When do we most notice harmony? When it is absent! Think of election season, when candidates present platforms that set them against their opponents. Bring to mind a recent sporting event, as fans of one team faced off bitterly against the rival team. Or perhaps you belong to a group or club and know what happens around hot-button issues, such as the use of communal resources.
Now consider some everyday examples of harmony. Driving down the local interstate, someone slows down to let us merge into traffic. Someone at the grocery store check-out offers to make up the difference when the person in front of her comes up short of money. A child smiles and says, “I’m sorry,” rather than bark out angry response to a parent’s rebuke. Without waiting to be asked, a friend pitches in to help with the heavy lifting when we prepare to move to a new home.
One of the highest spiritual values in Buddhism is harmony. When we compare these mundane examples of harmony from our daily lives with the teachings of the Buddha, we can see how the ideas of harmony that issued from a spiritual teacher 2,500 years ago still ring true. Consider one of the Buddha’s teachings, the Four Principles of Service (Sangaha-vatthu).
The Four Principles of Service are generosity, kind speech, helpful action, and participation. Generosity counteracts our tendency to be self-centered and enhances our relationships with others. It also helps support our understanding that material wealth is transitory, that we cannot “take it with us.” Kind speech means that we do not use harsh words, but speak gently. And when we speak, our words are true and useful. When we act to benefit another, by sharing our time and energy and talent, we are engaging in helpful action, building friendly relations with others. And when we participate, not only do we show up and do what we say we will do, we also act impartially and consistently. This builds our capacity for equanimity and avoids our natural human tendency to prefer some people to others.
These four simple behaviors, so simple they can be taught to a child, create sound and wholesome bonds among people. It does not matter whether we like those people or do not like them. True harmony overlooks like and dislike. It sees peace and universal well-being as being a far greater good than personal preference.
In his wonderful book, "Spiritual Evolution" (Broadway Books, New York, 2008), Dr. George Vaillant writes that the great teachers who emerged between 600 BCE and 700 CE, “epitomized unselfish love and inspired us to emulate them. During that transformative millennium, the range of people whom a given person felt compelled to regard as equally human greatly expanded.” (p. 49) When we use this framework—the human capacity to regard all other humans as equal—we can see how beautifully the Four Principles of Service support and reinforce this ideal. And, in fact, when we actively commit to and cultivate these four principles, the ideal becomes reality.
Questions for contemplation:
What does it mean to be in harmony? Does harmony mean that others agree with and accept us? That we agree with and accept them? Does it mean we achieve a peaceable, passable understanding that we’re different? What is your definition of harmony?
What values support harmony? Generosity? Wholesomeness? Forgiveness? Respect? Kindness? Patience?
Where is your understanding of harmony? What challenges do you face? What more do you need to know and understand for yourself so that you can create and maintain harmony with others?
Let your questions guide you.