Buddhism, as well as many other religions, teach that we should treat each and every human being with respect, regardless of their behavior or off-putting manifestation. What does this really mean? Sometimes people are hateful, manipulative, cruel, selfish, irresponsible, or downright violent and destructive. Surely, in being asked to respect such people, we’re not being asked to ignore or condone their behavior, so how does respect for them actually look? And why is it important to cultivate this unconditional respect?
For the Sake of Argument, Let’s Say There are “Terrible” People
Part of our practice: Humility, recognizing we have our view, other people have theirs
We’re sure we’re right and the “other side” is wrong, but they feel the same way
The rare person may find themselves acting out violent, deceptive, hurtful things and also wonder at this and conclude they are a terrible person
But most people don’t think they’re terrible, even when it looks to us like they are. They have their reasons, which make sense to them.
But that’s not what I’m talking about today. For the sake of argument, let’s say there really are “terrible” people. People who rarely think beyond their own safety, comfort, and profit. People who think nothing of hurting others for their own advantage or amusement. People with greedy and ambitious agendas who feel justified in the destruction they leave in their path. People who sow division and stoke fears in order to tighten their grip on power, largely so they can look out for their own self-interests.
We’re asked to respect even such people.
Teachings about Unconditional Respect or Love Even for Your Enemies
Jesus, in Matthew 43-48:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.[i]
Matthew 7:12 ESV
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.[ii]
“…during [a] period of the merely formal Dharma, extremely arrogant monks had great power. At that time there was a bodhisattva-monk named Never Disrespectful. Great Strength, why do you think he was named Never Disrespectful? That monk bowed in obeisance before everyone he met, whether monk, nun, layman, or laywoman, and praised them, saying: ‘I deeply respect you. I would never dare to be disrespectful or arrogant toward you. Why? Because all of you are practicing the bodhisattva way and surely will become buddhas.’
“This monk did not devote himself to reading and reciting sutras, but simply went around bowing to people. If he saw the four groups off in the distance he would make a point of going up to them, bowing in obeisance, and praising them, saying: ‘I would never dare to disrespect you, because surely you are all to become buddhas.’
“Among the four groups were those who became angry, enraged, and mean-spirited, and reviled and cursed him, saying: ‘This ignorant monk, who takes it on himself to announce that he does not disrespect us and assures us of becoming buddhas, where did he come from? We have no use for such empty, false assurances.’
“Thus he passed many years, constantly being cursed but never becoming angry or enraged, and always saying: ‘Surely you are to become buddhas.’ When he spoke this way, some would hit him with sticks, tiles, or stones. But even if he ran off and stood at a distance, he would continue to cry out loudly: ‘I would not dare to disrespect you. Surely all of you are to become buddhas.’ And because he always spoke in this way, the extremely arrogant monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen called him Never Disrespectful.
“When this monk was nearing death, from the sky he heard two hundred million billion verses of the Dharma Flower Sutra, which Majestic Voice King Buddha had previously taught, and he was able to receive and embrace them all. Immediately he obtained the purity of vision and of the faculties of the ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind described earlier. Having obtained the purity of these six faculties, his life was extended for two million billion myriads of years, and he taught this Dharma Flower Sutra everywhere for the people.
“Then the extremely arrogant monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen who had slighted and shown contempt for this man and given him the name Never Disrespectful, seeing him with the power of great divine faculties, powers of joyful and eloquent speech, and powers of great goodness and tranquility, and having heard him preach, all believed in him and followed him.”[iii]
What Is It We Respect When Dealing with a Terrible Person?
First: What does this respect really mean?
Definition of respect:
esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability[iv]
We’re not respecting a person’s behavior or particular unskillful, arrogant manifestation.
We do not, we cannot, respect someone’s small-mindedness, selfishness, greed, harmful behavior towards others, unwillingness or inability to take responsibility for themselves, etc.
We might be able to summon some compassion for the person, sympathizing with how their circumstances and experience might have resulted in their personality and behaviors
But it makes no sense – it runs counter to our values and aspirations – to respect the negative behaviors, views, speech, etc.
So what does it mean to have unconditional respect for a terrible person?
Respect for a Being’s Potential
Sometimes unconditional respect is described as being for someone’s “buddha nature” or potential for awakening.
In the Lotus Sutra story, after the bodhisattva attained purity of vision and great powers at the end of his life (although then it was extended for billions of years…), the arrogant monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen believed in and followed him
So in the end they had the capacity for change
Real life includes plenty of examples of this… people formerly involved in hate groups, for example, who converted and now speak out against such groups
But people are also very, very stubborn. How often do we manage to get people to change their minds, even about small things? There was a reason the Lotus Sutra called the people at Bodhisattva Never Disrespectful’s time “extremely arrogant.”
When if someone really doesn’t seem to have the capacity for change? What if they seem utterly unrepentant, unsympathetic, eager to continue in their ignorance and hatefulness? Extremely unlikely to improve, let alone transform, in this lifetime?
Perhaps why we have the Buddhist imagery of multiple lifetimes… maybe this life energy doesn’t liberate itself this time around, but still has potential in the future?
Think of a hateful person being respected like the bodhisattva did; when that hateful person dies, the karmic causes going forward will be more positive than if you fought with and reviled the hateful person – which probably would further entrench their children and community against you, and continue the cycle of hate
Respect for Being Itself
At a deeper level, though, does our respect have meaning apart from a hope that any particular individual is going to mend their ways? Does it have meaning in this moment, apart from concerns about the future?
I think about manifesting kindness and compassion toward all beings, including animals.
In this moment we know this other person, at least in some respects, is like us. They have desires and fears. They hope for security and happiness as we do, even if they have really screwed up ideas about what happiness is and how to achieve it. Deep down, they want to be accepted and loved by people they themselves respect. They eat, sleep, get sick, feel pain and pleasure, and look forward to things.
In other words, regardless of how unskillful, selfish, or even harmful the person’s behavior, no matter how pathetic or repulsive their manifestation, at the end of the day they are a being who will be negatively impacted by being treated with disrespect, and at some level will be touched by being treated with respect.
True, an arrogant person will deny being hurt by your disrespect, and they will probably get defensive or even lash out. But these responses actually only prove they are hurt.
No matter what “the other side” is up to, the kind of language being used to describe the “other side” in our country right now – no matter which side you’re talking about – is profoundly disrespectful.
True, an arrogant person will probably get defensive or lash out even if you treat them with respect, as the arrogant people did in response to the bodhisattva Never Disrespectful, as those who crucified Jesus did, as those who unleashed fire hoses and dogs on the civil rights marchers in the 60’s
But in those cases, the arrogant are harming themselves. As Michelle Obama recently said at the Democratic National Convention (she references something she said 4 years ago, that “When they go low, we go high”):
“…I know that regardless of our race, age, religion, or politics, when we close out the noise and the fear and truly open our hearts, we know that what’s going on in this country is just not right. This is not who we want to be.
“So what do we do now? What’s our strategy? Over the past four years, a lot of people have asked me, ‘When others are going so low, does going high still really work?’ My answer: going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else. We degrade ourselves. We degrade the very causes for which we fight.”[v]
What Does Unconditional Respect Actually Look Like?
Firm but kind
Taking a stand against behaviors, situations, systems, but not focusing on blaming and shaming individuals
Clear, truthful speech – sometimes even expressing anger and outrage – but also refraining from attacks, generalizations about groups of people
Maintaining some faith and hope that people can change, that they have some measure of compassion and empathy and generosity for their fellow beings, even if it’s deeply buried
Going high even when others go low
Recognizing when judgment, disgust, hatred toward others arise in us, as they are likely to; being mindful of it and taking responsibility for it, not taking it as truth or unleashing it
Looking for some kind of common ground with people, looking for evidence of our common humanity
Not killing others, literally or figuratively – not rejecting their existence, trying to cut them out of our reality (no matter how terrible they are, this doesn’t actually work)
Why Cultivate Unconditional Respect?
Sake of self, or sake of other?
Both – and neither (in the sense that the two can’t be separated, ultimately)
We think: Sake of other (kindness, compassion) – but this can be very difficult. The terrible person does not deserve it. Our kindness might be taken as condoning or encouraging the person’s behavior. It might increase their arrogance.
There might very well be no tangible payoff in this lifetime. But there might be. Example: Christo Brand, pro-apartheid prison guard whose “experiences with the dignified Mandela brought him to change his views about the man, about racial oppression and his country.”[vi] They became friends – Brand did favors for Mandela while he was in prison, and Mandela visited Brand’s family after his release.
Sake of ourselves? Hatred and anger in our own hearts poisons us.
“Suppose an enemy has hurt
You now in what is his domain,
Why try yourself as well to hurt
Your mind?—That is not his domain…
This anger that you entertain
Is gnawing at the very roots
Of all the virtues that you guard—
Who is there such a fool as you?
Another does ignoble deeds,
So you are angry—How is this?
Do you then want to copy too
The sort of acts that he commits?
Suppose another, to annoy,
Provokes you with some odious act,
Why suffer anger to spring up,
And do as he would have you do?
If you get angry, then maybe
You make him suffer, maybe not;
Though with the hurt that anger brings
You certainly are punished now.
If anger-blinded enemies
Set out to tread the path of woe,
Do you by getting angry too
Intend to follow heel to toe?
…Whom shall he hurt, who seeks to hurt
Another, in the other’s absence?
Your presence is the cause of hurt;
Why are you angry, then, with him?”
Respectfully Standing Up for What’s Right
To finish with words from Michelle Obama:
“But let’s be clear: going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.”[viii]
[iii] Reeves, Gene (translator). The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.
[vii] Buddhaghosa, and Ñāṇamoli (translator). The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. Berkeley, Calif: Shambhala Publications, 1976. Click here for a pdf. Page 295.