and a good thing to be kind and gentle in our dealings with others.
Yet, if asked why it is good to be kind, we find it difficult to explain.
And even though we feel it to be good, if we don’t understand the reason for it, it’s easy to think, “Being kind is troublesome and tiring. I’ll just worry about myself!”
Then we go back to our natural self-centered ways.
“Being kind and considerate toward others not only helps them in their lives but also helps you to live in a happy, honest way. It’s a means of planting the seeds of happiness,” Shakyamuni Buddha teaches us.
I once saw a news program that brought this home to me.
It said that, in Japan, as many as forty percent of those who have been released from prison come back as reoffenders.
This is a serious social problem, and it exists in the United States as well.
In the U.S., when the authorities introduced a certain program to the prison inmates, the rate of reoffending fell dramatically.
There are even prisons where no one has reoffended in fifteen years after its introduction, it is said.
The program involves assigning each prisoner a dog to care for, and having prisoners eat and sleep together with their charges.
Most prisoners who have committed grave crimes like homicide or attempted homicide have had little experience of showing love to other people or animals.
There are some who turned out that way because of having been born into an unfortunate family environment where they received little love themselves.
The prisoners spend three months caring for abandoned dogs, mistreated dogs, dogs that would normally be euthanized.
After three months of care and training by the prisoners, the dogs are sent on to permanent adoptive homes.
Through their contact with these dogs, the prisoners learn or relearn to care for another creature.
Here is the testimony of a twenty-two-year-old youth:
“One day when the dog was in solitary with me, he gazed at me with the most loving look.
I knew I’d seen that look before somewhere:
It was the same look that my little brother used to give me a long time ago.
I’m in here for attempted murder.
I’ve used drugs.
I was so violent I can hardly believe it myself.
I’m never going back to that way of life.
I’m going to get off the evil path.”
A nineteen-year-old related:
“I was really self-centered, with no interest in anybody else.
I learned from dealing with my dog that dogs and human beings both have feelings.
I learned that it’s important to care for others.
I can turn this little guy into a great dog, and make the people who adopt him happy, too.”
After the three months have passed, the time for parting of man and dog comes.
The dogs are sent off to their foster homes.
Sometimes a prisoner will cry to see his dog go:
“I’d like to raise him myself, but I’m happy that he’ll have a good life outside.”
“If they hadn’t brought her here, she would have been euthanized. I want her to be happy.”
All traces of their former evil have vanished from the prisoners’ faces as they hold back their tears and send the dogs off with hopes for their future happiness.
They all speak of their desire to return to normal society after becoming people who can be of service to others.
Programs similar to this have been introduced in some Japanese prisons as well.
The power of caring for somebody else brought new life to the hearts of prisoners who had almost spiritually destroyed themselves by committing such grave crimes as murder and attempted murder.
Had the prisoners saved the dogs?
Or had they been saved by the dogs?
The answer to both questions is “Yes.” In Buddhism, we call this jiri rita, benefiting oneself by benefiting others.
By making others happy (rita), we become happy ourselves (jiri). True happiness is not something you keep for yourself alone.
It is something that is born in the space where you and others meet.
Consideration for others (the spirit of giving) becomes the source of power that enables us to live honestly and well.
There is an old Japanese saying: “Sympathy for others does not benefit them alone.”
The sense is that kindness (sympathy) circles back to return to the one who extended it.
Hence it is not for the benefit of others alone but also benefits you.