From smiling at strangers to feeding those in need: What different faiths say about kindness
When Mahsheed Ansari goes to a shopping centre, she has an unusual habit.
“It sounds a bit funny, but I intentionally smile at people,” she says.
“It’s a very simple virtue that we human beings have done for generations, but I think our modern lifestyle … has deprived us of these simple acts of kindness.”
For many people, kindness isn’t limited to times of tragedy, like the current bushfire crisis, it’s a perennial pursuit that’s rooted in their belief system. So we spoke to five religious Australians to discover what Islam, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism say about being kind.
Islam: Caring for all living creatures
Dr Ansari (L) says there are many verses in the Koran that encourage charity and kindness.(Supplied: Mahsheed Ansari)
As a Muslim and a lecturer in contemporary Islamic studies at Charles Sturt University, Dr Ansari dwells on religion more than most.
“Kindness is one of the universal principles that all religious traditions adhere to,” she points out.
“[In Islam], the Prophet says kindness is a marker of faith, and whoever is not kind has no faith.”
There are five pillars, or duties, in Islam: profession of the faith, prayer, charity, fasting during Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca.
Dr Ansari says that prayer, meditation and reading holy scriptures instil kindness on an inner level, while the obligations of charity (Zakat) and fasting (Sawm) encourage empathy and giving to those in need.
She says her friends in the Muslim community practice kindness through myriad ways — from leaving water out for birds during summer heatwaves to visiting the elderly in nursing homes.
“For the bushfire appeal, we’ve been doing fundraisers in Islamic schools and mosques for the men and women who are fighting the fires,” she adds.
“We need to be kind, not just to our fellow humans, but also to the flora and fauna of our country.”
Sikhism: ‘Giving somebody happiness’
Dr Dhanji researches the Indian diaspora and migration in her role at the University of Melbourne.(Supplied: Surjeet Dhanji)
For author and University of Melbourne academic Surjeet Dhanji, a spiritual person cannot be complete without kindness.
“I’m a practising Sikh, it’s my spirituality, my way of life,” she says.
“[As a Sikh] the whole concept of your being is service to others, sharing what you have and being mindful and kind.”
According to Dr Dhanji, one of the five virtues of Sikhism is Daya — exercising compassion, considering others’ difficulties or sorrows, and trying to relieve their pain.
“Compassion can be as simple as listening to somebody’s woes and commiserating with them or helping them to get over whatever is hurting them and to find peace,” she explains.
“To be kind to all beings is considered much more meritorious than just getting up in the morning and saying your prayers or going to visit a shrine … it’s giving somebody happiness.”
Dr Dhanji says Sikhs are expected to give one-tenth of their earnings to a deserving cause or charity. This tithe or religious tax is known as dasvandh.
Many in her community buy groceries for Foodbank. Others give provisions to Sikh temples where they prepare and serve meals to those is in need, regardless of religion.
But when it comes to her own acts of good will, Dr Dhanji is tight-lipped: “[When] you conduct an act of kindness or charity, the minute you go and broadcast it, it loses its effect, so I like to remain private in this matter”.
Judaism: Being a ‘mensch’
Dr Simon Holloway
The Sydney Jewish Museum, where Simon Holloway works, is currently running a ‘Be a mensch’ campaign to promote kindness.(ABC Life: Siobhan Hegarty)
Like Sikhs, Jews are expected to give one tenth of their income to charitable causes.
But according to Simon Holloway, education officer at the Sydney Jewish Museum, discreet donations are viewed as more virtuous.
“There’s a 12th century philosopher and legal scholar known as Maimonides who stipulates what people refer to as the ‘ladder of giving’.”
There are eight levels on this ladder, says Dr Holloway, who completed his PhD in classical Hebrew and biblical studies. Giving money to someone who’s asking for it — for instance, a busker or a homeless person — is recommended, but it sits on the bottom rung.
“Moving up higher, we find things like giving a person money before they have asked for it or giving a person money [when] you don’t actually know who’s receiving it, nor do they know who they’re receiving it from,” he explains.
The highest form of charity is an act of kindness — offering people training so they no longer need to rely on monetary gifts.
In the Jewish tradition, being a kind person is often referred to as “being a mensch”, says Dr Holloway.
“Mensch literally means person, but being a mensch is exemplifying the things which make us human — acts of kindness and righteousness — I guess what should be the norm.”
Christianity: ‘What is a loving thing to do?’
Mikey Tai is the pastor of Providence Church in Sunnybank, Brisbane.(ABC Life: Siobhan Hegarty)
Presbyterian pastor Mikey Tai says that reading the Bible and praying each morning motivates him to practice kindness — whether that’s towards a friend, barista or a fellow driver on the road.
“Christians don’t always get kindness right — being flawed and imperfect as we are — but Jesus shows us what perfect kindness and love looks like,” he says.
“He sacrificed his life in kindness for us, so if that’s the benchmark, we should be called to think, ‘How do we make sacrifices in our life?’, big or small, for the sake of others.”
Pointing to the gospels in the Bible, Reverend Tai explains Christians are encouraged to show compassion to people from all walks of life. And sometimes that can be as simple as putting away your phone and giving someone your full attention.
“In today’s world with the epidemic of loneliness, I meet a lot of international students or refugees and they don’t know anyone in Brisbane. Just giving them my time is a way to be kind.”
He says charity is a responsibility for Christians, but adds that the act of giving can also be a joy.
“When we look at our finances, our money, we want to be able to be generous with it, because we believe it’s God’s money,” he explains.
Reverend Tai says he puts kindness in his consciousness by asking himself, ‘What is a loving thing to do in this moment?’ on a regular basis.
“Sometimes it doesn’t cross my mind, but I’m hoping that it becomes a natural thing and that I’m kind because I know God’s kindness.”
Tibetan Buddhism: Why kindness benefits you
Kyinzom Dhongdue is passing the beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism on to her daughter Lhakyi.(ABC Life: Siobhan Hegarty)
For Kyinzom Dhongdue, executive and campaigns officer for the Australia Tibet Council, kindness can be a “selfish” act, too.
“When you are being kind to others, the biggest beneficiary is yourself,” she says.
“In our society, it’s all about the ‘I’. There is a lot of focus on the individual … [and it’s] at the expense of happiness.
“The more focus you give towards others, the less concerned you are about your own problems and suffering, because your attention is on something else — and your own suffering becomes smaller.”
Ms Dhongdue adds that in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, kind thoughts are more important than actions — so, begrudgingly volunteering or donating money might help the recipient, but it won’t necessarily result in good karma for you.
“Karma is a big part of our beliefs — it’s [the notion of] cause and effect,” Ms Dhongdue explains.
“Because of that principle, every action we do in this life, we do it with the understanding that it’s going to have an impact, whether in our current life or, more so, in the next.”
Holding hands with Latte
A simple gesture like taking the time to listen to someone is an example of kindness audiences shared with us.(Pixabay/ABC Life: Nathan Nankervis)